I’ve been fighting anti-vaccine nonsense for the past 15 years. The problem started way before I even became active in science communication, way back in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield drew the blood of children at a birthday party with no ethical oversight and used the results to terrify the world into believing in a nonexistent problem: the idea that the safe and effective measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) causes autism. It does not. In the years since, that vaccine and many others have been extensively tested again and again and again and each time found to have absolutely no connection to autism. Wakefield’s study was retracted for fraud, he was discredited, and he fled the UK to live in Texas where apparently his anti-scientific garbage is more tolerated.
While there is no scientific debate over the fact that vaccines do not cause autism, there is an ongoing debate amongst science communicators over how we talk about the risks of vaccination. I’ve personally seen many skeptics fall into the trap of announcing that vaccines are always perfectly safe — they’re trying to combat the misinformation about the dangers of vaccines by going completely in the opposite direction and trying to reassure the general public that there is absolutely no risk to getting vaccinated. Unfortunately, that’s not true. As much as vaccines are an unmitigated good for society as a whole, it’s still possible to be injured from them. Hiding that fact will only make the general public distrust you when they eventually learn about it, which is why I appreciate documentaries like Jabbed by Sonya Pemberton, in which they discuss how safe and effective vaccines are while still acknowledging that sometimes they hurt people. Pemberton interviews people who have lost loved ones to adverse vaccine side effects, and it’s so much more compelling to hear those people insist that getting vaccinated is still the right thing, because the side effects are rare and the benefits to society are so unbelievably great.
I’ve been thinking of all this lately because of COVID-19, of course. Had the United States reacted properly to the pandemic and actually locked down nationwide with a strong response from the federal government, we would have saved thousands of lives and had a mostly normal summer. Kids would be starting school right now in person without worrying about catching a virus that could leave them with a lifetime of heart problems, kill them, or kill their parents and grandparents.
But we didn’t do that, because we’re a nation of horrible racists who elected a reality TV star to be president. So instead we are living in limbo, where those of us who understand the science, care about other people, and are able to do so stay quarantined, while we watch the ignorant, the selfish, and the “essential” workers go out into the world as though everything is fine. As though 190,000 haven’t already died, with about 40,000 new cases appearing every day. It’s a nightmare.
So we wait for a vaccine, because once we get a vaccine we can hope that the people who aren’t socially isolating are still maybe protecting themselves and others, and we can ensure that we won’t even accidentally spread the virus further when we go to the grocery store or for a walk in the park.
Here’s the problem: uh, the same problem as before. The problem is Donald Trump.
Because vaccines, like most modern science, take time to get right. It takes years to develop a vaccine that is both effective at preventing disease and safe for the general public — yes, there will always be rare side effects, but proper vetting means we can avoid disasters like the one that happened in America in 1976.
Rick Perlstein, a historian of conservative politics in the US, writes in the New York Times that back in February of 1976 there was an outbreak of H1N1 amongst hundreds of soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey, of whom one soldier died. Gerald Ford, who was up for election that year for his first full term after taking over from Nixon, was informed that the virus might be related to the influenza of 1918. Ford was eager to look like a hero, so he announced a mass vaccination program rushed to the American people by the fall of that year. He pressured the World Health Organization to endorse the plan despite initial skepticism, which they did. No other country rushed a vaccine, choosing instead to wait and see what the disease did.
In the leadup to the vaccination program, researchers found that H1N1 was not related to the 1918 influenza. A researcher at the FDA announced that the vaccine being developed was unsafe, and he was fired for insubordination. Drug companies working on the vaccine threatened to quit unless Congress offered them protection from any liability issues. Previously they only agreed to begin work on the vaccine if they were guaranteed a profit. Congress agreed to both demands.
The result? 45 million Americans were vaccinated with a rushed live virus (instead of an inactivated virus that is usually used). 450 people developed a rare neurological disorder known as Guillain Barre Syndrome, leaving them paralyzed for life. Dozens of them died. Meanwhile, outside of the United States there were no outbreaks of the disease and no one died.
(I should note that while researchers believe it’s likely the vaccine increased the risk of people developing GBS, it’s not set in stone, since after the first few cases appeared doctors were biased to think that anyone who developed GBS got it as a result of the vaccine.)
But still, the damage was done. Whether the vaccine caused the damage or not, the damage to the public perception of vaccines was overwhelming. Americans saw people contracting a previously unheard of neurological disorder while seeing that outside of the US there was never any pandemic. There was no danger at all. H1N1 was able to be contained without vaccinations.
And that is why today only about a third of Americans bother to get a flu shot, despite the fact that the influenza vaccine is extremely safe and can be extremely effective if enough people get it to build herd immunity. 35,000 people die from influenza each year but they don’t have to if people just get the vaccine, which is usually offered for free through health insurance providers (because it’s so effective that they end up saving money when they don’t have to pay for your stupid ass to go to the doctor with the flu). Even if you don’t have insurance, you can get it for under $20 at your local pharmacy.
Which is why back when COVID-19 started picking up steam, I encouraged Americans who were worried about it to get their flu shots. I had no idea at the time that that messaging would be co-opted by people to downplay COVID-19 but here we are, with people who still think COVID-19 is no big deal and who probably still won’t bother getting a flu shot. Madness.
And that brings us back to Trump and a potential vaccine for COVID-19. Rick Perlstein writes that Trump can maybe learn a lesson from Gerald Ford and ”move prudently, not impetuously, in rolling out new vaccines for Covid-19.” When I read that I chuckled at Perlstein’s optimism, but I pretty much lost it at his closing words: “Jerry Ford’s Hail Mary didn’t work, after all: He lost to Jimmy Carter anyway. That’s a history lesson even Donald Trump can understand.”
Perlstein is a smart man but dear lord, I don’t think there’s any lesson so simple that Donald Trump can’t misunderstand or ignore it. Trump himself has already cast the FDA as the “Deep State” and stated that they are purposely trying to delay the vaccine until after the election as a personal slight to him (because everything is always about him).
All of which leaves me in an interesting position: after 15 years of fighting unwarranted vaccine skepticism, I am skeptical of a COVID-19 vaccine. I trust people like Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health who insists that “Nothing is being done here to compromise the safety (of Covid-19 vaccine trials) nor will we compromise on an ultimate conclusion about whether the vaccine is effective. Those issues are going to be tested in the most rigorous way.” But I don’t trust Trump, his administration, or the federal government’s inability to stop a politician from acting selfishly in the face of a presidential election — especially when that politician has demonstrated fascistic tendencies and a disregard for human life in the face of his own ego.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine when it eventually is introduced to the general public. I’m saying we should do what Gerald Ford should have done in 1976: wait and see. Trust the experts when they speak out. And in the meanwhile, please get your flu shot. It’s safe, effective, and will help prevent tens of thousands of deaths on top of those we are already experiencing during this pandemic.