Complex challenges mean mandatory COVID-19 vaccine unlikely: experts

A screen grab taken from a video issued by Britain's Oxford University shows a person being injected as part of the first human trials in the United Kingdom to test a potential coronavirus vaccine, by Oxford University in England, Thursday April 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-AP-Oxford University Pool via AP

I dug out from my travel files a battered yellow booklet called “International Certificates of Vaccinations.” It tells me that I have been vaccinated against smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, paratyphoid (A and B), polio, pneumonia, hepatitis A, tetanus, typhus, mumps, and both kinds of measles. 

Every one of those used to cause epidemics.

The only difference between an epidemic and what’s now called a pandemic is that a pandemic also affects people you don’t know on the other side of the world. Locally, the effects of epidemic and pandemic are identical. People get sick. Some die. 

Because of my vaccinations, I needn’t fear any of those diseases. But an 80-year-old woman wrote to Dr. Keith Roach, author of a syndicated newspaper column, “I will never willingly get a vaccination for anything.

“I have only been sick once in my life, and it was after a vaccination I received in the seventh grade.” 

Her outburst tells me two things.

First, she has never survived an epidemic of any kind. 

Second, she offers no correlation between the vaccination and the illness she claims it caused. Did she get the same disease she was vaccinated against? Or some other unrelated disease?

Does she blame her illness on the weakened disease in the vaccine? Or some other element in the mix? Like mercury, perhaps? 

It doesn’t matter; she’s made up her mind about vaccines in general. All vaccines.

I wonder if her hostility will carry over to the COVID-19 vaccine, when it’s developed. 

Because it will be. For the first time in history, scientists in all countries are collaborating, examining hundreds of possible treatments, and sharing their progress, their failures and their successes.

A vaccine normally takes five to ten years to develop when scientists work in isolation. This one may be ready by January. 

There are only three ways to overcome a communicable disease like COVID-19.

One is exposure. When everyone has had the disease, and the survivors have developed an immunity to it, the disease will die out. That’s what happened to the plagues in Europe, in the Middle Ages. 

The second is isolation -- basically, the tactic used by Canadian medical authorities.

Isolation works because a virus is not really a living thing. Unlike bacteria, it cannot reproduce on its own. A virus must find a host, so that it can train the host’s cells to become a virus factory. 

The host will either die, or recover. Either way, the virus must find a new host to continue the process.

If we could quarantine every human being on the planet, all 7.8 billion of us, from the concrete canyons of New York to the steaming jungles of the Congo, for at least three weeks, say, the COVID-19 virus would have run out of hosts.

Goodbye, coronavirus.

Obviously, that ain’t gonna happen.

So the third alternative is a vaccine. Which can be given to everyone -- again, from New York to the Congo -- to give the COVID-19 virus no place to replicate.

Yes, it can be done. Vaccines wiped out smallpox. They’ve almost wiped out polio—there are only a handful of active cases anywhere in the world today.

As you can probably tell, I’m in favour of vaccines. I’m alive today because of them. As a child in India, I lived through epidemics of most of the diseases I listed at the top of this column.

I’m also in favour of them philosophically. I’ve learned that life does not consist of a choice between opposite extremes. Both extremes -- too much or too little, all this or all that -- are equally harmful.

Take almost anything -- fire, water, oxygen, salt, sugar, parenting, discipline -- too much and too little are both dangerous.

The “good” always lies somewhere between the extremes. I think of it as the Goldilocks “just right” solution.

And vaccines fit that philosophical framework perfectly. You don’t have to choose total isolation, and you don’t have to risk the wrath of the full infection. You receive a tiny bit of the disease, either killed or so weakened that your body’s natural immunity can take crush it.

That’s how Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine. He observed that milkmaids (pardon the dated term) seemed immune to smallpox. The cows they milked had cowpox, a less-lethal cousin of smallpox. He tried deliberately infecting patients with tiny amounts of cowpox.

It worked. Because it fell on that spectrum between no disease and deadly disease.

The first COVID-19 vaccine may not be perfect. But it will be much better than 300,000-plus deaths.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist.