I am fed up not just from fighting a government that is corrupt and negligent, but also blind optimism from members of our scientific community. I am particularly fed up of the rhetoric that variants cannot ever escape vaccines.
First published in June 2021.
I can’t begin to describe how angry I feel that a highly transmissible, more severe variant, with significant escape from vaccines was not only allowed to enter the country, but allowed to spread while our government removed mitigations and minimised the risks posed by this.
Over the past few months, I have been labelled “alarmist” for advising caution and suggesting that these variants may pose a very real risk. I have been attacked for suggesting that vaccine escape is a real possibility. For saying we shouldn’t “wait and see” until evidence accumulates.
The thing is – this is alarming.
Some of us raised the alarm many weeks ago when we saw what was happening in India – when we saw this variant outcompeting the Alpha variant B117, and the mass death associated with it. While many in our scientific community minimised it – suggesting the Indian plight was mainly their poor healthcare system. Or that deaths were a small proportion of population (ignoring the massive underreporting). Ignoring the reports of greater severity. Ignoring the deaths among the vaccinated.
Yes, we didn’t have systematic data on much of this, but it was enough to be alarmed. So why didn’t we practice caution while waiting for risks to become clearer? We did the opposite: opened up, removed mitigations from schools, opened up borders – waiting for evidence.
I hope we can reflect – as scientists – as to what happened here and the responsibility we hold. The picture has been deeply concerning for weeks, so why were these risks minimised by some scientists and a lot of media again and again?
Why using uncertainty to dismiss the risk, when the risk has been real and apparent for a really long time? I am honestly fed up not just from fighting a government that is corrupt and negligent, but also blind optimism from members of our scientific community, that undermines caution. I am particularly fed up of the rhetoric that variants cannot ever escape vaccines. They can, and are. Every new variant puts our vaccine resources at risk.
It is astonishing to me that given this is our primary strategy, the government is willing to take these risks.
We have a responsibility to protect our vaccines, not just for us, but for the global pandemic. And we as scientists need to be putting out the key message that these resources need protection. They aren’t bullet-proof, and if we don’t protect them, they will ultimately fall. And it will be because we literally threw every mutation of the virus at them by allowing continued transmission and import of new variants due to a flawed idea that vaccines couldn’t be overcome. Paradoxically, it is this blind optimism that leads us to take these unacceptable risks.
SAGE, in their 13 May statement, made this clear: the cost of waiting to act was likely far greater than overacting early on, given the risks such a variant entailed. They were absolutely right.
And next time someone talks about “living with the virus”, consider the virus we are talking about living with. A virus which has adapted rapidly, spawning new variants, each one replacing the previous regionally or globally. Each one more transmissible than the last. More severe. And with every new variant comes the very real gamble of vaccine escape – widely agreed to be the way out of the global pandemic.
Why on earth would anyone think this is something we could or should live with?
▫ Dr Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, Statistical Genetics, Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London.
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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 5 June 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson with school children from St Joseph Primary school in the garden of 10 Downing Street. | 2 June 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)