What a difference 24 hours makes! In a glorious surge of joy and relief, the mood worldwide has turned following the announcement by pharma giant Pfizer of what we hope and pray is a successful vaccine against Covid-19.
Global share prices have rocketed, many of us are daring to think about travelling abroad next year, and the prospect of a normal family Christmas seems within reach.
This pioneering breakthrough represents the first real chance that the disease could be conquered — far earlier than many dared to hope.
Yet there is one group that, with reckless and shameful irresponsibility, is doing everything it can to thwart the best chance we have of returning to normality. It is, of course, the shrill anti-vaccination movement — better known as anti-vaxxers.
Yet there is one group that, with reckless and shameful irresponsibility, is doing everything it can to thwart the best chance we have of returning to normality
They promote pseudo-science, wild conspiracy theories and political propaganda to undermine the public health message on immunisation.
They regard the very idea of a jab — any jab, but particularly one targeted at coronavirus — as a brutal infringement of liberty or a dangerous medical intervention.
Exploiting the present climate of political mistrust, they peddle their dangerous dogma through social media and rallies, such as the 2,000-strong event in Trafalgar Square only a few weeks ago, at which the crowd chanted ‘We don’t need no vaccination’ to the tune of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall.
Now, more than ever, it is vital that we do not give in to their gospel of fear.
To most of us, the breakthrough by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech is a triumph — although we accept it is early days. But for the anti-vaxxers, it is a cue for scaremongering and drumming up hysteria.
Sadly, that is a message that resonates all too clearly with a sizeable chunk of the public. One recent poll found that 36 per cent of Britons say they are ‘uncertain’ or ‘very unlikely’ to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus if and when a vaccination becomes available.
For the sake of the nation’s health — indeed of global health — those numbers have to come down, and that means challenging the lies of the anti-vaxxers.
As a GP, campaigner for childhood immunisation and author of a number of books on vaccines, I understand absolutely the concerns people may have about safety and side-effects.
Exploiting the present climate of political mistrust, they peddle their dangerous dogma through social media and rallies, such as the 2,000-strong event in Trafalgar Square only a few weeks ago, at which the crowd chanted ‘We don’t need no vaccination’ to the tune of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall
Firstly, the new vaccination has been developed through pioneering and untested technology. Traditional vaccines — like the promising vaccination under development by the Oxford University/AstraZeneca team — work by giving the patient a small dose of inert or weakened virus (or bacteria), triggering the production of protective antibodies and T-cells.
Pfizer’s jab is a ‘messenger RNA’ vaccine in which the virus has been modified by changing its RNA (the viral equivalent of DNA). When injected into the body, it enters cells, tricking them into producing viral proteins which are detected by the immune system and a defensive immune response is triggered.
Secondly, this vaccine has progressed from the lab and into humans in record time.
And we know that the introduction of new vaccines has not always been trouble free.
In 1955 in the U.S., there were more than 40,000 cases of polio — and ten deaths — in children given a defective vaccine.
More recently, the anti swine-flu jab left a small number of people suffering with the sleep disorder narcolepsy.
So yes, we are right to be wary of new vaccines. But we should also remember that modern vaccines are safer than ever, and we should also take confidence in the fact that Pfizer’s agent (and the 170 or so similar projects in development worldwide against coronavirus) is building on research over 20 years into strains of coronavirus that cause Sars and Mers.
And while it is true that some trial participants have reported moderate side-effects — one 44-year-old from Texas described it as being like ‘a severe hangover’ — they are, on the whole, comparable to a typical flu jab.
Tens of thousands of people have now received the jab and reports of any serious side-effects seem to be rare.
I believe that any of the worries are far outweighed by the huge impact that anti-Covid vaccines are likely to have. They will transform the medical and social landscape.
Yet noisily opting out is precisely what the anti-vaxxers do, urging others to follow them — and sadly they are all-too influential. Piers Corbyn, the brother of the former Labour leader Jeremy, has a large following on social media, as does Kate Shemirani, a former nurse whose irresponsible war cry is ‘pandemic, scamdemic’
Once the vaccines are widely distributed, the holy grail of ‘herd immunity’ should become a reality — and life can return to normal again.
That is why we need the widest possible take-up of the vaccine among all parts of the population, including eventually the young, even though they are often asymptomatic.
Having a jab is not just in the interests of the individual: it is an act of social responsibility. If too many people opt out, then the virus will continue to spread, putting millions of vulnerable people at risk.
Yet noisily opting out is precisely what the anti-vaxxers do, urging others to follow them — and sadly they are all-too influential.
Piers Corbyn, the brother of the former Labour leader Jeremy, has a large following on social media, as does Kate Shemirani, a former nurse whose irresponsible war cry is ‘pandemic, scamdemic’.
Though anti-vaxxers have existed in some form since British doctor Edward Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine in 1798, today’s campaign owes much to the scandal that surrounded the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine in the 1990s, when it was falsely linked to a string of serious illnesses.
The chief peddler of anti-MMR nonsense was, of course, Andrew Wakefield, the now-disgraced former doctor who became obsessed with the idea that the MMR jab caused autism, a case he set out in an incendiary and now discredited paper in The Lancet in 1998.
As soon as I read his Lancet paper, I knew it was without a shred of proper medical evidence behind it.
Struck off by the General Medical Council, today he is discredited. However, he continues to whip up hostility to vaccines in a well-funded and shadowy campaign from his new base in the U.S., appearing by video link at the Trafalgar Square protest.
Indeed, fuelled by Wakefield and others, anti-vaxxers are reaching a new level of hysteria thanks to Covid, ignoring the fact that hundreds of millions of lives have been saved and misery and suffering averted worldwide by vaccination programmes.
Even more absurdly, the anti-vaxxers are hijacking Covid to make ludicrous politicised claims, such as that the billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates wants to use jabs to implant microchips in people and to achieve ‘mind control’.
This sort of nonsense must not go unchallenged.
Some distinguished bodies, such as the Royal Society and the British Academy, have this week called for the promulgation of anti-vaxx myths to be made a criminal offence.
I would strongly oppose that, partly on the grounds that free speech must be maintained in a democracy.
But criminalisation would also feed the anti-vaxxers’ conspiratorial mindset and enable them to portray themselves as martyrs.
Now that we appear so close to beating Covid, the anti-vaxxers must not be allowed to prevail. Wakefield was defeated by the truth. We must do the same with this bunch of cranks.
- Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR And Autism: What Parents Need To Know.