The Long Crawl

I sincerely hope this blog-post find you healthy, fit and sane. If 2021 were on offer as a free trial, I would end mine right now.

Thankfully, there are glimmers of hope. Vaccines are on their way.

I can hardly wait. Yet in recent days I have found myself having conversations I never expected. Family and friends often disagree with me, but I did not expect to have to convince them about vaccines. Here are some of what I’ve heard:

This virus is so new!

‘I don’t know what’s in the vaccine.

‘The vaccine might make me ill.

‘Vaccines can be dangerous.

‘I’m not sick and I may not get Covid-19, why should I get vaccinated?

Well! Where to start?

Look, I’m no expert – my Ph.D. is in Theoretical Physics, not Epidemiology. But I do understand scientific principles and I can parse statistics. In 1999 when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour, I learned everything I could about my particular type of tumour and grilled the surgeon. I mean, he was about to drill into my skull; you’d want to know exactly what he was going to do, wouldn’t you?

The more I learned, the clearer it became that the benefits of surgery far outweighed the risks. To be honest, I did not have a choice. I’m fully aware that if it weren’t for Western medical technology, I would have died. So I guess that would make me a little biased.

With that little disclaimer out of the way, let me start with the statement:

‘This virus is so new!’

It’s true this virus is new, but coronaviruses as a group are not. This is important: it means that researchers have been studying viruses similar to the one causing Covid-19 for many years. The vaccines on the block were not just invented in the last nine months.

For instance, you’ve heard of SARS, right? The letters stand for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, better known as avian flu. SARS also originated in China and was caused by a type of coronavirus. That was way back in 2003. Then came MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (camel flu), caused by yet another coronavirus. The point is that research into these kinds of viruses has been taking place for decades. And some of that accumulated knowledge has gone into the vaccines being produced.

‘I don’t know what’s in the vaccine.’

The good news is that if you really wanted to know, you could find out. Here are some of the contents of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that was approved in the UK on 2 December 2020: mRNA and lipids, including 4-hydroxybutyl)azanediyl)bis(hexane-6,1-diyl)bis (ALC-3015). Gobbledygook to me, but great if it helps you.

On the other hand, I found that reminding myself how vaccines actually work was reassuring. Which brings me to

‘The vaccine might make me ill.’

Ironically, if you do feel ill after vaccination, that’s a sign your body is reacting the way it should.

Here’s the basic idea: your body is injected with a small amount of the virus against which you are going to be inoculated, so that it starts creating the antibodies you need.

The diagram above is taken from the British Society of Immunology’s website and is the best I’ve found to summarise the vaccination process.

So let’s say we want to inoculate you against polio. When you’re injected with a small amount of the polio virus, the antibody production process is kick-started. If your body were subsequently invaded by polio, it would already have been primed for battle.

The concept behind vaccination is incredibly simple. It’s not new. And if vaccination did not work, diseases like polio would not have been largely eradicated in the world.

But the idea of injecting a virus into your body, albeit in a controlled fashion, could sound like voodoo. This may be why the following notion has gained currency:

‘Vaccines can be dangerous.’

In this context I cannot ignore the efforts of a disgraced doctor called Andrew Wakefield. This guy falsely claimed a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. To my knowledge no one ever managed to replicate his results.

This last point is crucial. A fundamental principle of experimental science is that an experiment must be repeatable. No other professional scientist ever replicated Wakefield’s results, which means his results have never been tested. There is no credible evidence of the link he claimed. Wakefield was stripped of his medical licence.

Yet this did not prevent MMR vaccination rates from plummeting (and incidence rates from rising). Infamy has not stopped Wakefield from becoming a cause célèbre in fact-free zones on the Internet. And we know how many such zones there are. Some people even believe that Covid-19 is a hoax created by governments to lock us up.

Anti-vaccine and anti-masking demonstrations have taken place all the way from London to Spokane in Washington State, on the West Coast of the USA. Half the population of France on BFMTV have said they would either not take the vaccine or accept it only reluctantly.

All of the above worries me. Ignorance is far more dangerous than any vaccine could be. Thanks to social media, opinions proliferate, and people seem to believe they can hold opinions about absolutely anything, even ‘facts’. In the Cambridge Dictionary a fact is

something that is known to have happened or to existespecially something for which proof exists, or about which there is information.

Here’s a fact: the Earth is round. In olden times people did not believe this – they thought that if they travelled far enough, they’d fall off the edge.

But we have now seen Earth from space. There are photographs to prove it. The one below (famously known as the Blue Marble) was taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. Are you still allowed an opinion on whether the Earth is round?

I suppose you don’t have to believe the evidence. Those of us fortunate enough to live in properly-functioning democracies have the freedom to choose our beliefs.

With freedom comes responsibility. Our beliefs have consequences. So let me come to

‘I’m not sick and I may not get Covid-19, why should I get vaccinated?

Because there is no guarantee that you won’t get sick. If you’re offered the vaccine but refuse it and you then get sick, who should pay for your medical care?

Vaccines alone are not cast-iron guarantees. There’s still a small chance you may not be protected. In addition, vaccines aren’t suitable for everyone. And those of us who are vaccinated could still be carriers. We would need to remain vigilant.

But vaccines represent our best hope. They are the first step in our long crawl back to normality. I, for one, am holding my breath.

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Filed under Corona Virus, England, Lockdown, Modern Life, United Kingdom

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