Jonathan Berman wants us to have better dialogues.
- In his book, "Anti-vaxxers," science educator Jonathan Berman aims to foster better conversations about vaccines.
- While the anti-vax movement in America has grown, more Americans now say they'll get a COVID-19 vaccine.
- In this Big Think interview, Berman explains why he's offering an ear to the anti-vax movement.
As two COVID-19 vaccines roll out in America, Pew Research reported a rare glimmer of hope in the ongoing saga of vaccine disinformation: the number of citizens willing to get a vaccine increased to 60 percent. The trend is moving in the right direction, course-correcting anti-vaccination rhetoric that led to the first increase in measles cases (and the highest number of measles deaths) in the modern era.
While we have fabricated research by disbarred doctor Andrew Wakefield to thank for this trend, anti-vaccination efforts are tethered to the first vaccinations. As with seemingly every topic, vaccines are a wedge issue, with a fervent cohort of anti-vaxxers going so far as to be "single-issue voters."
Jonathan Berman, an assistant professor in the Department of Basic Sciences at NYITCOM-Arkansas, grew tired of seeing all of the "dunking on anti-vaxxers." As with many science advocates, he grew skeptical of the anti-vaxx movement while studying for his degree in the aughts. Though he agreed with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, he recognized them as bullies. Berman wanted to grapple with the underlying reasons for opposing vaccination rather than just write them off.
Those reasons, which comprise a chapter of his recent book, "Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement" (MIT Press), include issues of social class, race, individual liberties, individual and collective rights, distrust of authority, and changing ideas about health and medicine. Instead of exhibiting knee-jerk reactions, he wants to offer compassion and empathy while expressing critical thinking when analyzing the science of vaccines. As Berman recently explained of anti-vaxxers,
"They're making a risk evaluation just like we're making a risk evaluation. They're doing it in a less reasonable and healthy way and arriving at the wrong decision. That doesn't mean that we have to call them stupid or act like they're foolish. It means we can have a conversation with them. Hopefully, that's a more productive way to go about it."
Conspirituality 31 interview: Jonathan Berman
As he wrote the book before the pandemic hit, Berman is a bit dismayed (though not surprised) by the growth of the anti-vaccine movement. He noticed a convergence point this year: anti-mask and anti-lockdown proponents (as well as QAnon devotees) learned a set of tactics from the longstanding anti-vax movement, while anti-vaxxers took the energy of "personal liberty" and "bodily sovereignty" being expressed by those groups.
There have been a number of anti-vax leaders whose star has risen this year: Mikki Willis has surged since the release of his Plandemic film; Del Bigtree, whose show "The Highwire" is in large part funded by hedge fund managers, is growing more influential; and gynecologist Christiane Northrup, who has used her social media platforms to promote QAnon-related and anti-vax sentiments, is also seeing a rise in followers. As Berman writes, celebrities are not the best sources of information, and their intentions might not be as benevolent as they seem.
"There's a degree of grift in what they're doing. They're collecting donations from their audience of anti-vaccine people they've built up."
Science sometimes suffers from lack of celebrity. Paul A. Offit will never be Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye. While a select few science educators break through, vaccination advocates are unlikely to achieve that level of star power. Berman, one of the founders of the "March for Science" movement—a rare mainstream moment of science advocacy in the Trump era—knows the difficulty of spreading the gospel of sound scientific methods.
Navigating the tricky terrain of vaccines is difficult. Thankfully, Berman's excellent book offers hope. Twenty-two concise chapters pack a lot of punch: the history of both vaccines and the anti-vax movement; dangerous ploys by grifters; the science of vaccines; and a chapter on vaccine ingredients, like adjuvants.
While Berman is pro-vaccine, he believes Pfizer and Moderna deserve scrutiny. Commentary from outside organizations and researchers should be offered. That said, while pharmaceutical companies certainly have a track record of corporate greed, vaccines only account for 2 percent of profits—hardly cash cows like painkillers and antidepressants.
Berman laughs off the occasional criticism that he's a paid shill. "I'm still on the negative on the book—just because of caffeine purchases while I was writing it."
Disinformation abounds in the modern era. Posts about the dangers of thimerasol and aluminum persist even though neither are in the Pfizer vaccine. Berman advocates for pushing back against misinformation with better data.
"The coronavirus vaccine—these are very simple formulations. There's salt, RNA, and a lipid to help the RNA cross cell membranes. If someone says there's aluminum in that, you can say, 'not in this one.' And if someone says there's mercury in that, you can say, 'not in this one.'"
He knows the challenges that lie ahead. Still, as Pew shows, more Americans understand the role that vaccines play in reaching a post-pandemic world. Berman concludes our talk on what you might say is a hopeful note.
"We're not going to get everyone on board. We just need to get enough people on board."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The recent AstraZeneca offers a cautionary tale.
- AstraZeneca's press release about its recent vaccine trials was filled with erroneous data.
- A manufacturing error meant that some participants only received half of the intended dosage.
- In the rush to produce a vaccine, science by press release is of growing concern.
One of the bright spots of 2020 has been the collaborative effort of scientists in their search for a COVID-19 vaccine. Never before have researchers and institutions focused their efforts on a single disease to this degree. Of course, trials are often sponsored by competing companies, increasing the rush for an effective vaccine—a fact coming to the surface in the recent AstraZeneca trials.
After potential successes by Moderna and Pfizer, AstraZeneca announced it reached an average efficacy of 70 percent during its partnership with the University of Oxford. Though not quite the 95 percent efficacy reported by the aforementioned companies, the AstraZeneca vaccine had a few factors in its favor: one dosing scheme achieved 90 percent efficacy; the low cost: $3 per dose compared to $20; this vaccine only needs to be refrigerated, not frozen (causing issues with distribution and storage) as required by other candidates.
Then AstraZeneca admitted a mistake: the dosage data were off. While results ranged from 62 to 90 percent efficacy (averaging out at 70), a manufacturing error meant the pharmaceutical giant only filled half the intended dose for one of the trials. Instead of abandoning the study, researchers redefined the parameters: a number of volunteers received a half-dose during the first round, followed by a full dose a month later. Interestingly, that dosage protocol performed best, leaving researchers flummoxed.
The trials were plagued with issues, including the fact that no one over age 55 was tested. As seniors are the most vulnerable population, this seems to be a grave oversight. We shouldn't be surprised that a half-dose proved efficacious, however. Paracelsus preached the relevance of dosage some 500 years ago. Medical advancements often result thanks to the unexpected.
AstraZeneca Vaccine Trial Likely Needs a Restart: Johns Hopkins
Science has always been and will continue to be complicated. In regards to the pandemic, more surprises await, like the fact that PFAS could negatively impact the efficacy of any COVID-19 vaccine. This is of particular importance to Americans, as this acid is used in many common products in this country.
There's little comfort that an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health says we "have to cross our fingers and hope for the best" in regards to the possibility that the chemicals in non-stick pans and waterproof clothing might thwart our chance of successful vaccination. Discovering this possibility isn't a conspiracy; it's indicative of science working as intended, even if we don't like the results.
Chemistry matters; so does patience. Weill Cornell Medicine vaccine researcher John Moore phrased it best when calling AstraZeneca's head-scratching announcement "the worst aspect of science by press release." In the rush to deliver good news during a challenging year, we overlook the fact that science is a slow process governed by consensus. Rushing out half-baked data does no one any good.
AstraZeneca's rush to break news is especially perilous given the growing influence of vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxers. Misinformation is like a dry forest floor after a hot summer. Vaccine science needs to be evidence-based. Fear-mongering thrives when the focus is a headline instead of clinical efficacy.
Credit: Raquel / Adobe Stock
As Jonathan Berman writes in his recent book, "Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement,"
"Vaccination occupies a unique space as one of the most effective technologies ever developed to fight disease, as well as the only technology to ever eliminate a disease entirely. Vaccination conveys both individual and collective benefits, and carries very modest individual and collective risks."
Perhaps because this is the first global pandemic in generations we've forgotten how deadly diseases can be. In the 18th century, more humans died from communicable diseases than today's biggest killers, like heart disease and cancer; roughly 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century. COVID-19 isn't nearly as deadly, yet that doesn't dampen the real problems we face around vaccine disinformation.
In some ways, even the botched press release isn't new. Conceptually, vaccines are thousands of years old. Louis Pasteur, building on Edward Jenner's work on cowpox, was as much publicist as scientist when his anthrax trial helped usher in the modern age of medicine. He made sure to invite plenty of journalists to observe his trial, which is how word of this medical advancement spread widely.
Expediency often sacrifices integrity. Fortunately, Pasteur's scientific literacy was as dependable as his love of fawning writers. As Victorian-era statistician Francis Galton presciently commented, "In science credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs."
We have to wield the power responsibly. Vaccine development by press release does not serve anyone. There are too many variables in medicine and humans are impatient animals. Good science relies on the input of many researchers and tens of thousands of volunteers.
That great strides have been made in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine should comfort us—a little—but also serve as a reminder that little arrives as quickly as we desire. That's just not how science works.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
94 percent of men in the study have this mutation, which explains why men are more likely to die.
- Since the pandemic began, we've wondered why some people suffer terribly while others show no symptoms.
- A team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute discovered a genetic mutation responsible for the production of "auto-antibodies."
- These findings could change treatment protocols and vaccine development moving forward.
As the nation woke up to the news that numerous White House officials have tested positive for COVID-19, one question stands out among many: Why are some people more susceptible to the virus than others? Two new studies from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute offer potential reasons.
In February, a team led by Jean-Laurent Cassanova began enrolling COVID-19 patients. They wanted to know why some young people were susceptible to falling gravely ill while others remained asymptomatic. By March, they had enrolled 500 patients. That number swelled to over 3,000 as of last month.
The team found that roughly 3.5 percent of study patients suffer from gene mutations in antiviral defense. At least 10 percent of patients create "auto-antibodies" that attack the patient's own immune system. The two studies, both published in the journal Science, address these two problems. As Cassanova says,
"These two papers provide the first explanation for why COVID-19 can be so severe in some people, while most others infected by the same virus are okay."
The coronavirus is mutating. Now what?
The genetic mutations slow down interferon—a group of signaling proteins released in the presence of viruses—production and function. This particular mutation makes these patients vulnerable to certain pathogens, such as the flu. Of the 659 patients initially tested in the Spring, 23 carried gene errors, rendering them unable to produce the necessary antiviral interferons to fight off COVID-19.
They then tested 987 patients, of which 101 produced auto-antibodies. All of these patients had trouble fending off the ravages of the virus. By testing people for these mutations, the team believes they can predict who will suffer most from the virus, even before they become infected.
Interestingly, 94 percent of patients that develop harmful antibodies are men, which helps explain why men are more likely to die from COVID-19. Cassanova is now investigating whether the production of these auto-antibodies is linked to X chromosomes. Even small genetic errors, the team says, could be responsible for this phenomenon.
Photo: Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock
Why It Matters
If researchers can pinpoint genetic markers in healthy patients, this could open up an entirely new testing protocol. People with this genetic mutation will know they are at higher risk for life-threatening problems, and will be able to take precautions until a vaccine is developed.
This could also affect treatment protocols. The team is looking into procedures that strip these auto-antibodies from patients' blood, for example. They're also investigating protective genetic factors by studying asymptomatic patients. Just as the virus exploits the above genetic mutation, others are naturally protected. They want to know why.
In regards to the vaccine, this research helps identify high-risk groups. People carrying this genetic mutation could receive the vaccine first, if these studies hold up.
With all of the above work happening at the center, it's no wonder Cassanova concludes, "Our lab is currently running at full speed."
This could change how researchers approach vaccine development.
- The reason children suffer less from the novel coronavirus has remained mysterious.
- Researchers identified a cytokine, IL-17A, which appears to protect children from the ravages of COVID-19.
- This cytokine response could change how researchers approach vaccine development.
The report was eye-opening, to say the least: over 500,000 children have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in America. More than 70,000 of these cases occurred during the last two weeks of August as schools reopened. While most children recover quickly, "several instances" of a rare inflammatory illness has been observed in children.
Fortunately, children under 10 appear to be less likely to spread the virus than teenagers—a counterintuitive finding, since children are, as one doctor phrases it, "germ factories." Children in the younger age group also show fewer symptoms than teens and adults.
The virus is still new, though researchers have made headway in understanding it. A new study, conducted by scientists at Yale, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Children's Hospital at Montefiore, has identified key differences in the immune response of children, teenagers, and young adults, compared to adults.
Two cohorts were studied: 60 adult patients and 65 patients under age 24. Twenty patients in the younger group suffered from the novel multi-system inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) that coincides with COVID-19. This disease is also new, and while most patients survive, it's proven lethal in a small number of children.
In this study, published in Science Translational Medicine, 22 adults were put on mechanical ventilation, while only five children needed assistance with breathing. Seventeen adults died during the two-month study period; two pediatric patients died as well.
Co-senior author Betsy Herold says children fare well due to stronger innate immunity. For this reason, a group of eight physicians published a letter calling for pediatric vaccine trials. Doctors don't want to be caught off-guard while waiting for an adult vaccine, says Vanderbilt pediatric infectious disease specialist, Buddy Creech.
"This is really a call to say rather than waiting to see if we have an effective vaccine for adults, let's begin that work of at least evaluating the vaccines in adolescents and ever-decreasing ages, so that we get a good lead on the dosing, the dose schedule, and the potential effectiveness of that kind of a vaccine."
A member of staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) takes a child's temperature at the Harris Academy's Shortland's school on June 04, 2020 in London, England.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Experts don't want to place kids at the back of the line, regardless of how strong their immune systems appear. At least one company, Moderna, hopes to begin testing vaccines in pediatric volunteers by year's end.
Innate immune response is especially high during childhood (compared to adaptive immunity). This makes evolutionary sense: nature wants an animal to survive until its ready to procreate. Turns out the children in the study possessed high levels of cytokines that boost their immune response. The biggest impact is made by IL-17A, which appears to protect the youngest cohort from the ravages of the coronavirus.
While both age groups produced antibodies to fight off the infamous spike protein, adults that produce neutralizing antibodies actually suffer a worse fate. Herold says this "over-vigorous adaptive immune response" might promote inflammation, triggering acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
This matters for vaccine development. As Herold says,
"Our adult COVID-19 patients who fared poorly had high levels of neutralizing antibodies, suggesting that convalescent plasma—which is rich in neutralizing antibodies—may not help adults who have already developed signs of ARDS. By contrast, therapies that boost innate immune responses early in the course of the disease may be especially beneficial."
Herold says current vaccine trials are focused on boosting neutralizing-antibody levels. With this new information, researchers may want to work on vaccines that boost the innate immune response instead.
With at least 55 vaccine trials underway, every piece of data matters.
Archaeology clues us in on the dangers of letting viruses hang around.
- A University of Otago researcher investigates the spread of disease in ancient Vietnam.
- The infectious disease, yaws, has been with us for thousands of years with no known cure.
- Using archaeology to investigate disease offers clues into modern-day pandemics.
Humans are accustomed to progress. We can travel to the planet's farthest reaches in a matter of hours—a day, at most. Imagining otherwise is impossible. Sure, we can think about it, but our scope of time is limited to generations, not epochs.
Witness our incredulity today. COVID-19 has revealed the impatience that immediately surfaces when we're told not to do something. Though diseases have wiped out entire populations in the past, we've come to expect solutions to instantaneously appear. History is long; our awareness of history, not so much.
For most of time, the geographic range of our ancestors was tiny. Even the dozens of miles hunter-gathering tribes traveled pales in comparison to pond-hopping in a plane. Geotagging travel photos took a few billion years to arrive; so did pandemics, in fact. Like humans, diseases generally remained local, spread only as far as your tribe traveled.
Not that diseases didn't exist. Viruses tumbled around the planet shortly after single-celled organisms emerged from the strange brew of Earth's initial gases and liquids. In some ways, we're returning to that past. Climate change is unlocking diseases our collective consciousness thought it left behind. Recently, an intact extinct cave bear, dating back nearly 40,000 years, was discovered in Siberia. Researchers had better wear protective gear: shifting temperatures are unlocking long-forgotten pathogens. Who knows what fury that beast wants to unleash.
Our relationship to disease changed after the last Ice Age ended roughly 12,000 years ago. The Pleistocene Epoch lasted roughly 2.5 million years; the conditions for mass gatherings did not yet exist. As we packed closer together, and as we packed other species close to us, viruses began circulating broadly.
Everything in life is a trade-off. The price of cities is recurring battles with coronaviruses.
History-Changing Archaeological Finds
While we rightfully look toward infectious disease experts during times such as now, archaeologists also have plenty to offer. A new research article, published in the journal, Bioarchaeology Journal, turns back the clock to ancient Vietnam. The findings offer important clues about why we need to eradicate COVID-19.
Lead author Melandri Vlok, a PhD student at the University of Otago in New Zealand (with support from researchers in Australia, Vietnam, Japan, and the UK), investigated a case of yaws that ran through the Neolithic archeological site of Mán Bạc in Northeast Vietnam.
Yaws remains a common infectious disease in at least 13 tropical countries, with up to a half-million infected each year. Hard skin lesions form on the victim's bodies; they can form painful ulcers. While lesions usually subside within six months, bone and joint pain and fatigue are common. Some cases last many years and result in permanent scars. On occasion, death follows a long battle.
Subsistence farmers in mainland China have long battled the environment. Finding the right soil and water sources for their crops has been a generational battle. Roughly 4,000 years ago, such farmers made their way into Mainland Southeast China (modern day Vietnam), where, as Vlok writes, "genetic admixture and social transition occurs between foragers and farmers." In 2018, Vlok traveled to Mán Bạc to study the remains of seven skeletons, which included two adults, two adolescents, and two children.
Her findings help give us perspective on today's proliferation of the coronavirus. As she says,
"This matters, because knowing more about this disease and its evolution, it changes how we understand the relationship people have with it. It helps us understand why it's so difficult to eradicate. If it's been with us thousands of years it has probably developed to fit very well with humans."
My Son Sanctuary, Quang Nam, Vietnam.
Credit: Mrkela / Shutterstock
Yaws is not the only disease considered in the article. Tuberculosis, brucellosis, and cancers were also discussed. The goal of the research was to identify disease spread through cultures and the chronic problems left behind, sometimes for millennia. Vlok notes how temperature fluctuations in the Mán Bạc region affected a variety of diseases. Yaws appeared to have spread easily due to an abundance of water and vegetation, combined with increased population density—children are more likely to spread this disease.
"Pre-industrialized agricultural communities have also been associated with increased incidence of yaws. The coastal region is also slightly warmer and more humid than inland northern Vietnam and therefore more conducive to the spread of yaws."
The Climate Clock is ticking down. We're already experiencing the ravages of this global shift, and it's not going to get any easier if interventions are not immediately legislated. While no single science will help us wrap our heads around the immediate future, Vlok suggests factoring in archaeology. Past precedent matters.
Gazing back a few hundred generations offers important clues for the future—really, the present—that we must confront. A concerted effort by the World Health Organization in the 1950s couldn't eradicate yaws. Diseases that have an opportunity to hang around will exploit every advantage it can. The blasé attitude too many Americans currently hold about the novel coronavirus's dangers is going to have a reverberating effect through the generations. As Vlok concludes,
"This shows us what happens when we don't take action with these diseases. It's a lesson of what infectious diseases can do to a population if you let them spread widely. It highlights the need to intervene, because sometimes these diseases are so good at adapting to us, at spreading between us."