As I have written several times, science is a process that involves a lot of back and forth. Scientists have different opinions and exchange arguments. They adopt positions based on the available evidence and change their mind when new evidence comes along. As is expected, this process is ongoing for the COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines have been found to be safe and effective in clinical trials and in studies conducted afterwards in real-world situations. But all vaccines, as everything, do have small risks. For example, the COVID-19 vaccines can cause an anaphylactic reaction in individuals prone to severe allergies, and this is recognized in vaccination decisions and procedures.
Because scientists want vaccines to be as safe as possible, there is an effort to identify other rare side effects of vaccines as well as figuring out how the COVID-19 virus works so more effective and safer vaccines can be made. Most COVID-19 vaccines rely on making the cells at the site of injection produce the viral spike protein, which is the protein that allows the virus to get into the cells and infect them. These spike proteins are anchored to the surface of the cells expressing them and trigger the immune response. Therefore, this protein is an object of ongoing research.
Several articles have been published in the scientific literature regarding this protein. In one article, researchers found that the spike protein alone in the absence of the rest of the virus can damage the wall of blood vessels (the endothelium). In a another article researchers found that the spike protein alone or its subunits (the spike protein is made up of two subunits) can disrupt the barrier that protects the brain from blood borne substances (the blood brain barrier). These findings, although preliminary, are important in that COVID-19 displays many symptoms involving the circulatory system and indicate that the spike protein alone could be responsible for them.
The issue we are discussing today arises from another article where researchers were able to measure the spike protein in the circulation of patients who had received the COVID-19 vaccine. A Canadian immunologist, Dr. Byram Bridle, saw the above data and (apparently without consulting with colleagues or the authors of the articles) started claiming that we have made a mistake with the COVID-19 vaccines. He unwisely gave interviews where he claimed that the vaccines make our cells produce the spike protein which is a toxin that leaks to the circulation where it can cause damage in some people. Needless to say the antivaxxer social media pages and websites lit up like a Christmas tree and unleashed upon the internet a torrent of posts and memes proclaiming how unsafe the COVID-19 vaccines are, demanding that vaccinations stop, and bragging about how they had been right all along.
I am not going to debunk this in detail, as others have done a very good job of that, but here is the gist of the argument. The method used by the researchers that detected the vaccine spike protein in the blood was 100-1000 times more sensitive than regular methods. The amount of protein they measured is basically the background that you would get from a very, very small fraction of the protein making into the circulation because of, for example, cells dying. These levels are tens of thousands of times lower than the spike protein concentrations reported to be detrimental in the other articles. Additionally, the spike protein generated by the vaccine is different from the spike protein from the virus as it has been engineered to be safer. Many scientists including colleagues of Dr. Bridle and even the authors of the papers claim that he is overinterpreting the data. Finally, if indeed the spike protein alone turns out to be responsible for a sizable portion of the COVID-19 pathology, then that is excellent news because the antibodies produced by the vaccine (unlike natural immunity) are all against the spike protein, so they will likely neutralize this toxicity too.
Now let me get to the question I formulated in the title of this post. How can you do science in this environment? Scientific research is no cakewalk. There is a lot of frustration and anxiety involved. There are many defeats and few victories. But finally, when scientists find something worth publishing, how do you think they feel when their results are misinterpreted? Every scientist in the COVID-19 field who deals with the demands of research and the toll it takes on their lives must now consider the possibility that the results of their investigations will be splashed in misleading memes all over the internet by the antivaxxer crowd. This means that they will have to devote some of their limited time to dispelling these ideas by doing interviews, writing articles, or answering e-mails from scores of people.
But the worst part is that if scientists find something that may be negative about the COVID-19 vaccine, they may be inclined not to publish it just to avoid being in the center of the media hurricane that will surely form around them. And this is terrible, because we need every piece of information so we can have a more complete picture of the safety and efficacy of the vaccines in order to improve them.
Science thrives on an open debate among scientists. In the old days this debate, which involves highly technical information with a lot of detail and nuance, took place mostly within the scientific community. Today the public can gain access to this debate by several means. Although this is a positive development, the preliminary data and tentative ideas that scientists generate as part of this debate, are being misrepresented by many people, sometimes out of ignorance, but most of the time as part of an agenda to generate viral stories to cause confusion and sow doubt.
And scientists are stuck in the middle of this.
The photo of the COVID-19 vaccine by Lisa Ferdinando (DOD) was taken from the Flickr photostream of the US Secretary of Defense and is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.