There’s a troubling view I’ve run into, which I’ve decided to christen the Faustian Vaccine Hypothesis. It claims that, while they definitely help short-term, the protective effect of vaccines targeting Covid’s spike protein will ultimately become negative.
I’ve looked at some of the data supporting this claim – in particular, the strong version, which claims a significant number of people currently experience net negative vaccine protection – and been largely unimpressed. However, proponents’ arguments are mostly not statistical reasoning about the present, but biological reasoning about the future. And it turns out I know exactly enough about biology to be convinced a Faustian effect is possible, while being unable to evaluate how (hopefully, im)plausible it is. This worries me, and I don’t like being worried.
I haven’t found any relevant studies or good counterarguments online – most scientists focus on the present instead of the future, and most mainstream debunkers target more common and straightforward heresies – so I’m asking LessWrong for help. And in recognition of the fact that evaluating vague prophecies is much harder and more tedious than making them, I’m donating $2k to charity: if you give me an answer or source I like, you get to choose which charity. (And if multiple people give answers/sources I like, I’ll allocate in proportion to how much I like them.)
The argument(s) for, summarized as best I understand them*:
- Covid vaccines work. (uncontroversial)
- Covid vaccines reduce in effectiveness over time. (also uncontroversial)
- There is no theoretical reason why vaccine effectiveness can’t be negative. (c.f. the infamous Dengue vaccine case)
- There is a mechanism by which positive initial effect and negative long-term effect can coexist: vaccination gives you an abundance of useful but temporary antibodies, while also teaching your body to have a specific and suboptimal immune response, which subsequent infections will have a harder time training it out of. (Original Antigenic Sin, a real concept with a wikipedia page and everything)
- Obvious counterargument: other vaccines didn’t have this problem, why expect it here? Countercounterargument: other vaccines mimic a real infection by providing an entire specimen to the immune system and allowing it to create a variety of responses; spike-targeting vaccines produce a single, uniform form of resistance which the pathogen can more easily evolve to evade or – in the worst case – take advantage of. (Antibody Dependent Enhancement, which is also definitely a real thing**)
(Also, bird’s-eye-view caveman argument: vaccines used to protect against transmission and infection and worst-case outcomes, and then they protected against infection and worst-case outcomes, and now they mostly just protect against worst-case outcomes. And while that’s more a fact about variants than about vaccines, there aren’t going to stop being new variants, so extrapolating that trend . . . what happens to effectiveness of our current vaccines by the time we reach the end of the Greek alphabet?)
- I reiterate: proponents are not saying covid vaccines don’t work. They are saying strains have/will emerge(d) that did/will cause covid vaccines to reach negative effectiveness at some point significantly after vaccination.
- Proponents aren’t against vaccines in general: opinions on non-mRNA non-spike-protein-targeting vaccines range from “overrated but still a good idea” to “mankind’s highest achievement, western nations need more of these for Covid-19 immediately”.
- Even if they were right, that wouldn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t get vaccinated. The longer you spend without catching Covid-19, the better specific medical tech will be when you do (also, projecting the trend from the original strain to Omicron forwards, the dominant strain will probably be milder a year from now). However, if the rationale among smart people was always “yeah that could happen but even if it did it’d be worth it to get to the era of Paxlovid with functioning lungs” . . . I’d kind of like to know that?
- ETA: ADE is the worst-case scenario, not the main concern. The scenario that worries me most is unprecedentedly homogenous immune responses worldwide incentivizing unprecedentedly rapid antigenic drift, until patients end up with immune responses (enshrined by antigenic sin) less effective than what their bodies would have come up with by themselves.
There’s no strict time limit, but I have my next Pfizer dose scheduled for the start of February, and I’d like this to be resolved - in my own mind, at least - before then, so I can take the shot with confidence (or, possibly, cancel my appointment and then find some way to source Sputnik or Sinovac).
*I’d link to the proponents’ own words, but all the ones I’ve found communicate through longwinded blogposts that drag in arguments I consider irrelevant and expect you to have read all their other longwinded blogposts. (Is this how LW looks to outsiders?)
**The Wikipedia page for ADE has a section linking to “COVID-19_vaccine_misinformation_and_hesitancy#Antibody-dependent_enhancement”, which reassures skeptical readers that while this may be happening with strains from Delta onwards, it definitely didn’t happen with the original strain. I wasn’t aware that words could be so uncalming.