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Education Is An Imperfect Vaccine

It can be expected that many in the anti-vaccination corner not to be particularly well-informed in matters of virology, genomics, molecular modelling, epidemiology, and associated disciplines. To be fair, most of us who are not engaged in these disciplines on a professional basis are not particularly well-informed, but at least we have the sense to understand that we are not experts. Alas, if one communicates mainstream scientific opinion one often gets the response "do your research" from people who wouldn't be able to tell you which antibody chain is first to respond to an antigen [1], let alone an ability to determine what constitutes quality peer-reviewed research compared to those that can be generously described as "dubious".

Nevertheless, one is surprised when one's interlocutor on such matters claims to be a professor at a university. Subsequent information reveals that they're actually an associate professor of psychology at a polytechnic. Polytechnics of course perform an extremely valuable role in the training and teaching of practical skills, but let's not pretend that they're research institutions. I shall be kind enough not to mention their name or the institution that they belong to, but I will raise some of the matters of interest which concur with the sort of things that one comes to expect from those opposed to vaccinations.

Let's review some of the arguments, directly quoted from the associate professor.

1. "The government paying for the vaccinations with tax dollars is fascist."

Leaving aside that governments with sovereign control of a money supply can engage in expenditure without taxation, and the hyperbole about "fascism", this is the sort of argument that is brought up that an advocate for public health is some sort of "shill" for pharmaceutical corporations and excuses their dubious practises [1]. This, of course, is a purely rhetorical device that conflates public health with political economy and it's one that that can be easily unravelled. Despite complaining about "corporatism" when an alternative is suggested (i.e., the conversion of private pharmaceutical companies into workers' cooperatives, making their products open-source, disclosure of business records) they express even greater opposition to such an idea, perpetuating the very system they claim to condemn and rejecting free and open research. In other words, it's not really about the corporatism, it's the public health measures they have problems with.

2. "They are counting vaccinated deaths as unvaccinated."

This claim is based on measures, such as the UK's Office of National Statistics [2], where a person who has received a vaccine can still be counted as unvaccinated if their death occurs shortly afterward (e.g., one dose and 21 days, two doses 7 days). The reason for this is pretty straightforward; if a person has already been mortality infected with COVID-19 receiving a vaccine simply isn't going to help. They already have received a vaccine, of sorts - one that is a live, unattenuated, and an uncontrolled dose. If one was the follow the logic our associate professor, a person who was given a vaccine as part of their dying breath (perhaps the final, utterly ineffectual, wish) would have to be count as "vaccinated". Obviously, such a proposition is clearly absurd. A variant of the argument is that anyone who dies but has COVID-19 will be recorded as a COVID-19 death. This is absurd; a person who has COVID-19 but is run over by a bus will not have COVID-19 as the cause of death. Insead, there are very specific guidelines for particular jurisdictions [3]. It should be noted that because reporting in developing countries is poor, COVID-19 mortality figures are radically under-estimated and one must look at longitudinal demographic data of excess deaths instead [4].

3. "According to science naturally acquired immunity is the best."

It is absolutely uncontroversial to say that those who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 and survive typically generate protection against reinfection. Whether or not it is a "better" immunity to a vaccine is subject to significant debate. A meta-analysis of ten studies found statistical equivalence between the protection of full vaccination and natural immunity, with three studies finding superiority of natural immunity and four with an additional benefit from vaccination in the COVID-recovered individuals [5]. Whilst both infection-acquired immunity and vaccine-acquired immunity fade over time, both typically provide durable protection for at least six months. What is extremely important is that vaccine-acquired immunity is more consistent than infection-acquired immunity [6], which should be obvious as it's a controlled dose. Also note the initial statement; those who survive an infection of SARS-CoV-2 generate protection. The evidence on the relative safety of vaccines versus infection is quite overwhelming and multinational in evidence. An unvaccinated person is at least several times more likely to need hospitalisation or die from COVID-19 than a vaccinated person if infected by SARS-CoV-2 [7].

4. "Fully vaccinated carried the same viral load as unvaccinated."

There is no doubt that there is strong evidence that peak viral loads in the upper airways of the lungs and nasopharynx are similar between unvaccinated and vaccinated. However, attention is drawn to the word "peak"; vaccinated people clear the virus faster, with lower levels of virus overall, and have less time with very high levels of virus present [8]. Overall and all things considered equal, a vaccinated individual with COVID-19 is 63% less likely to infect another person and, of course, vaccinated individuals are less likely to be infected in the first place. Overall, the combination of being less likely to infect and having a shorter viral load means that a vaccinated person is 20x less likely to infect another person, and if both parties a vaccinated there is 200x reduction [9] for non-Omnicron variants.

5. "We've had more infections and deaths from covid and higher infections and death rates since they started vaccinating"

One would think that an associate professor of psychology would be aware of the difference between correlation and causation, but here we are. There are multiple vectors to SARS-Cov-2 transmission, driven by the social interactions of the infected. As has been illustrated vaccines significantly reduce the change of transmission per interaction but do not eliminate it. If people are being lax in the number and type of social interactions and are failing to follow those guidelines that reduce the probability of transmission (e.g., limited numbers, outdoor interactions, masks etc) then the virus has a greater opportunity to spread from the infected. In addition, there has been the arrival of the new variant, Omicron, which is significantly more infectious and which is sufficiently different that it can avoid existing antigens (although there will be a strong T-cell response [1o]).

6. "A child can tell you that vaccines and medications are two different things."

The most comical remark has been left for last. The set of medications includes the elements preventative and treatment and, as so many many sources make quite clear, a vaccine is a medication. A few examples:

"A vaccine is a medication. Like any medicine, vaccines have benefits and risks, and although highly effective, no vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing disease or 100 percent safe in all individuals."

"A vaccine is a medication that trains the immune system to produce special proteins (antibodies) that fight a specific disease."

"A vaccine is a medication that offers immunity to a specific disease"

"A vaccine is a medication that is given to prevent sickness in the future."

"A vaccine is a medication given to produce antibodies against a certain infection to prevent that infection from occurring."

Given that a child can supposedly tell us that vaccines and medications are different, here's one for kids, a Q&A with Dr. Ingrid Katz from the Harvard Global Health Institute who specialises in infectious diseases.

"Katz: A vaccine is a medication. You get an injection. The medication sends messages to your body’s immune system. It lets the immune system know that there is an invader.""

The comments by the associate professor are perhaps unexpected. There is a reasonable, and grounded, the belief that the greater the education that one has been exposed the greater their ability to discern fact from fiction, to understand the relationship between correlation and causality, the ability to evaluate quality studies from conspiracy websites, and even the ability to read the content of the very articles that they post as supporting evidence. If scholars are meant to be useful for anything it should be their ability to educate, to conduct research, to make inventions and discoveries, and to act as a vaccine for the rest of a society to ensure that we don't regress into an age of superstition.

Unfortunately, education is an imperfect vaccine. A particularly determined mind with strong opinions is still capable of ignoring evidence contrary to their beliefs and selecting statements that confirm with their own biases, especially when it comes to matters like politics and religion. It is unfortunate of course, but this can also affect one's perception of scientific evidence. One may expect, even more specifically, that an associate professor would be well-aware of the pitfalls of selection bias and make an effort to protect their own mind from such matters. But of course, one only does so if one wants to. Even an educated person can show great stultifying stupidity in favour of their tribalism.


[1] The answer is the IgM antibody, followed by IgA on mucosal surfaces or IgG in the serum. If you don't know what this answer means, you should "do your research", and admit to yourself at least what you don't know.



[4] The pandemic’s true death toll, The Economist

[5] Mahesh B Shenai, Ralph Rahme, Hooman Noorchashm, Equivalency of Protection From Natural Immunity in COVID-19 Recovered Versus Fully Vaccinated Persons: A Systematic Review and Pooled Analysis, Cureus. 2021 Oct 28;13(10):e19102.

[6] Science Brief: SARS-CoV-2 Infection-induced and Vaccine-induced Immunity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 21, 2021

[7] How do death rates from COVID-19 differ between people who are vaccinated and those who are not?, Our World In Data, Dec 27, 2021

[8] Po Ying Chia, Sean Wei Xiang Ong, Calvin J Chiew, et al. Virological and serological kinetics of SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant vaccine-breakthrough infections: a multi-center cohort study. July 31, 2021.

[9] Christopher Baker, Andrew Robinson, Your unvaccinated friend is roughly 20 times more likely to give you COVID, The Conversation, October 28, 2021

[10] Syed Faraz Ahmed, Ahmed Abdul Quadeer, Matthew R. McKay. SARS-CoV-2 T Cell Responses Elicited by COVID-19 Vaccines or Infection Are Expected to Remain Robust against Omicron, Viruses 2022, 14(1), 79; Jan 2, 2022

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