When the Covid vaccines were first announced a year ago, I was on board. I saw them as relatively safe, effective, and a matter of civic duty toward the common good. Each jab in the arm was one step closer to beating this pandemic, and I wanted to do my part. I was also simply afraid of what this novel coronavirus might do to my not-so-novel 47 year-old body. Despite concerns over reported side effects, I got the AstraZeneca shot as soon as it was available in my age group, and two months later, a shot of Pfizer to seal the deal.
As the late summer of 2021 faded into a pleasantly warm fall, I felt invincible. My parents and I were fully vaxxed, my vaccine passport was stamped with the official QR code, and the pandemic’s end seemed in sight. I basked in the approval of my fellow vaxxed. I supported vaccine passports as a way to avoid another lockdown, and started going to movie theatres for the first time in 18 months. I could hug my parents again. It felt like things were getting back to normal.
Then, in late November, word of Omicron hit like a blast of wintery air. We thought we had awoken from the nightmare, but discovered we had only dreamed we had awoken, and that the nightmare was far from over. As the world careened back into lockdown, all we wanted for Christmas was a booster shot.
But Omicron did wake me up from a certain dream. This virus is tough, I thought. First with Delta, and now with Omicron, it does end runs around the best technological fixes we can throw at it. “A growing body of preliminary research suggests the Covid vaccines used in most of the world offer almost no defense against becoming infected by the highly contagious Omicron variant,” wrote the New York Times. We had been so proud of how quickly we had come up with Covid vaccines, yet this virus was outsmarting them even faster.
Two years into this pandemic, and one year into our full-frontal vaccine assault against it, our War on Covid is starting to look about as successful as previous Wars on Drugs or Terror. The winter of 2022 is feeling eerily similar to the winter of 2021. Why? Two emergent realities stand out to me through all the noise:
The first is that vaccine efficacy against infection is quickly waning, especially in the face of new variants. Data from Ontario’s Science Advisory Panel show that, in the face of Omicron, “vaccine protection has fallen to 14.9 per cent — from nearly 90 per cent a month ago — for people who have received two doses.”
Importantly, the red and yellow lines at the top of this graph, representing protection against hospitalizations and ICU admissions, remain high for now. Let’s hope they stay that way.
Yet far from casting doubt on our weapon of choice, the mainstream response we’re seeing around the world to the rapid drop-off in vaccine induced immunity is to shout, “More vaccines!” I’m reminded of the famous quote, often misattributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It turns out this quote probably originated from an early form of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Could it be that we’ve all become vaccine “users”, jonesing for our next hit to bring our immunity back up to that previous high, only to watch it soon crash again, sending us back out onto the streets in search of our next injection?
That’s probably going too far, but it is safe to say – and many doctors have been saying this – that we shouldn’t be talking about Covid vaccines in terms of their efficacy in stopping infection, but rather of their effectiveness in preventing serious illness and death. And so far, two doses seem to be doing the trick.
Still, it’s common to find in the media the assumption that it’s the unvaccinated – either the unwilling in high-income countries, or the willing in low-income countries who simply don’t have access to it yet – who are driving the spread of Covid, while providing a reservoir for new variants to emerge from. But studies into the spread of Marek’s disease in vaccinated chickens hint that the opposite might be true: that a vaccine that protects against death but not transmission may actually allow more virulent forms of the virus to continue spreading. We simply don’t know, so we should be careful whom we blame.
The Covid vaccines also don’t seem to do much to halt transmission of the virus; early findings are suggesting that you stand nearly as high a chance of catching Covid from a vaccinated person as from an unvaccinated, especially several months after they’ve received their second shot. An October 2021 press release from the journal Nature about a study under peer review says that
the vaccine’s beneficial effect on Delta transmission waned to almost negligible levels over time. In people infected 2 weeks after receiving the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, both in the UK, the chance that an unvaccinated close contact would test positive was 57%, but 3 months later, that chance rose to 67%. The latter figure is on par with the likelihood that an unvaccinated person will spread the virus.
A reduction was also observed in people vaccinated with the jab made by US company Pfizer and German firm BioNTech. The risk of spreading the Delta infection soon after vaccination with that jab was 42%, but increased to 58% with time.
For non-epidemiologists, such as myself and 99.99% of the rest of humanity, all this is proving to be an education in both the strengths and limitations of vaccines. Raised on the heroic narrative of vaccines that have eradicated, or nearly so, former scourges like polio, measles, and smallpox, we hoped for the same miraculous intervention this time around with Covid. Unfortunately, it turns out that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is more like the four other known coronaviruses that circulate endemically around the world: all cause the common cold, mutate rapidly, and our bodies lose immunity to them quickly, causing repeated reinfection. We shouldn’t have “expected different results” with this virus.
Covid vaccines will certainly help prevent many deaths from this disease, but they never had a chance of eradicating it. “I mean, we’ve never eradicated a respiratory disease,” Naomi Rogers, a professor in the history of medicine at Yale University, recently told CTV News. While there were voices of reason warning us early on not to get oversold, most of us, including the media and politicians, embraced a vaccine salvationism that portrayed these injections as the silver bullet. Last May, Justin Trudeau told the nation that, “we need all of us to get vaccinated, as quickly as possible, so we can get back to normal.” Over 87% of the population older than 11 dutifully obliged, twice, yet with another winter of lockdowns facing us, it’s safe to say we’re far from getting “back to normal”. Unfortunately, we are staring at a future in which we’re forced to learn to manage and live with this new pathogen that has decided to join the party of microbes that reside inside our bodies.
What does this mean for our future approach to dealing with Covid, and our public discourse around the pandemic? Here are a few suggestions, humbly offered:
First and foremost, we should get off our high horse about Covid vaccines and stop pressuring everyone to get them. If they are pretty much only useful in preventing serious illness or death in the individual taking the vaccine, then the decision to get vaccinated or not should be a personal decision, like any other health decision. If someone decides not to for whatever reasons, we shouldn’t shame them as irresponsible spreaders of Covid. One could argue that the unvaccinated could still wreak collective harm by clogging up the hospitals, but then one would also have to condemn everyone who ends up in hospital due to an unhealthy lifestyle, or, conversely, the overly healthy who burden the health care system with sports injuries. Accepting the risks that others take with their health is part of the social contract inherent in a publicly funded health care system.
The fact that the vaccinated spread Covid nearly as easily as the unvaccinated seriously undermines much of the rationale behind vaccine passports. If the reason for their existence is to keep the unvaccinated from spreading Covid in public spaces, then the evidence shows that we have seen the enemy, and it is us (the vaccinated). To give just one example from the UK, an August music festival required passports, yet still turned into a superspreader event, with nearly 5,000 Covid cases linked to it.
Another argument in favour of passports is that they will push some vaccine hesitant people to get their jab, but that raises ethical questions about coercion, and there is little evidence that it actually works. When Ontario announced in September that they would be implementing a proof-of-vaccine system across non-essential businesses, there was a tiny bump in the rate of new shots administered, but it was barely noticeable.
We should ask ourselves whether the social divisiveness sown by vaccine passports, to say nothing of the economic and administrative burden they place on small businesses, or their implicit assault on personal freedoms, is worth their marginal benefit.
In the context of limited vaccine supplies worldwide, we may also want to rethink who is given priority in receiving vaccines. In Canada, over 97% of all Covid deaths have occurred in people over 50 years of age. Worldwide, there are nearly two billion people over the age of 50. Over eight billion vaccine doses have been administered so far, which means we could have double-vaxxed the most vulnerable global population twice already, instead of putting needles in the arms of healthy younger people who run little risk from the disease, while low income countries wait until 2023 to get their populations vaccinated.
But should we offer Covid vaccines to everyone willing, in every age group, eventually? “The vaccines are safe,” you might say, “so why not give them to everyone, just in case?” But that same abundance of caution can be applied to vaccines, none of which are 100% safe. Out of over 68 million doses of Covid vaccines administered in Canada up to December 31, 2021, a total of 7,126 serious adverse effects were reported by physicians. An effect is defined as “serious” if it:
- results in death
- is life-threatening (an event/reaction in which the patient was at real, rather than hypothetical, risk of death at the time of the event/reaction)
- requires in-patient hospitalization or prolongation of existing hospitalization
- results in persistent or significant disability/incapacity, or
- results in a congenital anomaly/birth defect
This has happened 0.01% of the time after Covid vaccination, or 1 in 10,000. Death has been the result in 258 of those cases. Of course, correlation is not causation; surely many of these effects were coincidental.
Compare these numbers to the risks of Covid to kids up to 11 years old. Children who come down with Covid in Canada have been hospitalized at a rate of 1 in 20,000, or half the rate of reported serious adverse effects following vaccination. A total of 23 children and adolescents have died of Covid in Canada.
It should be noted that currently about 270,000 kids aged 0 – 11 have tested positive for Covid in Canada, out of a total of about four million children that age. Maybe they will all eventually get Covid, but hopefully not – yet we are being asked to vaccinate all of them. So when comparing risks from Covid versus the vaccine, you must compare the fraction of kids who get Covid versus all of them who are supposed to get the vaccine, thus increasing the chance of the vaccine actually doing more harm than the disease.
When it comes to establishing links between vaccines and adverse effects, it can be difficult to prove causality, especially as time goes on. We will likely never know the true risks associated with vaccines, although they are probably very small. But when the known risks of Covid are so minute to those under 20 years old, does it make sense to be vaccinating them, when we know that doing so won’t stop them from spreading Covid? And does it make sense in light of the fact that mRNA technology has never been used large-scale on humans before last year – isn’t a little bit of caution warranted? Pfizer’s clinical trial of their vaccine for 5 to 11 year olds, upon which emergency approval was granted by the US FDA (and shortly thereafter by Health Canada), only gave the vaccine to about 3,100 children. Although no serious side effects were detected in this group, 3,100 is a pretty small pool compared to the original adult study, which gave the vaccine to seven times that number of people.
Personally, I have no intention at this point of giving my nine-year-old a Covid vaccine. But if you read the above and still feel like vaccinating your child is the right thing to do (maybe they have an underlying health condition that makes them more susceptible to Covid), then by all means, go for it – the risks on both sides of the decision seem vanishingly small. We should be more fearful every time we drive somewhere with our kids, an act that in 2019 killed 160 children in Canada, eight times more than Covid has in nearly two years.
This pandemic has also exposed the fragility of our acute healthcare system. This past summer, Quebec hospitals were able to take in 1,780 Covid patients; now that number has fallen to 671, as workers fall sick with Covid or quit from exhaustion after months of working mandatory overtime. Instead of our hospitals being able to expand their capacity to deal with this emergency, they are moving in the opposite direction. And dealing with Covid has delayed many life-saving surgeries: pre-pandemic, 2,600 Quebecers had been waiting for more than a year for a surgery; now that number has swollen to 19,000.
If we’re going to be dealing with Covid for years to come, we need to make new long-term investments in our healthcare system. Pre-pandemic, Canada’s acute care system was already in need of an infusion – in terms of ICU beds per 1,000 people, Canada is at the low end, with 2.5. The OECD average is 5. Germany has 8; Japan 13. Most of the restrictions imposed on our lives have been enacted by various provincial governments in last ditch efforts to save their too-easily-overwhelmed healthcare systems from collapse.
At the other end of the healthcare spectrum, we should also be investing more into public health and disease prevention, beyond just vaccines. As a farmer, I tend towards the view that food is our best medicine. It’s obviously not going to solve all our illnesses, but in terms of affordability and the empowerment of the individual to take some ownership of their own health, it can’t be beat. My personal winter health regime, which I’ve found over the years prevents or at least blunts most cold and flu bugs that come my way, includes vitamin D supplements, elderberry syrup, chicken broth, and “fire cider” (an apple cider vinegar infusion of immunity-boosting plants such as ginger and garlic). I’m attuned to the feelings associated with the beginnings of illness – a tickle in the throat or a run-down feeling – and a quick dose of some of the above can usually nip it in the bud. Even a simple balanced diet and a decent night’s sleep can go a long way towards warding off viruses.
Why does one individual fight off SARS-CoV-2 without a symptom while another person dies of it? It’s the same virus, right? Obviously, it’s the virus plus the individual’s underlying health that equals the disease outcome. Our approach to health focuses too much on the virus and not enough on the individual. We all breathe in 100 million virus particles every day – we had better have a robust defence against all of them.
As the first truly global respiratory pandemic in a century, and the cause of unprecedented disruptions in our lives, it’s understandable that our attention has been held captive by Covid for nearly two years now. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that Covid is all that matters, or that practically anything is worth sacrificing if it gives us a percentage less risk from it. Covid is relatively easy to measure – we can follow the case counts, hospitalization rates, and deaths tracked daily. But the effect on children and parents from closed schools, or on long-term care residents essentially held hostage by their institutions, or on the mental health of people cut off from their social support networks, or on extended families denied their ritual gatherings, is much harder to quantify, but just as real.
THIS HAS BEEN A HARDER ESSAY than usual for me to research and write. It’s taken me about three weeks of putting in several hours of work before dawn each morning, gone through three drafts, and occupied a lot of space in my brain. Besides the complexity of the subject matter, part of the difficulty has been trying to walk the line between being somewhat critical of the official response to the pandemic, while not straying into the swamp of misinformation that lurks around every bend of the internet. That is why all my sources (you may have noticed) are from mainstream media, scientific journals, government statistics, or the occasional non-controversial website. But walking that line has often felt like walking a tightrope; the space between the mainstream perspective and alternate views has become a yawning no-man’s land, deserted as the two camps have dug in to their polarized positions.
While the harm caused by misinformation has been well documented by the media, less examined has been the damage caused by a dogmatic faith in experts, science, and authorities. Science is supposed to be a practice of humility, of saying “I don’t know – let’s do an experiment and try to find out.” You would think that with a completely novel virus, a new disease, and a cutting edge vaccine technology, we would have a lot of questions. And yet the messaging from the media and government has tended to bypass uncertainty and present their policies without debate, as near gospel truth – and to cast anyone who dares question any aspect of it as a heretic. In April of 2021, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario issued a statement forbidding physicians from questioning or debating any of the official measures imposed in response to Covid, and threatening them with disciplinary measures if they disobeyed, and in July, the Federation of State Medical Boards in the US issued a similar statement. One can imagine how, with the lack of a clear definition of what exactly construes “misinformation”, such statements by boards holding the authority to revoke one’s licence to practice medicine can have a chilling effect on making public any opinions that deviate from the official narrative.
A report from Amesty Internation in October details how authoritarian governments around the world have used the Covid pandemic as an excuse to further limit freedom of expression, under the guise of combating misinformation. At the same time, it acknowledges the damage done by misinformation, but it argues that “harsh measures to suppress the free flow of information, such as censorship or the criminalization of “fake news”, can lead to increased mistrust in the authorities, promote space for conspiracy theories to grow, and the suppression of legitimate debate and concerns.” It says that instead, states “should be proactive in providing credible, reliable, objective, evidence-based and accessible information to all.” While censorship has been less overt in countries with a freer press, the opportunity to enforce a conformity of belief that the goal of “fighting misinformation” provides is a temptation for some that must be assiduously guarded against, particularly in regards to the big tech companies, who have begun moderating their platforms in untransparent ways.
Perhaps those in positions of power feel that it’s worth sacrificing some nuance and humility in the face of uncertainty if their words can influence people in a direction that they believe will save lives. Perhaps they justify it to themselves with the thought that lives are more important than full disclosure of the truth. They probably took a lesson from the public backlash over early messaging flip-flops about masking or banning international travel. Perhaps these people would say that what I have written only sows confusion and doubt, that I have merely softened the ground for more extreme anti-vax views, and that my words will lead directly to more deaths. But people know when they’re being manipulated better than those in power often give them credit for. The age of centralized media dissemination is over; the internet exploded that. People who have lost all trust in government and the mainstream media – and their numbers grow daily – have a sprawling alternative media universe to turn to. The lack of full disclosure from authorities drives people into the social media rabbit holes and echo chambers that increasingly thwart any kind of collective action – be it against Covid or anything else.
As I have researched this essay, I have found it difficult to find many dissenting opinions in the mainstream media; as purveyors of knowledge, they are naturally uncomfortable with uncertainty. The contrast between how the media used to handle the climate change debate and how they are currently handling debates around Covid is striking: they ultimately came under criticism for giving equal air time to both sides of the climate debate, when in fact the climate deniers represented a tiny minority of opinion; while with Covid, they seem to have gone too far in the opposite direction, giving almost no say to alternative views. When a voice is given, it is typically in the right-wing media, so perhaps the more liberal media doesn’t want to associate themselves with those stories. Like most issues, the Covid one quickly broke down along partisan lines in the US and elsewhere, to the detriment of rational debate. There are literally hundreds of scientific studies questioning the appropriateness of protocols like lockdowns, school closures, masks, and vaccine mandates. That’s not to say that there isn’t also a sizable body of evidence supporting these government measures, but why isn’t the media reporting on the scientific debate? Are we not told repeatedly that we should “follow the science”, wherever it may lead?
In past times of war, there was a rallying around a common message; the mass media and governments tended to sing from the same choirbook. But the first casualty of war is the truth. And, make no mistake, we are at war now against Covid. Buy Victory Bonds! Enlist now! Get your vaccine! Stay home! If you only take one idea away from this essay, let it be this: we cannot defeat Covid with a war mentality. Doing so only inflicts more harm upon ourselves. We must learn to live with this virus, and, focussing on harm reduction, get on with our lives.
I hope your take-away from all this is not that I’m anti-vax. Vaccines are important. But they are not a panacea; they are one tool among many. And we shouldn’t put all our faith in them to the exclusion of other approaches.
Our society likes simple solutions (a vaccine) to seemingly simple problems (a virus). They are the ultimate technological quick fix. Highly engineered by a small coterie of experts, centrally manufactured by transnational profit-seeking corporations, and rolled out to the masses – this is the playbook of the industrial revolution, which has made a small number of people fabulously wealthy, while providing a material standard of living to the rest of us beyond the imaginings of kings of old. But providing people with material wealth was relatively easy. Addressing confounding social problems, or the conflict between economics and ecology, or the wickedly complex biology of public health, demands a degree of holistic thinking far beyond the mechanistic production of a pill or injection.
Dealing with Covid will require a certain amount of humility about what we can control, and what technology can accomplish. We humans are capable of great wisdom, if we are not blinded by the apparent power of our creations. The silver lining of this pandemic is that it has shown us how interconnected we all are, and exposed some inherent weaknesses in the web of life support we spin across our societies. Addressing those lessons would be a good place to start in reconstructing our lives in a post-War on Covid world.
 Just for the record, I did not feel well for about a month after my AstraZeneca shot; I had various vague maladies involving my heart and brain. Maybe it had nothing to do with the vaccine, maybe it did. Maybe it was all in my mind, as doctors are fond of saying about symptoms just like mine that they can’t or don’t want to try to explain. But they felt real to me, they began right after my vaccination, and they are consistent with many other negative reports about this vaccine in particular. But if AstraZeneca was like a shot of throat-blistering moonshine, Pfizer was a 12 year old Scotch – it went down smooth and easy, with almost no hangover.
 At least in places where a surplus of vaccines already exists; in lower income countries, they’re still working on first doses.
 Interestingly, some research is pointing towards the 1889-90 pandemic, which began in Russia and killed an estimated one million people worldwide, as being caused by one of those four coronaviruses that still circulate but now cause only sniffles. Researchers now believe that all four of these older coronoviruses may have sparked pandemics of their own when they first made the leap from other animals to humans over the past few hundred years. The good news is that Covid may well follow a similar trajectory, eventually mellowing into a disease with generally mild symptoms. Omicron seems to be following this path, with a reported death rate in South Africa no worse than the flu.
 Reports to the Adverse Effect Following Immunization (AEFI) system in Canada can only be made by physicians, an important distinction from the oft-cited and controversial US system called VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System), to which anyone can report. The high numbers of deaths following vaccination (nearly 20,000 at this point) reported to VAERS, compared to Canada’s total of only 258, could perhaps be a case of anti-vaccine activists trying to game the system with false reports to VAERS.
 Health Canada investigates these adverse effects. Of the 258 deaths, about half could not be assessed due to insufficient information, 93 were deemed unlikely due to the vaccine, and 42 are still under investigation.
 An interesting thought experiment is to imagine an alternate reality in which Trump, in early 2020, realizes that coming out strong against this new virus out of Wuhan could boost his popularity and help him win the election that fall. “Safety” and “cleanliness” are usually conservative values, after all, and made-in-America vaccines to save the world is a good story. Would the partisan breakdown have played out differently then, with conservatives supporting a strong response to Covid, and liberals questioning the necessity of it? Trump would probably still be president of the US if he had taken this course.
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