COVID Day 44: Children of Thalidomide

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Remember when cholesterol in eggs could kill? That was of course before the “experts” decided eggs are packed with essential proteins and help promote brain function and weight loss. Remember when coffee caused cancer, before they found that it didn’t? It seems health warnings from “experts” come and go as fast and frequently as diet fads.

The current COVID crisis has certainly come with it’s cohort of crazy speculation. Recall our early innocence when a competitor’s well paid study convinced us ibuprofen caused certain death so we all went out to hoard acetaminophen. And big tobacco has to be living through an orgasmic wet dream; initially smoking was the most dire preexisting condition, now the university researchers they keep on retainer are touting the notion that nicotine prevents COVID. Imagine the salivating that must be going on at R. J. Reynolds over the prospect of hooking 320 million Americans on cigarettes or other nicotine products.

While easy to pick at the absurdity of the health care industry, zany speculation is actually a good and necessary part of inventive science. The scientific method begins with an observation, that leads to a hypothesis, which then inspires an investigation (i.e., experiment) to test the hypothesis. Perhaps the most widely publicized example of this during COVID has involved the use of Chloroquine Hydrochloride, which started with epidemiologists observing how COVID struggled to get a toehold in countries where malaria vaccinations were prevalent. That was followed by front line healthcare workers observing patients taking chloroquine hydrochloride for arthritis fared better against COVID than others.

From those observations, scientist in France formed a hypothesis and began experimenting. Soon scientist in other country’s including, the U.S., Israel, and Brazil were conducting experiments. The conclusions, which have become as much emotional as scientific, indicate the drug may not be the silver COVID bullet many hoped for. The use of chloroquine hydrochloride may damage the heart and appears to have some serious neurotoxic side effects (i.e., psychological disorders). While passions concerning this drug’s efficacy remain high on both sides of the argument, we should agree that the scientific community would have been remiss had they not investigated the drug’s potential.

In science, more roads lead to dead ends than success. But as Thomas Edison famously said after failing countless times to make a working light bulb, Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”

As the pharmaceutical industry rushes to find a COVID cure, the pressure to release any potential vaccine before a full complement of clinical trials can be completed is enormous. On the one hand, we would expect any vaccine to be a derivative of vaccines used to treat previous coronavirus strains, like the annual flu shot. This suggests the risks of taking this new vaccine should not be that great. One the other hand, any COVID vaccine is likely to contain new and exotic compounds whose effects on the human body were not fully vetted.

The sedative drug from the early 1960’s called thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant mothers to help with morning sickness. It was broadly panned by Doctors before found to cause congenital malformation, especially of the limbs, in children whose mothers took it. I’m a child of the 60’s who grew up inherently adverse to anything doctors prescribe because my Mom resisted taking thalidomide when pregnant with me even after being pressured by a doctor who assured her it was safe. The thalidomide scandal is a poignant example of what can go wrong when unproven drugs are rushed into wide distribution.

The illogical COVID strategy deployed by state and federal governments is to shut everything down and quarantine the entire population until a vaccine can be produced. As the pressure mounts to return the country to normalcy, so too does the pressure to get some kind of vaccine distributed as quickly as possible. And once a vaccine is released, it won’t be rolled out in stages, or even marketed as a voluntary measure, it will be simultaneously administered to the entire population as a prerequisite for rejoining society. The question I’ve been wrestling with is should I get in line to receive this mandatory miracle COVID vaccine?

On my twelfth birthday, a virulent storm raged through Rapid City, South Dakota causing the dam above town to break, releasing a torrent wall of water that crashed through homes and buildings killing hundreds and leaving the city in shambles. In the aftermath, the Red Cross set up mass vaccination centers where people lined up to get shots. I don’t remember everything I got vaccinated for, but remember walking down the center aisle of the Red Cross tent with my baseball shirt sleeves rolled over my shoulders as nurses on both sides used fancy looking pneumatic guns to inject both arms with life saving drugs. The nurses were kind and committed, as all nurses are. A particularly pretty nurse teasingly told me after her needle went deep into muscle that I wouldn’t be throwing a baseball any time soon. I was fascinated by the impressive efficiency in which the medical guns quickly injected pre-measured doses and the speed in which a small group of nurses could vaccinate an entire city.

That’s how I envision the mass COVID vaccination campaign being conducted; a medical truck rolls into town and everyone dutifully gets in line as a cadre of committed nurses, sporting the newest injection gun technology, services each of us with optimized efficiency. And then we as individuals, as families, communities, and a nation wait and hope. We wait for the drug to do its thing to our immune systems while hoping it conquers COVID without harmful side effects.

Buddha taught that desire and suffering are two sides of the same coin. When the COVID cure is eventually released, the entire population will be vaccinated all at once. Imagine, 320 million souls collectively standing in line flipping a coin. On one side is an outcome analogous to the flu shot millions get each year. On the flip side are the children of thalidomide.

Note: Since herd immunity is reached when 70% of the population is vaccinated, I chose to be in the 30% who are protected from COVID by the herd.