Dr Mark Toshner

Let’s bust some vaccine myths

Let’s bust some vaccine myths
Dr Doreen Brown, 85, receives the first of two Covid-19 vaccine jabs, picture credit: Getty
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Today is a great day for all of us. The licensing of the ChAdOx vaccine will mean a step change in vaccine deployment and is one of the most significant developments of the year. As is widely known, the vaccine developed is cheap, easy to store and we have enough doses to meaningfully start talking about widespread programmes of vaccination. Now is a good time to address a slow motion and avoidable car crash. Vaccines are not a political issue – don’t let anybody persuade you otherwise. You can see this happening and it affects both our interpretation of vaccine development and, more importantly, the likelihood of having one. The development of vaccines themselves can be appropriated by all political camps. The left point to governmental infrastructure, funding and people; the right to the crucial role of a private sector momentarily freed of red tape and able to dramatically speed and scale up development and deployment. The wishy-washy middle might tentatively suggest both are true. Honours even.

There is an information war going on right now – anti-vaxx positions are varied and complex – but one narrative is a clear and false misappropriation of political identities, at least in the UK. Let us be clear here: vaccines are not about the responsibilities of the state vs the rights of the individual. They are not an expression of ideas of big vs small government. Vaccines are, at their most basic, a tool – nothing more. They are the safest, most effective tool to get us to a position where all the raging arguments about state interventions like lockdown become a moot point. Like any tool they can be politicised, but as things stand it should be easy to counter these attempts. Let’s take the arguments and swat them away one by one so there can be no shades of grey about this.

Vaccines are going to be forced on you. Nobody sensible is talking about this. It just should not be needed in the UK, where vaccine confidence and uptake is both historically and currently world-leading. Things might get a bit more complex in countries like the US further down the list, but all we need to do to get to seriously protective levels of vaccination is to prevent confidence from sagging and make it easy for everybody who currently wants a vaccine to get one. Though this will be enough to transform the country, it is highly likely using this approach that a serious amount of the vaccine hesitant will naturally switch when millions of people have been vaccinated without much drama. A triumph of individual choice working for the common good. Currently we sit at 600,000 having received their first dose of the vaccine in the UK alone. How many problems have been reported? I put my money where my mouth was early on and there still only appears to be two immediate reactions reported in the media in people who had known allergies. Just take a moment to consider how astonishing this is. Vaccines are safe – you should not need to be forced to get one.

I don’t trust a big government approach to vaccination. Fine. Many vaccines, once they got past the point of the discovery phase of the science and into the actual phases of clinical trials in humans, were developed by commercial operations with minimal input from governments and approved by regulators keen to demonstrate their independence from government. In the US this arguably led to the regulators taking positions against their own government’s wishes to make it clear they would not bow to political pressure. In the UK the MHRA have, in my opinion, been a beacon of sensible decision making throughout the pandemic. Governments in the west have not really been instrumental here – science has and it has knocked it out the park. The right should be celebrating this as above, it is arguably their story as well.

I will make my own decision based on what is best for me and not wider societal pressure or wishes. There is a specific libertarian view that is not contiguous with the right but often overlaps with some sections. We don’t really need to address the rights or wrongs of this because in every single instance, for anybody no matter your risk group, being vaccinated is the best thing for you, on an individual level. Even at the lowest risk categories, vaccines are safer than getting Covid-19. This is blindingly obvious but needs constantly restated. All those people on twitter talking about being low risk and quoting figures like 99.9 per cent survival, nobody has died from a Covid-19 vaccine. Millions have now had one. Why take a 1 in 1,000 chance of death? Why also take the chance of being 1 in 5 of the people post-Covid who are seriously worse months down the line? Take a personal view on this if you want to, but stick to the evidence, the risk/benefit analyses you must make is very simple.

I don’t believe the pandemic is still here and so I don’t need a vaccine. This is not so easily segregated by your politics but has definitely taken root in parts of the political spectrum that values independence, mistrusts government, doesn’t like face masks or lockdowns and doesn’t like being told what to do. Rather than addressing it (and I strongly believe it is the most pernicious and dangerous of false arguments) let us step back and acknowledge that you can believe all of these things and still get a vaccine. In fact if you believe all of these things, you should be battering the door down to get a vaccine as the only plausible way to bring sanity back to a crazy world where governments and institutions have lost the thread.

Ultimately, everything in life can be spun into a political position. This does not mean however that it has to be, and on this occasion, please resist the temptation to co-opt vaccines into a political narrative. Let us just celebrate them for the modern miracle they are and accept that regardless of your desire to protect yourself, your loved ones or your community, a vaccine at this critical moment in history, irrespective of your political spots, is a choice you should be proud to make.

Written byDr Mark Toshner

Dr Mark Toshner is a lecturer and director of the Translational Biomedical Research Masters programme at the University of Cambridge.

Topics in this articleSocietycoronavirusvaccine