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Many people choose not to be vaccinated because they object to being used as guinea pigs for new vaccines. The irony is that they are serving as guinea pigs for other things. Science will thank them.

If you want to test what you believe is an effective vaccine against, say, polio, clearly you cannot deliberatly expose both vaccinated and unvaccinated children to the virus, even if comparing the two groups that way is the best way to demonstrate the effectiveness or otherwise of the vaccine. Medical researchers and social scientists will tell you this makes it hard to draw definitive conclusions about the safety and efficacy of treatments, thereby prolonging the time to eventual authorisation.

Most people were pretty keen to be vaccinated against Covid-19 as soon as they reasonably could, both to protect them from becoming very ill and to exit crippling confinements. Most places with reasonable vaccination coverage are now seeing rates of new infections decline. But how do we know that this is due to the vaccines or some other effect, and would not have happened anyway?

We could compare different countries, but any results would be confounded by differences in government policies, health services and natural resistance due to exposure to other viruses, among other factors. In any case, many places with poor vaccination coverage are in less developed countries, where reporting and data collection are less reliable. The best way to find out what difference the vaccines are having is for a representative proportion (in other words, similar in terms of gender, age, socio-economic group, locality and so on) of a population to remain unvaccinated, thus serving as a “control” group to isolate the effects of the vaccine.

Clearly researchers cannot tell or even ask some people to forego vaccination – and so risk becoming ill or stuck in confinement – just to provide the randomised control group they need. But people who live in the same communities as the vaccinated majority, but who choose not to be vaccinated, are perfect for the controls that researchers need.

One reason cited for not being vaccinated is that, with the arguable exception of the BioNTech-Pfizer mRNA vaccine, which was given full approval by America’s FDA only in late August, most vaccines used in Europe and North America are approved for emergency use only. Few contest that the Covid-19 pandemic and the confinements it has necessitated are such an emergency; but technically-speaking, those vaccines are still in the experimental phase.

The non-vaccers have a point: the Nuremberg Code of 1947 protects us against being unwilling or unwitting subjects in live experimentation. Of course, people participate in clinical trials for new treatments all the time, but only with their informed consent, both to be given the experimental treatment – and not to be given it.

Yet Covid-19 is itself a sort of experiment: unlike viruses like polio, which had been intensively and extensively researched and were fairly well understood by the time Messrs Salk and Sabin came up with their vaccines, scientists are still learning about Covid-19 and its effects. To continue their work, Covid-19 researchers need people to volunteer to be exposed to the virus, and this is where the non-vaccers come in.

Its ironic, then, that many people choose not to be vaccinated because they object to being subjects in an experiment. No matter how noisy they are, so long as they remain relatively few and so do not overwhelm health care resources, non-vaccers are doing science and everyone else a favour by implicitly and knowingly consenting to serve as experimental subjects to understand the effects of Covid-19 and the effectiveness of vaccines against it.

One wonders how many of them have thought about it like that.

Featured image by Alena Shekhovtcova on Pexels.

Sasha Diable
European and I guess that's about it for now.

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