Quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger said, “In an honest search for knowledge, you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period.” Opinions, beliefs and presumptive guesswork, before evaluating and confirming facts, only obscure the search for tenable explanations and truth. It takes rigorous, replicable experiments and statistical analyses (the “re” in research) before observable facts enter textbooks and the canon of objective knowledge. Having a population that doesn’t understand that process or the surrounding world it seeks to explain, ignoring experts in biological and environmental fields, has put us in the crosshairs of contagion and climate change. “True ignorance,” as Karl Popper said, “Is not the absence of knowledge, but refusal to acquire it.” The paradox of freedom is that, without a modicum of control or constraint, especially in crises, people believe they have the liberty to cause harm, imposing even greater restraints on societies they hurt. Not knowing fundamentals of germ transmission or elementary concepts of earth science has created a small, but dangerous subculture of vaccine skeptics, global warming deniers and history revisionists turned sanctifiers. That disregard for truth means disaster for America. In addition to guns, refined petroleum and cars, U.S. ignorance is now among our biggest exports. Vaccine misinformation and extremism, stamped Made-in-America, now infiltrates New Zealand, where residents, accustomed to COVID-free living from pandemic lockdowns and other restrictions, are balancing reopening with rising infection rates from delta. As jabs became compulsory, U.S. and Australian anti-vaxxer groups inspired small, but violent protests against health and safety mandates. MAGA hats and QAnon flags were noticeable in crowds, while far-right ideologies, like white supremacy and misogyny, targeted Maoris, Jacinda Ardern and other officials on-line.
Early into the pandemic, as vaccines were being tested, I wrote how a 90+ percent herd-immunity from inoculating the country against SARS-CoV-2 might be necessary to contain its spread. Every virology and epidemiology textbook from which I ever studied used the same rule-of-thumb schematics and vector analyses when describing herd immunities for highly-transmissible diseases in congregate settings. And unfortunately, even during a plague, too many people, loathing the religion of solitude, are drawn to congested gatherings. I explained how carriers of the coronavirus, especially the unvaccinated, are walking factories for the pathogen, “oases in the desert,” where more replications mean more mutations, some potentially virulent. Rich countries, by hoarding surplus vaccines, have punctuated that evolution, turning poorer countries into microbial farm systems, human petri dishes on a massive scale. Only 6.6% of Africans have been vaccinated against COVID compared to 66% of the EU. Inequitable vaccine rollouts have already come home to roost with the delta variant. The next blowback is “omicron,” identified in 17 countries to date, including Canada, the U.S. and the Netherlands two weeks ago, predating detection in South Africa.
COVID isn’t some fad ─ here today, gone tomorrow ─ it’s a biological fixture to which we ALL must adapt long-term. The omicron variant, a highly transmissible “virus of concern” is yet another endorsement for mandating full-vaccinations, social distancing and wearing masks. Boosters additionally provoke memory T-and B-cell responses, maximizing antibody titers. If omicron’s antibody resistance causes material drops in vaccine efficacies (cross-protection by existing sera taking weeks to assess), Pfizer and Moderna can reformulate shots early 2022. China, expected to double-down on zero-infection policies, is already modifying vaccines with omicron-specificity, pledging a billion inoculations to less-developed nations. The U.S., EU and India’s Serum Institute (the world’s largest vaccine-producer) have resumed exporting hundreds of millions of doses as well. Additionally, FDA’s approval of Merck’s COVID-19 pill bolsters therapeutics.
The pandemic has killed over 5 million people globally, 805,000 in the U.S. alone; 175,000 kids have lost a parent here. For 270 years, variolation and vaccinations have conferred resilience, not invincibility, to diseases, reducing severity and spread. To ignore that history combines ignorance with madness.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.