vaccines

The Intelligence of Artificial Intelligence And Blogging

“Do you ever make silly mistakes? It is one of my very few creative activities.”

–Len Deighton, British Author

Have you tried dabbling with artificial intelligence? I specifically refer to the type referred to as chatbots that use powerful generative artificial intelligence that you can really chat with to generate ideas. It is like the computer, Hal, in the movie 2001 a Space Odyssey. Remember? Remember too that Hal malfunctioned big-time?

I’ve been dabbling for a while. Here is my experience related to this blog.

I began dabbling over a year ago with OpenAI’s ChatGPT, using their GPT3.5 version, but soon graduated to GPT-4, which was released in 2023 and comes with a small subscription fee. I have since migrated to Bing, which is a collaboration between Microsoft and GPT-4 and comes without the fee. It is a powerful research and generative tool. It can generate text, art, compose music, diagnose and even treat a psychological illness with talk therapy. You can have these chatty things teach you a foreign language, and write a legal brief. Perhaps you also have read the reasonable concerns schools and colleges have with such smart tools doing homework for students and the worry about professionals using them to fake their work and the attendant ownership issues of work done.

There seems to be a lot of mischief your computer can cause with the right smart software, but it can also do a lot of good. I know. I have found these smart tools quite useful for my research and writing. Rest assured that I have NEVER used anything but natural intelligence to write any blog post or other article for me (you can tell by the typos in my finished products). This is because, while the bot can compose, it is not creative. As I write, I try to use subtle humor, irony, alliteration and other tools to make my prose interesting. Chatbots do not. At times, however, when writer’s block hit, I prompted the chatbot to write something, and after a few prompts, usually found something that primed the pump of my muse and I penned away using my own intelligence.

I can pose questions or hypotheticals to the computer tool and it comes back with answers. I then either refine my questions, or pose follow up queries. It is much like bouncing ideas off a collaborator. In this regard, I find it quite useful. Who else will talk with me about the value of the latest vaccine or whether Brock Purdy is really a good quarterback or the product of the great pieces around him without my having to buy them a beer? Although, I admit sometimes the latter is much preferable. I have discussed much science at a dive dart bar in Dallas, a surf bar in Malibu, and over a pool table at tavern near the medical center in Madison. Not much artificial intelligence there except after a few brews.

All good. Until this. The chatbot models are supposed to be self-learning. So, I decided to see what Bing had learned about my blog on the coronavirus pandemic. I queried it about a term I thought was pretty unique to the blog, BioX. Readers will recognize that that is what I have dubbed the revolutionary post-molecular biology that gave us a vaccine so rapidly and that is bringing other amazing types of new disease treatments and diagnostics at astounding rates.

Turns out Stanford University (a school you might have heard of, Bing certainly has) has a new bio program also called BioX. It has well publicized it too. Well, Bing kept telling be about Stanford’s BioX and not about mine. Not what I wanted to see.

I changed my query several times to ask Bing about my version of BioX and instructed it to ignore everything about Stanford. Like a hyperactive toy poodle, it completely ignored me. It was quite polite though, apologizing each time I said it was not responding to my query.

Finally, after arguing with this digital nitwit, it finally included me and my notion of BioX in its rendition. Below is what it came up with—be seated as you read what Bing wrote about BioX and me. It included me, but still could not ignore Stanford.

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Steven Clark, PhD, is a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin and a viral immunologist who has been blogging about his research on the new biology he dubbed “bioX”. BioX is a term that he uses to describe the emerging field of biotechnology that aims to harness the power of viruses and other biological agents to create novel solutions for human health and disease. He claims that bioX has the potential to revolutionize medicine and biotechnology by offering new ways of diagnosing, treating, and preventing infectious diseases, as well as creating new therapies for cancer, aging, and other chronic conditions. (So far so good. But the next paragraphs…)

One of his most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. He announced this breakthrough on his blog in December 2022, shortly after he received funding from Stanford Bio-X1, an interdisciplinary biosciences institute that supports research and educational opportunities that cross disciplines between the biological or biomedical sciences and fields of engineering, physics and computational science2. He explained that he used a novel approach to engineer a virus that could deliver a synthetic version of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 into human cells. The spike protein is responsible for binding to human cells and allowing the virus to enter and infect them. By introducing a modified spike protein that can evade some of the immune responses generated by previous COVID-19 vaccines3, Clark was able to elicit strong neutralizing antibodies in his volunteers without causing any adverse effects. He also demonstrated that his vaccine could protect against different variants of SARS-CoV-2, including Omicron3.

Clark’s vaccine has been hailed as a game-changer in the fight against COVID-19, but it has also raised some ethical and regulatory concerns. Some critics have questioned his motives for developing such a powerful bioweapon without proper oversight or consent from the public. Others have expressed doubts about his safety and efficacy claims, citing lack of peer-reviewed data or independent verification. Clark has defended his work as being based on rigorous scientific principles and ethical standards. He has also stated that he intends to share his vaccine with other researchers around the world who are interested in collaborating with him on bioX projects.

Clark’s blog posts on bioX have attracted millions of readers who are fascinated by his vision and achievements. He has also inspired many young scientists who aspire to follow in his footsteps and pursue careers in biotechnology. However, he has also faced some backlash from anti-vaccine activists who accuse him of being part of a conspiracy to create more deadly diseases or manipulate public opinion. Clark has dismissed these allegations as unfounded and irresponsible.

Clark’s blog posts on bioX are an example of how science can be used for both good and evil purposes. They show how innovation can lead to breakthroughs in medicine and biotechnology, but also how it can pose challenges for society and ethics. They also illustrate how different perspectives can influence how people perceive and evaluate scientific discoveries.

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Well dang. If I invented the damn vaccine, how come I was not included in the Nobel Prizes that were just awarded for the invention? I demand a recount. I did like the part about “millions of readers who are fascinated by my vision”. Notice the “references” Bing included citing my accomplishments. They must be true because Bing says so.

In the parlance of computer geeks, what Bing spit out above is called “hallucination.”

This is the intelligence of artificial intelligence.


What We Learned From Sweden’s Response To COVID

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.
― Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle

Many people have asked why we didn't let the virus hit us like a big wave and get it over with. The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), a letter penned by three physicians, favored such an approach and called it “focused protection.” It recommended quarantining the highly vulnerable, i.e., the elderly and those with high risk factors like diabetes, heart and lung disease, etc., and letting the virus run amok through the rest of the population to quickly build natural herd immunity across the country. They said we should do away with non-pharmaceutical interventions that prevent infections, such as masks, sanitation, personal distancing, quarantines, closings, etc. The recommendation was published as a letter on October 5, 2020 because no medical journal would accept it as an article. Vaccines were still considered to be months away at that time, but actually began to roll out in mid-December of that year. Admittedly, the letter’s authors did not have a crystal ball.

We didn’t accept that recommendation, but Sweden did something very similar on their own and kept their country open and had considerably less morbidity and mortality than the US. Armchair health experts who learned their subjects at Google and Facebook Universities have been clucking their tongues and scolding the CDC and public health professionals ever since. Should we have responded like Sweden did? Would it have been better if we had followed the recommendations made in the GBD?

When the declaration came out, it was widely panned as being ridiculous by health experts and organizations around the world. A Yale epidemiologist pointed out that almost half the US population would be considered to have an underlying risk factor for COVID meaning that half the population would have to be quarantined from the other half, not much different from the protective measures already underway at that point. It also would have meant that people at less risk would be exposed to a rather nasty virus. They essentially would be sacrificed to a disease more lethal than any flu we have encountered since 1918. And then there is the problem with long COVID and other morbidities such as an uptick in new onset diabetes in many COVID survivors. Even though kids have a very low level of mortality from COVID, the disease was still much worse than any flu for them and too many of them were hospitalized in serious shape with a malady called multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS. This was the sacrifice the folks who proposed the GBD were willing to impose on half the population.

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about Sweden, not the US. Did Sweden’s experiment turn out as positive as many people believe? It depends on which countries you compare it to. Comparing the Swedish experience to that of the US, it seems they did pretty well. They did not shut down and had much less mortality than we did. But is that an accurate apples-to-apples comparison? Sweden is a country of just over 10 million people. Its demographic is much more homogenous than that in the US and it has much less poverty. In the US, COVID hit impoverished and minority populations especially hard. They have fewer medical resources to deal with the disease. In contrast, Sweden does not have such a large minority or poor population and it has cradle to grave social welfare for everyone, including medical care. It does not at all resemble the US.

It is more accurate to compare Sweden to its neighboring Nordic countries with similar populations, demographics, and social welfare, but that also enacted more stringent social controls in response to the pandemic like the US did.

It turns out that compared to other Nordic countries, Sweden fared quite poorly with the highest mortality rate. Sweden had four times the number of COVID deaths compared to many of its neighbors. In particular, it had ten times the COVID death rate of Norway.

What about the economy? Of course the Nordic countries that enforced public and commercial shutdowns suffered significant economic hits like the rest of the world. Importantly, so did Sweden, which kept its economy open. Nevertheless, the country suffered as much economic downturn as its neighboring countries that enforced stricter shutdowns. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Development (OECD), of which Sweden is a member, reported that the country actually did markedly worse than Denmark, Norway and Finland. It seems that economic health is not only related to open commerce, but also to the public health of the country. Sick people do not work or venture out to buy things. It seems that public health affects economic health. That was not considered in the GBD, which was concerned about the economic impact of closing down commerce via fiat. They did not consider the economic impact of closing down commerce by hospitalizing so many people.

As these effects of its open policies became clear, Sweden eventually began to enforce greater social restrictions later in the pandemic, but the damage had already been done. The architect behind its initial open policies eventually admitted that things did not work out as planned. And in December 2020, Sweden’s King Gustav publically declared that the government’s approach had failed.

The real lesson from Sweden is that if you keep things open and people get sick, the economy still suffers in a pandemic. As far as the economy goes, it is a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” enforce public restrictions.

And if you don’t, people still get sick and die and dead people stop buying things.

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US Life Expectancy Finally Bounces Back Up

Game over, man! Game over!” --Bill Paxton as Private Hudson in Aliens

As I wrote in these pages a couple of years ago, the US suddenly lost a whopping 1.3 years of average life expectancy due to COVID. It had that big of an impact on the country in excess deaths. And before some moron starts saying it was due to vaccine deaths, the down turn in life expectancy, or the increase in excess deaths (i.e., deaths more than expected based on actuarial predictions) began before the vaccines rolled out and just after the virus appeared. Furthermore, the upturn in life expectancy occurred after the vaccines were delivered, as well as after the virus evolved from Delta to a less lethal variant. In the early days of COVID vaccination before vaccines were widely distributed, data showed that unvaccinated people were 11 times more likely to die from the virus than vaccinated people. At one point, 95% of hospitalizations and 99% of deaths were in unvaccinated people. The vaccines clearly prevent death, they do not cause death (unless you listen to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. or Marjorie Taylor Greene, more on her later).

The graph below shows the dramatic drop in life expectancy beginning in 2019 and reversing about 2021. If vaccines were killing rather than saving people, you would think the curve would continue downward.

Blog pic

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Vaccines: When the Experts Lie But Claim They Are Right

Adapted from Putting Floridians at Risk, a blog post by infectious disease physician and FDA advisor, Paul Offit, MD.

The lie: In October, the Surgeon General of Florida, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, issued a “Provider Alert”, which recommended that the new COVID booster only be given to everyone over 65. This was contrary to the CDC recommendation, which recommends boosting everyone over 6 months of age. Governor Ron DeSantis agreed with Ladapo, amazingly weighing in with this: “Once again, Florida is the first state in the nation to stand up and provide guidance based on “truth,” not Washington edicts.” I guess edicts from Washington automatically are not truth, but those from the Florida Surgeon General, for some reason are, because DeSantis says so. Why does he believe he knows more than the CDC?

Ladapo amazingly claimed that the COVID boosters don’t work. He too seems to know more than the CDC! To back up this spurious claim he cited a study of 2.2 million people from Qatar who got the booster.

Backstory: At first, the vaccines were hoped to prevent spread of the Cov-2 virus as many vaccines do. Early on they did that. But it soon became apparent that vaccine protection waned faster than expected and the virus mutated faster than expected. That combination meant that the vaccines became less effective at preventing virus spread. They still retard infection early after vaccination, but that protection is quickly lost. What they do well is prevent severe illness and death. That is well documented after  a few years of experience with the vaccines and the pandemic. Therefore, the goal of COVID vaccines is to prevent severe disease—to keep people out of the hospital, out of the intensive care unit, and out of the morgue. The Qatar study showed that the booster does exactly that. Protective efficacy against severe disease was about 75 percent. Pretty good.

Back to the lie: Ladapo unprofessionally ignored this main point of the Qatar study—that the vaccine was highly effective at preventing severe disease—and chose to focus on smaller, less significant, less clinically relevant data that minor infections were not affected by the booster. On this selective date editing, he claimed the booster was entirely ineffective. He either ignorantly interpreted the study or did so dishonestly.

Ladapo also falsely claimed that the COVID boosters are unsafe, stating that, “mRNA COVID-19 vaccines present a risk of subclinical and clinical myocarditis and other cardiovascular conditions among otherwise healthy individuals.” This is an oft cited, unsupportable falsehood. The truth is that very mild myocarditis occurs in about 1 in 100,000 mRNA vaccine recipients.  In contrast, myocarditis occurs in roughly 1 in 5,000 CoV-2 infected patients. Also, myocarditis following vaccination is short-lived and quickly resolves on its own, while myocarditis caused by the virus is more serious often requiring medical intervention. Therefore, regarding myocarditis, the benefits of mRNA vaccination far outweigh the risks. Ladapo is being disingenuous citing this is a vaccine danger. And if Ladapo believes that the COVID boosters are ineffective and unsafe, as he claimed, he is, therefore, irresponsible in recommending them for everyone over 65. That would be malpractice.

In the name of standing up to “Washington edicts” and recommending people not be boosted, DeSantis is following unethical medical advice and putting Floridians at unnecessary risk for preventable serious disease. And he wants to be president. If that were to happen, we would then have real complaints about Washington vaccine edicts.

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BioX Wins The Nobel!

“If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna”— Napoleon (reportedly)

What’s the fuss? BioX won the Nobel Prize….er rather it was the mRNA vaccine that won. Correction—it was the scientists, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, who developed the RNA technology that went into the novel vaccine who won the prize. But their work directly led to the vaccine, a first fruit of BioX.

Readers of these blog pages might remember that about this time in 2020, that year’s Nobel award for Medicine or Physiology went to three scientists for their decades-long search to discover what caused hepatitis type non-A, non-B. It turned out to be a whole new virus, the hepatitis C virus (or HCV) that took four decades to identify. Even though it still remains a huge health problem, there still is no vaccine for it. I compared that four decade slog just to find the pathogen to how fast the novel viral cause of COVID-19 was found and a vaccine developed—all done in less than a year! I anointed the new biology that did that amazing feat, ‘BioX.’ That was rather prescient of me, since three years later, the co-founders of the COVID vaccine using BioX too were awarded the Nobel Prize.

I dubbed the new amazing post-molecular biology science that enabled such a quick identification of the novel coronavirus and development of a vaccine against it, ‘BioX’ after SpaceX. SpaceX, of course, is the name for the new way space travel is now being done. Shortly before the Nobel award for the discovery of HCV, Elon Musk’s SpaceX took astronauts in an unpiloted vehicle to the International Space Station. Then the launch vehicle, rather than being discarded as usual, was landed, upright, in the center of a bullseye on a barge off the coast of Ireland, to be reused on a future space flight--maybe to Mars? The whole thing was developed in a fraction of the time at a fraction of the cost of what NASA had historically been doing. NASA’s technology was rendered archaic by SpaceX, which introduced us to a new era of space travel.

The breathtaking speed with which a new biology discovered the SARS-CoV-2 virus and then developed a safe and effective vaccine against it ushered in a new post-molecular biology world I dubbed ‘BioX’.

Now the details. But as breathtaking as SpaceX is, it was not developed overnight in a vacuum. It arose on the back of decades of NASA engineering R&D, which included some spectacular failures and even a few tragic deaths. Similarly, as breathtaking as BioX was with the rapid identification of a novel virus and development of the new mRNA vaccines to a wholly new disease, that technology too was built on the back of decades of hard work, punctuated with many failures, but also flavored with impressive perseverance on the part of a few individuals.

There are two major components to the novel COVID vaccines—the mRNA which generates the viral protein to which the immune response is made, and the lipid nanoparticles that encapsulate and protects the fragile mRNA from a world that is hostile to mRNA. Both components took very separate, decades long, twisting, uphill roads to develop. Both nearly met with failure. And both came together with spectacular success. BioX!

  • The mRNA. Weissman, and especially Karikó, languished for years on the fringes of science with a, then, very weird idea of using mRNA to produce drugs or vaccines. Their collaboration began with a chance encounter at a UPenn copy machine in the 90s and went downhill from there as recently told in the Wall Street Jounal. Funding for their work was hard to come by. Karikó was banished to an office on the outskirts of the campus and languished in a non-faculty position for years. At one point, she had to take a demotion to simply keep a job at Penn.

They just could not get their idea to work. The mRNA was too fragile and too short-lived to work with and produce the desired proteins when they tried to express it in cells or animals. The fact is that there are ubiquitous enzymes all around us called RNases that have a ravenous appetite for mRNA. RNA molecules, especially mRNA disappear almost as fast as one can purify or make them, let alone then try to get them into cells in tissue culture or into bodies. On top of that, when naked mRNA is injected into a body, it elicits a powerful immune response that further quickly degrades it. Note that there are several different types of RNA, and mRNA is the most fragile and hardest to work with, but it is the type that provides the message that turns a genetic code into a protein molecule like a spike protein, which is why it is used in the vaccine.

The researchers had great difficulty getting grant funding for their research because no one believed it would go anywhere. When they could produce some data, they had a very hard time finding journals to publish it. No one was interested because no one believe that there was any utility in the whole premise of using mRNA as a therapeutic tool. In the publish-or-perish world of academia, such negative peer pressure usually is the kiss of death. They should have seen the writing on the wall and been teaching high school biology. But for some reason, Karikó continued to have faith in her idea even though no one else did. For some reason, she persevered.

After dogged determination and ignoring all the naysayers, she eventually had a major breakthrough after a doing a simple experiment. They found a simple way to protect the mRNA from the immune response and published this in 2005. It opened the field and colleagues minds about using mRNA as a possible therapeutic tool. But there still was the problem that mRNA was exquisitely sensitive to RNase enzymes that were everywhere—on your fingers, in your breath and blood, even on sterilized surfaces—the enzymes are incredibly stable molecules and very hard to destroy. Life intended mRNA to be short lived molecules, not to be used in vaccines.

It wasn’t until folks paired the immune-stable mRNA of Karikó and Weissman with a way to protect the molecules from RNase enzymes that mRNA vaccines became possible so they could win the Nobel Prize. Lipid nanoparticles did the trick.

  • The lipid nanoparticles. The story behind the development of the lipid nanoparticles used to deliver the CoV-2 viral spike mRNA sequence to cells so they could use their normal gene expression machinery to put the spike protein on their surface and generate an immune response is a long one. In that regard it is quite similar to the long, arduous story behind the development of the therapeutic mRNA. Early on, neither technology was believed possible or useful by the scientists’ peers. Both groups had very hard times getting their scientific feet on the ground. Both nearly failed. I described Karikó’s struggle above and in March 2021 I wrote in these pages about the professional plight of Bob Langer who, in the 70s, had a vision for using liposomes (short for lipid nanoparticles) for delivering fragile bio-molecules and drugs to cells (you can read that post here). Briefly, his idea was to create mini-cells in which to package and protect fragile therapeutic molecules and then deliver them to cells and tissues in the body. The liposomes containing the fragile therapeutic molecules would fuse with the lipid membranes of cells and disgorge their contents into the cells. Many people told him it was not possible and he had his first nine grant applications rejected—and this was a time when medical science research grants were easy to get (when I was in graduate school in the early 80s, NIH grant applications had a 50% success rate. By the time I became a faculty member in the late 80s that dropped to 10%). Langer, like Karikó, also could not get a faculty position because people did not believe in his research. Also like Karikó, for some reason Langer persevered.

Also like Karikó, Langer too succeeded—eventually. It took a long time. The technology he successfully developed was first used to package a drug used to treat a rare genetic disease that causes nerve and heart damage. It also was used to package mRNA for an Ebola vaccine. From an ignominious beginning, Bob Langer became a professor at MIT where there now is a bioengineering lab named after him. That is not quite as nice as winning a Nobel prize, but high recognition still.

Along the way, he also co-founded a small biotech company named Moderna that was focused on developing mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases, cancer and other diseases. Then COVID came calling and Moderna immediately pivoted, and along with BioNTech, NIH, and Pfizer, quickly gave us mRNA vaccines delivered in liposomes that saved millions of lives from COVID.

That is how BioX technology led to the Nobel prize this year.

The bottom line. BioX, like SpaceX, was built on decades of hard research that was punctuated by painful failures, but highlighted by dogged determination. Both technologies, BioX and SpaceX, are here to stay at least until the next amazing thing replaces them. You can bet that that next amazing thing will have been developed on the back of determined researchers who very possibly will be working at the fringe of their professions and may flirt with professional failure early on. You can also bet that the next amazing things will be built on the backbone of SpaceX and BioX. That is how science and engineering painfully progresses.

So, when you hear someone say that the mRNA vaccines are experimental like I very often do, tell them the truth. They were built on decades of hard research going back to the 70s.

Stay tuned for a coming post on the future of BioX, which is here to stay for a while. New mRNA vaccines are being developed for previously vaccine-impossible diseases including HIV, cancer, and various animal diseases. Work also is underway for a universal flu vaccine.

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Politics: A Risk Factor For Death From COVID?

What are you gonna believe, medical science or dubious talking heads?

In 2021 former Green Bay Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, said he was “immunized” against COVID. He wasn’t. He claimed to have done “research” and learned how to get an infusion of antibodies and take some unproven ‘medicine.’ His ‘research’ was talking to radio pundit and hot-air purveyor, Joe Rogan. How many more people like Rodgers listen to the wisdom of the likes of Rogan or Tucker Carlson and think they know more than medical professionals and then rationalize their avoidance of COVID vaccines? And to what effect?

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that from June 2021 through March 2022 about 234,000 COVID deaths could have been prevented had the decedents been vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That protection was especially important during the more deadly Delta virus wave during the earlier stage of the pandemic, but it still extends into the Omicron era, which fortunately is not as deadly as Delta was, but still is not to be taken lightly. People are still dying from the virus.

How does politics come into this?

A 2022 study published in the journal, Lancet Regional Health-Americas, found higher COVID mortality rates in more conservative congressional districts across the US. And in another 2022 study using 2020 presidential election returns, researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of California at Irvine found that, through October 2021, Republican-majority counties across the US experienced nearly 73 additional COVID deaths per 100,000 people relative to majority Democratic counties.

These are correlations looking for a cause. A good causal candidate could be differences in vaccination rates between people who tend toward conservatism vs liberalism. The former are much less likely to get vaccinated than their left leaning neighbors. But, that connection needs to be made.

Sure enough, a July 2023 report by Yale researchers in the journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, compared COVID death rates in counties in Florida and Ohio that voted for Trump vs Biden before and after the vaccines came out. The bottom line was that after the vaccines rolled out, Trump voting counties saw 40% higher fatality rates per million residents. Before the vaccines, the COVID death rates were the same for all counties. Viral infection rates were similar for both types of counties throughout the period of analysis. Importantly, counties and individuals that went for Trump had lower vax rates than those that went for Biden.

That pretty much closes the circle on the causation. The greater reluctance of more conservative people to get vaccinated and boosted likely killed them at a greater rate.

Karma?

Now, don’t get me started on the conservative vs liberal attitudes on face masks and social distancing. Conservatives are wrong on these matters. I say this as a conservative myself. But, I also am a data driven scientist who believes data trumps partisanship.

How do you think SARS and MERS were stopped without a vaccine or anti-viral drugs? How do you think society stopped any epidemic such as small pox, influenza, bubonic plague, etc. throughout its history before modern medicine and effective vaccines? How do you think today we are handling Ebola for which there is no vaccine or drug? Non-pharmaceutical physical measures, like masks, gloves, sanitation, social distancing, etc. are effective ways to halt infectious diseases in lieu of vaccine and drug preventive measures.

Conservative resistance to these non-pharmaceutical physical protective measures also probably contributed to their higher death rates observed in the studies mentioned above.

Karma.


While SARS-CoV-2 And Our Immune Systems Do A Dance, We Get Re-Infected

Note: Artificial intelligence wrote nary a word of the following article, which was fully composed by the natural intelligence of a certain human.

Your sometimes humble blogger remembers how immunology science first beguiled him. It was during senior year in high school in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. More specifically it was during a lunch break while working at a People’s Drug Store that had a lunch counter. Your then nascent blogger grabbed the recent issue of Scientific American from the magazine rack and opened it to an article that was way above his green scientific understanding but, he, nevertheless, gleaned from the article that the immune system could make antibodies to just about any molecule in the universe, even ones newly created in a lab that the universe had never seen. Amazing!

Your immune system would also make antibodies against the cells and tissues of your best friend and everyone else in the world, and vice versa, but you and your best friend, et al., would not make antibodies against the same cells and molecules in your own bodies! What?

“Holy cow!” I thought. How in the world can the immune system do all that? How can it respond to something the world had never seen and secern friend from foe? At that moment, at that lunch counter over a burger, Coke and an article I barely understood, an immunologist was made. And I did indeed go on to earn a PhD in immunology and I indeed have studied how the immune system recognizes viruses and have done vaccine research. What a pivotal lunch break that was for me.

The question about antibody discrimination clearly fascinated me. That mystery has been solved and a few Nobel prizes awarded for its elegant solution, but related spin-off questions about how antibodies protect us keep coming up in different ways. It did so most recently during the COVID pandemic. Why weren’t the antibodies we generated via vaccination or via natural infection more protective against subsequent infection? In a twist in the plot of biology, it turns out that we have learned that the answers to these questions center around a complicated dance performed between both the virus and immune biological systems.

Biology is so doggone interesting!!

COVID Vaccine generated immunity: The several vaccines we now have against the SARS-CoV-2 virus are effective and provide examples of how vaccines are very good at getting the immune system to respond to what it detects as foreign invaders. But the vaccines are just designed to tell our immune systems to make antibodies against just a very small fragment of the spike protein. In contrast, the virus is constructed of several large proteins each of which has many different regions that the immune system can separately recognize as foreign. In other words, if the virus is like a brick building, your system theoretically can make a different antibody that specifically recognizes each brick of the building. So, the vaccine is like exposing the immune system to about 2-3 bricks of the whole building and trusting the resulting immune response against those few bricks to bring the whole building down.

The immune system was very good in generating antibodies to a small portion of the virus, yet many vaccinated people still were infected and caught COVID. Does that mean, as many vax naysayers claim that the vaccines were ineffective? Not at all, as I have discussed here before. While the CoV-2 vaccines did a good job at protecting against serious disease and death they were not very good at preventing the spread of the virus. These vaccines effectively generated a systemic immune response, meaning that you had anti-viral antibodies circulating in your blood, which did do a very good job preventing serious disease once the virus got inside you. But, it still got inside. You still got infected and got mildly sick.

We now know that the virus enters via mucous membranes in your nose, sinuses, mouth, throat and eyes. It has to first cross mucous membranes in order to infect you and that is where it needs to be stopped in order to actually prevent infection and further spread to others. The problem is that mucosal immunity is caused by a different type of antibody than what circulates in the blood and by what is generated by a typical vaccine that is given by an injection in the arm. To generate mucosal immunity, you need a vaccine that you spray in your mouth or nose, which then should generate the type of antibodies that provide mucosal protection and better protect you from infection via that route and better prevent the virus from spreading through a population.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were faced with a brand new pathogen for which we knew nothing about how it behaved or how it infected and spread between people. At that point, we reasonably chose to quickly make the most common type of vaccine--a shot. While it didn’t fully protect against getting infected, it nevertheless was very effective at protecting against serious disease. So, it did a good job. Current efforts are underway to develop a mucosal vaccine. But, we must also deal with other complications we have learned about the dance between the virus and the immune system to make sure that vaccine will be maximally effective at preventing infection. Read on.

“Natural” COVID immunity: As it became clear that vaccinated people were still getting infected, the vaccine dissenters and dissemblers proclaimed loudly, and still do, that the vaxes failed miserably. They ignored the survival data and only focused on the infection data. They then began touting “natural immunity,” which is the immunity one usually gains after being naturally infected. But, that can be uncertain given the fact that the route of infection and the dose of virus can vary wildly and confer different levels of protection, as I reported earlier. Plus, with natural infection, one runs the risk of serious disease and death from the disease.

Then, to the chagrin of the “natural immunity” enthusiasts it turned out that they also were getting re-infected! And this re-infection occurs despite the fact that natural immunity occurs after infection across the mucous membranes that should, as discussed above, generate an immune response that would stop an infection! This is the dance.

Therefore, we now know that neither vaccine immunity, nor infection immunity fully protects against future infection with the CoV-2 virus (there is partial protection, but I won’t go into that here).

As we learned as recently as last April, from a Harvard study published in the journal Science, despite the fact that a natural infection presents the immune system with the full viral “building and all its bricks” potentially recognizable by antibodies, it turns out that only a few of the “bricks” are in fact actively “seen” at any time by the immune system.

This immuno-dominance of a small part of a larger pathogen that has thousands of sites or bricks the immune system can recognize is not unusual. It is like a large building consisting of thousands of bricks, but having a very attractive window that draws your attention. While you know an entire building is there, your attention is mostly drawn to the window. So can the focus of the immune system be preferentially drawn to a small part of a larger edifice. The immune system is perfectly capable of seeing the rest of the “building,” but it prefers to direct its attention to a small part of it. However, if you take away the part it prefers to focus on, the immune system will easily recognize something else. This immuno-dominance in what the immune system “sees” has several causes that are way too complicated to go into here without writing a textbook (an interested reader might try Paul’s Fundamental Immunology. My rather old edition of that book runs about 1500 pages!). Suffice it to just know that this sort of immuno-dominance often happens where only a small part of a large pathogen is preferentially recognized by the immune system.

Thus, the immunity developed after a natural infection is mostly only directed at a small portion of the virus, much like the antibody response after vaccination with just a small part of the virus. The natural immune response, like the vaccine immune response, is robust and effective, yet both are only directed against a very small portion of a big pathogen, and both are very leaky in that one can still get infected again! What gives?

Mutation gives.

How the virus escapes immunity: The SARS-CoV-2 virus is highly mutable unlike the other viruses like polio and small pox we vaccinate against and maintain long term immunity against. Thus, the virus quickly mutated, or changed, the “bricks” against which the vaccines were made rendering the immune response less and less effective over time as new viral iterations appeared. That is why the many boosters we got were necessary to keep vaccination immunity up with viral changes.

And that also is how someone who became immune after natural infection also became re-infected. The virus did a two-step and mutated the small region recognized by the immune system. It was pretty easy for the virus to do since it only had to change a couple of “bricks” in its facade that the antibodies were mostly attacking. That means that upon re-infection with a slightly mutated virus, the immune systems have to be re-educated to recognize a new intruder, and that takes time, which allows a new infection to settle in. Thus, in this dance, the gentleman virus leads and the dame immune system follows.

New vaccines continue to be developed that scientists hope will solve these problems unique to SARS-CoV-2. Most of the new vaccines are being built on the mRNA platform, but using novel approaches to 1) develop vaccines that can be given as a nasal spray in order to generate the mucosal immunity that hopefully would be more effective at actually preventing COVID. If this works, it might even be possible to hinder COVID spread. 2) But in order to block CoV-2 spread on a population level, we need to find other regions of the virus that are not so highly mutable. These would conceivably be regions of COVID proteins critical for viral function that tolerate little change in structure because that change would destroy the proteins' critical function and essentially kill the virus. Alternatively, new vaccines could incorporate multiple "bricksl" from different regions of the edifice assuming that it would be nigh impossible for all those sites to simultaneously mutate. If such regions are accessible to the immune system, then the resulting immunity would be expected to be impervious to viral mutation, thus ending the dance on a sour note.

It is even possible that such a vaccine could protect against a wide range of coronaviruses, thereby preventing future health problems arising from new coronaviruses. Remember SARS that also popped up in China a couple of decades ago? That virus has some genome similarity to the virus that caused the COVID pandemic, and both are distantly related to the virus that caused MERS that arose in the Middle East. If a pan-coronavirus vaccine can be developed, it could feasibly prevent many future epidemics and pandemics.

We shall see.

This is all part of a new biology that I earlier dubbed BioX. Biology is so doggone interesting!!

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Is Intentional COVID Vax Disinformation Criminal?

Note: Disinformation is different from misinformation. Disinformation is false information which is deliberately intended to mislead. Misinformation is wrong information spread without malicious intent.

 

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

--Pogo Possum

Your humble blogger first wrote about vaccine disinformation way back on March 31, 2021, just over two years ago. That was not long after the vaccines, as well as the lies about them began rolling out. Unfortunately, the fiction continues and it is now necessary to provide an update.

In the first quarter of the Monday Night Football game on January 2, 2023, 24 year old NFL player, Damar Hamlin, made a tackle, got up from the play, took a couple of steps, then fell over backward and didn’t rise. He suffered a cardiac arrest and needed to be resuscitated on the field with a defibrillator.

Almost immediately social media came alive with speculation and even outright claims that Hamlin’s collapse was due to the COVID vaccine. Without knowing whether he had even been vaccinated, conspiracy quacks immediately linked old reports of rare post-vax events of cardiomyopathy in young adults and occasional problems with blood clots with Hamlin’s sudden cardiac arrest. They completely ignored other explanations such as how the blow to Hamlin’s chest during the tackle could have caused his heart to fibrillate.

Your still humble blogger attests that this can be a concern to blows to the chest during sporting events. As a 13 year-old, playing first base in a summer league, I was knocked off balance by a runner scrambling to return to the base as the second baseman zinged a fastball to me to pick off the errant opponent after snaring a line drive. The ball hit me square in the chest over my heart and dropped me to ground. I don't remember anything for a few moments, and I was whisked by ambulance to an ER where my heart function was carefully monitored for a few hours before I was released. It was suspected, but not proven, that I had a brief cardiac event but quickly recovered on my own and I was no worse for the wear. It happens.

That conspiratorial chorus in the ether was soon followed by a similarly crazy cacophony of television and radio talking heads also intimating, again without facts, that Hamlin had suffered a vaccine-related cardiac side effect. These pundits included popular host Tucker Carlson who, on his Fox cable show just two days after the game, while Hamlin was still hospitalized in an induced coma, called medical experts “witch doctors” as if he knew more than they did. Dallas cardiologist and anti-vaccine podcaster, Peter McCullough announced on Carlson’s show that ‘vaccine induced myocarditis” likely caused Hamlin’s episode (I guess McCullough was not a “witch doctor” or a “medical expert” according to Tucker's criteria).

Even the very evening that Hamlin collapsed, Charlie Kirk, a radio talk show host, and COVID vax conspiracist claimed on Twitter that many athletes across the country are suddenly dropping like Hamlin did because of the vaccine. And the same evening there was an Instagram post from bodybuilder Louis Uridel showing a screenshot of a tweet stating that Hamlin's cardiac arrest was caused by the COVID vaccine. "24 year old elite athletes in the NFL don't just have a cardiac arrest in the middle of a prime time game," the tweet read. "This is squarely on the back of every single person who pushed that poison…", meaning the vaccine.  

An astonishing statistic is circulating throughout many social media circles claiming that more athletes died suddenly in the last year than have died in the last 38 years, implying that the vaccine is to blame. This originated with the same Peter McCullough who Carlson had on his show right after the football player collapsed. McCullough published a letter on Dec 2022 examining sudden cardiac deaths (SCD) in athletes. The problem, however, is that in his research he did not compare apples to apples. According to an epidemiologist who dug into McCullough’s data, he often compared cardiac events young athletes to events in old athletes(!), he mixed definitions of SCD indiscriminately, he included people who didn’t die of SCD or people who were not even athletes, and he even included people who did not die. But, the damage had been done; McCullough’s letter has spread far and wide and is now conspiracy gospel. Conspiracy buffs don’t really care about data, it is the headlines and talking points confirming their bias that grab and keep their attention. So, the false claim that the vaccine is causing excess deaths in athletes persists.

It is true that most conspiracies are often anchored in some fact, and on that foundation, the rest of the flimsy house of fantasy is constructed with fakery and fraud. Therefore, it is true that some COVID vaccines have been linked to very rare cases of myocarditis in young men. These cases were mostly very mild and were quickly resolved with no medical intervention needed. In fact, many cases were asymptomatic and were only detected because the sufferers participated in the clinical trials of the vaccines. Hence, trial participants were vaccinated and closely followed for adverse effects. This included regular blood draws which revealed that some vaccinated subjects with no physical symptoms at all still showed abnormal levels of a cardiac protein in their blood indicative of myocarditis, which quickly went away. These cases would have been missed completely if they had not been in the vaccine study. After now vaccinating hundreds of millions of people around the world, it is safely concluded that myocarditis following vaccination is very rare (~1 in 100,000) and not a serious problem. In fact, myocarditis following infection occurs seven-times more often than after vaccination, and is more severe. Therefore, it would have been more logical for Tucker Carlson, Charlie Kirk,  Peter McCoullugh, et al., to conclude that Hamlin’s problem resulted from a recent infection rather than a vaccination.

Then there is the blatantly dishonest video documentary, Died Suddenly, that is wildly popular in the anti-vax sector. It was made by Stew Peters and it asserts that people are dying in droves due to the vaccine, which itself was supposedly engineered by an elite cabal to depopulate the planet (seriously!). This video flashes through many alarming news headlines of people dying and shows videos of people collapsing, supposedly after receiving a vaccine. Whole essays have been written rebutting this video (you can read one here), but here are some quick take away points: 

  • Google the news headlines shown in the video and you will learn that many incidents were not caused by the vaccine. In one headline, the person died in a car accident not from the vaccine. Another died before the vaccines were even available! Yet another collapsed during a basketball game, also before the vaccines, but never died. How inconvenient.
  • The video alleges that mRNA vaccines are killing people via blood clots. As “evidence” it simply shows images of blood clots being removed from the blood vessels of cadavers. However, it fails to mention that blood normally clots after death! Ooops. No other evidence for vaccine-induced clots causing widespread death is offered.
  • The video also showed images of a huge blood clot (a pulmonary embolism) being surgically removed from a lung vessel, letting viewers assume the clot was caused by the vaccine. However, the footage was from a 2019 medical education video, that was made, once again, before vaccines were available!

The Died Suddenly documentary is dishonest to say the least, yet it is regularly trotted out as prime evidence for the danger of the vaccines.

If the vaccines are so dangerous, one wonders why the evidence needs to be fabricated!

In the end, COVID vaccines prevented 18.5 million additional hospitalizations and 3.2 million additional deaths in the US. Prevented not caused

Spreading vaccine disinformation can be very lucrative. It can bring in advertising revenue, attract subscribers, and help sell supplements and nostrums.

Twelve people are responsible for 65% of the vaccine disinformation on social media in the US, and they do so for profit. Their impact is mostly seen on Facebook, but there is plenty of vaccine disinformation on Instagram and Twitter as well.  Here are some notable examples.

  • A scientific study published in the science journal, Nature, reported that by far most (25%) of the COVID vaccine disinformation posts come from the organization, Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine organization owned by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, the 69 year old son of the late Senator, and recently declared Democratic candidate for US president. RFK, Jr., is a long-time opponent of vaccines. Any vaccine. He gained more than 1 million new paying subscribers in 2020 and traffic to his website rose sharply in March 2021 with 2.35 new million visits in response to his anti-COVID vaccine efforts.
  • Joseph Mercola, DO actually claims in hundreds of Facebook articles that the vaccines will alter your DNA and turn you into a viral protein factory. He does this in order to promote the sale of supplements, books, and health food. During the height of the pandemic, he promoted a new website designed to prevent or treat COVID with his alternative remedies. His business has a net worth of $100 million! As I explained earlier in these pages, it is biologically impossible for the mRNA vaccines to affect your cellular DNA in any way. Mercola is selling a flat lie for profit.
  • Steve Hotze, MD a Houston based doctor who used social media to unabashedly tell people to not vaccinate, but rather buy his vitamin and mineral concoctions, which, he claims was all one needed to fight the virus and many other diseases. In his case, the FDA found the products and marketing to be misleading and issued a cease and desist order.

Bottom line. The insidiousness of these charlatans is that while they claim to be saving peoples’ lives, they are causing deaths. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that between June 2021 and March 2022, 234,000 deaths could have been prevented in the US with COVID vaccinations. Vaccine disinformation that convinces people to avoid being immunized against the virus that causes COVID, undoubtedly caused many of these deaths.

How is a death caused by these deceitful claims about vaccines different from a death caused by criminally refusing to give insulin to a diabetic in crises?

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Vaccine Mandates Have Long Passed Constitutional Muster

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Here is a bit of history for those who think that vaccine mandates are an infringement of their liberty. I apologize to you in advance because it will be inconvenient, to conjure Al Gore.

Today, February 20, in 1905, the US Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v Massachusetts that states have the authority to enforce compulsory vaccination laws, and that remains the law of the land. That Court opined that individual liberties under the Constitution and Bill of Rights are not absolute and can be suspended for a greater good. Jacobson has since been invoked in numerous other court cases as an example of a baseline exercise of collective rights over individual rights.

At the time of the decision Massachusetts was one of 11 states that had compulsory vaccination laws. The State’s law empowered the health departments of cities and towns to enforce mandatory, free vaccinations for adults over 21 years old if it was determined necessary for public health or safety of the community. In 1902, faced with an outbreak of smallpox, Cambridge ordered the immunization, or re-vaccination of all its inhabitants.

A Cambridge pastor, Henning Jacobson, had lived through earlier mandatory vaccinations in his home, Sweden. Although, the vaccination efforts in Sweden successfully eradicated smallpox in that country, Jacobson, had a bad reaction to that vaccine. The vaccine was crude by today’s standards, and often had adverse side effects, but was quite effective. Because of his personal experience, Jacobson refused to be re-vaccinated and was slapped with a $5 fine. He fought the penalty in courts over the next three years all the way to the Supreme Court. He, argued that the law was "unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive", and that one should not be subjected to the law if he or she objected to vaccination, no matter the reason.

In the end he lost in a 7-2 SCOTUS decision. The Court held that "in every well ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand" and that "[r]eal liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own [liberty], whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others."

In other words, as pastor and prolific author, Tim Keller has written, you cannot have absolute individual freedom and live in community with others at the same time.

Furthermore, the Court held that mandatory vaccinations are neither arbitrary nor oppressive so long as they do not "go so far beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public". In Massachusetts, with smallpox being "prevalent and increasing in Cambridge", the regulation in question was "necessary in order to protect the public health and secure the public safety". The Court noted that Jacobson had offered proof that there were many in the medical community who believed that the smallpox vaccine would not stop the spread of the disease and, in fact, may cause other diseases of the body. However, the opinions offered by Jacobson were "more formidable by their number than by their inherent value" and "[w]hat everybody knows, ... [the] opposite theory accords with the common belief and is maintained by high medical authority."

SCOTUS saw through Jacobson's specious medical science arguments, and ignored it in favor of empirical evidence presented by the other side--evidence such as that seen by the eradication of small pox in Sweden.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed its earlier Jacobson decision in Zucht v. King (1922), which held that a school system could refuse admission to a student who failed to receive a required vaccination. Jacobson was also a precedent case in justifying the constitutionality of government face mask orders and stay-at-home orders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The closest COVID-19-related challenge to Jacobson was Does v. Mills, which questioned Maine's vaccine mandate for health care workers. By a 6–3 vote, the Supreme Court in 2021 denied relief to those who were seeking an injunction on the mandate.

Your humble correspondent, vaccine enthusiast, and left-handed chess player (it confuses the opponent), finds interesting, even sadly amusing, the similarities of some of the poor medical science arguments used by Jacobson and the spurious science often resorted to by the anti-vaxers today.

Sadly, the more things change, the more many things remain the same.


Take Your Vaccine Skepticism To A Cemetery

“Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”

            --Paul Simon, in The Boxer

They say you won’t find an atheist in a foxhole. Well, perhaps you shouldn’t find a vaccine skeptic in a cemetery, either. Bear with me and I will explain.

I have been reading about how vaccine skepticism is growing beyond the COVID vaccine to include other common vaccines against flu, measles, chicken pox, polio, etc. Perhaps this all began with parental resistance to Gardasil, a vaccine against human papillomavirus, or HPV, introduced in 2006. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that causes genital, anal, and oral cancers. It is the most common cause of cervical cancer. In order to confer maximal and lasting protection, it is recommended that children around 11 and 12 years old be vaccinated. Some parents have railed that this promotes promiscuity. They fret that the vax licenses licentiousness in children, akin to giving them condoms with illustrated instructions in their use. Balderdash!  

While that medical insurrection continues to smolder, along came COVID and the anti-COVID mRNA vaccines accompanied by the surprising resistance of many people against the shots. It is a resistance that seems to be growing and spreading to vaccines in general including those listed above that have long been commonly accepted.

This is concerning because it portends that in the near future, kids will begin coming down with diseases that we have pretty well controlled. In fact, in the last year or so, de novo cases of polio have appeared in the US in unvaccinated people. Before this incipient vaccine resistance, polio had been eradicated in North America, thanks to the vaccine.

It is safe to expect that vaccine resistance will persist, and probably increase as new vaccines are developed to treat cancer and better protect against flu. The mRNA vaccine technology is being used to develop new vaccines against the deadly skin cancer melanoma, and research is underway to also develop vaccines to prevent breast, liver, prostate, and other cancers. This use of modern vaccine technology to prevent cancer is a very novel and promising approach to dealing with malignancy. Anti-cancer vaccines are a potentially exciting new weapon in the armamentarium for the war on cancer. Too bad for those who would reject an effective cancer-preventing vaccine. At least they can fall back on the standard harsh radiation and chemo therapies.

mRNA vaccine technology also is being used to try to develop a universal vaccine against the flu. Flu is a highly malleable virus because there are many strains out that that can mix and shuffle their genetic material. This means that every year, it is a guessing game as to which combination of flu we will contend with—hence the changing flu numbers each year-- H1N3, H2N4, H3N1, etc. Since the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season precedes ours in the North, flu sleuths follow what goes on down there and track which strains make their way Northward, often via migrating birds, and try to predict what flu strains will be prevalent here each year. Then flu vaccines are made based on the best predictions. Usually, the annual flu vaccine is a mix of 2-3 of the flu strains that we are most likely thought to encounter. Some years we better predict which flu strains to vaccinate against than in other years, hence the efficacy of the vaccine can vary from year to year. Therefore, the advantage of a universal vaccine effective against all strains would be to remove this uncertainty and variability. That is the goal of using mRNA technology to take genetic material that is common to all flu strains and package it into lipid particles as pseudo-viral particles to trick the immune system to make an immune response to these parts of the viruses. If successful, this would protect against all flu strains and eliminate the need to guess which strains to vaccinate against. Theoretically.

The point is, vaccine science is moving forward and continues to offer great promise to prevent diseases that have proven very difficult to treat. The vaccine naysayers will miss the boat if they continue their misguided dissent. I suggest that they test their skepticism in a cemetery.

Go to an old cemetery and find the graves of people who died in the 1950s and earlier. See how many headstones belong to children.

Then go to the part of the cemetery where the grave stones are for people who died in the 60s and later and see how many graves are occupied by children.

The sharp drop in the number of childhood deaths after the 60s can largely be attributed to vaccines. Vaccines prevent serious disease and death in children who used to die from meningitis, pneumonia, dysentery, small pox, flu, and other diseases, but now do not. And to those who think that the vaccines are killing people, where are their headstones?

It is always better to prevent disease than to treat it. Vaccines prevent disease. Avoid vaccines if you wish. Darwin might approve.