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Are vaccines paving the way for the next pandemic?


‘PNEUMONIA may well be called the friend of the aged,’ wrote the Canadian physician Sir William Osler in 1898, referring to the relatively quick and easy death-in-sleep that often results when the condition is untreated.

This ‘old man’s friend’, as pneumonia has been known ever since, is most commonly brought on by influenza or a similar respiratory virus. Every winter the pattern repeats: a certain number of elderly people get the flu, go to hospital, contract pneumonia, and expire. 

But when we speak of these deaths, we don’t normally attribute them to pneumonia or flu, but to old age. We might say something like ‘My grandfather has died.’ An old man died at the end of a long life and happened to contract flu and pneumonia at the end – a friend to see him out.

This has all changed with Covid-19. Given that the average age of death from Covid or Covid-caused pneumonia is slightly higher than the average age of death overall, one might think we’d adopt a similar attitude. Instead we regard a Covid death as a catastrophic interruption of life, no matter how old, frail or sick the victim already may have been. Now we say ‘My grandfather has died of Covid’ – a casualty of this modern war, a member of the class of noble sufferers of the great tragedy of our time – omitting the fact that he was 83 and had advanced dementia or some other comorbidity.

In Dr Osler’s and my native country of Canada, three-quarters of Covid deaths have been in care homes. This is a double scandal. One, the conditions in many of these homes were revealed to be highly unsanitary, and two, the federal government made the knee-jerk mistake early on of ordering all hospitalised nursing home residents to be returned to their homes, where they spread the coronavirus to their neighbours after having contracted it in hospital. 

But those deaths also occurred because care homes are where our society groups together our oldest and most vulnerable people, of whom there were many at the beginning of 2020. Their high number can be accounted for by the so-called ‘dry tinder’ theory, which stipulates that preceding flu seasons were light, resulting in few deaths, so there was a surplus of elderly and susceptible people alive when the pandemic hit.

Callous though it might seem, the evidence for this theory is strong. Countries which had high Covid death tolls had just come off light flu seasons. In Canada, in the six flu seasons preceding the Covid-19 pandemic, annual flu hospitalisations of those over 65 years of age through to week 12, in chronological order, numbered 4612, 1047, 3682, 2929, 458, and 490. While these figures are incomplete, as British Columbia, Quebec and Nunavut do not report these statistics, they do suggest that Canada had two abnormally light flu seasons immediately preceding the onset of the pandemic.

It’s difficult to say what caused those light flu seasons, but one possibility is that the flu vaccine was particularly effective in those years. For that matter, if the flu vaccine is effective at all, every recent flu season was lighter than it otherwise might have been. Taking this to its logical conclusion, the flu vaccine is heavily responsible for the dry tinder effect, as all the elderly who survived those years were in an even more vulnerable position when SARS-CoV-2 came along. But the end result was the same: they died. 

Viruses are always with us, as are susceptible people. Yet we seem to be in denial about this. And in our efforts to eliminate viruses and prolong life with mass vaccination programmes, what if we’re also inadvertently enlarging the susceptible population and making a bigger target for the next virus?

What if we’re effectively stockpiling dry tinder?

This may be a happy result in individual circumstances – no price can be assigned to the gift of one or two extra years with a loved one. The problem comes in when we have to pay the price collectively as a society for ensuring those extra years – namely, a larger and more sudden death toll when a novel virus comes along. As we found out last year, this comes as a colossal shock. 

I am not suggesting that attempts to protect the elderly from deadly viruses are misguided. I am suggesting that if governments are going to overreact out of hysteria and panic, lock entire populations in their homes, restrict travel, choke the economy, take children out of school and destroy small businesses, with all the accompanying side-effects such as increased suicide, domestic abuse and drug overdoses, it might be better for society not to strike this bargain. 

This is all indicative of a deeper issue in our attitude to life and death. We regard life as something to be lengthened and preserved rather than lived. We regard death as something to be avoided and delayed rather than a companion to walk alongside and ultimately meet. But meet death we must – perhaps through the introduction of a friend, such as flu, pneumonia or Covid.

And if the flu vaccine is responsible for increasing the susceptible population and thereby making Covid a more deadly disease, what effect will the Covid vaccines have? Assuming the vaccines are effective, will inoculation against flu and Covid together simply create an even bigger group of susceptible people, an even bigger target, an even bigger stockpile of dry tinder, ready and waiting for the next novel virus to attack? Will we be any less shocked when that happens?

After the financial crash of 2008, periodic stimulus injections, increased borrowing and low interest rates have staved off what many economists view as an inevitable financial catastrophe. In other words, governments keep kicking the can down the road. 

What if vaccine injections are having a similar effect to stimulus injections? 

Maybe it’s not quite a Ponzi scheme, but our collective attempt to deny death by kicking it down the road is no less futile. Despite our best efforts, death will inevitably come for the aged, and when it does, we should be mindful that what appears to be a new killer may sometimes also be a friend.

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Andrew Mahon
Andrew Mahon
Andrew Mahon is a Canadian-British writer based in London. He is the author of Don't go to University: A decision-making guide for young adults without a plan.

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