Many scholars have pointed out parallels between covid anti-vaxxers and climate change contrarians, between climate change misinformation and covid vaccine misinformation, and between vaccine hesitancy and climate change denial.
However, I want to explore a contrasting parallel, this time between the medical industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry. Between Big Pharma and Big Oil. I think this parallel makes a whole lot more sense than trying to portray the medical industrial complex as the science-backed ‘good guys’. Let me explain.
Technological and economic progress that disrupts finely balanced natural systems
The burning of fossil fuels to produce energy was originally understood as a wonderful breakthrough to enable transport and production, enabling vast industrialisation and unprecedented economic growth, alleviating poverty, and extending health & wellbeing globally. Similarly covid vaccines have been understood to be a significant technological breakthrough and the veritable ticket to solving the covid pandemic: returning life back to normal.
Both technological breakthroughs, however, involve significant disruption to finely balanced natural systems. Our bodies have a natural immune system. Covid vaccines use novel lipid nanoparticle transfer and genetic (mRNA or viral vector) technology with no long term data on safety or efficacy. But there are questions about pathogenic priming (“original antigenic sin“) and other possible mechanisms of harm from Covid vaccines. It should hardly be surprising that such concerns exist when a medical industrial complex seeks to maximise profit through manipulation of natural systems, for that is the modus operandi of Big Pharma. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily bad (or good), merely that the presence of at least some potential concerns would seem, at face value, legitimate.
Back when James Watt’s steam engine sparked the industrial revolution, nobody was concerned about global warming for around 200 years; although it was midway in that period when scientists such as Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius described the mechanisms and early modelling of the greenhouse effect.
Both Covid vaccines and the burning of fossil fuels are known to have mechanisms that may disrupt finely balanced natural systems. The science for both is clear. In fact it is clearer on the covid vaccine front than on the fossil fuel front. And that’s because covid vaccines are designed to enhance (positively disrupt) the natural immune response to covid. That is not in dispute. Whether there is net societal or individual benefit from those disruptions are questions of values rather than purely scientific questions. And the questions which science can answer may take years or even decades to answer.
Questions of science or policy?
The scientific method cannot alone answer questions of values or policy, but it can provide data and evidence to help answer quantitative questions.
This is why I struggle to see clear parallels between climate denial and vaccine hesitancy. They are simply not in the same category. One is a question about the nature of reality (what is?), the other is about the best course of action (what ought?). To deny that humans are significant contributors to climate change is to doubt the scientific evidence that provides a quantitative estimate, with confidence intervals, of how much humans activity contributes to global warming. However, I still don’t understand how the question of whether one should take a covid vaccine can be answered with a quantitative answer that is purely derived from scientific enquiry. I’m intentionally labouring the point here, because whether or not to get vaccinated is inherently a policy question based on values, which may (hopefully) informed by scientific evidence to answer questions that one deems important. Those questions could be:
- How strongly do I wish to avoid catching covid?
- How strongly do I wish to avoid being hospitalised by covid?
- How will I try to avoid transmitting covid?
- Do I wish to pursue lifestyle methods to reduce risk?
- Do I wish to pursue more established pharmaceuticals for prophylaxis or early treatment?
- Do I wish to subject myself to unknowable possible long term consequences (either positive or negative) from taking a novel therapeutic intervention?
To repeat my key message: while I am yet to be convinced of clear parallels between climate denial and vaccine hesitancy, despite many claims of parallels, I can see clear parallels between Big Pharma and Big Oil. Which brings me to my next point.
Follow the Money
Identification of financial beneficiaries does not necessarily imply hidden motives or perverse incentives. It’s important to stick to known facts rather than unknowable conspiracy theories. In the case of Big Oil, there is a well documented history of casting doubt on the science of climate change to preserve industry profitability. In the case of Big Pharma, there is also a well documented history of fraud and corruption, including data falsification, in pursuit of profit.
There is a significant profit for Big Pharma for covid vaccines. That need not automatically lead to a conclusion of corruption but the history of fraud and corruption must certainly make it a possibility.
Policy Response: Totalitarianism and Coercion
Now I’m jumping to parallels between covid policy response and global warming response. (While Bg Pharma and Big Oil may have some influence on policy response in their respective domains, it is not their primary focus, so unproven conspiracy theories aside, they’re off the hook.)
Both covid and global warming are genuine global issues of high priority. (Of course there are several high priority global issues, but I’m not commenting on the relative priority of these and other global issues. That is a separate question entirely.)
Governmental policy response for both covid and global warming are both areas of concern for possible exploitation by commercial interests and coercive intrusion into personal freedoms. Again, I’m not commenting on the merits of such policy responses or the corresponding concerns, but merely observing that for a large and somewhat influential part of the population, these concerns are at least their reality.