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RTS Info, 6 January 2022

There is much discussion, some heated, about those who choose not to be two-dose + booster vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus; the so-called anti-vaxxers. Two days ago, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said he wants to make life difficult for the unvaccinated. In an interview with a Le Parisien reporter, he said, “Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder. Et donc on va continuer de le faire jusqu’au bout. C’est ça la stratégie.” (“The un-vaccinated. I really want to piss them off. And so we’ll continue doing this – to the end. This is the strategy.”) Is he right? Should anti-vaxxers be demonised for their reluctance to be vaccinated against Covid-19? Let’s explore.

First, why might some people say no to Covid-19 vaccinations? Here is a summary of the main reasons advanced by anti-vaxxers and those who study vaccine hesitancy.

1. Medical exemption. The UK government’s website lists four main reasons why you might claim medical exemption: an allergic reaction to one or more of the ingredients in the vaccine; learning disabilities or autism that cause high degrees of stress when faced with vaccinations; the possibility of experiencing an adverse reaction to the vaccine (myocarditis is cited as an example); and medical situations, such as end-of-life care, where vaccination serves little or no purpose. To this list we can add those who have a very real fear of needles (trypanophobia).

2. An inability to reach a vaccination centre either through remoteness or physical disability; more common in least-developed or low-income countries than in developed countries.

3. Those who consider that vaccination is an infringement of their human rights and thus reserve the right to refuse irrespective of any considerations of others such as the likelihood that they will transmit the disease onwards if they become infected. More on this later.

4. For religious or ethical reasons—‘God will heal us; my body is a temple; human life is sacred.’ Fetal cells from terminated pregnancies are used in the development of vaccines such as chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis A, rabies and, most recently, Covid-19. Some religious zealots argue that it is against their religious beliefs to inject vaccines developed using fetal cells even though the vaccines themselves do not contain such cells nor any other human DNA. Many common medications used for suppressing pain (aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen), stomach upsets (antacids) and the suppression of cold symptoms have also been developed using fetal cells. I wonder how many people claiming exemption over the use of fetal cells also carefully avoid using these more-common over-the-counter medicines?  It is also worth noting that no major religion including Catholicism and other branches of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and even the Jehovah’s Witnesses has opposed vaccination against Covid-19.

5. A suspicion or firm belief that there is no Covid-19 pandemic and the whole thing is a government conspiracy, or a ruse by Big Pharma to make money, or that the virus spreads because our immune system has been weakened by 5G transmissions from mobile network masts. Some of those who ascribed to these beliefs have since contracted Covid-19 and died. There is much misinformation (information passed on without knowing it is wrong) and disinformation (information that is deliberately misleading) about Covid-19 spread about on social media by a small number of very vocal anti-vax influencers and, unfortunately, fake news sometimes wins.

6. Concerns over the safety of the vaccines. Some argue that the speed of development of the vaccines necessarily means that they are relatively untested and therefore unsafe. This Red Cross article covers this and many other subjects related to the Covid-19 vaccines. In the past, concerns have been raised about the side-effects of vaccines, most recently, the triple MMR vaccine and its supposed links to autism (see this article for the story of discredited medical doctor, Andrew Wakefield (The Doctor Who Fooled the World), who backed up his claims with fraudulent data creating a seismic backlash to the administration of the MMR vaccine to young children and caused outbreaks of the diseases).

7. And, finally, there are those who are genuinely undecided and confused over the efficacy of the vaccines. For example, I have been triple-vaccinated and yet I caught Covid-19 last week. I’m testing positive as I type but don’t worry; the virus does not transmit over the internet to reach your screen. (That’s a joke, not a new theory!)  Fortunately, my reaction to the virus has been asymptomatic and I am self-isolating at home but it raises a question—I’ve been triple-jabbed (Pfizer); why did I catch the disease? The answer is that Covid-19 vaccines, and other vaccines such as the flu vaccine, are primarily symptom-blocking not transmission-blocking. The prime purpose of a vaccine is to reduce the severity of the virus’s effect on the body through the creation of antibodies that attack the virus. Someone who is vaccinated is still capable of catching the virus and, even if testing negative, transmitting the virus to others. Hence, the argument that unvaccinated people are a risk because they can transmit the virus to others holds no water. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are potential transmitters although there is some emerging evidence that the risk of transmission from a vaccinated person is ‘significantly lower’ than from an unvaccinated person.

In summary, there are various reasons people choose to remain unvaccinated against Covid-19. Some are valid; some are the result of uninformed, misunderstood, or misinformed information; and some are trivial. I am of the opinion that we all have the right not to be vaccinated but if we exercise the right for whatever reason, we should be aware of the possible consequences, both to ourselves and to others. Until herd immunity is achieved there will always be a risk of infection but Covid-19 herd immunity, either by vaccine or natural methods, is now regarded to be an impossible objective due, primarily, to the constant evolution of the virus-producing mutations such as the recent delta and omicron variants; vaccine-induced immunity levels in the body decaying over time; the fact that vaccines are not effective transmission blockers; uneven global rollout of the vaccines; vaccine hesitancy/anti-vaxxers; and delayed vaccination of children. Covid-19 has proved to be a nasty disease resulting in some cases in death (5.5M to date according to worldometers.info). Those who are vaccinated have at least a chance of reducing the debilitating effect of the virus whereas those who are unvaccinated are open to the virus wreaking havoc within their bodies. There is a risk in vaccination, just like there’s a risk in crossing a busy street or, for some, eating a peanut for the first time, but historically the scientific community and medical fraternity have shown that vaccination programs work—polio, typhoid, measles, etc., and there’s no reason why the Covid-19 vaccines will not, eventually, bring the disease under some form of control similar to the seasonal control of flu. But, lumping all those who are not vaccinated under one ‘anti-vaxxer’ name with derogatory overtones is, to my mind, wrong. Those who either have a valid medical reason to avoid the vaccine or who have carefully weighed up the scientific pros and cons and decided negatively deserve our respect and should not be demonised. What Macron said two days ago was stupid.