Would you take a vaccine from a government that denied HIV caused AIDS? Would you take a vaccine from a minister who recommended Virodene, a toxic solvent, as a cure for AIDS? If you could choose, would you prefer a vaccine through the ANC or through a private supplier?

Fear of the Covid-19 vaccination seems widespread among South Africans. It is political and medical. The political fear is simple. The ANC is inherently corrupt and has looted everything it could, including SAA, PRASA and Eskom. The ANC might likely choose the vaccine supplier not by safety, efficacy and economy but by whoever can provide the juiciest BEE deal, giving the biggest slice to comrades and cadres. With Dr Dlamini-Zuma prominent in this decision, there is always the chance of another cranky and dangerous formulation.

The medical fears are more complex. In 1900, average world life expectancy was 30. In 2000, it was 60. The main reasons for this unprecedented advance in human welfare were good healthy food, warm dry houses, improved hygiene and, above all, cleaner drinking water, thanks largely to the wonderful element, chlorine. The secondary reason was the overcoming of infectious diseases by antibiotics and vaccines. For 200,000 years most humans had died young because of diseases like TB, measles and smallpox. As late as 1950, George Orwell died of TB at the age of 46. At school in the 1950s, I had classmates walking in irons from polio. Today most of these diseases have been wiped out, thanks largely to vaccination. But there have been some problems and scares.

Thalidomide, a drug for anxiety and nausea in pregnant women, caused terrible birth malformations in the 1960s. In 2018, a Chinese drug company was found to have fabricated its inspection records for some vaccines. “Big Pharma” is a favourite villain for conspiracists. Vaccination seems inherently dangerous since it injects foreign proteins into the body, which can be highly toxic. After all, snake venom, a super effective killer, is mainly protein.

Vaccines work by stimulating the immune system with a neutered copy of the disease, which switches on the immune system to identify the pathogen (invading virus or bacterium) but does not cause the disease. My only qualifications are in the physical sciences, not biology. I look upon the immune system with ignorant wonder. It is complicated beyond belief, perhaps even more complicated than the brain. I regard it as the fifth wonder of life (the other four being the beginning of life, the eukaryotic cell, sex, and multi-celled life). Without it, life would never have evolved beyond a primordial biological soup. The immune system constantly inspects all the cells in the body. If it sees foreign tissue, it tries to kill it or isolate it. It uses memory cells, antibodies and T cells, which work as a team to identify the pathogen, mark it, and either isolate it or kill it. Once the pathogen is marked, the immune system produces as many agents as it can to key into the pathogen and deal with it.

One of the reasons the Covid-19 vaccines have raised eyebrows is that they have been produced so quickly. In the past, it has taken ten years or more to develop a vaccine. The Covid-19 vaccine against Covid-19 has taken ten months. People are struck by the fact that there is no vaccine for the common cold or HIV. Yet for Covid-19, a disease much less dangerous than AIDS, a vaccine has been cranked out in record time. Surely a reason for suspicion?

Not really. Vaccines against Covid-19 use a revolutionary new process. Instead of injecting a protein into the body, they inject mRNA (messenger RNA). Living things are controlled by DNA, which is in the nucleus of every cell. The DNA instructs the body to make specific proteins in specific numbers. The proteins make us. The DNA sends its instructions through a temporary messenger, RNA, which tells the cells what proteins to make. The vaccine does not inject you with a protein to attack the virus but with an instruction which tells the cell how to make a protein to attack the virus. Because of this crucial difference, the vaccine can be made and tested much more quickly. That is why progress has been so swift. Because the vaccine mRNA never goes into the nucleus of the cell but only works in the cytoplasm (the stuff in the cell outside the nucleus) there is no question of genetic engineering. So far it has passed all safety tests with flying colours. It seems as safe as any medicine can be.

Unfortunately, viruses differ greatly. Measles hardly mutates at all, so all the old vaccines still work well. The flu virus mutates so quickly that vaccines against it are not very effective. HIV also mutates quickly and does not lend itself to such an mRNA vaccine. That is why the Covid-19 vaccine came quickly and the others didn’t.

I’d be happy to take a vaccine provided it came from a reputable supplier. Preferably not through the ANC.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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