Does mass vaccination amid the COVID-19 pandemic create an "irrepressible monster" of disease? No, that's not true: Vaccines represent one of our best hopes of stopping the spread of the virus and its variants, according to medical experts. Viral evolution is normal and will happen -- in fact, has already happened -- with or without a vaccine, virologists say. When new variants emerge, vaccines can be updated. The current COVID-19 vaccines are thought to provide at least some protection against new virus variants, an early study has found.
The claim appeared in a letter (archived here), written by Geert Vanden Bossche and posted to Twitter and elsewhere on March 6, 2021. According to his website, Vanden Bossche holds a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, as well as a doctorate in virology, and worked for vaccine companies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vanden Bossche's letter opens with:
I am all but an antivaxxer. As a scientist I do not usually appeal to any platform of this kind to make a stand on vaccine-related topics. As a dedicated virologist and vaccine expert I only make an exception when health authorities allow vaccines to be administered in ways that threaten public health, most certainly when scientific evidence is being ignored. The present extremely critical situation forces me to spread this emergency call. As the unprecedented extent of human intervention in the Covid-19 pandemic is now at risk of resulting in a global catastrophe without equal, this call cannot sound loudly and strongly enough.
This is what the post looked like on Twitter at the time of writing:
(Source: Twitter screenshot taken on Wed Mar 17 18:24:28 2021 UTC)
The letter is five pages long and can be difficult to follow. Vanden Bossche's argument, however, basically boils down to the idea that current COVID-19 vaccines, in conjunction with other preventive measures, are making the pandemic exponentially worse by breeding infectious variants. One of his topics is labeled, "Why mass vaccinaton amidst a pandemic creates an irrepressible monster." He argues for the development of a different type of vaccine. Vanden Bossche writes:
From all of the above, it's becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how the consequences of the extensive and erroneous human intervention in this pandemic are not going to wipe out large parts of our human population. One could only think of very few other strategies to achieve the same level of efficiency in turning a relatively harmless virus into a bioweapon of mass destruction.
Lead Stories checked in with several experts to test Vanden Bossche's claims about accelerated development of variants.
In a recent editorial published by USA Today, Dr. Otto Yang discusses COVID-19 vaccines and variants, describing viral evolution as normal and not something to be overly concerned by. Yang is a professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. In an email to Lead Stories, dated March 17, 2021, he wrote:
The central premise of this author is that escape of viruses will produce more lethal variants. That simply contradicts basic biology. My editorial addresses some of these issues; viruses don't evolve to become more lethal; evolution favors becoming less lethal. If a more lethal variant occurs, that's through random bad luck, not selection, and is not beneficial to the virus (for which killing the host is killing its own survival).
The first claim is that the vaccines do not prevent or reduce even - he's saying - asymptomatic transmission in people who are vaccinated, or viral replication in people who are vaccinated. This is just wrong.
The idea then that the vaccines are the wrong answer -- and what he's advocating is stop it and let hundreds of thousands or millions of people die from a 'harmless' virus because you might promote variants -- do you understand why this is insane now? It makes no sense ... A recipe for generating exactly what Vanden Bossche is saying is allow the virus to replicate naturally, and you'll get every variant in the world.
Viruses cannot mutate if they don't replicate, and if you stop their replication by vaccinating widely and not giving the virus an open playing field to continue to respond to the pressures you put on it, you will not get mutations.
You can watch the briefing below in a C-Span recording. Fauci's comments start around 11 minutes, 30 seconds.
Although research is ongoing, the COVID-19 vaccines currently available are thought to provide at least some protection against new virus variants, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has been tracking mutations and variants since the start of the pandemic. Vaccines can also be updated as new variants emerge. On its website, the WHO says:
While we are learning more, we need to do everything possible to stop the spread of the virus in order to prevent mutations that may reduce the efficacy of existing vaccines. In addition, manufacturers and the programmes using the vaccines may have to adjust to the evolution of the COVID-19 virus: for example, vaccines may need to incorporate more than one strain when in development, booster shots may be required, and other vaccine changes may be needed.
Among those recommendations to help stop the spread of the virus? Wearing a mask, social distancing and mass vaccination.