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I’ve been trying to figure out how our COVID crisis ends given that the virus will be with us forever, like all viruses, and no one’s willing to discuss what an acceptable death rate should be even though we’ve set acceptable thresholds for other calamities, like flu, airline fatalities, car crashes, cancer caused by smoking, opioid overdoses, etc. Since the COVID crisis has become more political than medical, it’s increasingly clear we won’t escape jail until politicians figure a way out that paints them as wise and heroic leaders who never panicked, never overreacted, and never overreached.
In other words, we only crawl out from under the crisis after the political response has been justified. Alas, the reason we continue to languish in lockdown, the reason experts are working so hard to overhype invented calamities like the new childhood COVID syndrome that causes a rash before full recovery, is because politicians have yet to figure a way out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was only a vaccine to rescue the moment? I mean sure we’d probably have to wait awhile for it, but once there’s a vaccine and we all get inoculated at the same time we’ll vanquish this vicious virus into oblivion and then we can return safely to our pre-COVID lives. And the best part is we can do so without political risk or liability. That’s the promise of President Trump as he markets his plan to develop a COVID vaccine at “warp speed.”
The problem with this Pollyanna picture is that while there are hundreds of coronaviruses, there’s no such thing as a vaccine for coronaviruses. According to Ian Frazer, who developed the vaccine for the human papilloma, coronaviruses have historically been hard to make safe vaccines for, because the virus infects the upper respiratory tract, which our immune system isn’t great at protecting. Fazer’s warning is that “If a vaccine elicits an immune response that misses the target cells, the result could potentially be worse than if no vaccine was given.“
This is not to suggest that vaccines aren’t important; they are, to the point of being essential. As hard as it may be to believe, 1.5 million children die each year from vaccine-preventable illnesses. The history of how vaccines came about is remarkable, it began in 1757 when Edward Jenner of England observed that cow-maids didn’t die from smallpox. He started testing various ideas, eventually going macabre by intentionally infecting a young boy with cowpox, who he then infected with smallpox. Luckily for us in general, and that small boy in particular, it worked out because he survived. By 1796, Jenner had the world’s first vaccine, although it took until 1979 (200 years) to eradicate the disease.
In the early 1800s, Louis Pasteur, who is most known for developing the concept of pasteurization, figured out how to produce vaccines in a lab. In the early 1950’s Jonas Salk developed the technique of injecting people with a mild strain of an illness as a form of vaccination against that illness. He used this technique to vaccinate children for polio starting in 1955, and forty years later, in 1996, the death rate from polio dropped to zero. It’s impressive that we went from taking 200 years to eradicate smallpox to 40 years to eradicate polio. Under the goals of Operation Warp Speed, we plan on eradicating COVID in one fell swoop.
Saying the COVID vaccine’s going to be developed at “warp speed,” is marketing speak for outside established vaccine development protocols. Even the head of the newly formed “Operation Warp Speed Task Force,” does not believe this can be completed in 18 months let along the six month goal President Trump has set. Once we do however have a vaccine rushed through development, production, and distribution that you’re assured is safe and effective, will you take it? Before answering, understand the vaccine will be based on Jonas Salk’s technique of injecting you with COVID to protect you from getting COVID. Also, recall the disaster of rushing Thalidomide into mass distribution only to leave thousands of children with birth defects.
But what if a vaccine isn’t really a true vaccine but rather some mystery compound that’s declared safe and effective? Imagine the WWII-style propaganda campaign that will be rolled out with the inoculation launch; beautiful Hollywood celebrities’ touting this newly developed cure as the miracle of our lifetime that after everyone takes, magically transforms us back to our pre-COVID world? Of course after taking the mystery compound there would still be some COVID deaths because, as the marketing campaign will craftily point out, virus vaccines are never 100% effective. But the good news is that after we’re all inoculated we can take off our masks, return to our restaurants, and walk our streets without casting worried stares at strangers.
“Won’t life be grand, Wally,” to paraphrase the Beaver, “when we get back to our pre-COVID lives?” And the best part, the vaccine doesn’t even actually have to work. Six months from now when President Trump triumphantly declares victory, we’ll all be acclimated to a acceptable threshold of COVID deaths. By then the CDC will have ratcheted their death count numbers down to prescribed levels, governors will give grand speeches pontificating the wisdom and effectiveness of their leadership, and schools will reopen with forgotten concern for the childhood affliction of COVID-caused rashes. Yes boys and girls, the idyllic American dream will once again power our great nation, and the best part is that the vaccine placebo is every bit the cure of a real vaccine because, a small detail the propaganda campaign forgets to mention is that real coronavirus vaccines don’t work.
But we can agree to overlook that minor detail, right? After all, taking the placebo vaccine is a small ask for finally being able to crawl out from under this crisis with the fragile egos of our narcissistic leaders intact.