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March 2021

Vaccine Disinformation

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There is a lot of misinformation and downright disinformation out there regarding face masks, hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, the seriousness of COVID-19, etc. Many of these I already addressed in prior posts (see here and here). In this post, I focus solely on vaccine misinformation and disinformation in hopes my unvarnished explanation of the science might help vaccine skeptics make decisions based on facts rather than on disinformation spread by people with an anti-vaccine agenda, or who want to sell you something.

Several anti-vaccine disinformation themes have been circulating over the past weeks and a friend recently sent me a video by an MD that was full of disinformation and dishonesty. The video was thinly disguised marketing propaganda by Houston-based Dr. Steve Hotze. He is an MD, who does not seem to practice much medicine anymore, but has built an alternative medicine empire that pushes many vitamin and mineral supplement nostrums that he claims is all you need to fight the virus and other diseases. In other words, he advises people to avoid the vaccines and, instead, buy his concoctions. In December 2020, the FDA and FTC sent him a cease-and-desist letter to stop claiming that his supplements can treat diseases, especially COVID-19. The FDA found the products and marketing to be misleading. The FTC found him in violation of interstate transportation laws. I address his several points below, many of which have been echoed by other anti-vaxers.

  • The vaccines do not confer immunity to the virus and COVID-19. There is very much evidence that the vaccines do provide immunity against CoV-2 and strongly protect against COVID-19. That evidence is found in the many reports of antibody production, of T cell anti-viral responses, of cytokine responses to the vaccines, and in recently published reports out of Israel that the vaccines retard virus transmission. Then there are the several studies showing that the vaccines strongly prevent COVID-19 disease. Hotze and others provide zero evidence to back their allegations and ignore data that contradict their points.
  • These are not vaccines, but experimental gene therapies. The mRNA shots from Pfizer and Moderna, and the modified adenovirus vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are indeed vaccines. Researchers whittled down the virus genome to the essential viral spike genetic sequence needed to confer immunity. This means that the minimally effective part of the virus genome, rather than the whole viral genome, is used to provide protection from future infection. Old fashioned vaccines grew batches of viruses and then crippled them so that upon injection, they would infect cells, use their genetic information to express all their viral molecules on the cells, but not spread. The current vaccines simply use the genetic sequence for the spike protein, eliminating all other viral genetic sequences. That single genetic sequence is translated into the spike protein that is expressed on your cell surfaces much like what would have happened with an inactivated, whole virus vaccine. Therefore, the current vaccines are no more “gene therapy” than the whole virus vaccine. Both require expression of viral genes in order to alert the immune system.

Also, the term “gene therapy” conjures images of "Frankenscience." This is wrong. First, vaccines are not “therapy,” which is something that treats a disease after you catch it. Rather vaccines are prophylaxis, which prevents you from catching the disease in the first place. Gene therapy is a still developing field that works to replace, correct, or “knock-out” aberrant genes that cause non-viral health problems.

Furthermore, as I posted earlier, these vaccines are not experimental or hastily developed. They are based on vaccine platforms that have been over a decade in development, and, in some cases, have been used to develop human vaccines to rabies and Ebola. The only novel thing about them is using the CoV-2 spike protein to drive a protective immune response to subsequent infection with the virus. These spike-protein vaccines have been tested in tens of thousands of volunteers in phase 3 trials, and now have been injected into tens of millions vaccine recipients around the world. The vaccines have been wildly successful at preventing COVID-19, and have been proven to be very safe (see below). These are not experimental vaccines, but well developed, and well tested vaccines.

  • The vaccines alter your DNA. They absolutely do not. It is biologically impossible for them to do that. I discussed this fallacy in a prior post.
  • There is no off switch for the viral gene expression caused by the vaccines. This too is not at all true. No vaccine in history has had its viral genes expressed long term. In fact, your cells continually produce their own mRNA to direct production of cellular proteins that drive cell function. Cells are also full of enzymes called RNases that digest mRNA once it has done its job. Thus, your own mRNA is very short lived in your cells. The same is true for the viral mRNA inserted into cells from an inactivated viral vaccine, from an adenovirus-based vaccine, or from an mRNA vaccine. The mRNA will only last a day or two in your cells before it is digested and permanently disappears. This is the off switch.
  • We do not know about the long-term or delayed responses to the vaccines. Yes we do. First, I challenge people who purport to be worried about long-term effects to name one vaccine that has ever had a long-term adverse effect. As I described above, vaccines are short-lived; their only long-lasting legacy are memory T and B cells that protect you from future exposure to the pathogen.

On the other hand, delayed adverse effects were a potential concern when the vaccine was being developed as I described earlier, but that has proven to be of no concern. There is a rare adverse response to prior exposure to a pathogen, whether naturally or via vaccine. This is called Antibody Dependent Enhancement (ADE) of the infection. This was seen with the vaccine against the Dengue virus where the antibody response actually enhanced viral infection in new cells. Because of this, all new vaccines to novel viruses are carefully tested for potential ADE effects.

During the early stages of anti-CoV-2 vaccine development, caution prevailed, and the vaccines were assessed for potential ADE, as reported earlier in these pages. The clinical trials showed absolutely no evidence for ADE. Since then, millions of people around the world have been vaccinated and not a single case of ADE has been found.

Therefore, concern over ADE was theoretical and never became a practical matter. Anti-vaxers who keep bringing this up as a concern, such as Dr. Hotze, and America’s Frontline Doctors choose to ignore demonstrable facts in favor of continued fear mongering and appealing to emotions. A few countries around the world have begun arresting people for spreading such disinformation that disuades people from being vaccinated, which can lead to deaths caused by the disease.

  • Many people have died from the vaccines. That is flat wrong, and in fact, the opposite is true. In the US, ~550,000 people have died from recognizable COVID-19 while only nine (out of several million vaccinated people) might have died due to vaccine complications (discussed below). The CDC has a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) that lists all reported adverse events and deaths that occur shortly after vaccination, whether or not they are caused by the vaccine. Seeing as how tens of millions od people in the US have been vaccinated, unrelated health problems and deaths are expected to occur by chance. If you blew kisses at 50 million people, several of them would die in the next day or two just by chance. The air kisses did not kill them. The trick is to distinguish chance deaths vs possible vaccine-related deaths.

In order to determine whether a new vax causes adverse health effects, CDC doctors look for recurring patterns. If they see a pattern of similar types of death in certain people they pay closer attention to that group and even back off vaccinating them. With one extremely rare exception with one of the current vaccines as discussed below, these kinds of patterns have not been seen with the current vaccines.

  • The COVID vaccines will not eradicate the virus any more than flu vax eradicates flu. This statement by Hotze and others is either dishonest or they are ignorant of basic virology. It ignores the fact that flu rapidly changes every season, making it very hard to eradicate. The statement also ignores the facts that small pox has been fully eradicated by vaccines, and that in the US measles and polio have been eradicated—the only cases we see here come from overseas. Whether or not the COVID vaccines can eradicate CoV-2 depends on how well they work against the viral variants, how quickly the variants arise, and how many people are vaccinated in the next few months.
  • Herd immunity caused by natural infection is better than the vaccine. This statement too betrays ignorance of the disease and of vaccinology. Natural immunity to CoV-2 comes with the cost of many deaths and with many more people suffering long-term health problems caused by COVID-19. Again, the vaccines have not been linked to deaths or to lasting health problems. Vaccines are used to confer herd immunity without running the risk of the deadly consequences of the disease. By all measures, the vaccines confer significant protection against the disease and are more reliable than natural immunity where you cannot ensure a uniform level of infection and immunity for everyone.
  • Companies are reaping great profits off their lies. Pfizer and Moderna and other vaccine producers are providing the vaccines at cost during the pandemic. They are not profiting from them. Also, Moderna has announced it will not enforce its patents on its vaccine platform, but will share its technology with other companies and researchers during the current pandemic. In contrast, Dr. Hotze and others clearly are using the pandemic for their profit.
  • Companies are withholding raw data on their vaccines. Raw data for the approved vaccines was shared with two CDC committees consisting of scientists, vaccinologists, pathologists, epidemiologists and statisticians. That raw data was the basis for the emergency authorization of the vaccines (see below). Generally, raw data are only released to CDC and FDA and not to the public. What is released to the public are data summaries in the form of peer-reviewed journal publications and these are coming out and will continue to come out over the next few years.

The above are points Hotze has made and that are often repeated by other anti-vaxers. Below, I address other criticisms and questions about the vaccines that I have heard others, but not Hotze raise.

  • The vaccines are not FDA approved. Well, I wonder then who gave the vaccines Emergency Use Authorization (EUA)! True, EUA is not full FDA approval, but EUA approval still comes from 30 FDA experts after a rigorous evaluation of all existing data for efficacy and safety. That is well above the 2-3 experts that typically review science papers for peer reviewed publications. The EUA approval for each vaccine was based on data from about 40,000 subjects enrolled in the late stage clinical trials. Since then, millions more people have been vaccinated and their data continues to be collected and reviewed. Recent reports of this "real world" data continue to support the great safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
  • Some vaccines are better than others. The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, which were the first tested and approved, showed ~95% efficacy, while the Adenovirus-based Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was later tested and approved, only showed around 70% efficacy. So, shouldn’t we favor the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines? No. All the currently approved vaccines, including the J&J one, are very effective. And it is impossible to compare the relative efficacy of different vaccines from data obtained in separate trials. In order to gain an accurate comparison of different vaccines, they need to be tested in head-to-head, controlled trials in order to assure that similar patient populations are being tested against the same viral variant. For example, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were tested before we noticed viral variants that seem to be more infectious than the original virus. And neither company tested their vaccines in South Africa where one of the more infectious variants is rampant. In contrast, J&J began testing their vaccine after the variants began spreading around the world, and they also tested their vaccine in South Africa. This means that the Pfizer/Moderna vaccines were tested against different strains of the virus than the J&J vaccine, which confounds comparing their relative efficacy.
  • Bill Gates is promoting vaccines so he can inject us with microchips to track us. [big sigh]…Yeah, and one of the America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that claims hydroxychloroquine can cure COVID-19, said there is alien DNA in some of our medicines. I don’t waste my time with tinfoil-hat comments.
  • The vaccines cause infertility. This is based on bunk-science that began circulating last December. That rumor was solidly debunked by several sources, but the meme has been repackaged into new messages about de-population strategies. I give this the same attention I give to the silly notion that Bill Gates is trying to use the vaccines to microchip us. The vaccines do not cause infertility.

But, what about nursing mothers? Will the vaccines affect their babies? The answer is yes, but in a good way. Since babies are born with a very immature immune system, their first line of defense against pathogens comes from their mother’s antibodies that cross the placenta and that are found in mother’s milk. This “passive immunity” is an important first line of immune defense for newborns. Lactating women who have been vaccinated do show anti-CoV-2 antibodies in their milk, which provides the newborns with a temporary defense against the virus. That is a good thing.

  • The AstraZeneca vaccine causes blood clots. Over the past few weeks, 25 patients in Europe, almost all women under the age of 55, who received the AstraZeneca vaccine developed rare blood clots and nine died. The European Medicines Academy (EMA) met to review the data and found that overall clotting in vaccine recipients was less than in the general unvaccinated population. However, there are different clinical types of blood clotting problems, and for two very, very rare types, it was expected that ~2 clotting cases would arise by chance out of the ~20 million vaccinated people. But, 17 cases were reported. This is the kind of adverse event pattern that public health officials look for, as I described above. Again, exercising an abundance of caution, more than 20 European countries paused using the vaccine. However, within a week, the WHO and the EMA had reviewed the data and found that the extremely rare risk of vaccine-associated blood clots was significantly less than the risk of serious health problems from COVID-19 disease and advised that the vaccine be continued.

Final words. The disinformation about the anti-CoV-2 vaccines is disheartening, but seems to have been spawned by the roundly discredited claims by Dr. Andrew Wakefield a few years ago that the MMR vaccine was responsible for autism in kids. For that fraudulent reporting, Dr. Wakefield's paper was retracted and his medical license was taken away. Sadly, the damage was already done and continues today against all vaccines. Vaccines are one of the greatest health protection tools in the healthcare tool box and the naysayers are indeed killing people with their illogical and emotional appeals that are bereft of facts. How to counter such disinformation was a topic in a very recent article in Scientific American. What they recommend is beyond the scope of this post, but I hope that my presentation of the facts and reasoned criticism of anti-vax rhetoric is a step in that direction.

In The Midst Of The Vaccine Frenzy, Let’s Not Forget Drugs

Why drugs? While there is palpable excitement over the great success of several vaccines against the CoV-2 virus, companies around the world also have been developing new anti-coronavirus drugs to treat infections. As of March 5, the Milken Institute tracker reports that 251 vaccines are still in development, and 323 anti-viral drugs also remain under development.

While vaccines have dominated our thoughts in recent weeks, drugs can still play a very important role too. For example, even though we have vaccines for influenza, we also have the drug Tamiflu that shortens and reduces the severity of the flu. The drug is useful when we guess wrong about the strains of flu to vaccinate against each year. It also is used as prophylaxis for people working with the flu virus in clinical and research labs since they often work with flu strains that are not included in the annual vaccines. Also, while we have not been able to develop vaccines against hepatitis C or HIV, due to the quirkiness of those viruses, we have been able to take advantage of their biochemical quirks to develop drugs that now cure hepatitis C and that have turned HIV into a manageable and mild chronic problem rather than a death sentence.

All of this begs two questions; why would vaccines be needed if we had an effective drug against the virus, and why would a drug be needed if we had an effective vaccine against the virus? The answer has to do with the difference between prevention vs treatment. Prevention (i.e., vaccination) is ideal, but it takes time to develop vaccines to novel pathogens; hence, the value of an effective anti-coronavirus  drug to treat novel species of the virus that will arise in the future. Treatment (i.e, with a drug) also is good, but it still is better to prevent disease than to respond to it after you get sick.

So, there definitely remains a significant role for an effective anti-coronavirus drug even while we have successful vaccines. First, some people cannot be vaccinated or they have a compromised immune system that would render a vaccine ineffective. These people need an effective anti-viral drug. Second, as we have seen over the last decade with SARS, MERS, and now CoV-2 and its variants, deadly coronaviruses are popping up that require a swift response by public health folks. Even though the vaccines to CoV-2 were developed in record time, the virus still killed a couple million people around the world and caused untold long-term health problems in millions more before we had the vaccines. Furthermore, the current vaccines very likely will not be effective against the next species of coronavirus that visits us. Current vaccines also might show reduced effectiveness against newly arising CoV-2 variants. In fact, the AstraZeneca vaccine has proven so ineffective against a novel CoV-2 strain that arose in South Africa, that that country no longer uses it. Therefore, having a drug that can be quickly distributed to meet a new coronavirus threat would go a long way to protect us against future outbreaks while vaccines are being developed.

The new anti-viral drugs: More than a year into the pandemic, we have very limited drug options. Hydroxychloroquine showed early promise, but controlled clinical trials showed it to be a bust, as was ivermectin, which the FDA recently disapproved for COVID-19 patients. Only remdesivir has been authorized for use in COVID-19 patients, and it only provides modest benefit in hospitalized patients, reducing their stays by a couple of days. However, recent encouraging, but preliminary, results suggest an effective anti-coronavirus drug might have been found. The pill, molnupiravir, which is being developed by Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Merck, significantly reduced infectious virus in 182 subjects in a phase 2 clinical trial. After five days of treatment, no virus was detected in any of the treated volunteers, while subjects who received a placebo did show virus. The drug interferes with the biochemistry involved in viral reproduction inside cells, therefore it prevents viral spread. Further study of the new drug is under way.

And four other potential anti-viral drugs are in mid-to-late stage trials at NIH under the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) program. ACTIV is a public-private partnership program to coordinate research strategy that prioritizes and speeds development of promising COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, and was launched on August 4, 2020. Like the vaccines, these new antiviral drugs are being developed in record time.

The drugs include SNG001 developed by Synairgen; it is an inhalable beta interferon delivered by nebulizer. Beta interferon is a cytokine produced by virally infected cells as a first line defense against viral replication. There also is AZD7442, a long-acting monoclonal antibody combination (AstraZeneca), and Camostat mesilate, an orally administered enzyme inhibitor designed to block CoV-2 from entering cells (Sagent Pharmaceuticals). 

Eli Lilly has also reported positive results with a combination of two antibody drugs, bamlanivimab and etesevimab (who comes up with these names?), that cut COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths by 70% in recently diagnosed patients. These are anti-CoV-2 antibodies produced in the laboratory and work by mimicking the body’s immune system to give infected patients a head start fighting the disease while their natural immune systems ramp up to deal with a new pathogen. These also were developed as part of the ACTIV program and have been approved by the FDA to treat mild to moderate COVID-19 in people at high risk for severe disease. The feds have purchased large quantities of these Lilly antibody drugs and is making them available to qualified patients at no cost.  Meanwhile, on January 5, 2021 Durham, NC biotech company, Brii Biosciences, launched an ACTIV study on two other investigational lab-produced antibodies designed to neutralize the CoV-2 virus

That leaves a bit over 300 more investigational anti-coronavirus drugs to go.

Messenger-RNA Vaccines Are The Buzz, But The Real Technology Advance Is The Lipid Mixture That Delivers The mRNA

The back story: Messenger-RNA vaccines have been wildly successful against the coronavirus and are very safe. Expect more of them in the future, even for flu. As exciting as it is to see a simple mRNA sequence generate immunity to a pathogen, it is the less “sexy” lipid, or concoction of fat molecules that makes it possible and has been a bit of a bottleneck in manufacturing the vaccines.

Messenger RNA is a fragile molecule since there are RNA-degrading enzymes called RNases all over the place. Therefore, researchers decided to encapsulate the genetic material inside a protective shell composed of a cocktail of different types of the fatty molecules that, in a solution, will form mini-cells called lipid nanoparticles. These nanoparticles essentially mimic the lipid membrane of your cells so that when, after injection and they bump into a cell, the lipids of the nanoparticle and of the cell membrane fuse, spilling the mRNA into the cells. There, normal cellular machinery can transcribe the mRNA sequence into a viral spike protein that is expressed on the cell surface, stimulating an immune response. There also are RNase enzymes inside cells that digest the mRNA after it has done its business so the vaccine genetic material naturally disappears in a couple of days and cells cease expressing the spike protein.

Some history: Since the 70s, research has been underway into using lipid nanoparticles to deliver large, fragile bio-molecules and drugs to cells. But, but the nanoparticles are notoriously difficult to make and use. Bob Langer, now a Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT has been working with lipid nanoparticles since the 70s when he was a pioneer trying to prove you can capture and transport big, complex molecules like DNA and RNA inside tiny lipid nanoparticles without destroying them. Many people told him it was not possible and he had his first 9 grant applications rejected—and this was a time when research grants were pretty easy to get. He also could not get a faculty position because people did not believe in his research.

But, he did succeed. Today, Professor Langer has a bioengineering lab at MIT bearing his name. The lab is focused on the intersection of biotechnology and materials science. In 2010, Langer branched out and co-founded a small biotech company named Moderna where he’s still on the board. That company, like the German biotech company, BioNTech, has, over the last decade been developing mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases, cancer and rare illnesses. The Moderna mRNA vaccine, developed along with researchers at NIH, is Moderna’s first commercial product.

The lipid nanoparticle field had a watershed moment in 2018, when the FDA approved the first drug delivered via lipid nanoparticles from yet another biotech, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Their nanoparticles were used to encapsulate and deliver a drug, Onpattro, to treat a rare genetic disease that causes nerve and heart damage. That meant that before the coronavirus pandemic, regulators already had some familiarity and comfort with using lipid nanoparticles to deliver therapeutic molecules. The technology is not brand new as some vaccine naysayers like to claim.

Another scientist, Thomas Madden, worked for years with Alnylam on developing that pioneering lipid delivery system. However, before the FDA approved Alnylam’s delivery system, Madden had moved on to his own Vancouver-based company, Acuitas Therapeutics, which hoped to develop mRNA therapeutics for different diseases. Madden recalls an epiphany in 2011, when he realized that in order to successfully use mRNA for therapeutic purposes; they needed a better delivery system to protect the mRNA from the ubiquitous RNases that quickly digest any mRNA found circulating outside of cells.

To prevent that from happening, he adapted the lipid-packaging technology developed at Alnylam, thinking that if the mRNA could be packaged inside the artificial lipid membranes it  would protect the fragile genetic mRNA from the ubiquitous RNase enzymes. This became the basis for the technology behind the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines. The mRNA in Covid shots sits inside a lipid shell composed of four lipids. After protecting the mRNA on its journey into a person’s arm, the nanoparticle gets taken up into a cell and the mRNA is released inside the cells. Once inside the cell, the mRNA instructs the cell to produce copies of the coronavirus spike protein, which is then recognized by the body’s immune system.

Moderna has designed its own lipids used to create the nanoparticles, while Pfizer has licensed the Acuitas lipid delivery technology. Yet another mRNA vaccine is being developed by another biotec, CureVac, which also is using the Acuitas lipid technology. Each of these companies was engaged in early clinical trials of other mRNA therapeutics before the pandemic and CoV-2 burst onto the world stage. They all pivoted their efforts to develop several novel vaccines against the novel coronavirus in record time.

When Covid-19 emerged, Madden, from Acuitis Therapeutis, flew to Germany to talk to regulators and BioNTech officials about how they could most quickly commence clinical trials of mRNA COVID-19 shots. They decided to repurpose the lipid nanoparticle from a very new rabies vaccine recently developed by CureVac, since it had proven effective in people. This gave regulators further confidence on the safety and potential for lipid delivery of the coronavirus spike protein mRNA.

In a nut shell, that is how we got to this point so quickly. An important take-home message is that the mRNA vaccine technology and lipid nanoparticle delivery system are not new concepts. The vaccines are the product of decades of research and trials conducted by several academic and biotechnology labs. The lipid nanoparticle delivery system has proven effective and safe for delivering other vaccines and drugs.

In an earlier blog post, I dubbed this amazing new biology, BioX, after the name of the new and amazing space enterprise known as SpaceX.

New challenges: As Moderna and Pfizer have, almost overnight, greatly ramped up production of their lipid nanoparticle delivery systems, supply chain issues became evident. Soon after getting its mRNA vaccine approved, Pfizer announced it was scaling back the number of doses it would deliver due to difficulty obtaining the raw chemical materials needed to make the necessary lipid compounds. Until a year ago, the German biotech company, BioNTech, that partnered with Pfizer, purchased only a few grams at a time of the needed chemicals to produce its lipids for a cancer vaccine research program. Now the company is tapping huge German chemical conglomerates like Merck and Evonik Industries for barrels of the stuff in order to manufacture 2 billion vaccine doses this year. Moderna also has dramatically scaled up its need for chemicals to produce the lipids that go into its promised one billion vaccine doses. Other mRNA vaccines are also being developed by CureVac NV and Sanofi, both of which will require massive amounts of the raw materials. Lipids have leaped to the top of the world’s health-care supply-chain priority list.

Major drug and chemical makers have taken notice of the new demand for the lipid chemicals. In early February, Germany’s Merck agreed to speed up the supply of lipids to BioNTech while Evonik followed suit a week later. Evonik is repurposing tanks and vessels at two plants in Germany and buying new instruments for the purification process. Typically, in the pharma industry such large-scale manufacturing scale-up takes a year or two, but Evonik plans to do this in a couple of months in order to meet the sudden and immediate demand.

That is the German version of Warp Speed.

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