The mRNA vaccine protects against Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to take it

The experimental mRNA vaccine by Pfizer/BioNTech is now being authorized for use by countries throughout the world, and the EU is expected to give authorization soon.

The mRNA vaccine works in a way totally different from traditional vaccines. Parts of the genetic code of the virus are directly injected into the blood stream in the form of messenger RNA (mRNA). This genetic material tells human cells how to make coronavirus spike proteins, and as such primes the immune system.

No mRNA vaccine has ever been approved before. So the question is how responsible it is to roll out this new technology so quickly on a global scale to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Let’s look at what we know.

Does the vaccine protect you against Covid-19? Yes! There is no doubt about it, as this research summary of the study by Pfizer/BioNTech in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine shows.

Does this mean it is a good idea to take the vaccine? No! I have some serious concerns about the way in which scientific research is being carried out around this experimental vaccine, based on my 10 years of expertise in Science & Technology Studies.

Let’s start with some positive remarks about this Phase 3 clinical study of Covid-19 vaccine BNT162b2:

  • Over 40,000 participants enrolled in the study, spread out over approximately 150 clinical trial sites. That is a huge number, allowing to make reliable predictions about the effect of the vaccine in protecting against Covid-19.
  • Participants are impressively diverse in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and race. This is a huge accomplishment of the research team, as medical studies have a long history of testing primarily on white straight men, causing bias in the outcomes.
  • The study is a randomized, double-blinded and placebo-controlled trial. This means the highest standards of quantitative methodology have been met, allowing us to rule out that other factors than the vaccine are responsible for the vaccine’s effectiveness.
  • Even the influenza vaccine was never tested amongst so many participants and in such a controlled way, so it is good that we take vaccines more seriously now and at least invest more in studying their efficacy and safety.

However, I still have two major concerns with the study. One has to do with the implicit assumptions the research team has about the workings of the vaccine, and the other has to do with the relationship between the scientific knowledge and the interests that have created this knowledge.

First about the implicit assumptions of the Pfizer research team. They approach the mRNA vaccine merely as what we call an ‘intermediary’, and not also as a ‘mediator’. To see the vaccine as an intermediary means that the research team assumes that the vaccine is a simple ‘input’ with a clear ‘output’, a causal mechanism without any transformative power. Yes, the vaccine protects against Covid.

However, we know that modern technologies, and especially experimental tech like this mRNA vaccine, should also be approached as a mediator. This means that the vaccine not only has a causal effect, but that it also has unpredictable or ‘wicked’ effects that transform, translate, distort, and modify many other related processes. In other words, the vaccine will behave like a full fledged ‘actor’, mediating the world around it.

Modern society is what we call a ‘risk society’: it is so vastly interconnected and technologically complex that interventions like this Covid vaccine will always have unpredictable effects that can never be studied in isolation. The vaccine does not have a mere causal effect, but it will act like a ‘wicked whirlwind’ that intervenes in a complex web of already existing interrelated technologies that are in themselves also ‘wicked’ and unpredictable.

This means that we have no idea how this mRNA vaccine will land in the real world, outside of the controlled environment of the Pfizer clinical sites. We do know from science studies that unforeseen, wicked and whirlwind effects of technologies are unavoidable.

To be able to take the ‘wicked’ character of the vaccine in consideration and assess its risks in a satisfactory way, a long term study is needed with a mixed method that integrates quantitative data with qualitative and ethnographic data.

Moreover, a good research design also builds a bridge between science and society; this is what we call ‘transdisciplinarity’. This is necessary to account for the vast amounts of layman’s knowledge about viruses and vaccines already present in society outside of the important but small world of scientific biomedical expertise.

Clearly such a method was not chosen here, as the vaccine is produced under huge societal, political and financial pressure. We know from science studies very well that this kind of ‘fast science’ can have disastrous results, especially when applied to the study of an experimental technology like the mRNA vaccine. The main objection to fast science is that it is known for its one-sidedness, which can lead to tunnel vision and blindness to ‘real life effects’.

The Pfizer scientists seem to know a lot, but they have no idea how the vaccine will behave outside the artificial and confined boundaries of their research design. This means that despite the seemingly convincing science – “a vaccine efficacy rate of 95% (p<0.0001)” – many key questions about the vaccine cannot be answered clearly yet.

Examples of such questions are:

  • How safe and effective is the vaccine on the long run, i.e. longer than the 28 days of the trial?
  • How will the vaccine interact with other existing technologies and medications?
  • How will the vaccine interact with pre-existing conditions like chronic illnesses, both mentally and physically?

Remember, whether the vaccine will have unforeseen interactions is not the question; we know it will. The question is: what interactions will it have exactly? The answer is: we have no idea.

To accept all this uncertainty about this experimental technology and roll it out anyway on a global scale could be legitimized under extreme circumstances. Of course a pandemic with a virus like Covid, that causes serious health problems and not in the least amongst the most vulnerable, could be seen as such an extreme circumstance.

Under these circumstances, risk can be compensated with trust. Trust in the medical and pharmaceutical sectors, trust that even though they don’t know everything yet, at least they are honest about that and their genuine and primary interest is public health.

But here I come to my second concern about this mRNA vaccine: the companies that produce them. I have posted a lot about this recently so I won’t repeat myself. But let me at least state that the private companies that push the mRNA vaccine technology are not only money grubbers, but also have questionable (or shall we just say “criminal”) ethics, networks and interests.

Profit incentives should have no place in health and medicine at all, but Big Pharma has taken money grabbing to a whole new level. Big Pharma is just disgusting to be blunt and should not own or control these kinds of technologies.

So to summarize… The two concerns I have about Pfizer vaccine BNT162b2 are: 1) the science done on it is proper but also one-sided in terms of disciplinarity and methodology, as it incorrectly assumes the vaccine to be an ‘intermediary’ instead of a ‘mediator’, and 2) the science is pushed by dubious and corrupt private interests, undermining the public trust necessary for the embracement of experimental technology.

I am not saying that everyone who will take the mRNA vaccine will drop dead. Of course not. There might be big chunks of the population for whom it will work just fine. I only say that there will be unforeseen effects, and as of yet we have no idea who will be affected and how. So my conclusion is: it’s not a good idea to take the vaccine with mRNA tech.

I know this is depressing, but there are also upsides:

Oxford/AstraZeneca produced a vaccine without experimental technology and shielded the process of knowledge production from private interests. This vaccine is a lot less risky to take. The “TIME Person of the Year” should be the team that developed this vaccine, not Biden/Harris.

Better medications against Covid are currently being produced as we understand the virus better, using technologies that are often a lot less experimental and controversial than the mRNA tech. A regular and conventional vaccine without mRNA tech is to be expected in 2022.

We have still not explored many relatively innocent and conventional ways to fight a pandemic properly, such as the vast knowledge available about the power of supplements in staying healthy and/or prevent serious illness. The same can be said about diet, lifestyle and alternative medicine. So there is lots of room for improvement in our pandemic response, even without new tech.

So there is no reason whatsoever to be pressured now into a rushed, dubious and experimental mRNA vaccination scheme that will make a small and corrupt group of Big Pharma CEO’s and investors even richer than they already are. You can be an educated, responsible and scientific person and still refuse the mRNA vaccine without any shame or guilt.

See also my article on Medium, which is based on this blog.

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