Don’t Panic, the Vaccine Is Safe
Now that we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the last thing we need is panic to get in the way.
Note: just right after I finished writing this story, vaccinations have resumed as the EMA stated that there is no risk from the AstraZeneca vaccine. While this was bound to happen, it doesn’t affect my point: suspending vaccination caused panic among the population and trust in the vaccine needs to be rebuilt.
EDIT (March 31st, 2021): there MIGHT be some causal link between the vaccine and thrombosis. If this is the case, some parts of this story are no longer valid. But the general point still is: the benefits far outweigh the risks, the probability of getting thrombosis from the vaccine is so low that it shouldn’t be a big factor in your decision of getting vaccinated.
I was just starting to think that we couldn’t screw up more in dealing with this pandemic, and then this happened: half of the European countries temporarily stopped using the AstraZeneca vaccine, after seven recorded cases of cerebral venous thrombosis out of 1.6 million people vaccinated in Germany, including three deaths.
This decision managed to outdumb even the decisions my government made in December (for the record, my predictions turned out to be correct, sadly). It was misguided, unscientific, and it will add thousands of unnecessary deaths to the toll. Besides the direct damage caused by the delay in vaccinations, what’s more scary is the possibility of an even worse indirect damage, as unnecessary panic will spread among an already confused and uneducated population, and the hard-gained trust for the vaccines will need to be rebuilt.
Welcome to the post-truth society, where feelings and sensationalism matter more than data and rationality.
It saddens me that I felt the need to write this story. We were finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. COVID vaccines didn’t have the best reputation before, especially AstraZeneca for its flu-like symptoms (that should be a sign that the vaccine is working). And now, it got worse.
Here we are, with institutions changing their mind by the hour, with reassuring tweets followed by unjustified alarmism soon after. Is it possible for science and vaccines to regain the population’s trust when not even experts are thinking straight?
I don’t even blame the uneducated population. We can’t all know everything. I shouldn’t be the one saying that vaccines are safe, I’m not in a position to do so, that’s not my expertise.
Although a more rational population would be ideal, it is not surprising that people (me included) are driven more by feelings than by rationality. And it is still not surprising that people don’t always fact-check every piece of information they stumble upon.
But what really pisses me off is that agencies, institutions, the so-called experts, the ones we should trust because they supposedly know better, would be better off if they hired dart-throwing monkeys to replace their decision-making processes.
With this story, I want to convince you that all this panic is totally unjustified and dangerous. I want to convince you that the vaccine is safe. Not many people will read this story and its impact will be limited, but every single person counts. Every person that gets vaccinated not only becomes immune to COVID, but potentially stops spreading the virus, and we all get one step closer to the end of this nightmare.
I know far too many people personally that are scared of the COVID vaccines. I’m not saying that we should blindly trust the vaccines. A little skepticism is reasonable, but that skepticism should drive us to educate ourselves and look at data, instead of letting fear consume us at the expense of everyone’s safety.
That’s why I wanted to write this story. In an ideal world, as I said, I would be in no position to judge the safety of the vaccine, because that’s not my expertise. But this is not the ideal world, this is a world where even “experts” are failing to apply the knowledge and methods that should make them “experts”. So I’ll just try to bring a bit of common sense and rationality into the picture.
Those Deaths Would Have Happened Anyway
I got my first AstraZeneca shot last Monday. In the waiting room, a guy was talking to me about how scared he was that the company got exempt from liability in case of adverse effects. That’s not good news, right? They probably know something we don’t, right?
Let’s look at two simple statistics:
- At least 60% of the world’s population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, that’s about 4.7 billion people.
- From the moment you started reading this story (assuming no pauses), about 4 people in the Western world died from thrombosis.
In case you skimmed the second point, let me say it again.
From the moment you started reading this story, about 4 people in the Western world died from thrombosis. 5 people now.
Thrombosis is not rare and it’s a common cause of death.
As I’m writing this (18th March 2021), more than 400 million people worldwide got at least one vaccine shot. If none of those people had a case of thrombosis for whatever reason, that would not only be a surprising coincidence, but we would have discovered that the COVID vaccines are much more useful than we imagined.
As tragic as it sounds, those 3 deaths out of 1.6 million people vaccinated in Germany would have happened anyway.
Just because there is a temporal connection between two events, it doesn’t mean that one causes the other. I had dinner earlier, then I started writing this story. Does that mean that having dinner gives people a sudden urge to write stories on Medium? Of course not. If that sounds absurd, it’s because this whole situation is.
You could also reason the opposite way: take a person that died from thrombosis, and look at what she was doing before dying. Maybe she was driving. Maybe she was cooking. Maybe she was writing an email. Maybe she was taking a shit.
It doesn’t mean that driving, cooking, emails, and bowel movements cause thrombosis. And this doesn’t surprise us. Why don’t we apply the same kind of common sense to the vaccine? The reason is confirmation bias: we had an irrational fear of the vaccine in the first place, and we look for evidence that it’s harmful, consciously or not.
The reason why AstraZeneca is exempt from liability is that something like this had to happen. After vaccinating millions of people, someone had to get sick and die for whatever reason, and the correlation would have been mistaken as causality. Just imagine the lawsuits.
Even if AstraZeneca Caused Those Deaths, It Would Still Be Safer Than COVID
It’s understandable why people don’t trust the vaccine. Some of us have a natural aversion for things that are injected in our bodies. And some of us are worried by how rapidly the COVID vaccines have been developed.
Agencies and institutions should provide us with data and reassure us that the vaccine is safe. They didn't really excel at that job.
I get that safety is never enough, and institutions wanted to examine those cases of thrombosis. And I’m not saying this is wrong, in fact, we could really use more studies to completely rule out the vaccine as the cause.
But this shouldn’t have stopped vaccinations. The “safety is never enough” argument is often ill-conceived, this argument could be used for anything to justify any cost. And in the case of the COVID vaccine, that cost is surely higher that any possible gain we would make to ensure that “safety is enough”.
This cost, as we saw, is in term of human lives. Some will be lost after having delayed vaccinations by 3 days. Others will be lost because we will need more time and resources to convince more people to get vaccinated.
If you are not convinced yet, consider this scenario. Suppose that one study found that those cases of thrombosis were actually caused by the vaccine.
What would it mean in terms of safety? Well, with 3 deaths out of 1.6 million, the probability of dying is 0.0001875%.
So far, about 2,7 million people died from COVID worldwide, which’s about 0.035% of the total population. In other words, even if the vaccine did cause those deaths, and considering an effectiveness of about 80%, by getting vaccinated you would still be about 150 times safer. And this does not even take into account the decrease in the spread of the virus.
Long-Term Adverse Effects Are Not an Issue Either
But what about long-term effects? Surely we have zero data to claim that the vaccine is safe in the long-term, right?
True. It might be possible that there are long-term side effects, as it will need to be empirically validated in the future.
But it’s highly unlikely. All vaccines work in a similar way, and so far there is no evidence that any vaccine has adverse long-term side effects. If those effects exist, they manifest within a few days or weeks.
Again, I’m not an expert and I can’t say anything about the possible long-term side effects of vaccines, except by citing research (non-existing in the case of COVID for obvious reasons). But I can try to look at the issue from a purely rational perspective.
If we are concerned about the long-term effects of vaccines, why aren’t we concerned about the long-term effects of COVID? For those who survive, of course.
In fact, we actually have evidence of cases of long COVID, where adverse effects from COVID last even months after recovery.
At the end of the day, the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks. We are maybe just getting used to COVID (it’s been more than a year), it doesn’t scare us as much as it should.
Irrationality Is the Real Adverse Effect
But this kind of probabilistic reasoning does not come natural to people.
We imagine some events and estimate their probability by the emotional impact they leave on us.
The chances of dying in a car accident are higher than the chances of winning the lottery, but we still recklessly text while driving and confidently buy lottery tickets.
Similarly, the chances of death from COVID are higher than the chances of adverse effects from the vaccine, yet we are more afraid of the latter.
Getting COVID is boring, so our brain estimates a low probability. Getting injected with some strange solution that has been developed by a multinational in a few months is scary, and the estimated probability is higher.
Again, I’m claiming no expertise on COVID or the vaccine. Or worse, I’m not trying to pursue some political agenda (because everything is political anyway). I’m just trying to decuple our irrational fears from the actual data.
Deaths from the vaccine are a statistical illusion. Deaths from inaction and mass hysteria are real. Better safe than sorry? It looks like we will be safe and sorry.
9,695 people died of COVID in the day I’m writing this. Every day panic gets in the way of vaccinations, is a day when thousands more people get infected and die, a day when the economy keeps stagnating, a day of social distancing and loneliness, a day when our hope dies a little bit more.
Getting vaccinated is not only a matter of personal safety but also a matter of social responsibility. You make yourself and others safe.
Do your part.