Vaccine Mandates are a Terrible Idea
I wrote early on in the pandemic that if our control efforts didn’t work, or if their consequences proved too great to bear, we were going to need to consider the possibility of surrender, to accept a new disease among us. It seems that we may finally be reaching that surrender point, recognizing that the virus will eventually become endemic – but what I didn’t anticipate was our collective ability to pretend that our control measures were effective long after evidence emerged to the contrary. Our governments claimed that lockdowns worked, even when neighboring states with and without restrictions had similar levels of infection and death. Then our governments claimed that mask mandates worked, even when neighboring states with and without mask mandates had similar levels of infection and death. Now our governments are doubling down on vaccination, increasingly requiring it for employment and participation in everyday life, even as it becomes clear that our current vaccines are not capable of ending the pandemic.
In all cases, rather than rethinking whether the control measure in question was really as effective as claimed, the response to apparent failure was to cast blame on those who refused to comply. So a rise in infection was the fault of the partiers, the fault of the anti-maskers, the fault of the anti-vaxxers. This has had the effect of further inflaming an already divided society while promoting “public health” measures that quite possibly, in the balance, do more harm than good.
As the Biden administration pushes forward with ratcheting vaccine mandates and officially-sanctioned demonization of the unvaccinated, I think it’s time for a reasoned assessment of what we actually know about these vaccines nine months in to an unprecedented global rollout.
What do we know about the Covid-19 vaccines?
1. They don’t prevent infection and transmission (after a brief grace period)
The vaccines have always been sold primarily on their ability to prevent severe illness and death, but it was also initially assumed that they would reduce infection and transmission – and thereby reduce disease prevalence in the population. They were pitched as our ticket out of the pandemic, to return to normalcy.
We now have data to the contrary. While there is a protective effect for the first few months following injection, this effect is never stronger than 70% or so, and by 4-5 months it may disappear entirely. In the US, differing testing requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated people ensure that we detect more cases among the unvaccinated. The UK appears to be doing a better job of monitoring vaccine effectiveness, and their most recent report actually reveals a slightly higher rate of Covid-19 infection among vaccinated vs. unvaccinated people for those age groups that were injected more than 3-4 months ago.
We can also compare population-wide disease prevalence between high-vax and low-vax areas, which oddly reveals that some of the most-vaccinated countries – like Israel and the UK – have some of the world’s highest infection rates. This is most definitely not the pattern we would expect to see if vaccination reduced infection and transmission, and indeed it seems possible that mass vaccination might be increasing transmission on a population level.
If vaccines don’t meaningfully prevent infection or transmission, then the primary logic in support of vaccine mandates is fatally flawed. Very intelligent people who ought to know better keep talking about “protection from exposure to unvaccinated people” despite an onslaught of evidence that vaccinated people are also contracting and transmitting the virus. In environments that require weekly testing only of unvaccinated people, it is in fact likely that the unvaccinated people are safer to be around in the context of avoiding infection.
2. Vaccine immunity wanes over time
While the vaccines do provide a transient protection against infection, this protection fades to essentially zero after five months, according to this study, even as protection against severe illness is maintained – although a similar study in Israel found some level of fading protection against severe illness over time as well. We do not yet have data on whether booster shots might be able to counteract this effect.
3. Natural immunity is superior
The dominant narrative in the US has been that the vaccines provide superior immunity relative to natural infection with Covid-19. This claim has persisted despite being contrary to immunological logic – most illnesses provide stronger immunity than their respective vaccines – and despite being consistently disproven by real-world data. This study of Cleveland Clinic employees found no significant reinfection among those previously infected with Covid-19, and this news article provides a good example of how contrary evidence is neutered and twisted to fit within the dominant narrative.
Natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity may be comparable during the brief peak of vaccine protection, but as vaccine protection wanes natural immunity becomes far superior. In Israel, people vaccinated in February were 13 times more likely to acquire Covid-19 in August than people who were naturally infected in February.
4. Adverse reactions are common and can be severe
Adverse reactions to the Covid-19 vaccines are much more common than reactions to any other vaccine in current use, and it is accepted that many people will need to claim 1-2 sick days after their second shot. More serious events requiring hospitalization, causing lasting effects, or even leading to death have been observed with some regularity, and the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) database has been inundated with reports at a rate 10 to 100 times higher than following flu shots or childhood vaccinations. Those who have experienced adverse reactions often find doctors unwilling to accept a connection to the vaccine and unhelpful in diagnosing and treating their symptoms, and online communities have formed as support groups and to advocate for those injured by the injections.
Even using only “official” reports of adverse reactions, it is now becoming apparent that vaccination carries a greater risk for teenage boys than natural infection with Covid-19. Given that so many reactions are unrecorded, it seems possible that this negative risk-benefit tradeoff could extend well into young adulthood. The mechanism of adverse events appears to involve biotoxicity of the viral spike protein; this Substack article does a good job of covering what we know so far while also examining the possibility of lasting damage or longer-term effects.
5. Vaccines provide protection against severe illness and death
Even as protection against infection fades to zero over time, the Covid-19 vaccines continue to provide a significant level of protection against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. It remains true that hospital ICUs and covid wards are predominantly filled by unvaccinated people – and also predominantly by people over age 50. This remains a strong argument in favor of vaccination, but if protection is primarily personal rather than societal it is also a strong argument against mandatory vaccination.
I accept the validity of the argument that if hospitals are full, people are less able to receive needed care for any reason. This is an argument for increasing vaccination among elders and vulnerable groups. It is most definitely not an argument for mandating vaccination of children and younger adults. Although a small minority of younger people will be hospitalized, these groups are not contributing to hospital overcrowding in a significant way.
Protection against severe illness alone could have been a cause for celebration, had we simply sought to protect the most vulnerable groups with the goal of minimizing suffering and death. But instead we were promised that the vaccines would prevent infections and drive case numbers to zero, and their failure on this account is driving a great deal of fear and unjustified scapegoating.
What don’t we know about the Covid-19 vaccines? – risks for increased transmission and worsened outcomes
We have released vaccines in the midst of influenza pandemics before, but they have simply been updates of existing vaccines. Even then, there were surprises such as reported cases of narcolepsy following the Pandemrix Swine Flu vaccine. It is often said that we have not previously encountered long-term problems with a vaccine, so we shouldn’t expect any this time. That claim ignores the fact that such problems have not infrequently appeared in animal trials and early human trials of novel vaccines. We have never before released a vaccine against a novel virus using novel technology within a year of its initial development, so we are truly in unprecedented territory here.
1. Genetic vaccines may induce immune tolerance
All three of the Covid-19 vaccines in use in the United States are “genetic vaccines.” This means that in contrast to traditional vaccines which inject inactivated virus or other inert particles containing the protein that elicits an immune response, these vaccines supply genetic instructions – in the form of mRNA or viral-vectored DNA – to human cells which then produce the immunogenic protein. Aside from the Ebola vaccine which has seen limited use, no genetic vaccines have been previously deployed in humans.
One obvious concern with genetic vaccines is that since our own cells are producing the novel proteins, our body might be expected to activate the mechanisms that typically prevent our immune system from attacking our own cells – a complex assemblage of biochemical pathways collectively known as immune tolerance. Along these lines, an RNA vaccine under development is specifically designed to induce tolerance in order to treat an autoimmune disease. If tolerance is activated, the immune system still produces antibodies, but it becomes less apt to attack and kill the cells producing the spike protein, and by extension the SARS-CoV2 virus should it make an appearance.
Interestingly, immune tolerance is strongly protective against severe Covid-19, because the life-threatening pneumonia form results not from viral replication but from a dysfunctional immune overreaction. Thus it is entirely possible that the vaccines are highly protective against severe disease precisely because they induce immune tolerance.
Induction of tolerance can be a useful tool, but it would also be expected to increase the likelihood of infection once antibody levels decline. Tolerance, if it is occurring, may result in higher viral loads and increased risk of vascular problems caused directly by the virus, and it may also result in increased risk of infection by other viruses through a down-regulation of the innate immune system.
So far we have indirect evidence suggesting that tolerance may be occurring – namely durable protection against severe illness in the absence of any durable protection against infection, and we also have evidence that the vaccines reprogram the innate immune system – the first line of defense – to some degree. However, we don’t yet have solid evidence that immune tolerance mechanisms are being activated by these vaccines.
2. The vaccines could train the immune system to get stuck in a rut – “Original Antigenic Sin”
In some cases, when the immune system mounts a strong antibody response to a pathogen or a vaccine, it fails to update its response when exposed to a new variant of the pathogen but instead produces more of the original and no-longer-effective antibodies, thus allowing the pathogen to replicate unchecked. This phenomenon is known as Original Antigenic Sin (OAS) and it is hypothesized to have played a major role in the severity of the 1918 flu pandemic for certain age groups.
The risk here is that by inducing a very strong antibody response to one form of one viral protein – the spike – we may reduce the agility of the immune system to respond to variant viruses with modified spikes – and this could could actually put vaccinated people at a disadvantage relative to unvaccinated people or people with natural, more broad-based immunity.
3. Vaccine-induced antibodies could enhance infection of future variants – “Antibody-Dependent Enhancement”
Antibodies serve two purposes. They neutralize a pathogen by blocking its active sites, and they mark it for destruction – usually by big gobbling cells called macrophages. When viruses mutate, some of the antibodies still bind but no longer have a neutralizing function. Furthermore, some of the original antibodies may actually cause the mutated virus to be more infectious – either by facilitating a protein conformation that is better at infecting cells or by allowing the virus to remain active and to replicate inside of the gobbling macrophages. This phenomenon is known as Antibody-Dependent Enhancement (ADE), and worryingly it cropped up in a number of animal vaccine trials for the original SARS coronavirus.
We have no clear evidence of ADE occurring to date, but several studies have indicated that vaccine-induced antibodies may facilitate infection by SARS-CoV2 variants. Should ADE make an appearance as a result of waning immunity or following the emergence of a new variant, it could easily lead to a situation in which disease outcomes are worse in vaccinated people than in unvaccinated people.
These three possibilities – tolerance, OAS, and ADE – are not mutually exclusive and are in fact potentially reinforcing, and it is entirely possible that this unholy trinity could rise up to bite us in the months ahead. Or these concerns could prove unfounded, and we may be left with just vaccines that protect against severe illness while not protecting against infection and carrying a significant risk of adverse reactions.
What is clear, however, is that at this point most people who have elected not to get vaccinated are unwilling to change their minds. Many have already recovered from Covid-19 and therefore have perfectly good immunity. Many have observed both covid infections and vaccine reactions within their community and have decided that risking infection is the better choice. Many are simply fed up with the coercion and dehumanization increasingly aimed at “The Unvaccinated” and have decided to dig in their heels. Against this backdrop, we now have the Biden administration – and many state governments as well – attempting to mandate vaccination for healthcare workers, for teachers, for government employees, and now for all employees of medium-to-large businesses. It is patently clear that whatever happens, this isn’t going to end well.
Why vaccine mandates are a terrible idea
1. They aren’t supported by science.
I covered most of this already, but I should note that it isn’t exactly difficult to find science that contradicts the logic of vaccine mandates. Anyone who is vaccine-hesitant can type a few words into Google Scholar and instantly discover reputable articles revealing that natural immunity is superior to vaccine immunity, or that vaccine-induced protection against infection is incomplete and transient. This will lead to increasing distrust of government and the media.
2. We can’t afford to lose workers, especially in healthcare
The officials declaring mandates don’t seem to be aware that a great many workers would rather lose their jobs than submit to vaccination. With hospitals already at capacity, even losing 5% of nursing staff would lead to unacceptable wait times and a reduction in quality of care. I would hope that, faced with such a choice, most people would rather receive care from an unvaccinated (and regularly tested) nurse than receive no care at all. All across the workforce, attempts to enforce vaccine mandates are all but guaranteed to result in mass firings or walkouts that will disrupt essential services, exacerbate ongoing shortages, and quite possibly send the economy into a tailspin.
3. Society can’t handle much more division without breaking
I am tired of living in a perpetually divided society. In my younger years it seemed like the two American tribes fought perpetually and somewhat good-heartedly over the same perennial issues: abortion, environmental protections, taxes, government spending, social welfare. For the past two decades the situation has been deteriorating. It took a step downward in in the Bush I era, and another during the Tea Party response to the Obama presidency. Trump ramped up divisions and hatreds on both sides, and it seemed that every new issue became immediately politically polarized. Protests, virus responses, ivermectin, vaccines. As Charles Eisenstein eloquently pointed out, the dehumanization of “The Unvaccinated” appears to be tapping into the same patterns of thought and behavior that have historically led to pogroms and genocides. If we wish to avoid actual violence, insurrection, secession, and civil war, we absolutely need to reverse the trend toward ever-increasing division within society, and Biden’s push for vaccine mandates is Very Much Not Helping.
4. Mandates raise the stakes of failure substantially
If it turns out that the vaccines do have serious unforeseen problems that lead to disproportionate illness and death among the vaccinated, those who were coerced against their will will be the most incensed and prone to outbursts of violence. Had we simply offered the vaccines to the most vulnerable groups and to anyone willing to participate in the experiment, the consequences of failure would have been minor – mostly a sense of sadness and loss. Once we started to incentivize shots for teenagers with ice cream cones and to issue “jab or job” mandates, we raised the stakes. If the “safe and effective” mantra proves even partially false over the long run, our nation will experience the sort of political convulsions and crisis of authority that often lead to revolution and chaos. And it will all have been totally unnecessary.
I have never been so unhappy with my government as I was listening to Joe Biden push his vaccine mandate plan last Thursday. Not even under the childish ad hominem outbursts of Donald Trump or the pre-Iraq warmongering of Bush I. The UK, recognizing that vaccines don’t stop transmission, just announced that it is abandoning its vaccine mandate plan. Denmark, following Sweden’s lead, is relaxing all covid restrictions. These are countries that we used to look up to.
Covid has become like the blue flower of Batman, a curse of fear that is tearing our postmodern Gotham apart. I am sad for my country which has weathered much worse but may not survive this storm. I am angry at those officials who would impose their “expert” will over the individual choices and survival instincts of their citizens. I am upset that science seems to matter only inasmuch as it supports a particular predefined narrative, and that anyone who dissents can be smeared regardless of their credentials. I am hopeful that when the dust settles we might finally begin to build a different world beyond neoliberal consumerist crony capitalism. But first we must weather whatever is ahead. Winter is coming. May your pantry be well stocked, and may we all find love in our hearts to support each other in times of need.