There is a feeling among many scientific skeptics that the anti-GMO and the antivaccine broadly intersect. Unfortunately for simple generalizations, that assumption is not supported by rational political analysis. In fact, it’s much more complicated than that.
Those of us who are on the political left want to believe that it’s only the right wing (Republicans in the USA, but other countries have their political parties of the same general sentiment) that are science deniers.
One of the memes that I use is that those liberals who deny vaccines or think that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous, really aren’t all that much different than climate change deniers, who deny basic science, cherry pick only the data that supports an a priori conclusion, or ignore the consequences of their beliefs. But it appears that the vaccine and GMO deniers are cut from different political cloths.
As I wrote before, a big portion of the antivaccine rhetoric comes from the political right, including anti-government types, libertarians, and fundamentalist christians. However, it’s clear that vaccine refusers can be found throughout liberal Democratic strongholds in such deep blue states as California. During the recent vaccine kerfuffle that arose from the outbreak in Disneyland, the antivaccine forces included liberals like Robert F Kennedy, Jr and conservatives like Governor Chris Christie. Whatever political line there is for vaccine refusers, it’s not clear where it is.
Irrespective of political belief, the overwhelming evidence leads us to only one scientific conclusion–vaccines are safe and effective, and the consensus of those scientists who actually spend their lives with vaccines is that vaccines are safe and effective.
The National Academy of Sciences, probably the most prestigious scientific academy on the planet, states:
Vaccines offer the promise of protection against a variety of infectious diseases. Despite much media attention and strong opinions from many quarters, vaccines remain one of the greatest tools in the public health arsenal. Certainly, some vaccines result in adverse effects that must be acknowledged. But the latest evidence shows that few adverse effects are caused by the vaccines reviewed in this report.
On the other hand, there seems to be a somewhat, but still a bit cloudy, analysis of the anti-GMO forces. Mostly, it’s thought that the GMO refusers are wealthy liberals, but political analysis doesn’t support that supposition, not even close. A recent poll has shown that opponents to GMOs are generally small in number (surprising to me), and that there is barely any difference in attitude between those who are self described liberals, moderates or conservatives.
But once again, the scientific evidence unequivocally states that GMO crops are safe for humans and the environment. Yes, one could cherry pick a poorly designed study here or there (Séralini anyone?), but that’s not how science is done.
And once again, a prestigious scientific academy, the AAAS, has released a statement of consensus science on genetically modified foods (pdf):
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
Destroying the space-time continuum
Well, irrationality meets anti-science beliefs meets a New York State Assemblyman, Thomas Abinanti, a Democrat, representing the prototypical wealthy liberal Assembly districts, who proposed NY AB 1706 which bans the use of genetically modified organisms in vaccines.
No this isn’t a hoax. No, it’s not April Fool’s. No, it’s not the Onion or Saturday Night Live.
So what does Abinanti, who probably is one of the most scientifically ignorant Democratic politicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of examining, want to do? We can read the bill, which defines a GMO as:
“altered at the molecular or cellular level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes, including recombinant DNA and RNA techniques, cell fusion, microencapsulation, macroencapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introduction of a foreign gene and a process that changes the positions of genes…”
This is precisely the technology that is the fundamental basis of developing and testing any vaccine. And given the number of medical research universities in New York (and some of the most prestigious in the world), I’m flabbergasted that Abinanti even thought about this for more than a nanosecond.
Ten years ago, making a new vaccine was a hit and miss proposition. No, the vaccines that were sent to doctor’s offices were always safe and effective, but getting there was time consuming and difficult. Researchers essentially had to grow millions of cultures of viruses to find the one mutation that gave them a virus that wasn’t pathogenic but induced an immune response. Researchers gave their whole lives to discovering one vaccine.
That’s why before the 1990’s, we got a new vaccine every decade or so. Then we got DNA mapping and recombination techniques, along with numerous other cell biology techniques, and creating a non-pathogenic but immunogenic virus has become less difficult.
Now it isn’t as easy as throwing a bunch of virus into a beaker, pour it into a computerized machine, eat lunch, then have a vial of vaccine pop out the other end. If only it were that easy. But the timeline has maybe been reduced from 10 years to 5 years or less.
Now that fool Abinanti wants to eliminate an essential and basic tool for immunology research, one that is important to New York’s economy. What is he thinking? My guess is, he didn’t
But let’s not forget about the unintended consequences of his bill. Human insulin cannot be isolated from humans safely, nor can we get it in sufficient supply to provide to all diabetics. I guess Abinanti wants us to have humans to bleed for insulin, because ALL insulin used today to save the lives of diabetics is manufactured through genetically modified organisms. The human insulin gene was inserted into a bacteria which can produce it faster than any human could.
Moreover, researchers have modified the human insulin to work even better, but creating both fast-acting and slow-acting versions of insulin, which provides much better blood glucose control, substantially reducing the risk of a myriad of diabetic complications.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made the point about his ridiculous bill.
Let’s make sure everyone understands this, because it is germane to a huge portion of the antivaccine belief. “Natural” pathogenic viruses and bacteria are dangerous. They are called pathogens because they are able to infect a human and cause damage before the immune system can attack it. No, you cannot down some supplement or drink Kale Protein shakes to make your immune system better.
If a child catches the pathogenic virus they generally get sick. And depending on a large list of factors, plus randomness, that pathogen can do anything from being destroyed in a few days by the immune system to permanently harming or killing the victim. Again, force feeding your kid kale shakes is not going to have much influence on the outcome.
Vaccines work in one simple way. For one antigen, say a measles virus, the vaccine stimulates the immune memory for that virus. But because the virus is weakened (or killed), sometimes through genetical manipulation of the virus, it is not pathogenic. It does not kill or harm the victim, it only trains the immune system. So when the actual pathogenic measles virus shows up, the child’s immune system is able to react quickly and destroy the virus before it ever does a thing.
Again, that kale shake, or a handful of vitamins, or a chiropractor are not going to make the immune system work if that immune system has no memory of the pathogen. That’s the miracle of our immune system, it remembers every one of the trillions of antigens that it encounters, and responds quickly if it shows up again.
Because of biotechnology and genetic modification, we can now combine the antigens from a pathogenic virus and attach it to a non-pathogenic relative, giving us a safe virus that still induces the immune response to fight an infection from the “natural” pathogenic virus. That’s the real miracle of science.
The TL;DR version
A Democratic New York State Assemblyman merges the paranoia about vaccines with the ignorance about GMOs–everyone laughs. I hope.