No Joe Rogan, Vaccines Won’t Turn COVID-19 Into a Super Virus

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It’s a day ending in “y” so I guess Joe Rogan has said some dumb shit that will get people killed. Again. Let’s have a look.

I’ve started seeing this everywhere from anti-vaxxers: the vaccine will force the virus to evolve, and it will evolve into a vaccine-resistant form, so we shouldn’t get the vaccine! Fucking Christ, did someone wish on a monkey’s paw that conservatives would start “believing” in evolution? Not like this. NOT LIKE THIS! This is why if you have a monkey’s paw you should have wished for them to UNDERSTAND evolution. Idiot!

Meanwhile, over on Twitter I saw someone post a link to this video and a very peculiar thing happened in the replies: post after post after post of people saying Rogan is right and backing this up with a screenshot of an NPR headline reading “Vaccines Could Drive The Evolution Of More COVID-19 Mutants.” And that’s it, just the screenshot of just the headline — not a link to the actual article. Hmm, I wonder why they would do such a very specific thing! Feel free to pause this video here if you’d like to think it over and take a guess before I do the big reveal.

Okay, did you figure it out, Wikipedia Brown? By searching for the headline, I found the full article and right there, two inches beneath the headline, is the subhead reading “Mutant coronaviruses can make vaccines less effective. At the same time, vaccines can contribute to virus mutations, but this is a slow process that should be manageable.” (Emphasis mine.)

And then if you scroll down and read the article (or listen to it), you’ll learn that COVID-19, like all viruses, is always mutating. In a vaccinated person, there’s a chance that it might mutate in a way that makes it less susceptible to the vaccine. Then, IF THAT VACCINATED PERSON IS ABLE TO PASS THE VIRUS TO ANOTHER PERSON, and if THAT person is able to pass the virus to another person, the slightly less susceptible version of the virus will propagate.

So in addition to the article immediately making it clear that this is not a situation the average person should concern themselves with at all (making the headline wildly irresponsible), but it goes on to explain why it’s not even a big concern for the experts. Scientists don’t really know exactly how common “breakthrough” infections are, meaning a vaccinated person who (if tested) would test positive for SARS-CoV-2. The reason why they don’t know is in part because there may be people who get it but are completely asymptomatic, so they don’t know they have it. If they’re asymptomatic, the chances of them spreading the virus to other people is extremely low.

Breakthrough disease, which is a vaccinated person who tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 AND experiences the symptoms of COVID-19 — the coughing, the sneezing, the fever — is extremely uncommon. Data released by the CDC at the end of July suggest that vaccinated people with breakthrough infections have a similar viral load to unvaccinated people, which in turn suggests that symptomatic vaccinated people may spread the disease as easily as symptomatic unvaccinated people, though it’s not in any way conclusive yet. Plus, we know if the person who they may spread the disease to is ALSO vaccinated, there’s a very low risk that the disease will spread.

So that tiny percentage of people — those who have been vaccinated, who catch SARS-CoV-2 anyway, and who have the ability to pass the infection to others — those are the people some experts are mildly concerned about, because yes, there is a chance that a virus will mutate to become slightly less susceptible to our current vaccines.

That is always how viruses and vaccines have worked, and it has never been a problem. You know why you need a new flu vaccine each winter? In part it’s because influenza mutates like a motherfucker, and scientists need to work to update the vaccine to target whatever is most likely to be flying around this season. They’re going to do the same for COVID-19 — as it mutates, they adjust the vaccine to better target it.

And it will mutate. Not because of vaccinated people, but because of unvaccinated people: as I said, it only becomes a problem when it’s spread from person to person. That happens best in unvaccinated populations, where it can easily hop from one host to another, mutating a little bit every time. A fully vaccinated population would have a spread that gets smaller and smaller, and eventually the virus runs out of hosts and goes bye-bye, like what happened to poliovirus, and like what happened to the outrageously infectious measles virus (until Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, and friends let it come roaring back….measles was considered to be eliminated from the US in the year 2000, before outbreaks began popping up from parents choosing to not vaccinate their children).

But it’s the unvaccinated populations that present such a fertile breeding ground for a virus, which is exactly how we got the Alpha variant that tore through the UK before vaccines were released, and now the Delta variant that developed in India, where only 9% of the population is fully vaccinated as of right now.

But wait, I hear you cry, Joe Rogan mentioned a STUDY! From 2015! Sent to him by DOCTORS! “Imperfect Vaccination Can Enhance the Transmission of Highly Virulent Pathogens.” What’s that all about?

Well, it’s about chickens. Marek’s disease is a highly contagious chicken illness that at first caused mild paralysis. It was interfering with the poultry industry, so scientists developed a vaccine for it. The problem was that the vaccine was “leaky,” which means that all it did was prevent the symptoms of the disease from hurting the chicken, but the virus behind the disease was still able to be transmitted just as if the chickens weren’t vaccinated at all.

This became a major issue, because let’s say a virus mutates to something really, really bad. So bad that the symptoms kill the host almost immediately. Well, that sucks for the one host who gets that mutation, but because they die so quickly they can’t pass it on.

But! If a vaccine prevents that host from experiencing the deadly symptoms, the host can go on living, strutting around the yard and pecking at ticks and laying eggs and doing whatever else chickens do while quietly incubating the extra shitty new mutation. And since the vaccine is “leaky,” that host can now go on to spread the extra shitty new mutation to other chickens. Fine for all the vaccinated chickens, but the second it hits an unvaccinated chicken that dude is dead meat. Literally.

That’s exactly what happened with Marek’s disease, and what the study from 2015 was investigating. Prior to the vaccine’s introduction, the disease rarely killed birds, but today it is 100% fatal in unvaccinated birds.

Now, can you spot the difference between the vaccine for Marek’s disease and the vaccine for COVID-19? I’ll give you a second. Feel free to pause.

Okay, time’s up! If you said “the COVID-19 vaccines aren’t leaky,” you win! All of the current COVID-19 vaccines, whether MRNA like Pfizer or viral vector like Johnson & Johnson, prevent infection. There is a vast gulf between a “leaky” vaccine that does nothing to prevent infection and replication like Marek’s, and an imperfect vaccine that substantially reduces the chances of infection like COVID-19. No vaccine is 100% perfect. That is exactly why we need to vaccinate as many people as possible to stand the best chance of knocking the virus out before it has a chance to mutate amongst a huge population of unvaccinated individuals.

Now, if only we could develop a vaccine against famous figures like Joe Rogan leaking misinformation all over the place. Ah wait, that’s public education, isn’t it? Another long road to herd immunity, there.
Oh, and one more thing: Rogan says a vaccinated person at the Comedy Store spread COVID to a dozen people. Not true. What actually happened was that the comedian Jeff Ross recently announced that all of his friends at The Comedy Store started getting sick, so he got tested out of an abundance of caution and learned that he was also positive despite being previously vaccinated. We don’t know who spread it to whom but he was asymptomatic when he got tested and then immediately fell ill and quarantined so it’s unlikely that he infected others. But hey, Rogan had a story to sell and no one at Spotify cares that he’s actively spreading dangerous misinformation so there we go.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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