I realize that the gap between this post and my more recent post has been longer than usual, leaving the regular denizens of the comment section here not a lot to discuss. What can I say? Life gets in the way sometimes, and that has been happening more often, or at least so it seems. Be that as it may, I hope to be able to rectify this situation starting today, and, as is so often the case, the merry band of antivaccine propagandists over at Age of Autism provided me just the
target topic. Unsurprisingly, it’s Ginger Taylor, MS (a woman who never fails to include her master’s degree her byline, although I can’t help but suggest, as I often do, that it’s a master’s degree in Dunning-Kruger), who provides the grist with an article entitled (just like the title of this post), Are any of the COVID-19 vaccines self-spreading, self-propagating, transmissible vaccines?
It’s also a conspiracy theory that’s been starting to pop up on Twitter:
Betteridge’s law of headlines definitely applies to Ms. Taylor’s post, and the short answer to her question, “Are any of the COVID-19 vaccines self-spreading, self-propagating, transmissible vaccines?” is definitely no. The longer answer involves revisiting a topic that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, namely the recent propaganda bubbling up from the darkest recesses of the antivaccine underground claiming that those recently vaccinated against COVID-19 somehow “shed” spike protein, leading to illness in the unvaccinated around them and to menstrual irregularities—even miscarriages!—in any poor reproductive age female who might get too close. Now, having discovered a publication from the Center for Health Security at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Ms. Taylor is ready to kick the whole “shedding” trope a notch or two and turn the antivaccine conspiracy theories up to 11, by moving on to “just asking questions” (a.k.a., JAQing off) about whether COVID-19 vaccines are “self-spreading, self-propagating, transmissible vaccines.” The publication in question is a 2018 document entitled Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks.
Here is the passage that got Ms. Taylor all worried:
Self-spreading vaccines—also known as transmissible or self-propagating vaccines—are genetically engineered to move through populations in the same way as communicable diseases, but rather than causing disease, they confer protection. The vision is that a small number of individuals in the target population could be vaccinated, and the vaccine strain would then circulate in the population much like a pathogenic virus. These vaccines could dramatically increase vaccine coverage in human or animal populations without requiring each individual to be inoculated. This technology is currently aimed primarily at animal populations. Because most infectious diseases are zoonotic,40 controlling disease in animal populations would also reduce the risk to humans.
This is a cool technology, and, I will admit, that it does sound a little scare. However, note the intent: This is a technology primarily designed for animal populations, where it is not feasible to capture and individually vaccinate every animal in the population. It could potentially be used in human populations, but, given the issues of safety and ethics involved, such a use would be a lot more difficult to justify. Ms. Taylor also quotes part of this passage:
There are 2 main types of self-spreading vaccines: recombinant vector vaccines and live viral vaccines. Recombinant vector vaccines combine the elements of a pathogenic virus that induce immunity (removing the portion that causes disease) with a transmissible viral vector. Cytomegalovirus is one candidate vector for recombinant vaccines, because it is highly species-specific and moderately transmissible. Live viral vaccines are attenuated, meaning that the vaccine viruses are much less pathogenic than wild-type and would be similar to the oral polio vaccine or the live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) in that those vaccines can sometimes transmit from person to person.
Ms. Taylor then quotes:
Self-spreading vaccines have already been used to protect wild rabbits from myxomatosis and to control Sin Nombre virus in rodent populations
And then the part of the report that observes:
In the event of a grave public health threat, self-spreading vaccines could potentially be used to broadly inoculate human populations. Like the approach in animals, only a small number of vaccinated individuals would be required in order to confer protection to a larger susceptible population, thus eliminating the need for mass vaccination operations, including PODs.
I will now quote part of the document that Ms. Taylor seems to ignore, the better to fire up her antivaccine readers (which worked). That is the issue of informed consent. The huge problem with using a self-spreading vaccine in any human population is the issue of obtaining informed consent. Once the vaccine strain of organism, regardless of how benign, starts spreading, the population to which it spreads never gave informed consent (or even consent). Contrary to the conspiracy mongering about “eliminating informed consent” (a common antivaccine trope about public health officials), the writers of this Johns Hopkins document do take informed consent very seriously indeed, noting:
While self-spreading vaccines could help reduce illness and death in a severe pandemic, this approach comes with several big challenges. One important component of the current vaccination approach for humans is the informed consent process. In order to receive a vaccine, individuals (or their legal guardians) must be informed about the risks of vaccination by a healthcare provider and provide their consent before being vaccinated. Those who decline are not forced to receive a vaccine. In the case of self-spreading vaccines, the individuals directly vaccinated would have this option, but those to whom the vaccine subsequently spreads would not. Additionally, self-spreading vaccines would potentially infect individuals with contraindications, such as allergies, that could be life-threatening. The ethical and regulatory challenges surrounding informed consent and prevention and monitoring of adverse events would be critical challenges to implementing this approach even in an extreme event.
Indeed. Then there is this risk:
Finally, there is a not insignificant risk of the vaccine virus reverting to wild-type virulence, as has sometimes occurred with the oral polio vaccine—which is not intended to be fully virulent or transmissible, but which has reverted to become both neurovirulent and transmissible in rare instances. This is both a medical risk and a public perception risk; the possibility of vaccine-induced disease would be a major concern to the public. Modeling efforts suggest that making self-spreading vaccines weakly transmissible might reduce the risk of reversion to wild-type virulence by limiting the number of opportunities for the virus to evolve. However, weakly transmissible vaccines would have to be introduced to more people to obtain sufficient immunity in the target population.
As we have seen with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the more widely in a population a virus spreads, the more opportunity there is for mutations to arise, leading to virus variants that could be more transmissible or even virulent. Even if that risk could be mitigated, as the paper’s authors note themselves, the threat would have to be grave indeed even to consider the use of self-spreading, self-propagating vaccines in a human population. Although this article was written in 2018, more than a year before the pandemic hit, reasonable people can have a science- and ethics-based discussion about whether even the current COVID-19 pandemic would be enough to justify taking a step as extreme as using self-spreading vaccines.
Indeed, last fall, as the clinical trials of the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines were wrapping up, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists did just that:
Self-spreading vaccines could indeed entail serious risks, and the prospect of using them raises challenging questions.
Who decides, for instance, where and when a vaccine should be released? Once released, scientists will no longer be in control of the virus. It could mutate, as viruses naturally do. It may jump species. It will cross borders. There will be unexpected outcomes and unintended consequences. There always are.
While it may turn out to be technically feasible to fight emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19, AIDS, Ebola, and Zika with self-spreading viruses, and while the benefits may be significant, how does one weigh those benefits against what may be even greater risks?
While researchers may intend to make self-spreading vaccines, others could repurpose their science and develop biological weapons. Such a self-spreading weapon may prove uncontrollable and irreversible.
We don’t have to dig very deep for a historical example of weaponized biology. As the apartheid-era South African biowarfare program shows, social, political, and scientific pressures can lead to the misuse of biological innovation.
These are, of course, exactly the sorts of questions that real scientists and bioethicists would ask about a new technology like self-spreading vaccines and exactly the sort of potentially malign uses they would worry about. Too bad a science- and ethics-based discussion of such vaccines is not what Ms. Taylor is interested in. Instead, she’s interested in provoking fear by “JAQing off.”
This is why she pivots immediately to this passage:
Covid-19 vaccines approved in the US and Europe included the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, as well as the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) and AstraZenica. The mechanism of these products is inject mRNA or DNA to force the cells of the individual to produce the spike protein, in the belief that the spike protein itself was not harmful in itself.
Note the language: “Inject” mRNA or DNA into the cells, as though doctors were wielding tiny syringes to “inject” each and every cell with this foreign gene. Note the setup: The “belief” that the spike protein is not harmful in and of itself. Of course, one reason the spike protein was chosen very early in the pandemic as the antigen for so many different COVID-19 vaccines under development is because it was already known then to be the protein that mediates entry of SARS-CoV-2 into cells through its ability to bind to a cell surface protein receptor called ACE2. Consequently, an antibody response to this protein, it was predicted, would be likely to prevent infection by keeping the virus from being able to enter cells.
Of course, Ms. Taylor is all-in with the narrative that the recently vaccinated “shed”…something. That something, presumably, is the spike protein. I discussed this particular trope in detail, in particular why it is nonsense, a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll have to revisit it again as I continue through Ms. Taylor’s insinuation that COVID-19 vaccines are “self-spreading” and “self-propagating.” First, she cites an ongoing survey of women after receiving COVID-19 vaccines:
As the public roll out of the Covid-19 vaccines based on the spike protein began, we began to see widespread reports of blood clots and other vascular symptoms in those who received the vaccine, including complications in menstrual cycles, and even miscarriages.
Research is currently underway at the The University of Illinois Urbana Champaign on the reproductive health outcomes of women who have received the vaccine. The survey became available to the public on April 7th, and by April 19th the researchers reported that they had received more than 25k survey responses.
Although I never wrote about this particular survey, I did see it when it first started to circulate last month. It’s a web-based survey being done by an anthropologist, with no involvement of medical scientists or physicians who are experts in women’s reproductive health. I predicted at the time that it would be positive, thanks to recall bias and no control group, and so it appears to have been. The best thing you can say about the survey is that it might be hypothesis-generating regarding whether COVID-19 vaccination has any detectable, reproducible effects on menstruation and pregnancy. The worst that can be said about it is that it’s scientifically worthless and will do nothing more than help spread misinformation based on earlier unproven and likely false claims that the COVID-19 vaccines cause miscarriages and even infertility.
Next up, Ms. Taylor cites:
In early May 2021, the Salk Institute published an article on a study in Circulation Research confirming that Covid-19 was primarily a vascular disease, not a respiratory disease as had initially been assumed.
“A lot of people think of it as a respiratory disease, but it’s really a vascular disease,” says Assistant Research Professor Uri Manor, who is co-senior author of the study. “That could explain why some people have strokes, and why some people have issues in other parts of the body. The commonality between them is that they all have vascular underpinnings.”
Further, it implicated the spike protein itself in causing damage to the vascular system.
“In the new study, the researchers created a “pseudovirus” that was surrounded by SARS-CoV-2 classic crown of spike proteins, but did not contain any actual virus. Exposure to this pseudovirus resulted in damage to the lungs and arteries of an animal model—proving that the spike protein alone was enough to cause disease. Tissue samples showed inflammation in endothelial cells lining the pulmonary artery walls.
Funny, but I discussed that very study in detail last week and how it does not provide any evidence that the spike protein, which is produced in small amounts in the cells affected by the vaccine, with very little getting into the bloodstream, is at toxic at the levels produced by the vaccine. Indeed, the Salk Institute article cited by Ms. Taylor even notes, “Now, a major new study shows that the virus spike proteins (which behave very differently than those safely encoded by vaccines) also play a key role in the disease itself.” Moreover, the principal investigator for the study has even been interviewed on the news, where he states most emphatically that his study does not support the idea that the spike protein produced by the various COVID-19 vaccines is harmful:
Let’s just put it this way for Ms. Taylor. The scientist who actually did the study is telling you that your interpretation of his study is completely off-base. In fact, he even states that having antibodies to the spike protein likely protect the vascular endothelial cells lining blood vessels from damage due to the spike protein!
It took her longer than I expected, but Ms. Taylor does eventually get around to “shedding”:
But the strange part of the story is that reports on social media have begun circulating that these same vascular symptoms, nose bleeds, bruising, headaches, menstrual disruption and even miscarriages, were being experienced by the unvaccinated who had recently spent time with one or more vaccinated individuals, or even in large crowds.
Such reports are now widespread on social media, but as the individuals reporting this bizarre phenomenon are not vaccine recipients, there is no where to report these potential second hand adverse events, as VAERS is a reporting system for only for vaccinated individuals.
Again, I discussed this before. There’s no good evidence that individuals vaccinated against COVID-19 “shed” spike protein, much less that the “shed” spike protein makes others who come into contact with the vaccinated ill in any way. Again, anyone who knows basic biology, biochemistry, and physiology would realize just how implausible the whole claim of “shedding” is, much less that a single protein shed from a vaccinated person could cause so many health problems. That’d have to be a really serious protein toxin, one of the worst known, especially since, although protein contact with skin can cause allergic dermatitis, proteins are not generally absorbed through the skin! That’s why, when doctors try to develop methods to get proteins absorbed through the skin they have to resort to techniques such as “chemical enhancers, iontophoresis, microneedles, electroporation, sonophoresis, thermal ablation, laser ablation, radiofrequency ablation and noninvasive jet injectors aid in the delivery of proteins by overcoming the skin barrier in different ways.” I suppose the antivaxxers promoting the “shedding” narrative would then pivot to absorption through the mouth or breathing, but, again, there’s no evidence that the vaccinated shed airborne spike protein, much less in the quantities that would be necessary for such transmission to occur.
Then, predictably, Ms. Taylor cites the Pfizer clinical trial protocol for its phase 3 clinical trial of its mRNA vaccine. It’s the same bit of antivaccine disinformation that I discussed in detail when Leila Centner spread it in late April. Basically, no, the Pfizer clinical trial document does not show that Pfizer “knew” that the vaccinated could shed spike protein (or something else) and thereby endanger the unvaccinated around them. The long version is here; the short version is just to say that, as usual when it comes to vaccines, Ms. Taylor is the Dunning-Kruger effect personified.
That must be why she finishes up her post with a flourish:
The questions that the public are asking are becoming widespread, and seem currently unanswerable. Are the vaccinated “shedding” something? If so, what are they “shedding?” The spike protein? Instructions for it’s cellular manufacture via viral vector? If so, how? Until seeing the Hopkins biotech paper, this seemed impossible to me. Are there real risks to the unvaccinated? Is anyone looking into this yet?
Are any the Covid-19 Vaccines Self-Spreading, Self-Propagating, Transmissible Vaccines?
No. They are not. The mRNA vaccines cannot “propagate,” and the mRNA used, even though it’s modified to last longer, has a relatively short half-life. (If that weren’t the case, a second dose 3-4 weeks later would not be required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.) Nor are the Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca vaccines “self-spreading” or “self-propagating,” even though they both use an adenovirus vector to induce the recipient’s cells to make spike protein. Let’s just put it this way. The adenovirus vectors used are called “replication deficient” for a reason. They can’t replicate and don’t spread.
In the end, what Ms. Taylor is doing is JAQing off. Think of her invocation of “self-spreading, self-propagating transmissible vaccines” as nothing more than taking the old antivaccine trope of “shedding” that had been repurposed for COVID-19 vaccines and putting it on steroids, all to spread fear of the vaccines.