No, COVID-19 Vaccines Will Not Lead to ‘Out of Control’ Variants
A video interview of a self-described “independent virologist and vaccine expert” Geert Vanden Bossche has gone viral on the internet where he makes several misleading and incorrect claims about COVID-19 vaccines. He made similar claims in a series of open letters he wrote on Twitter and his website.
We spoke with virologist and epidemiologists and found that the claims made by Bossch were incorrect. We also found no evidence that would back his claims.
In his open letter, published on 6 March 2021, he claims that "mass vaccination amidst a pandemic will create an irrepressible monster".
In the following letters and subsequent interviews with noted anti-vaccination personalities, Bossche makes more such claims. The interview that is going viral was a part of a show hosted by prominent anti-vaccine advocate Del Bigtree on his platform called The HighWire.
In the interview, Bossche says that youngsters have "innate immunity towards coronavirus" and infection prevention measures such as lockdowns will suppress that.
“There can be no doubt that lack of exposure due to stringent containment measures implemented as of the beginning of the pandemic has not been beneficial to keeping people’s innate immune system well trained,” Bossche said.
He goes on to say that the target or specific antibodies are short-lived and don't work as well as the general defences of the innate immune system.
WHAT WE FOUND OUT
In order to verify the claims made by Bossche, we reached out to Dr Satyajit Rath, an adjunct faculty of IISER Pune and an immunologist, virologist and former professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Dr Jacob T John and the Health Desk, a COVID-19 resource for journalists powered by public health experts.
Let's look at some of the claims in detail.
CLAIM 1: Vaccinating Amid the Pandemic Will Give Rise to "Monster" Variant
The short answer to the claim as put by the Health Desk is no. "There is no evidence of any known vaccine causing new or more dangerous variants of COVID-19," the Health Desk said.
There is no doubt that viruses 'mutate' as they reproduce in order to keep spreading to more cells. These mutations create an updated version of the virus, which is called a “variant”. Several variants of the SARS-CoV-2 were found even before the vaccination drive started.
Dr Rath agrees, and adds, "If most people are 'immune' to the original virus strain, then the original strain cannot establish infection easily. But variants that are not as sensitive to that immunity might then get an advantage and will begin to spread".
"We should keep in mind that these variants will not necessarily be any more 'lethal', since all they will have been 'selected for' is avoiding pre-existing immunity just enough so as to establish infection and spread."Dr Satyajit Rath, immunologist
Dr Rath also said that it is important to note that we become 'immune' both by natural infection and vaccination. So, if we don't vaccinate and the virus continues to spread, people will end up becoming 'immune' to the original strain by actual natural infection fairly soon that the same selection pressure will be created.
CLAIM 2: Lockdowns Impact the 'Innate Immunity' of Youngsters
Dr Rath dismissed this claim and said that there is no evidence at all that 'innate immunity' is affected by either lockdowns or by vaccinations.
"Studies have shown that when infants and children are raised in a home that is “too clean,” they may be more likely to have allergies or autoimmune problems later on. This “hygiene hypothesis” causes confusion sometimes. The hypothesis does not mean that the immune system needs to be exposed to germs all the time to remain strong," the Health Desk said.
Dr John agrees with both and said, "Innate immunity is innate and is not affected by lockdown or mask-wearing or staying away from crowds etc."
CLAIM 3: Antibodies Produced by COVID-19 Vaccine/Infection are Short-Lived
There is no data to prove that so far. Based on initial reports, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Director Randeep Guleria has said that antibodies produced after vaccination will last for up to eight months or longer.
"Currently, scientists are aggressively studying long-term protection provided by vaccines," the AIIMS Director told The Economic Times.
A study conducted on natural infections in the United Kingdom and published in the British Medical Journal said that antibodies protect against reinfection for at least six months.
The Health Desk agreed with Guleria and said, "We still need more time and evidence to know how long immunity will last following a COVID-19 vaccination. Evidence currently suggests that the immunity that's built up from a COVID-19 vaccine stays steady for about six months—and it's predicted to last even longer than that."
Bossche also said that the antibodies produced by the vaccines are “S (spike) specific” and will not help in overall protection.
Dr John disagrees with that says, "Antibodies are directed against antigens - all antibodies are "targeted", whether infection-induced or vaccine induced."
Who is Dr Geert Vanden Bossche?
Bigtree introduced Bossche as a "World renown vaccine specialist" in the first few seconds of the viral video and lists out his credentials.
Bossche's LinkedIn profile also lists previous roles at a number of recognised health organisations like the Gates Foundation, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) ,and the German Centre for Infection Research (DZIF).
DZIF, the Gates Foundation, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) and Solvay all have confirmed to AFP that they had at one point employed Vanden Bossche.
Bossche's work which is not published any reputed peer-revirewed journal is often cited by anti-vaxxers such as Bigtree, Wakefield, and Robert F Kennedy Junior. An article here points out how Bossche has echoed and possibly plagiarised several anti-vaccination activists.
The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) have all recommend the use of vaccines against COVID-19.
Starting 1 May, vaccination will be opened up for all those who are above 18 years old and it is crucial to take the vaccine to ensure that we don't see another wave of infections.
(This story has been published as a part of The Quint’s COVID-19 vaccine fact-check project targeting rural women.)
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