Vaccines, Viruses, and the war for Immunological Supremacy
by Dr Garrey Michael Dennie
In the late 60’s and early 70’s the polio virus swept through St Vincent and the Grenadines in waves of fearsome fury. In Rose Place, it killed eight-year-old Sandra Culzac. As a child in Rose Place, I still remember the fear as the invisible and lethal enemy stalked our homes, broke the bodies of children, permanently crippled their lives, and brought death to our doors. The virus was merciless. Chance and chance alone decided who lived, who died, who was crippled, and who escaped the deformities that polio inflicted on our young bodies.
Today, no Vincentian child has to fear polio. Indeed with a few exceptions, the threat that polio posed to earlier generations of children all over the world is no more. And the reason for this is simple: mass vaccination campaigns have virtually eradicated polio from the world.
In fact, what is true for polio is even more so for another killer virus: small pox. In the 20th century alone, small pox killed more than 300 million people worldwide. Indeed in 1492 when Columbus and the Spaniards who followed him arrived in the Americas, they brought with them small pox and a cocktail of other lethal viruses. But small pox was the single greatest instrument of conquest that destroyed indigenous civilizations. With no immunity to small pox, indigenous people died in the millions.
Today, however, small pox is gone, utterly and completely eradicated from the face of the earth. Again, the reason is simple: mass vaccination campaigns removed from the planet a lethal virus that had slaughtered humanity for thousands of years.
The Covid-19 pandemic that currently afflicts us certainly bears deep comparison to these great viral killers of the past. It has shattered economies, destroyed international flights, shuttered borders, infected more than 100 million people, and killed more than two million. In the face of such immense suffering some people have sought refuge in their faith. And faith indeed can provide comfort in times of great stress.
Others, however, have sought to traffic and profit from legitimate human fears by promoting false cures to the fearful and the uninformed. And more dangerous still, some have embraced a Cult of Death, essentially declaring that our most treasured medical research institutions and our strongest scientific minds cannot be trusted to guide us through this medical crisis that currently engulfs the world. They would therefore have us do nothing as Covid-19 rages around us killing and maiming at will.
However, we should be clear on this point: the defeat of SARS 2, the virus that causes Covid-19 is absolutely certain. We do not know the precise time when we would declare victory. But we do know the manner by which that defeat would be administered: the mass vaccination of the world’s population against the SARS 2 virus would immunize the vast majority of the people against contracting Covid-19.
It is highly unlikely that every person on the planet would take the vaccine. But that is not necessary. The key concern is that the global population achieves what immunologists describe as herd immunity. In the instance of Covid-19 it simply means that if around 85 percent of the population in every country is vaccinated that would squeeze out the opportunity for the virus to replicate. Without the opportunity to replicate, the virus ultimately faces extinction.
Vaccines defy viruses by denying them the capacity to seize our cells and transform them into viral replicators. They do this by a simple trick. They expose our bodies to a dead virus or a protein from the virus that cannot harm us. Our immune system interprets this as a dangerous assault against us and goes into full combat mode producing antibodies designed to destroy the invasive pathogen. And this is where the magic happens. Our immune system remembers this attack and the next time it meets the virus it is fully prepared to repel it from our system.
Our scientists have known this for more than 200 years. We produced the first vaccines in the 1790s. And over the next 200 years we continued to perfect our capacity to make vaccines. We therefore stand today in a world of extraordinary medical, scientific, and engineering expertise without parallel in the past 200 years of medical history.
The proof of this is staring us in the face. For whereas the virus has already killed more than two million people in just one year, in the USA alone, American health officials have administered more than 50 million vaccinations and not a single person has died from any vaccine. Indeed, in Israel, more than 700,000 people took the Pfizer and Modena vaccines and 99.95 percent of those vaccinated have failed to contract the virus. These numbers are simply incredible, a testament to the intellectual firepower we have brought to bear against the virus. In fact, what we do know is that although the vaccines vary in their capacity to prevent illness, every single one of them prevents an infected person from dying of Covid-19. These numbers clearly tell us that after a year of tears, the reign of Covid-19 should come to a swift end.
Some caution, however, is due. The struggle to defeat this virus might take longer than it should because of scientific illiteracy. Anti-vaxxer communities proliferate on the Internet and they have used the Internet to propagate lies, scams, and deceit about the vaccines. Their ignorance of medical history guarantees that they will continue to direct their misinformation at the ranks of the uniformed.
Quite frankly, anti-vaxxers lie, and people die. For the government of St Vincent and the Grenadines, however, whose first duty is to honour the scientific and historical truths in the fight against Covid-19, the way forward should be plain: vaccinate now, vaccinate everyone, and crush this virus. It is a war we must win.