Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Vaccines and conspiracies

We live in the best times of history, best times ever been.

Consider for instance this fact: the world no longer takes advantage of every opportunity to kill you.

This week I’ve been reading a book based on the real events from the 19th century – events that happened just about 200 years ago. Half of all story’s characters die from tuberculosis. And this is not a fiction book – before the 20th century, up to the estimated 10% of the European population used to die because of tuberculosis! What was different from now was that no one had an idea that tuberculosis is an infectious disease and thus hoped to cure it at seaside sanatoriums and spa-resorts.

In the 21st century we live under the impression that the world is a well-established place. Everything is discovered, thus nothing new originates for no reason, and can only be believed to be a creation of conspiracy. Distrustful, pessimistic moods come as a result of short-sightedness – judging the world progress from the perspective of a 20-year timeline, when even 200 would be too short. The truth is that the world has been constantly evolving, and it keeps doing so. The biggest jump in progress has happened over the past few centuries – in a very dense, relatively recent timeline. We live in the best times of history, best times ever been.

Just to illustrate, let’s take a look at the history of research and development of vaccines to see how much has actually been achieved.

So, back to the 19th century. The world was a gruesome place. As already mentioned: if you happened to be born back then, there was a big chance you would end up dying from tuberculosis. The infectiousness of the disease was only discovered in 1882, and the vaccine – invented in 1921. Exactly 100 years ago. Our grandparents were the first generation to feel relatively safe, in these terms.

The medical consensus of the past was that the human health depended on a balance of various liquids in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. These four fluids were believed to influence everything from the body-type to the kind of personality. The right balance of body liquids was the ultimate goal, and it was meant to be achieved through a moderate food intake, a good work-life balance, as well as dwelling in a favourable climate. On the opposite, all excessive things were believed to threaten the precious equilibrium: the blood will boil, digestion spoil and the mind will get less clear. So anger and suffering from unrequited love had to be avoided at all cost. Those unlucky ones who happened to develop the disease were sent to the trendy spa-resorts at the sea or mountains – to be treated among hundreds of other unlucky patients. It was not surprising though that the success of such treatment was awfully low – the contagious disease was spreading with no mercy.

The vaccine against tuberculosis was developed by two French scientists, Calmette and Guerin, who spent 13 years reproducing the tuberculosis bacilli in a potato mixture to breed their less and less virulent forms. After 239 iterations bacilli became harmless enough not to cause sickness in lab animals. In 1921 the vaccine was finalized and patented for human use, and got the name ‘BCG’ after the names of its inventors. Fun fact: the potato-stemming vaccine also happened to be effective in curing cancer. Who would have thought that potato is such a life-giving substance!..

And before tuberculosis there was also the smallpox. It was killing around 500 million(!) people per 100 years, from the 3rd century BCE up to the year 1980, when the disease was officially eradicated from the Earth’s surface. Perhaps it was even deadlier than its big brother – the ‘great pox’ aka… syphilis. The vaccine was only invented in the end of the 18th century, and trust me – that was not the most appealing thing to experience. Back then, it was discovered that milkmaids working on the cow farms happen to withstand smallpox, as they develop immunity to another very similar disease – cowpox – which they get from the cows. That one was relatively mild in humans and only caused pus blisters on the skin. An English doctor called Edward Jenner got a brilliant idea to take pus from one of such blisters and inject it under the skin of a local gardener’s son. And you complain you don’t find the modern vaccines trustworthy!

Discovery of vaccines throughout the human history was a fascinating process – but at the same time quite rational, logical and straightforward. As a result of millions of years of evolution, the human body has become an extremely sophisticated machine. Evolution of protein however takes time, genes don’t evolve over a timeline of just a few generations. Luckily, the man-made realm of human science doesn’t drag behind. In these terms, vaccines are a fascinating field of cooperation of nature and applied technology – collaboration of science with the human immune system itself: through training it and enhancing its responsiveness.

Those people who renounce vaccines, in fact, return to the ancient state of medicine that was widespread from the times of Ancient Greece up to the 18th century – thinking that our well-being results from a balance of fluids in the body, and only a well-balanced life with a peace of mind and a proper digestion can result in a good health. Obviously, infectious diseases are not a part of this retrogressive worldview.

In part, the resistance against vaccines is so widespread because of the cognitive glitch in the human perception, which is called availability bias. Only the cases when vaccines don’t work or cause adverse affects come into the media spotlight, becoming instantly exposed and ‘available’ to our attention. The adverse cases will however always be present due to statistics, standard distribution and the law of large numbers. Genetic outliers are inevitable.

For instance, consider the following case. During the clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccine, 4 trial participants developed a ‘Bell’s palsy’ condition – a temporary face nerve paralysis that usually lasts for up to 48 hours. This fact is of course true, however the 4 patients were a part of the group of 22,000 trial participants, so the percentage of face paralysis cases in fact constituted… 0,018% – which is a normal rate of occurrence of this condition in a general population. What media doesn’t expose though is the stuff happening within the 99% quantile of the distribution. For instance, the fact that the other 21,996 patients felt just fine. Clearly, media has no interest in bringing attention to boring stuff. Such as the fact that vaccination against the measles virus prevents 1 million deaths per year. Or that 500 million of people will not fall victim of smallpox in the 21st century, as the disease has already been eradicated in the 20th. We don’t even notice that thanks to the vaccine against tuberculosis our literature is no longer full of melancholic characters who suffer from lung diseases at spa-resorts!..

Finally, there’s no doubt that the vaccine production process has greatly evolved since the 19th century. You no longer have to inject a cow blister pus under your skin to develop immunity. The most modern high-tech vaccines are the ones of mRNA-type – which means that instead of injecting protein (weakened or dead microbes of viruses, destroyed by the heat or radiation, or… bred in potato for 13 years) – instead of that, you can get an injection of a messenger-RNA acid from the virus itself that would directly build its protein structure inside your own body. As soon as the building is finished, the viral protein gets destroyed by the immune system and the messenger acid disintegrates. That’s it. And of course mRNA of the virus cannot alter DNA of the human – the acid is so fragile that it disintegrates long before being able to enter the cell nucleus (in fact, this is why such vaccines have to be stored at the extremely cold temperatures up to -80°C)

So that’s the summary of 5 Wikipedia articles I read out of plain boredom one of the evenings last week. Nevertheless, even this superficial knowledge leads to a pretty straightforward conclusion to deduce:

We have a luxury of inhabiting the world that for the first time in history seems like a pretty decent place to be in. So toss away the naive apocalyptic discourse about the approaching world collapse. Don’t get in the way of history, preventing it to develop. Get vaccinated.

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