Calculating…

Every day we do risk-reward calculations: Can I cross against the light without getting hit by a car? Can I put off this task until tomorrow without getting slammed into oblivion at work? Should I have that third glass of wine? Should I get vaccinated against COVID-19 when a vaccine becomes available?

The imminent arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine (or several COVID vaccines) has brought out anti-vaccination rhetoric again, and it just… flummoxes me. The arguments I hear seem to me to be (to put it most kindly) not fully thought through. Let’s look:

  • But Big Pharma is Evil. Perhaps. But in this particular case, the various companies have been competing to get a safe vaccine to market. It will do none of them any good to produce a crappy drug–especially when there are several alternative drugs coming to market to steal the market share of a drug that doesn’t do the job. And even Evil Corporations don’t want to leave themselves open to cataclysmic lawsuits. (Yes, this is no comfort to the person who uses a vaccine that doesn’t do them any good, or that actively causes harm, but given the degree of examination and competition, corporations have to think about harm down the line; with the whole human race as your test pool, big cover-ups are unlikely to disguise malfeasance for long. Unless you’re in a TV movie).
  • But mistakes! Assuming that Big Pharma is not going to wittingly do evil, what’s left is error. Which is possible. But under the sort of scrutiny these vaccines are getting, and the ongoing testing that will continue even after the Emergency Use Authorization goes through, and the incentives to avoid error, there is likely to be considerable dotting of Is and crossing of Ts to guard against mistakes. Everyone wants to get this right.
  • It’s all happening so fast! Yes, it certainly is. Governments have thrown money at the problem and scissored red-tape to make it happen fast. Of course, that speed could come at a cost:we have no idea what the long-term effects of COVID-19 itself may be because it hasn’t been around long enough. We’re learning every day, but it will take years. Similarly, with a vaccine, there simply isn’t the time to go slowly if we want to stop the pandemic. But grouchy academicians and scientists are saying that testing and evaluation are being carried out the right way (because the people doing the actual work care passionately about what they’re doing). And even with an Emergency Use Authorization in place and the first groups (medical personnel and people in congregate living situations) being vaccinated, evaluation and testing will continue. They take these things seriously.
  • Vaccines are not natural! There are no naturally occurring substances I’ve heard of that are a prophyactic against COVID-19. So if we want to stop this pandemic we’re going to have to go to something manufactured.
  • “But chemicals!” Yes. But please note that everything is chemical. I am chemicals, all strung together in a vaguely pleasing, slightly overweight package with curly hair. And just because something is naturally occurring doesn’t mean it’s safe. See belladonna, pennyroyal, and the adorable African Crested Rat with the poisonous fur.
  • God will keep me safe. Isn’t it possible that the way the Creator intends to keep you safe is by giving scientists big problem-solving brains and letting them go to work to come up with, I dunno, a vaccine? This argument always brings to mind the old joke about God and the man on a rooftop during a flood: “I sent you a branch, I sent you a raft, I sent you a boat, what else did you want?”
  • I want a guarantee! I want a pony and a bottle of 75-year-old Laphroaig. Failing that, all I can do is do one of those risk-reward calculations, remembering to factor in that the more people who are vaccinated, the safer the population becomes–including the most vulnerable among us.

With vaccinations generally, the odds of a severe anaphylactic reaction is about 1 in 760,000. Other ill effects? With some vaccinations they are possible. That’s why the person administering the vaccination will ask things like “are you allergic to eggs” or “have you ever had a seizure,” to improve the chances that this vaccine will do you only good.

I understand the fearfulness around a new medication that has been pushed to market as fast as possible. But like looking both ways at the corner and deciding that, even if the light might turn red soon, it’s safe to cross, I’m making a calculated decision that vaccination will be a smart move.

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