The headline last week would have been hopeful news indeed, if we hadn’t been here so many times before.
“Cancer and heart disease vaccines ‘ready by end of the decade’” was the story in The Guardian.
Reading it, I realized that it might be true, if the bar is set low enough, which is to say if the vaccines aren’t expected to prevent or cure anything.
Vaccination has recently become an issue of political fealty rather than scientific fact. The mad rush by pharmaceutical companies to gain government billions led to insufficiently untested products, sometimes with serious and permanent side effects, that even at this late date have not been shown to prevent anyone contracting anything. A person looking at the figures and deciding that these things were neither safe nor effective was denounced as an “anti-vaxxer!” by an ever-growing crowd doing its best impersonation of screeching monkeys.
Vaccines that do not work result in two problems. The first is that they don’t work. The second is that they hinder development of vaccines that do work.
To quote from the article: “Dr. Paul Burton, the chief medical officer of pharmaceutical company Moderna, said he believes the firm will be able to offer such treatments for ‘all sorts of disease areas’ in as little as five years.” The article was published last Friday.
Ah, but then came yesterday: “Moderna Inc. said on Tuesday its experimental flu vaccine did not meet the criteria for ‘early success’ in a late-stage trial, and its shares fell 3%. . . . The U.S. biotech company at its vaccine day meeting in Boston also said it expects to have six major vaccines on the market in the next few years. Its COVID-19 shot is currently the company's lone marketed product.”
In short: we’ll prevent cancer and heart disease, but the flu? Not so sure.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t good, even great, vaccines. Smallpox vaccine drove smallpox to virtual extinction (though it did manage to escape a British lab — but, wait, that kind of thing is impossible, right? — in 1978, and we and Russia keep some around in case we need it or something). Though tetanus is not a communicable disease as we know it, it’s a nasty customer. Most everybody is vaccinated for it and as a result most nobody gets lockjaw. The measles has been kept largely under control (except in Rockland County, New York). The story of the two polio vaccines, Salk and Sabin, is remarkable. There is nothing wrong with good vaccines. There is everything wrong with bad vaccines.
Good vaccines often take longer and cost more to develop. And there’s a terrible divide between those seeking accurate knowledge and those seeking immediate riches. It’s a little bit like a joke I made on an OS/2 mailing list back in October 2010, when 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped a half-mile underground were pulled to safety, one by one, in a tiny cage that traveled through a narrow hole drilled to them. As we watched transfixed, mentally cheering as each miner was freed from his 69-day entombment, I said, “It’s a good thing IBM wasn’t in charge — they would have rescued one guy, declared proof of concept, and sealed the hole.” Much medical research is like that: fascinating discoveries stop at knowledge and never get exploited practically for one reason or another. But the effort to amass money, the other side of the issue, is to market a product that may or may not do anything, as quickly and cheaply as possible. It’s better, though not essential, that it works.
Memorable among the disappointments is a report out of Stanford University in early 2018 that I wrote about at the time. Researchers there had found that if induced pluriponent stem cells were irradiated and injected into cancerous tumors in mice, the tumors would shrink and the cancer would not spread. We’re not talking anything ethically questionable here — iPSCs, as they’re called for obvious reasons, are not derived from embryos but from the patient himself.
“With their pluripotency and ability to self-renew, some cancer cells have been likened to stem cells,” an article at the time in The Scientist began. “Now, researchers show that the similarities between the cells are in fact sufficient for induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to serve as anti-cancer vaccines in mice.” For our purposes, let’s assume that achieving healthy, cancer-free mice was not the purpose of the exercise.
“The ultimate goal… would be to isolate blood or skin cells from a patient, create iPSCs, irradiate the cells so they themselves cannot form tumors, and then inject them back into a patient already suffering from cancer,” the article noted. It’s important that the vaccine be derived from the patient’s own cells.
There was more: “To confirm that the vaccine conferred specific anti-cancer immunity, the team transferred T cells from vaccinated animals into non-vaccinated animals with breast cancer, and they too experienced tumor regression.” The mice showed no evidence of autoimmune disease or other ill effects. “We have not seen any signs that it is not safe,” said Nigel Kooreman, one of the researchers.
The researchers suggested it might result in a useful vaccine, especially for older people, who are more likely to develop cancer.
That was five years ago. We haven’t heard much — and by “much” I mean “anything” — about it since then. How come?
It could be that the researchers stopped there, proof of concept established. It could be that the discovery worked only on mice. It could be that other scientists, driven by a range of other factors including but not limited to jealousy or a scramble for research grants, torpedoed the whole thing.
There are other, real, more alarming possibilities. There’s a lot of money to be made in cancer treatment, money that would be lost if cancer went away. It’s financially more sound for companies to produce treatments that string patients along instead of curing them. At some point in the medical chain, this is a real thing. And all it takes is the bean counters deciding not to fund research or development that would bring practical value to research. So even if there were the possibility of a vaccine that would prevent or cure cancer, it’s by no means certain that anyone would develop it. (This assumes that cancer is just one thing; it’s instead a variety of diseases with little in common.)
Then comes the tension between for-profit and socialized medicine. The former is happy to treat you forever as long as somebody is paying the bill. The latter would just as soon you go ahead and die and get off the books entirely. The only people (besides you and those who care about you) who have an interest in your taking your next breath are private insurers: if a vaccination makes you healthy, their costs are reduced and you’re alive so you continue to pay your premiums. But insurers generally do not have the billions of dollars necessary to develop a vaccine and bring it to market. Indeed, they’re typically characterized as our enemy.
It may seem as if I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Look at the trend toward “assisted suicide,” the current big thing. You decide you don’t want to live, you go to the doctor and he’ll “put you to sleep,” to use the hideous euphemism normally employed in reference to a blind, 20-year-old cat that can no longer move its hind legs. It’s all the rage in Canada, where they call it “MAID,” for Medical Assistance In Death (they don’t call it “medically assisted death” because then the acronym — MAD — would be too close to the truth, but what’s nicer than a maid?). More than 10,000 Canadians were killed in this fashion in Canada in 2021. That’s 3.3 percent of all deaths there. You need to reason — no suffering endless pain, no lack of hope for recovery. Even The New York Times has taken note and wondered if it’s time to tighten things up in Canada. In 2020, more than 1400 people in Canada were killed by physicians because they were, they said, lonely.
It’s not going to stop there. If you haven’t heard the phrase “duty to die,” you’d best familiarize yourself with it, because it’s something that’s almost here. It’s basically being shamed into getting killed because otherwise you’ll be a burden. After that it’s a short step to death being mandated when it’s deemed you’re no longer useful. And c’mon, Social Security is on the brink of bankruptcy. Wouldn’t it be bureaucratically marvelous if all those bothersome recipients, those old people and crippled people, ceased to be a burden to the system?
In a world where that kind of thinking is burgeoning, what makes anyone think there’s a reason for a vaccination that prevents cancer or heart disease?
No, better that we develop “vaccines” that do little or nothing.
Whether such vaccines are possible is increasingly irrelevant.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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