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On mRNAs, nuclear weapons, and scientific responsibility
Specialist researchers developing new technologies need - at a minimum - to be honest with the public about the risks they're running. 1940s physicists understood that; why don't today's virologists?
A lightly edited version of an email I sent to some folks this fine Friday afternoon. I wish I were more hopeful something would come of it.
I am reading “American Prometheus,” the definitive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, right now (after seeing the movie, which is odd but excellent - I highly recommend it).
The book is eye-opening, and not just because Oppie had such an active love life. I am not saying the mRNAs are anything like nukes in their danger. What I am saying is American Prometheus makes clear Oppenheimer and the other physicists who worked on developing nuclear weapons in the 1940s were immensely conscious of the dangers they were running.
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They generally wanted, at the least, an open and uncensored dialogue about what to do with this new technology - even though they also knew that nukes might produce a source of electricity too cheap to meter (those were the days) - along with enormous other potential benefits.
Where are the virologists today? Where is any of medical science?
At the least we can say unequivocally - after almost three years of real-world use - that the mRNAs are not a long-term solution to Covid (or the flu, or RSV). We can also say we have no idea what the long-term risks of offering multiple mRNA doses to healthy adults on an individual or population basis may be.
And we know of several off-target impacts from even the doses we have already administered, the oddest and most intriguing of these being the one that is least discussed, the IgG4 class switch.
Put those two facts together, and - at a minimum - you get Dr. Vinay Prasad’s tweet this morning:
I honestly think it would be insane for a healthy person<65 who had covid and/or multiple doses of vax to get another dose. Not just unnecessary, but probably detrimental. Sadly FDA works for Pfizer and will not ask for randomized data.
Further, unlike nuclear weapons, the development and promotion of this technology is led by for-profit companies that have their own stakeholders and interests and cannot be expected to act on the basis of what is best for governments OR societies.
(Military control of nuclear development represented its own problem, but at least the military was theoretically responsible and subordinate to civilian leaders. By the way, as you know, the military implications of virology and to a lesser extent vaccine research are less dramatic than those of nuclear weapons, but they're non-zero, another issue no one is really discussing.)
We made some terrible choices with nuclear weapons 75 years ago.
We wound up in an arms race that perhaps we could have avoided. Countries worldwide spent trillions of dollars building massive stockpiles of weapons that obviously could not - and cannot - be used without killing billions of people, effectively ending life on the planet as we knew it. In a way the fact that their dangers were so obvious SAVED us from the full consequences of our actions.
Maybe we couldn't have done anything else, but compare what happened with nukes to what happened with chemical weapons after World War I, when countries effectively outlawed their use as a crime against humanity. Even though poison gases and nerve agents are much easier to make and deploy than nuclear weapons, that ban has largely held for over a century.
Maybe we can't do anything about the mRNAs (which obviously need MUCH tougher testing of repeated dosing than they have undergone, conducted independently of the companies) or gain-of-function more generally (though at this point I think I'd favor efforts to ban it entirely for respiratory viruses like coronavirus and flu, as it seems to be all downside with not even a glimmer of potential benefit).
But shouldn't we be trying? Why aren't serious scientists speaking out on these issues?
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