When National Geographic recently published an article about “contagious” vaccines, something resembling panic has surfaced on Twitter. There was a feeling that the article was being shared by people who hadn’t actually read it, something that 6 out of 10 They say the Americans do it.
as one person wrote indignantly: “Instead of catching a cold/flu, you get a vaccine. Without consent! And “what could go wrong?” was the topic of the day.
The article in question, however, primarily involved efforts to stop the spread of disease among animals. He was talking about a 1999 field trial on an island off the coast of Spain, designed to see if a “self-propagating” vaccine could stop the disease in wild rabbits. This was a small study, involving a cohort of 147 rabbits, but appeared to be a success. The researchers found that more than half of the unvaccinated rabbits in the study had subsequently acquired antibodies presumed to have come from their mixing with vaccinated rabbits.
National Geographic reported that a person involved in the study said “data from laboratory and field trials showed the vaccine to be safe and its spread remained confined to rabbit populations.” The vaccine was not cleared for further use; however, since then other researchers have worked on similar vaccines designed to stop the spread of the disease in rats and monkeys.
Write for the newspaper Trends in microbiology in 2018, researchers James J. Bull, Mark Smithson, and Scott Nuismer wrote that “vaccine transmission is easier than you think” despite the challenges that would need to be overcome, including waning efficacy with the weather.
“Most transmissible vaccines will simply die unless continually introduced,” the scientists wrote, saying transmissible vaccines could be “for humans or wildlife.”
But a scientist quoted in the National Geographic article was adamant that there would never be “contagious” vaccines developed for human use.
“We can’t even get people to get vaccinated in a global pandemic. The idea that you’d be able to surreptitiously inoculate the population with a virus without causing riots is just, you know, it’s fantasy. It will never be used in humans,” said Alec Redwood, lead researcher at the University of Western Australia.
The scientists cited in this article also noted that there are ethical issues even with regard to the use of transmissible vaccines in animals – such as the risk of mutations and the disruption of natural population control. These would have to be overcome even if there was an ultimate societal good, such as decreasing the spread of animal-borne diseases like rabies or Ebola.
That said, with vaccination against COVID-19 having become a political issue, there are surely public health officials who yearn for a world in which entire populations are immune to the disease through vaccination without concomitant controversy. This desire comes up against the principle of informed consentthat a person must be informed and able to consent to any medical treatment.
Some people think the COVID-19 vaccine is part of a government conspiracy to follow us, or make us magnetic, or bid for Bill Gates, it’s understandable that research aimed at making vaccines transmissible can cause a rush of anxiety. And to be sure, there’s plenty on the medical horizon that can legitimately keep us up at night, including the prospect of breeding animals for human organs and genetic editing of our offspring.
But for now, it looks like a transmissible vaccine for humans is safely in the realm of science fiction, and there’s probably a screenwriter working on a movie script about it right now. But public health officials might appreciate a comment on Twitter by someone who wrote: “Contagious vaccine? … They make me want to wear a mask.