The fight over the COVID vaccines has become an epic struggle. It’s not just about who should get the shot and how many shots. The fight ever more centers on issues of effectiveness and safety of the product itself.
One group is convinced they are very dangerous for many people. The other side says that the people who say this are crazy, ideologically motivated, and spreading misinformation. Truth is, they say, these vaccines saved a million lives, are perfectly safe, and everyone should accept them, by force if necessary, including a booster and a fourth dose.
You can click all over the internet on issues of vaccine safety and find articles in both directions. There are claims and counterclaims, assertions and fact checks, fact checks on the fact checks, and all of this continues without end. Because causal inference is so extremely difficult, people believe what they want based on political biases.
Meanwhile, the data blizzard is intensifying by the day. Some of it is very alarming. Genevieve Briand of Johns Hopkins University has documented a huge and unusual rise in young and middle-age adult deaths in 2021. The causes are elusive but the trend is undeniable. Many observers immediately blame the vaccine, but there are other potential explanations: collateral public health damage from lockdowns in the form of drugs, alcohol, despair, degraded immune systems, fewer doctors’ appointments, and general ill-health. Or some combination.
Then there’s the VAERS database, which allows doctors and members of the public to file reports of potential vaccine-related adverse events. We’ve never seen reports this high. The trouble is that this database isn’t science as such: it’s evidence of how the internet has democratized data collection. This is the first pandemic in which nearly everyone has the tools and power to access the reporting system, and many people are angry about being muscled into taking the vaccine.
This surely builds in a bias. Serious vaccine adverse reactions could get lost among vast numbers of unrelated health outcomes. At the same time, a study of reports from 2007 to 2010 concluded that this system vastly underreported injuries. We are left with the possibility that the system both overreports and underreports.
Then, we have the anecdotes. We all have them. We know people who had no bad effects and those who complain of all sorts of ailments, short and long term, which they trace to the vaccine.
A few weeks ago, there was a court-ordered discovery of vaccine trial documents from Pfizer. They became a Rorschach test of prior belief. In the end, they didn’t help that much, and the genuine specialists who tried to sift through the data were shouted down by both sides.
What is true? I would like to know. We all would. We know about the increased risk of myocarditis after taking the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, especially among young men. At the same time, writes Vinay Prasad, “the FDA has no reliable data to know for sure that boosting healthy young men provides a health benefit. It is possible to be net harmful.”
Sorting it all out will take years of sifting through data. We should prepare ourselves for whatever the data eventually tell us. There are genuine specialists who exist in this area, but most of them have close ties to CDC and/or FDA, who already have a dog in this fight, leaving us with an awkward situation: We don’t know whom to trust.
So the polarization continues without end.
Martin Kulldorff and Jay Bhattacharya rightly observe that vaccine fanaticism has bred vaccine skepticism. It also works in reverse. Why has all this become so difficult? It’s the coercion. It’s the overriding of human agency. The institutions that imposed these mandates already had a huge credibility problem from a year-long fiasco of crazed impositions: closures, masks, capacity limits, sanitization mania, plexiglass, forced separation, travel restrictions, and so on. None of this worked, and all of it muscled people against their wills.
Then, just as these started to go away, came the vaccine mandates, from the same gang that had previously caused such wreckage, and for a product produced by a heavily subsidized and politically connected industry that is indemnified against liability for vaccine harms.
The public had by now figured out—no thanks to public-health authorities—that the risk of COVID to healthy kids and working-age adults was extremely low. The incidents of severity fell very clearly on the aged and infirm. Data has shown this since early 2020. It was no mystery. And yet we didn’t hear public officials explaining this. They still haven’t. This is because they had imposed society-wide solutions for a problem that affected mostly a single age-cohort of the population.
Hence, trust was already gone by the time the vaccine mandates came along. Just as lockdowns overrode traditional public wisdom of focused protection, so too did universal mandates override an intelligent deployment of vaccines (by choice) only for those who wanted or needed them.
Now we had another problem. It seemed like a continuation of bad science and bad politics. Then the political divisions became more intense, simply because in the United States it was one political party that had imposed the mandates against the objections of the other political party. Complying or defying became a political symbol, which is pretty much the worst possible situation for public health.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the element of force here caused people to become skeptical. Meanwhile, officials at the White House were driven by the single-minded goal of maximizing vaccinations throughout the whole population regardless of need or desire. They assumed that once people got the shot, they could be counted in the compliant category, forgetting the bitterness that remains in people’s hearts and souls once having complied with an edict that impinges so intimately on our bodily integrity.
In normal times, with any medicine you take, you are careful to know about possible side effects. You hear about them in every pharmaceutical advertisement. Your doctor tells you about them, including the incidents and the possibility. Then you make a decision. Is the problem you seek to solve greater than the risk you bear in triggering adverse effects you don’t want? And clearly many people take that risk. Sometimes they regret it later. But it was, in the end, their own choice.
The Food and Drug Administration seeks to certify drugs as “safe and effective,” but those categories are never completely fulfilled. Nothing is wholly and completely both. And people know that. Drugs and vaccines are imperfect, and doctors and patients finally must rely on good judgments based on the available data. This had become a settled practice in American pharmaceutical distribution.
All of that was shattered with the vaccine mandates. They immediately divided workplaces and families. We heard tales from the top that amounted to separating society into clean and unclean. People were encouraged to look down upon and avoid the refuseniks even if they had natural immunity after a COVID recovery, which is stronger than vaccine-induced immunity. Families argued. Congregations and musical groups were wrecked. Careers were trashed. Parents were divided from children and siblings from each other.
Every day, Brownstone Institute receives emails from people pleading for medical contacts to grant exemptions. We receive long letters from estranged couples with children who believe their ex-spouse is either killing children with vaccines or COVID exposure. Our inbox is flooded daily with stories of people about to lose their jobs for noncompliance. The stories are truly heartbreaking, and the prospect of bringing peace to these people’s lives has been bleak, simply because authorities have been so shockingly inflexible.
Meanwhile, the reports and fears of vaccine adverse events have only grown. When people are forced into something, there’s a tendency to blame that thing, rightly or wrongly, on all subsequent bad outcomes. It’s the same as when you are sick and you take a medicine and then you get well: you credit the pill, correctly or incorrectly. So too with post-compulsion adverse events.
It became social, cultural, and political chaos. Cities were segregated, students bullied, professors threatened, corporate employees muscled, and even nurses (with natural immunity) fired from their jobs. Doctors were through various means pressed into political duty. Many experienced and reputable physicians were threatened, punished, and even fired for going against the narrative by granting vaccine exemptions or publicly questioning mitigation measures.
The media didn’t help, especially with the summer of 2021 campaign to claim that this was a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” a political line that was untrue, and common knowledge once even public health authorities realized that the vaccination could stop neither infection nor spread.
And it was impossible not to remember that many of the same people who were demonizing the unvaccinated were the same people who, in 2020, were denouncing the vaccine itself on grounds that its development was pushed into production by the Trump administration!
By the summer of 2021, science became completely disconnected from policy, if there ever was a relationship to begin with. For example, all data indicate that the effects of the vaccine in protecting people against infection wanes unusually quickly, while protection against severe outcomes lasts longer. To be “fully vaccinated” is on a timer, and thus came the campaign for boosters, and, with it, another round of compulsion and public anger on all sides.
The reality of waning efficacy undermined the “negative externality” argument for vaccine mandates. At some point after vaccination, your vaccine doesn’t protect me or anyone if you still get infected and spread the disease.
To add further insult to injury, the standards of approval of the boosters by the FDA have slipped so much that not even warnings from the agency’s top experts could change the outcome. It seems simply astonishing that drug safety issues in the context of mandates would have become so driven by political considerations.
For example, it’s impossible not to notice how regulators and messaging privileged mRNA vaccines over traditional ones such as J&J (which was withdrawn at one point) and AstraZeneca (never even approved in the United States). Why? There is every reason to be suspicious.
Then you have the problem of conflicts of interest. The FDA’s own website says: “About 54 percent, or $3.3 billion, of FDA’s budget is provided by federal budget authorization. The remaining 46 percent, or $2.8 billion, is paid for by industry user fees.” Are we supposed to believe this has no influence at all? Would regulators be slow to implicate the companies that fund them?
There will be years of conflicts and arguments over all of this. And it’s of no help at all that elites have imposed only one permissible line while Big Tech has censored dissent. That adds further anger and distrust. Why should we believe a forced opinion any more than we should comply with a forced medicine?
Are there conditions under which any vaccine mandates are justified? If a vaccine has the confidence of the public, the answer is probably no. People generally get them in the interest of their own health, provided there is trust.
The vaccine for this virus should never have been mandated. Having done this, public health has done itself deep harm. One wonders if the reputation of vaccines in general can recover.
Free choice is the foundation of trust. Overriding that with a politically motivated regime of compulsion, backed by the threat to destroy lives, can never result in good outcomes for either individuals or society.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and ten books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown.