Catch-22, mRNA-Style

Unless governments get properly involved, the questions around Covid vaccine safety will NEVER be answered; but governments have every incentive not to get properly involved

I used to spend my days thinking about problems big enough for John Wells.

If you don’t know, Wells is the hero of the series of spy novels that I wrote from 2006 to 2019. He’s an ornery jerk with a big ego, a unique skill set, a willingness to shoot first when necessary, and a sinking feeling that nothing he does really matters. Also he rides a motorcycle. We have nothing in common except the motorcycle, of course.

Where was I?

Yeah, so writing spy novels is not exactly the same as writing detective novels. You can write a successful and fulfilling series of mysteries centered around the same character forever, and even put out more than one book a year, if you’re good – Michael Connelly does. The plots don’t have to be huge, you don’t have to have the world’s worst serial killer every time, though you can throw in one every so often.

Spy novels are different. In general, they want to be high-stakes, especially in a series. And how many world-threatening plots can you devise that aren’t totally ridiculous? How many big enemies? There’s China, Iran, Russia, maybe an al Qaeda type, though those are played by now… and why is your guy involved in all of them? How does John Wells, who doesn’t speak Chinese, end up in China? He works for or at the least with the Central Intelligence Agency, they have a few other operatives too.

The point is this.

Some problems are fixable if you report on them. Not as many as in the old days, when companies and politicians still had some fear of public exposure, when shame still existed as a viable behavioral constraint in the United States, but some.

Bigger problems require legal intervention – regulatory, civil, or criminal. Disclosure requirements, discovery, subpoenas. Administrative penalties, fines and monetary sanctions, jail time. Courts can force testimony when reporters can’t. Police can obtain warrants and break down doors. Police have guns. Reporters don’t, or shouldn’t. A country where a reporter needs a gun is a country that is not functioning well.

(One small but notable example of our growing dysfunction: the death of shame has helped fuel the explosion of defamation lawsuits. People and institutions now lie even after they’re caught, when once they would have apologized and stopped. Those lies force those they’ve defamed into the legal system, even though precedent and what are called anti-SLAPP laws make the courts unfriendly to defamation plaintiffs.)

But some problems are too big even for the courts – unless those courts are backstopped with the full power of a national government.

As an example: Prosecutors can’t touch Vitaly Aroshanov, the Russian soldier who allegedly castrated a Ukrainian prisoner of war and made sure the world saw the video. The Kremlin has Aroshanov’s back, implicitly or explicitly. Only serious diplomatic or military pressure on Russia has any chance of undoing that protection and opening him to punishment. The other alternative would be an intelligence agency-backed assassination, an extra-judicial killing, which by definition is at the margins of the law.

Vitaly Aroshanov is a John Wells problem, or at least the start of one.

(Reality needs you. So does Team Reality.)

You can probably see where I’m headed.

The mRNA vaccines are now a national-level problem.

Under normal circumstances, regulators can collect – or make drug companies collect – data adequate to determine if a drug is safe. The process is imperfect, but it generally works. The pharmaceutical company Merck stopped selling the painkiller Vioxx after data from a clinical trial that Merck itself ran showed that Vioxx increased the risk of heart attacks.

In the case of opioids, as regulators failed, prosecutors, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and state attorneys general have stepped in. Opioids remain an enormous problem in the United States, but no one can claim their risks are unknown at this point. The companies that did the most to fuel the prescribing frenzy that began two decades ago have been punished. Among them, Purdue Pharma is bankrupt, and Insys Therapeutics no longer exists, its chairman – once a billionaire – now serving a 5 1/2 year federal prison sentence.

The mRNA Covid shots are a much higher class of problem.

More than 200 million Americans and more than 1 billion people worldwide – the vast majority of the adults in the world’s advanced industrial nations – have received them. Put aside questions of effectiveness, whether the vaccines actually work against Covid and for how long. Look at solely at their safety.

Are they safe long-term?

Under normal circumstances, we would have robust clinical trial data to help answer that question. We would have two groups of thousands, or in this case tens of thousands, of people who had been carefully matched and then randomly chosen to receive either the vaccine or a placebo.

We could follow them for years to see how they fared, whether they wound up getting Covid (at this point nearly all of them have gotten Covid) and even more importantly how their overall health changed.

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