Graeme Maxton

Climate Change Economist and Author

The covid vaccination drive looks risky

An entangled web

It may be that I have a different take on this because I live in a country where the virus has had very little impact, certainly until recently. But, to me, the global vaccination drive looks risky.

I can see, of course, that there is a need to find a quick solution to a virus which is creating havoc. Hundreds of millions of people continue to be affected and millions are dying. The mental health of many more is declining.

But I also see a need for the precautionary principle to be respected. And I worry that it is not.

1 – My first concern is simply the number of different vaccines. There are at least a dozen on the market now, more than 50 in human trials, and several hundred under development. If the medical world knew what worked, would there not be just one or two? After all, there are only two sorts of polio vaccine and one sort of MMR and chickenpox vaccine. Some countries are also mixing vaccines which depend on completely different technologies. It all seems a bit like when people first learned to fly, and they tried all sorts of hair-brained designs until they hit on a few that worked. Lots of people died that way.

2 – Related to this is the number of different technologies being used. There are currently four. Two use messenger RNA (mRNA) – Moderna and Pfizer/BioNtech. I’ll come back to this shortly. Many others are viral vector-based (non-replicating) vaccines, such as those from Astra Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Novavax and Medicago are producing recombinant protein-based vaccines. Finally, there are vaccines that take a more traditional approach using an inactivated virus. These are currently being produced by three Chinese companies and one Indian firm.

Adding to concerns about this is the fact that some countries have “approved” (see below) some of these technologies, and others have not. If the science was clear, you would expect more consistency from regulatory authorities.

3 – Each of these technologies, and each manufacturer, has different efficacy rates– that is, the effect the vaccine has on the virus or patient. Most are better at preventing the disease than they are at preventing infection. Russia’s Sputnik-V, for example, has a 92% efficacy rate when it comes to preventing the disease but this falls to 61% when it comes to protecting people from being infected by new variants. For CoronaVac, the numbers are 50% and 33% respectively, which means that many of those vaccinated can still become infected by the South African and Indian variants. Astra Zeneca’s only has a 9% efficacy against infections of the these variants.

What’s the probability?

It looks safe

The different vaccines also require different sorts of storage and are differently administered to patients. When there are so many differences, there are more chances for something unexpected to happen. It’s a question of probability.

Given the variations in technologies and patterns of administration, the comparative efficacy rates also vary hugely. Most are high for now, though that should be expected at the beginning. Overall though, covid vaccines generally have a higher efficacy rate than flu vaccines but much lower than those given for MMR or polio. But it is early days. We don’t know how the covid vaccines will score long term.

4 – Some health authorities are also changing the time between doses, and some are giving additional doses, in the hope that this will boost immunity. None of this has been clinically tested. Giving somebody more of something doesn’t necessarily mean it will have a greater effect. Giving someone more alcohol, for example, just makes them sick after a certain point.

5 – Basic principles have been ignored at times, with some countries administering vaccines before they were clinically approved. That is, they have put a cocktail of drugs into their citizens without fully understanding the effects. Others have sharply reduced the usual approval and testing process or have given emergency approval. The US, for example, has only approved three vaccines (as at May 2021), two mRNA vaccines, and one viral vector-based. Critically, none have been fully approved – they have only been approved for emergency use.* All this raises concerns, as does the fact that some countries are offering free beer or lottery tickets to persuade people to get vaccinated.

6 – One of the most worrying aspects is that no one knows how long the effects of these vaccines will last. Most estimates suggest it will be months or a few years rather than decades. But no one knows, which means millions of people are going about their business, believing they are protected when they might not be, and the longer it is since they were vaccinated, the greater their unknown risk will be. And that too will vary by vaccine supplier, the technology used, and how it was administered. It will also be affected by new variants.

7 – Most importantly, we know nothing about the long term side-effects of these vaccines, and even less than usual because the testing process was compressed, or even ignored in some places. We don’t know the long-term impact they have on children, or unborn children, or on fertility, or on how they might make our cells more (or less) susceptible to other diseases.

Untested technology

This is more worrying when you understand that some of the technologies in use are largely untested, and more troubling still when you understand that the vaccine manufacturers have been given immunity from any sort of prosecution. Even if their products cause serious side-effects they cannot be held financially liable. Governments are not expected to help much either if things go awry. That means we’re all flying blind, because no one has any moral skin in the game. You take the vaccine and you’re on your own.

Last weekend, the FT published an article** on mRNA vaccines, and this portrayed their development as a triumph, a great coming together of science and the finance sector. It made my hair stand on end.

One alarm bell rang when they compared the pharma companies involved to Tesla, which is one of the most over-hyped and falsely portrayed companies in the world. I’ll write about this another day. Suffice to say, EVs are not going change the pace of climate change.

A second alarm bell rang when I read that the success of this new technology is hugely thanks to venture capitalists – that is, people who are seeking a quick profit and have zero interest in human welfare.

Then there is the technology itself.

Unlike vaccines that put a weakened or inactive disease germ into the body, mRNA vaccines deliver a tiny piece of genetic code from the SARS CoV-2 virus to host cells in your body, essentially giving those cells instructions to make copies of spike proteins (the spikes you see sticking out of the coronavirus in this picture). These stimulate an immune response, producing antibodies.

Are you protected?

For decades, this technology was ignored, and that means it has been tested very little on humans and, even today, many scientists think that the risks of failure are high.

mRNA is in every cell of our bodies. Its job is to help fire up the cellular machinery to build proteins. It lies at the core of how cells function. It is a vital safety mechanism too, preventing invaders from hijacking the cellular machinery to produce foreign proteins.

Though the media is saturated with articles saying that all this is perfectly safe, this conceals the truth a little. One modification to mRNA has previously had links to cancer and ageing. mRNA modifications can also affect the viability of cells, determine whether or not they divide, and are linked to neurological diseases. Another modification boosts the gene expression needed for embryonic stem cells to properly differentiate into different cell types. Yet another change is linked to leukaemia.

Breakthrough, or not?

The point is that we are playing with a fledgling technology which is clearly very powerful and, because it is so new, we don’t have a firm grip on what is happening, or why. It may be that this technology is a major medical breakthrough, which humanity has stumbled on at just the right time – though we can’t be sure. So to give the technology to millions of people without a better understanding seems risky, and possibly even riskier in the long term than the virus itself.

Moreover, it is possible to fight the coronavirus differently, without mass vaccination programs. China, New Zealand, and several other Asian countries, have been able to maintain life much as before without sticking needles in everyone’s arms. If societies are facing difficult economic consequences as a result of the virus, there are also ways to help people and businesses so that any slump is manageable.

Instead, more than a billion people have been vaccinated, mostly in an effort to maintain the current level of economic activity.

Would I take the vaccine?

Not right now.

But then I don’t live in a country where I feel like I have to.

* “Under an Emergency Use Authorisation, [the US] FDA may allow the use of unapproved medical products, or unapproved uses of approved medical products in an emergency to diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions when certain statutory criteria have been met, including that there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives.”

**Financial Times, How mRNA became a vaccine game changer, May 15-16, 2021

More than a billion people have been vaccinated against corona, mostly in an effort to maintain the current level of economic activity. That looks risky.