“We’ve all heard the conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Now a whole new set is emerging around COVID vaccines —and spreading as virulently as the pandemic they are meant to control.” – “Yes, some COVID vaccines use genetic engineering. Get over it.” Mark Lynas, Alliance for Science, Cornell University, Dec.17, 2020.
Evidence-based health policies are corrosive to public discourse, Cornell University being a case in point. By insinuating ill-will and conspiracy, they are fraying civil society. Ultimately, the ramifications of evidenced-based intimidation will be detrimental to our overall health and well-being.
Surely we want medical practices and treatments to be supported by objective, impartial evidence. Of course we want assurance that solid research has confirmed social programs truly are helping those in need. Similarly, we expect rock-solid evidence to underpin global environmental policies such as the Paris Climate Accord.
As a scientist, I welcome this. I want evidence to guide my personal choices and our public policies. And yet, the growing practice of Evidence-Based Policy (EBP) decision-making in government, industry, non-profit think tanks, and charitable organizations, despite its manifold benefits, is having a pernicious effect on public discourse, civil liberties, private choice, and ultimately our well-being.
To explain why this is happening, I must first define and then differentiate the meaning of two words: fact and evidence.
A fact is an occurrence in the real world. A thing that is indisputably the case. Something that has actual existence. A truth verifiable from experience or observation.
Evidence is an assembly of facts indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or false. Evidence are facts gathered and presented in support of an assertion.
Notice the difference between fact and evidence. Facts have no purpose or agenda associated with them. Evidence always does. Furthermore, evidence always considers relevance. Evidence is an intentionally selected subset of all available facts deemed relevant to the assertion.
Therein lies the rub. Who determines what the assertion is? And who determines which facts are considered relevant?
As an illustration, consider this well-known phenomenon: reliance on evidence often skews human behavior in a perverse way.
Jerry Muller of Catholic University, in his 2018 book, The Tyranny of Metrics, documents different scenarios where people respond by gaming the system when performance becomes equated with “what can be reduced to standardized measurements.” For example, when Britain’s National Health Service “decided that a major problem was that people were having to wait too long to be admitted to emergency wards, they declared that hospitals would be evaluated based on to what extent patients were admitted within four hours.” To score higher on this laudable evaluation criterion, “Some hospitals responded by having the ambulances with patients circle around the hospital until they could be admitted within the four-hour window.” (Quoted material taken from the article “Evidence-based Policymaking: Is There Room for Science in Politics?” published on-line by Apolitical.)
The warning of anthropologist Marilyn Strathern is apropos: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
But as pernicious as this effect is, I have a deeper concern. I am troubled by the politicization of scientific facts once they are selected and assembled as irrefutable evidence.
By definition, facts are true. Since evidence is made of facts, all evidence is true. Therefore, any assertion confirmed by the evidence must also be true. Case closed. Argument over. Sadly, this flawed logic all too often stifles public discourse and shames personal choice. If you disagree with the assertion, you’re labeled a science-denier, a selfish person, a conspiracy theorist.
Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is a case in point.
The desire to turn the corner on this pandemic is enormous and millions are clamoring to get inoculated with this vaccine. But do those being vaccinated know this is not like vaccines of old?
Moderna’s vaccine is not a suspension of attenuated or killed virus like the well-studied inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV). It is a novel lipid-encapsulated synthetic strand of nucleoside-modified messenger RNA (mRNA). I call it a Genetically Active Entity (GAE). Once injected into our bodies, it becomes activated and instructs our cells to produce the viral spike (S) glycoprotein found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. This glycoprotein is foreign to the human body and our immune system responds by trying to rid itself of this alien material.
This is not a minor upgrade in vaccine technology. It is an extraordinary leap into uncharted territory! Just listen to what Moderna had to say in general about mRNA-encoded genetic technology in their November 9, 2018 Registration Statement to the Securities and Exchange Commission. “No mRNA drug has been approved in this new potential category of medicines, and may never be approved as a result of efforts by others or us. mRNA drug development has substantial clinical development and regulatory risks due to the novel and unprecedented nature of this new category of medicines.”
Are those being vaccinated fully informed this is the first time mRNA-encoded genetic technology has been widely used to induce an immune response?
Do women know that the vaccine was not tested on those who were pregnant or breastfeeding?
Do those receiving the vaccine know that there’s insufficient evidence on whether vaccination prevents transmission of the Coronavirus to others?
Do they know that after they are vaccinated, they still need to wear masks, wash their hands, keep social distance, and avoid crowds?
And to help put this novel mRNA technology in context, I believe many would like to know that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began funding work on mRNA-encoded vaccines and therapeutics in 2012. Moderna was an early recipient of these DARPA grants. Moderna also received funding from Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the office within HHS responsible for the procurement and development of medical countermeasures, principally against bioterrorism as well as pandemic influenza and emerging diseases.
My point in all this is that for the reasons I’ve just outlined and for many other reasons as well, some Americans choose not to be vaccinated with a genetically active material at this time, despite evidence it works.
Instead, many choose to focus on simple, practical ways to maintain and improve their general health and nutrition.
Cynthia Li, MD, writing in How to Strengthen Your Inner Shield, Science-Based, Integrative Strategies for a Healthy Immune System During a Pandemic (a free e-book) states, “The primary difference between a mild illness with COVID-19 and a severe one requiring hospitalization is the strength of this shield.”
In her e-book, Doctor Li describes several everyday, low-cost approaches to boost our immune system including taking the mineral supplements zinc, selenium, and magnesium in conjunction with vitamins C and D3.
Regarding vitamin D, researchers at the University of Florida recently have found vitamin D deficiency is linked to COVID-19 susceptibility. “Patients with a vitamin D deficiency were four times more likely to be COVID-19 positive than those with a sufficient amount of the crucial vitamin … And African American patients with insufficient vitamin D levels were three times more likely to be infected by the coronavirus.”
Harvard Medical School says “Vitamin D may protect against COVID-19 in two ways. First, it may help boost our bodies’ natural defense against viruses and bacteria. Second, it may help prevent an exaggerated inflammatory response, which has been shown to contribute to severe illness in some people with COVID-19.”
My hope is that we will be broad-minded and exercise humility during this most difficult time in our nation’s history. We are better off when civil discourse is vibrant. No matter how well supported a medical technology or policy is, bear in mind that reality is extremely complex. Evidence supporting any medical therapy or public health policy can never be more than a tiny subset of facts about who we are and the complex reality in which we live.
And, thankfully, the life choices we each make are also informed by things beyond what scientists can measure. As Albert Einstein quipped, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Editor’s Note: The first paragraph of the print version of this article should have been in quotation marks, as it is taken from the article by Mark Lynas titled, “Yes, some COVID vaccines use genetic engineering. Get over it.”, published by the Alliance for Science, Cornell University.