Safetyism Kills

I argued in a previous post that the vaccine rollout was based on safetyism, not science. Safetyism led to the belief that everyone should get vaccinated, regardless of age or natural immunity. It led to the belief that booster shots are needed. And it led to the belief that people have to be strong-armed, rather than persuaded.

A vaccine rollout based on science would have prioritised the elderly and clinically vulnerable, while recognising that young healthy people, and those with natural immunity, didn’t need to get vaccinated.

It would have also recognised that far more lives could be saved by allocating vaccines to vulnerable people in poor countries than by allocating them to young healthy people in rich countries. Unfortunately, however, safetyism prevailed.

Rich countries ended up buying nearly all the vaccines, and then wasted millions of doses on people who didn’t need them. Not only that, but they did so by means of coercive passports and mandates, which undermine trust in the health system.

The vast majority of people affected by these passports and mandates did not need to be vaccinated, and many of them already had natural immunity.

The Government could have said: ‘We’ve bought enough vaccines for everyone who’s over 50 or clinically vulnerable. If you’re in one of those groups, we strongly recommend you get vaccinated. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait, since vulnerable people in poor countries need vaccines more than you.’ But apparently that was too difficult.

The scale of rich countries’ vaccine-hoarding is laid bare in a recent chart published by the Financial Times. It shows that rich countries have administered more booster doses in the last three months than poor countries have administered total doses since their rollouts began.

The FT’s chart was retweeted thousands of times on Twitter. Ironically, many of the people who retweeted it were probably in favour of vaccinating the young. Newsflash: when vaccine production is limited, allocating doses is a zero-sum game.

By 1st June, around 90% of over 50s in England had been fully vaccinated (I’m using the original definition of that term, i.e., ‘received two vaccine doses’). Millions more people in their 30s and 40s had received at least one dose.

Yet between then and now, we’ve given out another 40 million doses, the vast majority to people who are young and healthy, who have prior immunity, or who’ve already been fully vaccinated! And the same is true of most other large, rich countries.

If all these countries had donated their surplus vaccines, or simply not bought them in the first place, there would have been many more available for poor countries. As a result, tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. There’s a lesson here: safetyism kills.

The Vaccine Roll-Out Was Based on Safetyism, Not Science

In a poll of experts taken by Nature earlier this year, only 6% said it was “unlikely” or “very unlikely” that SARS-CoV-2 will become endemic. By contrast, 89% said this was “likely” or “very likely”.

As Professor Francois Balloux has observed: “Eventually, Covid will become endemic everywhere in the world… claims about indefinite elimination are just empty slogans.”

This means the virus will continue to circulate for the foreseeable future, and most of us will catch it several times during our lives. In fact, it may become one that we first encounter in childhood, leading to immunity that lasts years or decades.

Covid, in other words, is here to stay. And unless more powerful vaccines are developed in the future, permanently suppressing transmission via vaccination is unlikely to work, let alone pass a cost-benefit test.

As the Great Barrington Declaration authors have argued, vaccines are best seen as a means of achieving focused protection against Covid. By vaccinating the elderly and clinically vulnerable, we have turned what – for many of those people – could have been a life-threatening illness, into something much less harmful.

However, since the start of the vaccine rollout, numerous people – including some world leaders – have taken a rather different view of the vaccines. For these individuals, the vaccines are a way of ‘crushing the curve’, and thereby ensuring that nobody ever has to get Covid.

But this view is based more on safetyism than on science. And ironically, it’s causing real harm. How so?

First, safetyism has led to the belief that everyone needs to get vaccinated, regardless of age. This is why the Government is proceeding with vaccination of 12-15 year olds, against the better judgement of its own expert panel. Yet as I and others have argued, a far better course of action would be donating those vaccines to poor countries.

Second, safetyism has led to the belief that everyone needs to get vaccinated, even if they’ve already been infected. Yet evidence suggests that people with natural immunity have better protection against infection than recipients of the Pfizer vaccine.

As Professor Marty Makary notes in a recent article for the Washington Post: “If we had asked Americans who were already protected by natural immunity to step aside in the vaccine line, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.”

Third, safetyism has led to the belief that we need to roll out booster shots because vaccine-induced immunity wanes rapidly. So far, however, this is only true of immunity against infection; immunity against severe disease appears to hold up well.

In a recent Lancet article, Philip Krause and colleagues argue there is not yet any need for boosters, which could cause adverse reactions if administered too soon or too frequently. They point out that vaccines “will save the most lives if made available to people who are at appreciable risk of serious disease and have not yet received any vaccine”.

Fourth, safetyism has led to the belief that people should be strong-armed into getting vaccinated by means of passports and mandates, rather than persuaded. Although coercive measures may increase vaccine uptake, they risk undermining trust in government and the healthcare system.

What’s more, vaccine passports could have unintended consequences. If vulnerable people are led to believe – wrongly – that the vaccines have strong efficacy against infection, they might take more risks than they otherwise would.

A vaccine roll-out based on science – not safetyism – would have recognised that not everyone needs to be vaccinated. It would have assigned leftover vaccines to people that actually need them. And it would have eschewed coercive measures, in favour of transparency about the risks and benefits.

Must We be Sensible Forever?

We’re publishing a new piece today by Dr. Sinéad Murphy, an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University, about the lasting psychological impact of lockdowns and the philosophy of safetyism underpinning them. Here is an extract:

We have been prodded this year by the devilish theme of safety, which has dramatically altered the contour of our lives. But now the colour of our lives may be changing too, as we are encouraged from all sides not only to stay safe but to be sensible.

On May 15th, the FA Cup final was attended by twenty-two thousand supporters. The fans were back. Football was back. And certainly, the real crowd did foreground how anaemic has been its virtual equivalent. But when Leicester scored the goal that won them the cup, their cheering fans were faced down by a line of officials, caped in plastic over their high-visibility jackets and fanning their outstretched gloved hands, palms downwards, in a calming gesture – Let’s be sensible, folks.

Two days later, May 17th, brought the return of hugging for anyone who had been observing the ban. But it is not a rush-into-the-arms hugging, not a big hugging, not a tight hugging, all of which have about them this new taint of excess. It is sensible hugging: faces turned in opposite directions and got over with as quickly as possible.

There is a new kind of puritanism abroad – casting its pall over our lives, already so out of shape. Those moments when life is brimming over, when we act on impulse, when our sides split with laughter, when we cry with anger or with joy, when we cannot let go our embrace or when we could talk and talk for hours: all have about them a new hue of poor taste. The palate of human life has been dimmed; Let’s be sensible, folks.

Worth reading in full.

Why Is Boris Dragging His Feet Over Reopening Britain?

There follows the text of an article by Joseph C. Sternberg that appeared in the Wall Street Journal yesterday on why Boris is dragging his feet over reopening Britain in spite of the success of our vaccine rollout. We think it’s so good we are reproducing it in full.

The UK has delivered at least one dose of Covid vaccine to more than 47% of its total population. This means that well over half of all adults, and the vast majority of the most vulnerable elderly, have received a sufficient level of inoculation to reduce serious illness, death, and probably transmission dramatically for the several months it will take to deliver second doses. Rates of hospitalisation and fatality tumble by the day.

So why on earth is Boris Johnson slow-rolling the country’s emergence from lockdown?

The exit plan from the current-third-lockdown began March 8th, when schools reopened, and won’t be complete until late June. Sorry, make that “until late June at the earliest”, appending Mr Johnson’s favourite three words. Nonessential retail, beer gardens and gyms won’t reopen until next week, restaurants not until May, and no one can say when draconian restrictions on international travel will be eased.

Precisely because the medical news in Britain is so cheerful, its difficulties escaping lockdown serve as a cautionary tale for everyone else. The task, it would appear, no longer is to suppress the virus or meter hospital demand or save lives or anything health-related. The task is to manage the dangerous interactions between a fearful political class and an overweening medical class.

That’s the vice in which Britain now finds itself. As fearful politicians go, few are more so than Mr Johnson. Yes, that Mr Johnson. Americans who remember his buccaneering spirit surrounding Brexit might be surprised at how his encounter with Covid – as a political leader and as a patient this time last year – has changed him.

The personal angle is best left to the readers’ own guesses, but the political transformation is easy enough to understand. Mr Johnson was elected in December 2019 with an enormous mandate to get Brexit done, and for not much of anything else. The pandemic daily exposes the extent to which a coalition among libertarian, Christian-democratic and working-class Conservatives is in danger of fracturing whenever anything other than Brexit is on the table. At the moment the civil libertarians are the dissenters, but the easing of lockdown will merely raise new policy questions over which other bits of his party can rebel.

Mr Johnson has found the only thing that can keep these cats in a vaguely herded state is success. Well, yes. In politics, nothing succeeds like success. But adopting that as a governing strategy leaves little scope for occasional fumbles along the way.

Before the vaccination programme succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, Mr Johnson’s Government was under near-mortal threat from its perceived failure to contain the pandemic’s winter wave with more-aggressive lockdowns in the autumn. Mr Johnson can’t afford to be bold in reopening for fear that some unforeseen error, or an unpredictable spike in infections, or some other disaster will lead to a political; collapse of some sort.

Which brings us to the other jaw of the vice: an overweening public-health class.