Charles R. Twardy

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Commie Vaccine Meteors

A friend notes that the US has a long of equating vaccines and public health with commie conspiracies. This from 1955, citing US Rep. Clare Hoffman.

1955 scare flyer alleging the polio vaccine, water fluoridation, and mental hygiene were communist plots to weaken America.

What do today’s anti-vaxxers think of the polio vaccine?

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Among the saner anti-vax objections is the observation that any prior exposure could lead to an overactive immune response in a later exposure – a leading explanation for the 1918 lethality. The careful objectors say simply, “we don’t know it won’t”. True, though I’d be curious whether their odds are notably different from pro-vaxxers. (Do they both agree we’re x% sure it won’t, and just value that differently, or do they have very different x?)

According to my social media, a popular version of the objection is that something is so wrong with the vaccine that half the vaccinated population dies in 5 years, from overreacting to the common cold, or some variant of “gray goo”. This appears to be as informed as the polio-vax scare above.

A stronger version would be that we recreate 1918, but bigger. Suppose SARS-COV-3 appears in 2048, and has a similar relationship that Spanish flu (1918) had to Russian flu (1889): those who got COV-2 (or its vaccine) have a hyperactive immune response. In a world where we don’t vaccinate now, maybe 1/3 of the population gets COV-2, and so suffers heightened mortality in 2048. In the world where we vaccinate everyone, the whole population faces heightened mortality in 2048.

A great deal turns on “heightened”. Like meteor strikes, the main force comes from an exceedingly rare worst-case event. If it’s worth spending on meteor defense, shouldn’t we “spend” to avoid a vaccine own-goal, however unlikely?

It’s worth remembering some things about 1918:

  • The priming seems mostly to have affected those exposed in early development, not universally. Hence the peak mortality at 28 years old.
  • Even that mortality was 5-10%, not 90%. (And I’m pretty sure case fatality, so infection mortality would be more like 1-3%.)

So the bookends choice looks more like:

  1. Do nothing. COV-2 infects about 1/3 of the planet, and ~12M people die. So, about 10M more than now. COV-3 does something similar, but infection mortality is 1-3% among 28-year-olds, so globally we lose up to 1% of them. (Unless we’re prepared for it, and prevent secondary infections.)

  2. Vaccinate. COV-2 stops relatively soon, so maybe 5M total (using Metaculus’ forecast for end of 2021.) COV-3 does something similar, but now peak infection mortality among 28-year-olds olds is more like 3-9%, so globally we lose 1-3% of them. (Unless we’re prepared for it.)

Scenario 2 is bleak enough - and you can tweak it to be worse. But in this 1918-specific version, it’s mostly an argument against vaccinating the pregnant and very young. Two groups we already tend to exclude.

But that’s just one scenario. Presumably whatever happens won’t look exactly like 1918. We don’t know what it will look like. But we do know we can probably save 7M lives now by vaccinating. The weight of the “what if” scenarios might be a good argument for limiting vaccination to some degree (just in case), but seem a poor argument against not doing it at all.

Thought exercise: suppose the fastest, cheapest, best way to immunize the population was via GMO corn? I assume it would have no effect on the arguments. But would it shift the battle lines?

[Edit: the thought exercise is not intended as a desirable alternative. It’s here to pump intuition among pro-vax but anti-GMO folks, as the argument outlined above seems similar to anti-GMO arguments. ]