Israel can’t catch a break: The rejected vaccine exchange with Palestine

July 16, 2021 • 12:00 pm

There is nothing that Israel can do, however praiseworthy, that isn’t criticized by the Israel- and Jew-haters of the world. What about the free and open gay community in Israel, while at the same time being gay is a criminal offense in Palestine? Well, that’s just “pinkwashing”, something Israel’s accused of doing just to gain the approbation of the world, not because they believe in equal rights for gays.

The latest example of a good deed that Israel tried to do, but was rejected by Palestine, is recounted in the Tablet article below (click on the screenshot). It involves a vaccine exchange with Palestine, which the Palestinians rejected for no good reason. (It reminds me of their repeated rejection of peace overtures.)

This one’s easy to recount. First realize that, according to the Oslo Accords, Israel is not responsible for health care in the Palestinian Territories, including vaccines. Although a lot of people damned Israel for not providing COVID vaccines for Palestine, they didn’t realize that they weren’t supposed to. Palestine is, according to Oslo, responsible for its own healthcare. Nevertheless, when Netanyahu was Prime Minister, vaccine was secretly given to Palestinians, probably the bigwigs in the government.

Now, however, the new Israeli government announced a deal to transfer 1.2 million doses of Pfizer vaccine to Palestine. The vaccines were going to expire at the end of May, the end of June, and the end of August, but were going to be given to Palestine in three batches in return for the Palestinians returning equal amounts of their own Pfizer allotments to Israel in October.  Here’s the announcement from the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Palestine agreed to this at first. After all, it’s a win-win situation: Israel has most of its population vaccinated, the vaccines could be used immediately by Palestine while they were still good, and Palestine could replenish the Israeli supply later. Palestine has a low vaccination rate and a high infection rate. They need the vaccine now, not in October.

I suspect this is part of the new Israeli government’s desire to take a softer stance towards Palestine. But, as you might expect, it didn’t work.

After negotiating the deal, Palestine rejected it, and for no good reason. As Tablet explains:

But the deal was short-lived. Mere hours after it was announced, the Palestinian Authority abruptly canceled the entire arrangement. The official reason was that the initial batch of 100,000 vaccines were too close to their expiration dates. The real reason was that they had received extremist backlash on social media over working with Israel.

The conspiratorial notion that Israel deliberately sent unusable vaccines to the Palestinians would later be exposed by events, after both Israelis and South Koreans happily made use of the doses. But it was obviously a lie at the time. The vaccine swap had been in the works for months, and every detail had been carefully vetted by the Palestinian Authority, including the expiration dates. As noted, the entire purpose of the arrangement was to swap soon-to-expire doses for distant doses, so that each population would have vaccines when they most needed them. Naturally, Israel first sent over the doses that expired that month, so that they could be immediately administered. This wasn’t a bait-and-switch, it was the plan. It was a feature—spelled out in the official Israeli statement announcing the deal—not a bug.

The fact that the vaccines were indeed usable comes from the observation that the first rejected batch was used to inoculate Israeli teenagers, while the second batch of 700,000 doses has been traded to South Korea, who is using them now (they also have a high infection rate), and will return the doses when they get their own later. The vaccines were not past their expiration date; they just needed to be used now.

There’s more:

But this arrangement was not explained to the Palestinian population, which allowed extremist and anti-vax elements to turn the public against the supposedly subpar “Israeli vaccines”—a campaign which was no doubt helped by preexisting levels of vaccine hesitancy among Palestinians. Local social media began overflowing with protests against the agreement, and rather than explain how it worked, the Palestinian leadership folded immediately. Of course, had the real issue been the expiration dates of the first batch of vaccines, the obvious solution would have been to renegotiate the deal to exclude them. But that was not the real issue, and so the entire deal was called off.

This reminds me of Abba Eban’s famous quote after the Palestinians had rejected one of the many peace deals they were offered: the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

And it’s not just Palestine that’s trying to shift the blame to Israel for this debacle: the Western media and NGOs are helping as well:

But that political failure is unlikely to be rectified anytime soon due to the failures of two other entities that might have pressured the Palestinian Authority to change course: the media and the human rights community.

In June, rather than rebuke the Palestinian Authority for caving to extremists, several prominent NGOs ranging from Human Rights Watch to Physicians for Human Rights went to bat for the vaccine rejection, credulously echoing the false claim that the doses were essentially expired and unusable. These organizations had the contacts and the expertise to understand that this was not the case, but chose not to employ them, instead reflexively putting forward partisan talking points. Had they instead called out the Palestinian Authority for placing politics ahead of public health, its leaders might have altered course.

Here’s a tweet from the director of Human Rights Watch, which hates Israel, blaming that country for the failure:

That’s simply a lie!

Tablet says more:

Meanwhile, the international media did not do much better. Of all people, journalists should reasonably be expected to get to the bottom of whether Israel or the Palestinian Authority was telling the truth about the vaccines. But instead, too many outlets covered the entire affair in “he-said, she-said” terms, as though the truth was unknowable, rather than something that could be determined by careful reporting. The closing of the New York Times dispatch was emblematic of this approach:

Those who accepted Israel’s official position about the donations said the authority’s refusal to accept the vaccines had dented claims that Israel was to blame for the slow vaccination rate among Palestinians. But those who believed the Palestinian position said Israel had acted in bad faith by making the authority an offer that it had no choice but to refuse.

Had the Palestinian Authority originally agreed to accept the vaccines with these expiration dates? Could the doses be administered in time? Or was Israel’s leftist health minister, whose party includes an Arab minister, involved in a sinister scheme to foist unviable vaccines on the Palestinian population? If only there were some journalists around to find out.

There are those, like Human Rights Watch, that hate Israel so much (I wonder why?) that they simply can’t admit that on this one the Palestinians screwed up. Israel tried to do something good for both Palestine and Israel, and would surely save a number of Palestinian lives. When Palestine realized that it would make Israel look good and anger the anti-Israeli-anti-vaxers, they rejected the deal.  Consider that. Both the NGOs and the Palestinians would rather see their people die of COVID than accept the offer from Israel. So now the South Koreans are saved at the expense of Palestinians. (The fate of vaccines expiring in August is not yet known.)

With an attitude like that, it seems useless for Israel to reach out to Palestine to soften the enmity. It now seems as if the Palestinians won’t rest until they occupy Israel and that country disappears. The two-state solution appears to be dead, and is clearly opposed as well by many on the American Left (e.g., the Squad in Congress).

If you’d rather see your own people dead than negotiate a win-win deal with Israel, you are a dysfunctional territory. But we already knew that, for Palestine already uses its civilians as cannon fodder to protect Hamas and its rocket sites from Israeli attacks.

Jesse Singal: Science-Based Medicine has put its foot into it

July 16, 2021 • 9:45 am

The site Science-Based Medicine (SBM), renowned for debunking quackery and insisting on a firm evidential basis for medical treatments, has put its foot into it, and by “it” I mean the controversy about Abigail Shrier’s new book dealing with “rapid onset gender dysphoria”.

It started, as I’ve described before, with a favorable review on the site by physician (and SBM editor) Harriet Hall, assessing Abigail Shrier’s recent book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters. Shrier’s book, which I’ve now read, describes a phenomenon that she and others call “Rapid onset gender dyphoria” (ROGD). This is a phenomenon of recent origin in which young pre-puberty women (almost never boys) suddenly decide that they are really males, and, often with minimal advice and supervision, take hormone blockers to stave off puberty, followed by hormone treatment (and often surgery) to remove breasts and (rarely) construct surgical penises.

Shrier’s thesis was that these transitions are often motivated more by social pressure than innate feelings that one’s body doesn’t match one’s gender, and by transitioning, many of these girls gain affirmation and approbation from their peers, often on socia media. Further, Shrier maintains that these transitions are often poorly supervised and, if the girls weren’t given medical treatment but therapy, most would not transition but develop into adult women. Her book is largely a series of stories, largely because the ROGD is so recent that its origins—and whether medical treatment should be used (as well as the psychological and physiological outcomes)—haven’t been subject to rigorous scientific study. We know very little about how to deal with those who manifest ROGD.

Thus, rather than proving her thesis, which wasn’t Shrier’s intent, she wanted to raise red flags about a phenomenon that could have its origin in social pressure and lead to irreversible harm in adolescents who are often psychologically disturbed. The upshot is that we clearly need more research on this phenomenon before we start giving hormones to girls who, in their teens, decide that they’re actually boys. Hormonal and surgical treatment is, after all, irreversible.

Shrier doesn’t deal with the kind of gender dysphoria that manifests itself in early childhood and continues for a long period, or that is taken care of long after puberty in people like Caitlyn Jenner. She’s concerned with adolescent girls who suddenly declare that they’re boys and take immediate action to fix the situation. Their numbers have increased rapidly, raising the question about the origin of the phenomenon. Shrier’s book is neither shrill nor unempathic: she has deep sympathy for transsexual people who are heavily invested in being a member of their non-natal sex. Rather, she wants to call attention to the phenomenon of ROGD and to question whether surgery and hormones are the right answers for a temporary affliction, exacerbated by the climate of social media and physicians and parents who are told to do “the right thing” (facilitate transition), and who don’t hesitate before “affirming” gender change and supporting medical treatment.

I thought Shrier’s book, while not definitive, was well worth reading, and certainly not worthy of banning, a ban for which ACLU staff lawyer Chase Strangio has argued. It should start a conversations about the phenomenon and inspire the collection of data that don’t yet exist. But of course Shrier has been called a transphobe and has been widely demonized by the transsexual communty. One simply can’t question the Received Wisdom in this area.

Under the leadership of Steve Novella and David Gorski, SBM removed Hall’s review from their site, claiming that its egress was due not to social pressure but to Hall’s review (and Shrier’s book) being full of bad science and poor scientific judgment (you can still read Hall’s review at Skeptic Magazine). Novella and Gorski then posted a defense of the removal (replacing Hall’s review with three articles opposing Shrier’s view), citing several papers that I hadn’t read. Summarizing their defense, I listed six assertions by Gorski and Novella about why Shrier’s claims (and their defense by Hall) were bogus. Unable to evaluate them, as I wasn’t familiar with the literature, I just asked readers to judge for themselves.

Now, however, someone more qualified than myself, and more qualified than Gorski or Novella, has evaluated the data and their own claims. That person is Jesse Singal, who has read all the relevant literature cited by Shrier, Novella, and Gorski, and has published widely in respectable venues about transsexualism.  He concludes that not only should Hall’s review have been allowed to stay on the site, but that Gorski and Novella have behaved badly—indeed, unscientifically—in rushing to damn Shrier’s book and Hall’s review. One can conclude, if Singal be right, that Gorski and Novella are behaving in a woke-ish fashion, mis-citing data as well as accepting results that confirm their views and rejecting those that don’t—for no good reason. In fact, Singal’s indictment of Gorski and Novella’s reading of the literature is pretty damning, implying cherry-picking, confirmation bias, and distortion of the existing data, which is not about ROGD, which Gorski and Novella imply, but dysphoria that starts early in childhood or comes to fruition in adulthood.

Singal’s piece was 40 pages long when I printed it out in 12-point type, so it’s a long read. I’d still recommend it, especially if you’re interested in transgender issues or SBM in general. You can read Singal’s article for free by clicking on the screenshot below, though he would appreciate a donation for his work.

To my own credit, which isn’t substantial, I did pick out some of the same problems as Singal does with the Novella and Gorski piece—for example my asking, despite their claim that medical organizations had very high standards for facilitatating transition, whether those standards were actually used very often (it seems that they’re often flouted). And I questioned whether the change of gender dysphoria from a “disorder” in the DSM-IV to “not a disorder” in the DSM-V was meaningful.  Singal shows that it’s not.

But Singal’s analysis, or rather destruction, of Novella and Gorski’s defense is pretty damning. I urge you to read it for yourself. All I’ll do in this post is highlight, in Singal’s own words, the major problem with their claims. His words are in bold and indented, any comments I have are flush left.

First, Singal’s disclaimer:

I should re-emphasize that I’ve said repeatedly I think banning youth gender medicine is a terribly bad idea. The evidence for those “positive outcomes of early medical interventions” come from research that, as we’ll see, leaves a lot to be desired. But it does suggest that for kids with intense, persistent dysphoria who have been well-evaluated, who have any other mental-health problems under control, and who have have good family support, puberty blockers and hormones are likely to lead to the amelioration of what would have been a great deal of suffering. (I include these conditions because we simply can’t say much about the effectiveness of these treatments under different circumstances.) I do not trust legislators to override doctors’ and psychologists’ decisions in a context like this. But again, the evidence here is thin and low-quality, so at the very least it is imperative that any truly ‘science-based’ outlet communicate this uncertainty to readers. Science-Based Medicine has failed to do so.

Having mental health problems “under control” is key here, for it could have significant bearing on the claim that transitioning by adolescents reduces suicide and suicidal ideation. This is frequent claim for which there appears to be almost no evidence. The correlation could work the other way around: only those adolescents who have had therapy and thus low suicidal ideation are the ones who are allowed to transition.

But let’s proceed to Singal’s beef against Gorski and Novella. Again, if you have the time, I’d urge you to read his piece for yourself. He cites a lot of data, something Gorski and Novella don’t do.

Below I summarize Singal’s paragraph headers; each of which is followed by a substantial explanation in the article.

Problems in “The Science of Transgender Treatment” by Steven Novella and David Gorski

1). Novella and Gorski misinform readers about the difference between the DSM-IV and the DSM-5 entries for “gender identity disorder” and “gender dysphoria,” respectively.

2) Novella and Gorski argue that there is widespread adherence to the standards of care for youth gender medicine without providing any evidence that this is the case, other than referencing ‘countless’ interviews they neither quote from nor link to. They also misrepresent the World Professional Association of Transgender Health’s Standards of Care for the administration of hormones to adolescents.

3) Novella and Gorski badly misunderstand the nature of the desistance debate [JAC: “desistance occurs when adolescents grow out of their transgender identity as they age] and communicate a great deal of misinformation and undue skepticism about the desistance literature to their readers.

4) Novella and Gorski badly misunderstand Hall’s concern about regret.

What they mean is that the data on whether transgender people regret transitioning comes from a different group from the one that Shrier and Hall consider (adolescent girls).

5) Novella and Gorski write off Lisa Littman’s study of rapid onset gender dysphoria as “bad science” without explaining why or engaging with Littman’s own rather credible defense of her work, and they engage in some methodological cherrypicking in order to do so.

6) Novella and Gorski falsely report the result of one study and ignore the fatal weaknesses in another.

These problems involve citing studies of gender-affirming outcomes in adults as if they had anything to say about gender affirming outcomes in adolescents with ROGD.

7) Novella and Gorski conclude their article with a profound exaggeration of the available evidence for youth gender medicine that is completely out of step with what the evidentiary reviews conducted by major medical institutions in multiple countries have found, and make no attempt to explain how they came to such a different, more optimistic conclusion.

So, according to Singal, who gives a lot of the data that contradict Gorski and Novella’s claims, there are problems with their analysis of data, with selective citation, and even with ignoring data they don’t like. Singal makes a compelling case, and he ends with these words:

When it comes to hormones for gender dysphoric youth, it’s pretty remarkable to compare the assessments of Steven Novella and David Gorski with those of NICE.

Novella and Gorski: “[T]here is copious evidence supporting the conclusion that the benefits of gender affirming interventions outweigh the risks.”

NICE [the NHS’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence]: “Any potential benefits of gender-affirming hormones must be weighed against the largely unknown long-term safety profile of these treatments in children and adolescents with gender dysphoria.”

What evidence are Novella and Gorski drawing upon that NICE missed? They should explain this striking discrepancy. And they should transparently correct their article where corrections are warranted, as well as add numerous points of elaboration and clarification. If they don’t, they will mortgage even more of their site’s long-term credibility than they already have.

This, of course, is not the end of the issue. Neither Gorski nor Novella are shrinking violets, and I’m sure they’ll defend themselves vigorously. But what they can’t do is produce data that don’t exist.

More on Abigail Shrier, Harriet Hall, Science-Based Medicine, Jesse Singal, and transitioning

July 3, 2021 • 11:00 am

Yesterday I reported on the site Science-Based Medicine’s defense of their “deplatforming” a book review written by one of their own editors, Dr. Harriet Hall. Hall had written a favorable review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage, itself about the dangers of transsexual adolescents undertaking medical treatment prematurely or without proper guidance. Hall approved the book, but the editors, including Steven Novella and David Gorski (N&G), summarily removed her review (it was reposted by Michael Shermer and Skeptic magagzine). N&G asserted said it was not removed because the review was ideologically impure or that there was a social-media pushback, but simply because Hall’s review was full of inaccurate statements and bad science.

I put up N&G’s response, and since I hadn’t yet read Shrier’s book (I am beginning it now), I simply reported that two well known skeptical scientists and doctors had objected to Hall’s review and to Shrier’s contentions. I still think that N&G should NOT have removed Hall’s review, but left it up with their own response. That, after all, is what free speech is about. But I’m not yet (and may never be) acquainted sufficiently with the data to pass judgement on these dueling views. But I will note further exchanges in this disparity of opinions.

One of these, pointed out by a reader, was a series of tweets by Jesse Singal, who writes for The Atlantic as well as New York Magazine and other outlets, and has some expertise in scientific and sociological studies of transgender transitioning (see here and here). He’s also written an article below in the July Spectator about how the media distorts what little good data exists about the psychological outcomes of transitioning. (The data appear to be far scantier than one would think from the vociferous claims of transgender advocates.)

First, though, Singal fired a fusillade of 16 tweets in response to N&G’s attack on Hall and Shrier, and I’ll reproduce these here. As always, judge for yourself, and dig further if you’re unclear or intrigued. I’ll reproduce them all as they’re a quick read, and they should be perused along with Singal’s Spectator piece at the bottom.

The Spectator piece mentioned in the next tweet is linked to and discussed at the bottom of this post.

Gorski’s tweet at Rowling above is clearly out of line here, and in fact is gratuitously nasty.

One gets the impression from these tweets, many of which are summarized in detail in Singal’s article below (click on screenshot), that N&G were firing from the hip, making unsubstantiated claims about the literature that verge on distortion. The problem with all of this is that everyone is so polarized on the issue, whether rightly so because of the data or because of ideological bias, that it’s hard to know whom to trust. However, Singal’s article below does show that he’s read many of the original studies questioning the supposed “safety” of puberty blockers and the claimed suicide-reducing effect of transitioning. Both claims are “problematic,” i.e., we really don’t have good data. Read and judge for yourself. I’ll give a few quotes from Singal:

Singal’s piece makes several points. First, although some U.S. gender clinics adhere to what we’d see as proper care for gender-dysphoric children and adolescents, many do not, and few seem to come close to the standards used in European countries.

Second, many of the studies cited by the media to show that transition is safe—beginning with the administration of puberty-blocking hormones, are flawed, and, in fact, we have no good information about the safety of these blocking hormones. Further, studies cited to show that transitioning reduces the risk of suicidality in transgender children are flawed to the point that we have no idea whether this is true. The patterns we see could have other explanations, like clinics not taking on children with serious mental problems.

Third, the mainstream media, which by and large adheres to the ideology of unreserved advocates for transitioning, generally refuses to report any of the incomplete data, false assertions, or problematic claims. That, says Singal, is because the media has an ideological bias on this issue, something I don’t doubt.

I’ll give a few quotes from Singal’s article, and. though it’s long (if your attention span is short), it’s well worth a read.

First, on the disparity of European versus American treatments:

In 2007, the Dutch Protocol, as it is known, was brought to the States, initially to Boston Children’s Hospital. These days, blockers and hormones are available in many more American youth clinics, though access varies considerably by geography.

There are some crucial distinctions between the Dutch approach and how some US youth-gender clinicians currently practice. For example, because, as the Dutch clinicians Annelou de Vries and Peggy Cohen-Kettenis wrote in a 2012 article describing their protocol, ‘most gender dysphoric children will not remain gender dysphoric through adolescence’ (a finding that has emerged at multiple clinics), the Dutch clinic has historically discouraged childhood social transition, while also discouraging parents from shaming children for gender-nonconforming behavior. Clinicians there promote the practice of ‘watchful waiting’ until the onset of puberty, at which point, if the GD persists, it is taken as a useful indicator that blockers might be the right choice.

Further reflecting the clinic’s cautious approach, youth with significant mental health problems or a lack of family support (or both) have not been eligible for physical transition. So when we look at the Dutch-protocol data, we’re looking at a subset of kids and teens who were carefully assessed, over a long period of time, to ensure they had clinically significant gender dysphoria and that other mental health problems could be ruled out as the primary drivers of their distress. They all had good family support when they began transitioning.

. . . The lack of outcome data for gender-dysphoric youth who physically transition is one reason there has been a steady drip of news, mostly out of Europe, reflecting growing unease about these treatments. The UK has seen a complicated, slow-boiling controversy at the National Health Service’s sole provider for youth transition services, the Gender Identity Development Service at the Tavistock Clinic in London. Staffers there raised concerns about the quality of care; some argued children were being fast-tracked toward blockers and hormones in part as a result of activist pressure. Complaints from a young detransitioner who insists that she was not properly assessed, and who had a double mastectomy she regrets, culminated in a High Court ruling declaring that under-16s are unlikely to be able to consent meaningfully to blockers or hormones, making it much harder for this group to access treatment. An appeal is underway; in the meantime a convoluted process will still allow some young people to access these services with parental permission.

This spring Sweden banned youth medical transition outright at a number of gender clinics, including one at the famed Karolinska Institute, except in approved research studies. And in June last year the body that recommends on treatment methods in the Finnish public healthcare system published guidelines that emphasized the need for thorough assessment prior to the administration of blockers or hormones — stating that blockers may only be given ‘on a case-by-case basis after careful consideration and appropriate diagnostic examinations’.

These steps seem to reflect a growing realization that the holes in the research on youth medical transition are too big to ignore. Three major reviews of the literature conducted by government agencies in Finland, Sweden and the UK found an alarming lack of data supporting early treatments.

On how the media distorts the data:

Journalistically, the proper response to this issue is to give the details in all their complexity — not to leap to some extreme in which we pretend, for the sake of our political agenda, that there are zero legitimate questions about youth transition. Unfortunately, though, that’s what just about every major American media outlet has been doing. To be fair, this trend started well before the GOP state laws were introduced, but it is getting worse. The threat posed by these laws is often deployed as an excuse to not ask too many questions about extremely unsettled areas of medical research centered on very vulnerable populations.

I mean, what are you, anyway? One of those transphobic Trump supporters? This attitude underpins how these transition stories are framed and what news gets ignored entirely. Apart from the occasional fleeting reference neither CNN nor the New York Times nor the Washington Post nor Vox, all of which have offered near-blanket coverage of the proposed bans on youth medical transition, covered the NICE evidence review [the NHS’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] or any of the Tavistock controversy or the Karolinska decision. These outlets routinely repeat activist claims which should be given serious scrutiny and which sometimes defy basic, generally agreed-upon facts. ‘There is no consensus criteria for assigning sex at birth,’ explained CNN in a news article published in March, though editors there later struck that bizarre statement.

Mainstream coverage of this issue is a buffet of sanctimonious overclaiming. It says authoritatively that kids in the US can’t go on blockers or hormones prior to lengthy, in-depth assessment (false). That no one under 18 is getting surgery (false). That the worldwide rise in referrals to youth GD clinics is almost entirely the result of reduced stigmatization (no one knows). That GD [gender dysphoria], or the perception that one has GD, can’t spread through adolescent social networks (almost certainly false on the basis of anecdotal evidence and any familiarity with developmental psychology). That it’s a ‘myth’ that significant number of kids who believe themselves to be trans will later feel differently (false, according to all the existing data). That only a tiny percentage of people detransition (we have no data at all on this in the context of youth gender care in the States).

The last paragraph sums up in a nutshell what we don’t know but what is asserted to be true by liberal media.  I won’t go further except to say that Singal, who is no opponent of guided and informed transitioning, emphasizes our ignorance:

Most reporters don’t have much experience covering this issue.  When they take it up, they reach out early on to an activist organization, which in turn recommends media-friendly ‘experts’ who happen to be on the vanguard of this issue; i.e., seeking to break down the final vestiges of the ‘gatekeeping’ of trans youth. They will earnestly confide in the journalist that among real experts (like themselves), there are no legitimate concerns with the safety of medical treatment of very young trans youth. People who feel differently are transphobes. Simple.

This is a comfortable storyline, but it’s just not true. We desperately need better data on trans youth healthcare. But we don’t have it yet — in many ways, everyone is flying blind, especially families of kids with later-onset GD. Parents deserve every scrap of information that can help them understand not just the potentially profound benefits but also the risks and unknowns of blockers and hormones. American journalists, from an understandable but misguided desire to position themselves on the right side of an emotionally taxing and fraught issue, are hindering their ability to get it.

I’m well familiar with the ideological bias of liberal American journalists, and am prepared to believe that, since they’re not scientists, they want to be on the side of the angels. But this debate will continue, and it will continue until we have sufficient data to settle the medical issues. We appear to be a long way from that.

Jon Stewart gets pushback for dissing science and insisting on a lab-leak origin for Covid-19

June 23, 2021 • 11:00 am

On the first live Stephen Colbert show, he hosted his predecessor Jon Stewart, who went on a rant that partly dissed science (Stewart said, for instance, that the pandemic was more than likely caused by science”.)  More important, though was Stewart’s unwavering contention that the coronavirus, WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, came from the Wuhan Virology lab rather than transmission from an unknown host to humans. (Let me add that Stewart has worked for good causes: his testimony before Congress about getting more help from those exposed to toxins in the 9/11 incident was eloquent and moving.)

People have interpreted this rant, as I do, as Stewart’s being very serious about both science and the origins of the coronavirus. I remain agnostic about the latter, but do disagree with Stewart’s take that science itself has some inherently bad aspects to it. (I would argue that the scientific toolkit is amoral, but that the tools of science, since they’re used by humans, can be used to do bad things.)

Watch the piece below where it self starts (2:47) until it ends at 8:38 and listen for yourself.

The exchange is funny, as it would have to be given the participants (Stewart’s “chocolate” analogy is a chuckle), but several people, including two editorial writers from the Washington Post as well as journalist Dan Rather, have taken out after Stewart for a.) dissing science and arguing that science is inherently unreliable, and b.) making no bones about where the coronavirus came from.  Now the second question isn’t so important except for historical interest, but having Stewart, a role model from whom many young folk get their real news, make such unsubstantiated assertions about science and the virus has angered the writers (see below).

Here are three articles (the first two from WaPo, the other from Dan Rather’s Substack site) going after Stewart for his monologue above. I’ll give one quote from each (click on screenshots to read):

Quote:

The segment was practically tailor-made to blow up in the current debate over the lab leak. It’s funny and good viewing and features a guy who often lampooned conservatives promoting a theory they have warmed to more than the other side. Even Jon Stewart is saying the theory Donald Trump once (briefly) espoused but was dismissed by scientists and the media was right about the lab leak!

The conventional wisdom on the validity of the lab leak has changed in recent weeks, but Stewart goes even beyond that new conventional wisdom that holds the theory is suddenly more valid. Scientists still generally regard the theory that the virus emerged naturally as more plausible than a lab leak, although that thinking is definitely evolving.

But if there’s one thing Stewart was often criticized for — especially by conservatives — it’s in oversimplifying complex issues to land a joke. (He often shrugged off that criticism by saying he was a comedian, not a newsman. But his show was the news to many young people, and it clearly had a political bent to it.)

And his summation of the argument for the lab leak theory suffers from some of that. Stewart pitches it as an irreconcilably massive coincidence that that virus emerged from a place with a high-level virology lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that worked on novel coronaviruses.

Well, that’s not such a biting critique, but the next one is a bit more critical, concentrating on why we shouldn’t trust celebrities’ opinions on Covid-19 (or, for that matter, the opinions of politicians. Remember Trump and his “bleach our insides” theory of cures?). This piece, and the article by Dan Rather below it, emphasize that science is not a one-way street to the truth, and opinions about what’s true or best to do can change as the data change, as they did during the pandemic. The alterations about how we should behave changed over time, leading some people to reject the science altogether.

Some excerpts:

But these days, [Stewart] is retired and only emerges from time to time, and because he always delighted more in skewering Republicans, it was a bit shocking to see him go on an extended rant on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” about the coronavirus lab leak theory.

This theory has become associated with conservatives trying to prove that former president Donald Trump was right about everything. Yet Stewart apparently thinks it’s the only plausible explanation for the source of the virus.

This provides an important lesson about celebrities: You shouldn’t get your political opinions from them, or your scientific opinions either

. . .Even though Trump briefly claimed in 2020 (a claim he quickly dropped) that he had lots of evidence that the lab leak theory was true, what did it change? Had we had definitive proof from the get-go that it came from a lab, would Trump’s response to the pandemic, and the resulting death toll, have been less disastrous? Once the pandemic was here, it was here.

But set that aside for the moment, and consider Stewart.

Yes, he has every right to go on as many talk shows as he wants and explain his coronavirus theories. But his attack on expertise reminds us why expertise is so important.

The world is full of amateurs who think they’ve stumbled across some piece of information or logical connection that the people who know a lot more about the subject at hand have missed. There are a thousand unpublished manuscripts titled “Einstein Was Wrong About Relativity” stored on the home computers of people with no formal training in physics.

That’s not to say that experts don’t often have biases or blind spots, because they do. Sometimes, they can be catastrophic. But it’s not because experts can’t be trusted, it’s because something kept them from seeing what they should have, or — perhaps more often — they just didn’t have enough information to arrive at the best judgment.

. . .As long as they’re “raising awareness,” no one gets upset; it’s when they take stances on controversial issues that people decide that if that athlete or singer doesn’t agree with them, then he should shut up and stick to the thing that got him famous in the first place.

. . . But they’re not experts, and the reason we listen to experts is that they know more than we do. And if they know more about some things than others, then we have to understand where we shouldn’t listen to them and where the limits of their knowledge are.

That’s why it’s problematic when liberals say “I believe in science” as though science always shows you exactly which political decisions to make. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it has gaps that can lead you in the wrong direction. That’s why we need elected leaders who’ll listen to scientists, then make judgments built on a broad range of considerations.

The nature of human existence is that we have to outsource much of what we learn about the world to people we trust. But if a celebrity agrees with you today about one thing, it doesn’t make them any more trustworthy than they will be tomorrow when they disagree with you about something else.

Well, I’m not sure how many people will now adhere to the lab-leak theory just because of Stewart’s rant. After all, the truth or falsity of that theory isn’t all that important. What is important is the point that Dan Rather makes in the next article: science is our best (and, in this case, only) weapon to defeat such a deadly pandemic. And yet science is a set of tools, and must be wielded by fallible humans.

In many important ways Rather’s commentary is the most trenchant, as it defends the enterprise of science against those who think that it is either inherently unreliable or contains some elements that motivate people to do bad things. No, bad people do bad things. As I’ve said before, blaming science for the spread of the coronavirus is like blaming architecture for the Nazis’ gas chambers.

Here are a few excerpts from Rather’s piece:

All this underscores a simple truth: science, nature, the universe, is complicated. What we have seen in this pandemic is the public witnessing scientific research in real time. Scientists will be the first to tell you that a lot of what they initially think, their hypotheses, turn out to be wrong. That is what experimentation is for. That is what data is for. We learn from our failures as well as our successes. At first we got guidance that COVID was spread largely on surfaces, even as some scientists were warning early on about it being aerosolized. We eventually got mask mandates. Many researchers felt that that came too late. This is not a sign of good faith or bad faith. Science isn’t faith. It’s about teasing out what we know, and pivoting our thinking when we learn something new. Scientists, especially in the early stages of examining a phenomenon (like a deadly virus they haven’t seen before), often disagree.

. . .On The Late Show, Stewart didn’t leave his criticism of science and scientists at COVID and lab leaks. He extrapolated. “Can I say this about scientists?” he added. “I love them and they do such good work but they are going to kill us all.” Let that sink in. Scientists are going to “kill us all?” And he finished up by predicting how the world would end. “The last words man utters are somewhere in a lab a guy goes, ‘Huhuh! It worked.’”

I cannot overemphasize how dangerous this line of thinking is. It is true that some scientists have done some bad things in the name of research — such as the Tuskegee experiments. Scientists have been wrong. Science and technology have been tools that supported colonialism and oppression. Science does not release us from our moral responsibilities. All of this is the case because science is a human endeavor and scientists are human, subject to the same frailties and base instincts as any member of our species. But science is also a way of thinking, where we challenge our own dogmas and beliefs, whe

. . .I am old enough to remember when childhood was plagued by horrible diseases that have now been almost completely eliminated by vaccines. I remember when cancer was an automatic death sentence. I remember when we couldn’t imagine going to distant planets. I remember when we didn’t understand how our climate worked. I remember times when we were less knowledgeable and prepared, until science helped open our eyes. At the same time, I know that science itself is not a substitute for morality or public policy. It is a method for us to understand the choices we might have to make.

What we need is to teach people what science is, and what it is not. We need to show how the process of discovery works, how ideas are tested and sometimes found to be wrong. We need to investigate such stories like the origins of the virus. But we need to put that into the context of life on the planet, our interconnectedness, and all the other factors that shaped this pandemic. We need to embrace science as a quintessentially human endeavor, our instinct as a species to cross horizons of knowledge and experience. Like all of our actions there is a fine line between benefit and harm. So we must strive to create structures and systems of government and society that promote the former and minimize the latter. That does not include fanning the flames of ignorance or demonizing scientists who are dedicating themselves to opening our collective minds to information and data and have done so much to lessen the suffering of the human condition.

I know people think Rather is superannuated, a has-been with little to say. But his piece, as in the words above, is a far better take on science than that of any non-scientist journalist I’ve seen. The man understand how science works, and how it’s intertwined with human wants and desires. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a clue.

And you could argue that Stewart is just making an extended joke. Indeed, his line about the “last words man utters” is funny. But also misguided. And I don’t think for a second that Stewart is just joking here.

But I’ll grant you this: Stewart has a good sense of humor.

Did the Covid-19 virus come from a Wuhan lab? It’s looking increasingly likely.

June 4, 2021 • 1:15 pm

You surely remember last year when the “conspiracy theory” was broached that the coronavirus, which was thought by nearly all the media to have come from a Wuhan wet market, might have actually come from a virology lab in Wuhan, with some even suggesting that it might have been released on purpose.

Well the “deliberate release” scenario is dumb, since how could one contain an easily-spread virus targeted at an enemy? But the “accidental release” theory is gaining more and more credibility, with the Biden administration deciding to launch its own investigation. The story below, from Newsweek (yes, a conservative site), recounts how a group of amateur Internet sleuths pieced together from publicly available data what is the most likely story: an accidental release of a virus stored in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). That virus seems to have come from a Chinese cave in which 3 men shoveling bat guano died in 2012, and died from a virus that was remarkably similar to the coronavirus responsible for the pandemic.

It’s thus likely that the Chinese repeatedly lied about the origins of the virus and the U.S. government, suckered in, didn’t do due diligence in following up. After all, if a bunch of amateurs can piece together this tale (and I emphasize that we don’t know if it’s true for sure), why couldn’t the government?

Click screenshot to read the story:

It was a group of amateurs, following the lead of an young Indian called “The Seeker,” who determined that the sequence of the pandemic virus was almost identical to that of the virus stored in the WIV (they managed to get the latter sequence), and that that virus was likely the one who killed the three men nine years ago. They also found out, through diligent labor, that the WIV was actually studying the virus despite their denial, and had made seven trips to the guano mine to collect samples. The amateurs found grant proposals from the WIV, which was apparently testing the infectivity of the collected viruses, possibly with the hope of producing a vaccine against them.

As Newsweek notes, “The ongoing effort to cover this up implies that something may have gone wrong.” What went wrong, if the story is indeed true, might never be known, as the Chinese either might not know themselves and at any rate haven’t been exactly forthcoming about what they do know. Now professional journalists and epidemiologists are on the case, so we should get some answers—at least about whether the virus came from the WIV.

The episode of course makes China look bad (the article is replete with the WIV’s and Chinese government’s lies), but it also makes the U.S. look bad. It makes the press look bad: newspapers and websites had to go back and change months-old headlines that the lab-escape theory had been debunked. And it makes science look bad. To dismiss a theory without having investigated it first, and dismiss it so, well, dismissively, is only going to make people trust scientists less.  It’s even worse when you realize that had the Chinese been open about what they were doing, and were studying the sequences of viruses related to the pandemic organism, a vaccination might have been developed—or at least been in the works years before the outbreak.

Again, this is just a theory, but it’s a theory that’s become so plausible that nobody dismisses it as lunacy any more, and our own government is taking it seriously. If it turns out to be true, what will be the upshot? We’ll know to trust Chinese assurances even less (apparently the U.S. government was too credulous), and perhaps this can ensure more cooperation with the Chinese in future cases. But I wouldn’t count on it. At least we know that science works best when it’s at its most open.

At any rate, you owe it to yourself to read this fascinating amateur detective story.

h/t: Luana

Effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines

May 2, 2021 • 11:00 am

My doctor, Alex Lickerman, has put up post #13 in his continuing series on the medical science of coronavirus and the pandemic. This short but informative post (click on screenshot below) deals with a question we all have:

First, the effectiveness. Alex summarizes numerous studies showing how effective a vaccine is. Remember, though, what that number, expressed as a percentage, means. If a vaccine is 95% effective, it means that in a situation in which a certain percentage of people get infected, say 30%, then the chance you will get in infected is (100% – 95%) X 30%, or 1.7%.  Note that this does not mean that your chance of getting infected is 5%: it’s lower than that because not everybody gets infected when they’re not vaccinated.

Here are some effectiveness estimates taken by Alex from the literature:

Single dose Pfizer: 70%
Double dose Pfizer: 85%
Single dose Pfizer and Modern considered together, single dose: 80%
Double dose   ”            ”                   ”                 ”            double dose: 90%
The two above figures are also the same in another study not specifying vaccination

The 80%-90% holds for both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections; this means that yes, you can be an asymptomatic carrier if you have been fully vaccinated, but the chances are very small.

 Pfizer and Moderna combined (both mRNA vaccines): effectiveness: over 96%

Now remember again what these figures mean, because people get that meaning wrong all the time. Here’s one example I quote from the article:

A CNN article was skeptical of this data, arguing that “real-world studies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines show they are only 90% protective against the coronavirus, not 95% as reported in clinical trials. Translated into reality, that means for every million fully vaccinated people who fly, some 100,000 could still become infected.” Importantly, this is not what 90 percent effectiveness means! Ninety percent effectiveness means the vaccines reduce the rate of infection by 90%. To calculate a person’s absolute risk of getting infected after having been vaccinated, you have to start with the base rate of infection, which is different in different contexts. It would be true that “for every million fully vaccinated people who fly, some 100,000 could still become infected” if the base rate of infection for those million people was 100 percent. Yet the highest rate of infection we’ve seen in published contact tracing studies was around 30 percent (for spouses of infected people). This means that post-vaccination rates of COVID-19 infection in the vaccinated population are at most 90 percent less than 30 percent, or 3 percent. And that only if everyone who’s been vaccinated has an infected spouse.

In fact, the CDC reported that, as of April 20, 2021, out of 87 million fully vaccinated people there were only 7,157 breakthrough infections (0.008 percent), only 498 hospitalizations (0.0006 percent) related to COVID-19, and only 88 deaths (0.0001 percent) related to COVID-19.

Alex’s bottom line:

The mRNA vaccines are extraordinarily effective at preventing both symptomatic and asymptomatic infection and therefore at preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Most importantly, if you’re fully vaccinated, your risk of dying from COVID-19 is 0.0001 percent.

What about the variants?. In answer to the question of whether the vaccines work against the variants, Alex says “yes”, at least for variants currently circulating. He adds that more data are to come.

Here’s Alex’s conclusion, which happens to echo the same conclusions reached by Bari Weiss in a piece published on her site this morning:

CONCLUSION: Given the incredible effectiveness of the vaccines at preventing both symptomatic and asymptomatic disease, and therefore disease transmission, and given that the rates of death from COVID-19 in vaccinated people is 0.0001 percent among all vaccinated people in the U.S. (an analysis that also included the J&J vaccine), if you’ve been vaccinated, we consider it reasonably safe to dine indoors, travel, and gather with even unvaccinated people. Living in the world has, of course, never been risk-free. Yet we can now say that with the advent of effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the risk of living as you did before the pandemic has returned to what it was before the pandemic.

Here’s Weiss’s piece, which I think is free, though I’ve now subscribed. Click on the screenshot:

Harvard issues most self-abasing antiracist statement ever

April 10, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Not enough time has passed for us to understand why the tide of “progressive” political excess has risen so quickly. Yes, it accelerated after the death of George Floyd, but there are reasons why Floyd’s death unleashed what was already waiting to happen. I myself don’t really understand the phenomenon of “Wokeness”, and why so many people seem to have been driven mad.

Nobody wants to think of themselves as racist, but now we are told that not only are we all racists, but that we’re unconscious of that fact, and that the very structures of government, politics, and universities have racism embedded in their bones and sinews. And in this we’re all complicit. Some of this is true, as the voting rights bills suggest, and it behooves us to find the truth in all the shouting around us.

But the excesses—the shaming, the demonization, the self-abasement, the rush to judgment in every act, the drive to efface the past—often make me despair of the whole enterprise of antiracism, at least as conducted according to the Tenets of Critical Race Theory. It’s not so easy to separate the genuine inequalities that need to be fixed with the cries of the “progressive” left that we need to tear down the whole system and hand over political power to them.

But we can pretty much brush off extreme cases of self-abasement, so common in university “declarations” like the following. Harvard’s Medical School has a Program in Global Surgery and Social Change, and its goals are admirable: to extend what progress the “first world” countries have made in surgery to what they now call “the global South”: those countries with lower standards of living and insufficient medical care. Here are the program’s goals:

The Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) is a collaborative effort between Harvard Teaching Hospitals, the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital and Partners In Health (PIH).

Our strategy is two-fold:

  1. Global surgical systems strengthening through Research, Advocacy, and Implementation Science, using the framework of the Lancet Commission on global surgery. You can learn more about the Lancet Commission on global surgery on the PGSSC Resources page.
  2.  To produce leaders in Global Surgical and Health Systems through Research, Advocacy, and Care Delivery. Through the Paul Farmer Global Surgery Fellowships and research associate positions, it aims to empower surgeons, surgical trainees and medical students around the world with the skills they need to improve the health of some of the world’s most impoverished people.

That is all well and good, but then the Program got mixed up in the anti-racism business, and in a pretty strident way, and issued this statement, which I reproduce only in part.

Racism murders. Racism destroys. Racism dehumanizes. We live in a racist world and all play active and passive roles in perpetuating racism: the system of prejudice and discrimination based on the ambiguous social construct of race backed by unequal and unjust power dynamics. Racism is inherent to every aspect of our lives; it is woven into the fabric of society and consequently its effects interface with our work as the research associates, fellows, and faculty at the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change. Therefore, the absence of conspicuous racist actions is not enough. We must be actively anti-racist. We absolutely, unapologetically denounce our wretched racist system and its proponents without exception.

Racism systemically places higher value and opportunity in the hands of a specific race, and as a direct consequence disadvantages another racial group. It is this benefiting of one group to the detriment of another that has led us to focus on anti-racism. The work of antiracism is allied to that of anti-discrimination and the evaluation of inequities based on gender, sexual orientation, caste, religion, ability, tribal affiliation or socioeconomic status. However, given the distinct relationship of racism, colonialism, and global health, we in the global health community have a moral imperative to shine a bright light specifically on racism within our sphere.

Racism is inherently linked with colonialism. Our work in global health is rooted in colonialism, which provided power to white Europeans through subjugation and exploitation of others. Colonialism subsequently allowed for the creation of the construct of race to justify the dehumanization of those the colonizers exploited. This practice has lived on in global health through the racist belief that those same colonial powers possess medical knowledge that is superior to that of the cultures they denigrated. Consequently, global health is built on a foundation that, at its core, is antithetical to the principle of shared human dignity and respect. Affirming our commitment to anti-racism also affirms our commitment to being anti-colonial.

Academic institutions in high income countries are complicit in and the product of centuries of historic institutional colonialism and racism with over-representation of white voices that are heard on a global scale. We interact with a diverse group of international partners, but cannot truly be equitable partners until we acknowledge and address the place of power and privilege from which we operate.

Here we see the familiar denouncement of racism (seriously, is there any rational person who doesn’t already denounce it?), the chest-beating and self-abasement, and the accusations that all of us are complicit in perpetuating systemic racism. And, like Ibram Kendi, it argues that it’s not enough to refrain from being racist, but we must all actively work, and work in a certain way, to be “antiracists”. Whoever is not antiracist, says Kendi, is racist. It is as if there is only one issue in the world on which we should be working.

Now eliminating global inequality in medical care is an excellent goal, but I fail to see how these kinds of statements will help solve the problem. What we need is the kind of recognition of moral deserts that got Dr. King and his associates the civil rights laws they sought. Why shouldn’t we be helping others who are human and suffer in ways we understand? What we get instead is annoying hectoring, coupled with the strange declaration that promoting global health in Harvard’s way is racist because the practice of medicine in First World Countries is more advanced than in underdeveloped countries. (The fellowships given out by Harvard’s programs are, after all, spent learning at Harvard.)  I call your attention to goal #2 of the program given above:

To produce leaders in Global Surgical and Health Systems through Research, Advocacy, and Care Delivery. Through the Paul Farmer Global Surgery Fellowships and research associate positions, it aims to empower surgeons, surgical trainees and medical students around the world with the skills they need to improve the health of some of the world’s most impoverished people.

This is the exportation of Harvard-style medicine to other countries. Isn’t that the conscious promulgation of “superior medical knowledge”?

This is, of course, a species of medical colonization, for who determines what skills medical workers in poorer countries need? It’s not colonization in the sense of taking advantage of poorer nations, but it’s colonization in the sense of believing that one indeed has “medical knowledge superior to that of the countries they  [once] denigrated.”

There’s a lot more, as well as three subsections swearing what Harvard will do to promote antiracism in various areas, including “People,” “Culture”, and “Civic Engagement”, which itself has two sub-subsections, “Academia” and “Economic Injustice”.  Here’s the Academia part.  I reproduce it because I think it’s misleading about the degree of racism in academia, at least in my experience:

AcademiaWe acknowledge the role that academia plays in perpetuating structural racism. Academic excellence requires equity, yet despite statements denouncing prejudice, many academic systems are fraught with biases. Notably, it is often Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who are expected to be, and inevitably are, the most engaged in issues of structural racism in academia. This engagement results in activities and efforts leading “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives that are not traditionally valued in academic promotion criteria. This reality highlights the need for a paradigm shift in two ways – who shoulders anti-racism efforts, and how anti-racism work is valued and supported institutionally to ensure that personal and professional goals are being met. We will engage in the broader academic system, outside of our specific purview of global health, to catalyze meaningful change in the culture of academia.

Anybody familiar with academia will sense the tension in this statement.  And I’ll finish by adding that inequities (differential representation of groups) in academia does not constitute prima facie evidence for structural racism present in academia now.

New post by Dr. Alex Lickerman: Should you get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

April 2, 2021 • 10:00 am

Dr. Alex Lickerman, my GP, has a new post on his website about the coronavirus and vaccines, the twelfth since he began posting during the pandemic. Click on the screenshot below to read it (it’s free).

The short answer to the title question is “yes”, but there are lots of other questions answered (and some raised without known answers). One is whether you can be an asymptomatic carrier if you’ve been vaccinated. Alex’s answer:

The study didn’t present enough data to prove the vaccine prevents asymptomatic infection. Nor did it assess whether subjects who developed COVID-19 despite vaccination are less likely to transmit the virus. Thus, it’s not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be in containing the spread of the infection. (A recent study from the CDC, however, strongly suggests that both mRNA vaccines—Pfizer’s and Moderna’s—do indeed prevent even asymptomatic COVID-19 infection by 90 percent in real-world circumstances, which is great news. We need more studies to learn if this is also the case for J & J’s vaccine.)

My Pfizer jabs

January 27, 2021 • 10:45 am

As I’ve mentioned in passing, I’ve had two coronavirus shots; these used the Pfizer vaccine. The university hospital has been vaccinating a gazillion people, starting with healthcare workers on the front line, hospital employees, local oldsters (like me) and then residents of the South Side, mostly black, as well as healthcare workers who aren’t affiliated with the hospital but work on the South Side. It was heartening to go to the Covid clinic, an efficient and dedicated facility in the hospital, and wait in line with a cross-section of Chicago, including healthcare workers in their scrubs, all of us “in it together.” I have nothing but praise for that organization and its efficiency, and everyone was uber-friendly. I even got a “congratulations” after my second shot.

And as I stood in line, I realized what a fantastic thing these vaccines are, and, indeed, what all vaccines are.  If our immune system had no memory, if scientists hadn’t figured out that you could stave off disease by tweaking that memory, and if they hadn’t figured out how to do it without causing the disease, humanity would have been driven down over and over again.

The Pfizer vaccine is even more marvelous: a vaccine made by injecting into your arm a liquid solution of RNA “code” for the virus’s spike protein, with that code encapsulated in little fat bubbles. Once in your arm, the specially designed code makes its way to your cells, which then use the code to make many copies of the virus’s spike protein. Those free-floating copies are themselves harmless, but are the parts of the virus that adhere to cells when you get Covid-19. The immune system then recognizes the spike proteins as foreign, goes to work destroying them, and then the memory of those proteins is stored in our immune system (this is the way that all vaccines work). When you get a second shot, the immune system recognizes the spike proteins that it’s seen before, and mounts a huge defense against them, creating not only greater memory but often producing some side effects for the second jab. When you’ve mounted two defenses, your immune system is ready to go when it sees the spike protein on a virus that infects you.

In late December I wrote a post about how scientists had tweaked the spike protein’s RNA code to get it into our cells intact and make it produce many copies of the protein. That tweaking itself rested on years of molecular-genetic work done without the goal of making a vaccine. It’s a testament to the power of pure research and human curiosity.

All in all, I consider the mRNA vaccines, like the Pfizer and Moderna ones, as “miracles”—except I don’t like the word because it smacks of religion. But they do show what our evolved neurons are capable of doing when faced with a medical problem. I don’t know a secular word for “miracle”, but if there is one then it should be used with these vaccines. And remember, jabs went into arms less than a year after the virus first began its depredations in China. Further, the vaccine was designed within just a few days after the genome of the virus was decoded, which itself took less than a week.

But people want to know what the shots were like.  The first one was a piece of cake: it was a simple jab (they manage to get six doses out of a vial at the hospital, increasing the number of jabs by 20%), and I didn’t even have a sore arm. The only side effect was a very slight soreness at the injection site, but a soreness that could be detected only by pressing on the site.

It was 18 days between jab 1 and jab 2, though the usual period is 21 days. I took the shorter period because it was within CDC and Pfizer recommendations, and I was eager to become immune. I’m not sure how they know that 13-21 days is the right interval, and I don’t think they really did a lot of tests about that.

The second jab went into my arm on Monday. I was informed in great detail, and given an instruction sheet, that this jab was likely to cause more side effects, including chills, fever, muscle aches, and even vomiting. I was prepared for that: it’s better to suffer for a day or so than to get infected! I felt fine throughout Monday, but my arm was a little bit more sore than after the first jab. On Tuesday morning I also felt pretty good, and, because they said symptoms may begin within 12-24 hours, I thought I was home free.

That was not to be. At about noon yesterday (28 hours after my second jab), I begin feeling muscle aches, overall tiredness, and a general malaise, as if I were getting the flu. I recognized this as side effects and went home, dosing myself with Tylenol. My temperature, which is normally low (about 97.3° F, went up a bit, to 99.5°F). I did not lose either my appetite or sense of taste or smell, and I had a decent dinner but abjured the vino. I went to bed still feeling out of it.

But I woke up this morning feeling right as rain. As the instructions said, the side effects pass within 48 hours.  One has to wait two weeks, I understand, to acquire the vaunted 95% immunity that comes with this vaccine. From this my advice would be “when you get your injection, schedule it for late in the afternoon, go home, and then be prepared to not go to work the next day.” A Friday afternoon would be ideal for that second shot.

I asked the nurse who gave me the second jab if there was any correlation between the severity of one’s side effects and the effectiveness of the immunization. One would think that a vigorous immune response to the second dose, indicating that your immune response was quite active against the protein, would mean that you’d be better protected against the real virus. In other words, the worse the side effects, the better off you are. She said there was no correlation, as did the instruction sheet I got. I still am a bit dubious, but if there is a correlation, that I’m good to go against the virus.

Of course I urge everyone to get their jab. I asked a staff member on campus with whom I’m friends if she got the jab. I was surprised when she said “no.” When I asked why, she said because “people had died from the vaccine.” She was afraid of it, which I think is a fairly common feeling. But I looked up the deaths associated with the Pfizer vaccine, and, as we know, it’s not risky. There were six deaths during the phase 3 trials, but four of those were in the control group. Two died in the vaccine (experimental) group, one from arteriosclerosis and the other from a heart attack. Those deaths were probably the results not of the vaccine, but of underlying conditions. Of course some people will die after being vaccinated: as the control group shows, that will happen in any large group of people! On balance, though, all the experts say it’s better for your own welfare to get vaccinated than to risk Covid-19. And it’s better for society as well, since the more people who get vaccinated, the quicker we’ll attain herd immunity.

I went back to my friend and told her the statistics, but she was unmoved, and clearly didn’t want to discuss the point. Although I was concerned with her health, I realized that there was no point in arguing, as vaccination avoidance is almost a form of religion, and certainly a type of faith. I won’t bring up the subject again.

I’m sure all readers here are eager to get their shots, and it’s frustrating to watch while others get them but you can’t get an appointment. Biden and his administration are working hard on the issue. But we should be cognizant of the vaccine shortages in other countries, which are far more severe than in America or Europe. The news last night reported that America will have five times the number of doses necessary to vaccinate the entire population, and Canada six times. Couldn’t the excess be used in places like Latin America, where the Covid rate is high but vaccines rare?  I know that Bill Gates and others are donating lots of dosh to buy vaccines for poor countries, but we will need about 18 billion dollars to do that job. This is not a U.S. or European issue, but a world issue, and with the vaccine we should be far more concerned about other countries than we usually are. Even from a selfish point of view, if you don’t go after Covid everywhere, the whole world remains in danger.

I didn’t take a “vaccine selfie”; here’s the best I can do:

Summary paper on the vaccines with Fauci as senior author

January 20, 2021 • 10:45 am

Reader Simon sent me a link to this free paper about coronavirus vaccines written by several researchers, including Anthony Fauci (“senior author” means “last author”, and the convention that this spot is occupied by the Boss or lab head). It’s a useful summary of where we are, which other vaccines are coming, and what we don’t know, and is understandable by the layperson. (Here’s a link to one term you might not know: “mucosal immunity“, while “parenterally” refers to medicines taken outside the digestive tract, usually through injection.)

Click on the screenshot to read:

There’s a useful table of vaccines already used compared to those in development. Of the five remaining vaccines, three involve viruses: mostly inactivated viruses that can’t replicate but can produce the spike protein that activates your antibodies, while two others involve injecting spike proteins themselves, made in insect cells. Click to enlarge:

 

Here’s a figure I’ve posted before showing the protection you get from the two vaccines in use in America now: the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna formulations.

Note that you’ve already gotten substantial protection before you get to the second jab. For both vaccines the efficacy (the reduction in the chance you’ll catch the virus if exposed) is about 95%.

The paper raises several concerns about the vaccines and people’s willingness to take them.

A.)  What are the side effects? Monitoring of those injected has only taken place for several months, and there may be long-term effects we don’t know about. The authors note, though, that some of the vaccinated would have had stuff like cancer and heart attacks anyway—effects having nothing to do with the injection. The frequencies of such incidents and diseases need to be compared to those in unvaccinated groups or base rates already known.

B.) We don’t know the efficacy in some important groups, including “children, pregnant women, individuals with underlying illnesses, and those taking medications that might influence the immune response to a disease.”

C.) The duration of protection provided by the vaccines. We know that the efficacy of flu vaccines wanes substantially between six months and a year after injection. Will we have to get yearly injections of coronavirus vaccines as we do with flu shots?  Of course they will continue developing vaccines, so they will get better over time.

D.) How well do the vaccines protect against (asymptomatic) infection and transmission of the virus? We should have the answer to this question in a while, and the authors consider this the most important unknown in trying to stem the pandemic. If after injection you can get infected and not show symptoms, as well as transmit the virus, this will dramatically curtail efforts to stop the pandemic cold, and mandate different strategies, like testing those already injected.

And a paragraph from the paper, which is disturbing given that roughly half of Americans plan to get vaccinated. That is INSANE! Tell your worried friends to get their jabs, as it’s better than getting coronavirus.

The point made is that the vaccines currently in use don’t provide immunity in the mucosal membranes (as in the nose), while polio vaccine did bestow that immunity, but only if made with live weakened virus. (Current flu vaccines don’t provide it either.) Active immunity in the mucosa kills the virus in the respiratory system before it has a chance to get into the blood. The coronavirus vaccines now available don’t seem to provide mucosal immunity and, as the authors say, we need vaccines that will do that. A summary:

Given that recent polling suggests that only 40% to 60% of people in the United States are currently planning to get vaccinated, it is conceivable that without some impact on transmission, the virus will continue to circulate, infect, and cause serious disease in certain segments of the unvaccinated population. Administration of parenterally administered vaccines alone typically does not result in potent mucosal immunity that might interrupt infection or transmission. In the case of poliovirus, induction of mucosal immunity through vaccination with the live attenuated oral polio vaccine, in contrast to the parenterally administered inactivated vaccine, was thought to have played a critical role in interruption of transmission and control of poliovirus epidemics. For these reasons, additional data regarding protection from infection should be generated as soon as possible. If these vaccines do not provide durable, high levels of protection from infection, and do not drive the prevalence of virus in the community to near zero, a thorough analysis of shedding and transmission will need to be done through additional study. Armed with such data, public health officials can make decisions regarding prioritization of populations to receive the vaccine, and researchers could potentially improve upon the first wave of vaccines.