Officials would do better to stop blaming misinformation, apologise for clearly illiberal measures during the pandemic, and try to reassure us that the vaccine situation is being monitored

Covid vaccines are a controversial subject. Fortunately, Covid isn’t in the news at the moment, cases are way down, so the subject can be broached without fear.

Contrast that with about a month ago, when the now-endemic virus spiked suddenly – and there was epidemiologist Petros Karayannis on CyBC radio (January 20), urging vulnerable groups to get vaccinated. Greek Prime Minister Constantinos Mitsotakis went even further, declaring on X that vaccination against Covid-19 “reduces the risk of severe illness by 90 per cent”.

Karayannis made another point on the radio, griping that many were reluctant to get a Covid vaccine due to “misinformation”.

“Some people tell me, ‘But the vaccines have been linked to autoimmune disorders’,” he said. “Well, there was recently a study showing that significantly more autoimmune disorders are caused by getting Covid itself than by the vaccine. So people need to read and research, not just listen to things that get spread around by word of mouth.”

The shift from vaccines being ‘safe and effective’ to, essentially, the lesser of two evils is certainly a change in messaging from 2021. But in fact, despite the professor’s urgings, those who read and research are precisely the ones who get accused of following ‘misinformation’.

There’s indeed a lot of wild talk on social media about Covid vaccines causing everything from turbo cancers to prion disease. But official messaging has also been inadequate, overly dismissive of side effects and adverse reactions, and often just wrong.

Take Mitsotakis’ claim of a 90 per cent reduction in severe disease. This fits with official statements during the pandemic in countries like Greece and Cyprus, when we were told that 90 per cent of hospitalisations, and the vast majority of deaths, were in the unvaccinated.

Countries that actually supplied raw data, however, told a different story. Public Health England published ‘technical briefings’ every two weeks, giving numbers by vaccination status. (That information was discontinued in 2022, supposedly because it was being misinterpreted by ‘anti-vaxxers’.)

Technical Briefing 15, for instance, published on 17 September 2021, revealed that 2,542 people had died from the Delta variant in England from February to September, of whom only 722 (28 per cent) were unvaccinated. Some 1,613 (63 per cent) were fully vaccinated with the then necessary two doses.

The proportion of unvaccinated in society was slightly less than 28 per cent, so these numbers still showed some protective effect from getting vaxed. But it wasn’t a 90 per cent reduction compared to not getting it – and it’s likely to be even less now, with Covid mutating faster than the vaccines. Mitsotakis’ statement is very probably misinformation.

The wider problem is that the rollout of the Covid vaccine was so unethical, with so much coercion, that governments are essentially complicit, and would be embarrassed by any discussion of vaccine risks. (Mitsotakis’ government, which actually fined people for being unvaccinated, is even less credible.) Thus the official messaging ignores the various debates going on, fuelling suspicion from ordinary people who turn to lurid speculation on social media.

It was found a year ago, for instance (the initial study, since confirmed by others, was by Irrgang et al. in Science Immunology), that two or more mRNA Covid vaccines lead to a change in the body’s antibody response, massively increasing the levels of a rare form of antibody called IgG4. This doesn’t happen after Covid infection, or with other vaccines.

Is that bad? Well, it could be. “Unlike the other three antibodies in its class, IgG4 does little to help other immune system cells attack viral or bacterial invaders directly,” wrote Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter who now has a popular Substack.

IgG4 is apparently our body’s usual response to harmless allergens like pollen, neutralising the invader without actually destroying it. This could lead to ‘immune tolerance’ with Covid, making the body less active in fighting it – and making mRNA-vaccinated people less able to clear an infection than the unvaccinated.

Others say the finding isn’t significant. “In short, IgG4 does not automatically indicate tolerance to SARS-CoV-2,” wrote Edward Nirenberg, a scientist who also has a Substack (his post is worth reading in full), adding: “The mRNA vaccines are strongly protective, as evidenced by clinical trial data and real-world effectiveness studies, regardless of what the specific role of IgG4 is.”

That’s just one example of vaccine discussion – and, inevitably, an inconclusive one. No-one really knows at the moment. These should be issues for scientists and researchers to debate among themselves, while awaiting long-term idea. Unfortunately, since the world was pressured into mass vaccination, they’re issues that affect all of us.

Long-term data simply doesn’t exist yet. Frustratingly, the Pfizer trial (the one on which approval was based) was unblinded too early, with the vaccine offered to the placebo group after just a few months on the grounds that it would’ve been unethical to deprive them of it – a bad mistake, since that would’ve been high-quality data.

It’s even worse because, in Pfizer’s own six-month report, there were more deaths (15) reported in the vaccine group than in the equivalent placebo group (14), the reduction in Covid deaths (two in placebo, one in vaccine) offset by more cardiac deaths (two and six, respectively), as shown in the supplementary appendix. “None of these deaths were considered to be related to [the vaccine] by the investigators,” claims the report.

Excess deaths are indeed the most obvious red flag – and they’ve been reported in various countries but, again, the data is inconclusive.

Here in Cyprus, as we wrote back in March, there were high excess deaths in 2021-22 – but they tended to coincide with Covid waves, which is evidence of the virus (whether directly or indirectly) being responsible. On the other hand, there was markedly lower all-cause mortality during the first two waves in April and December 2020, before the vaccines entered the picture. We’ll know more from the 2023-24 data, as Covid recedes.

The bottom line is that people have concerns about this technology, and it’s counter-productive to keep ignoring them.

Rather than periodic calls to ‘get vaccinated’ whenever fear of Covid shoots up, officials would do better to stop blaming misinformation, apologise for clearly illiberal measures like the safe pass, and try to reassure us that the vaccine situation is being monitored.

Germany are ahead of us in this respect. Public broadcaster WDR ran a segment on January 18 on another of the ongoing scientific debates, the discovery of small amounts of bacterial DNA contamination in mRNA vaccines. Among the interviewees was Dr Thomas Voshaar, described as a pulmonologist who headed a Covid ward during the pandemic.

Asked if he’d been vaccinated, he replied that he had – “Twice” – and didn’t regret it. He came off as measured, reasonable, and in no way ‘anti-vax’.

Asked what possible contamination might mean for the vaccinated, he said there was no immediate cause for alarm. “But,” he added, “I also cannot guarantee to you that there is absolutely no residual risk for the next decades of your life.”

That’s the kind of blunt German honesty we could use a bit more of now.