August – so far not a “code red” in terms of summer weather in rainy Britain – has nevertheless seen a sizzling hotbed of Covid-related admissions from the authorities. These summer days, after all, are a good time to bury news that doesn’t quite fit the narrative.  Indeed, the reverse ferret has been very much evident from doom-mongers who were predicting post Freedom Day carnage only a few weeks ago. 

First came a paper from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) considering the long-term evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Even taking into account previous hyperbolic “scariant-mongering” from this source, the paper is both somewhat extraordinary and ultimately borderline hysterical.  Yet the document repeated a nugget previously raised by SAGE in July: “current vaccine failure” is “almost certain”.  

SAGE are no strangers to cognitive dissonance, and this paper does not disappoint in this regard. There is a suggestion that future vaccines should be designed to “induce high and durable levels of mucosal immunity in order to reduce infection of and transmission from vaccinated individuals”, more than a tacit admission that the current crop do not actually do this. What is more, this would apparently “reduce the possibility of variant selection in vaccinated individuals”, neatly puncturing the trope that the unvaccinated are variant factories and confirming fears that the more you vaccinate, the greater the evolutionary pressure on SARS-CoV-2 to mutate in an unnatural fashion.  

This brings us to last week’s surprising decision by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to announce routine vaccination of 16 and 17-year-olds, a reversal of their position only two weeks previously: “JCVI is of the view that the health benefits of universal vaccination in children and young people below the age of 18 years do not outweigh the potential risks”.  Professor Wei Chen Lim – the chairman of the JCVI Covid sub-committee and a leading academic – presented no convincing new evidence to justify this U-turn.

This is the kind of muddled thinking that could have serious repercussions.  Why expand a vaccine programme to a cohort for whom the risks outweigh the benefits both to the individual and to society as whole?  Especially if that action also increases the likelihood of accelerating variant selection as per SAGE’s concerns? Any medical intervention – even a saline injection – carries risk of complication. If the medical procedure has net downsides to both the individual and the overall population, surely there are serious ethical questions about such a recommendation, let alone the coercion of young people to undergo this intervention? Reaction has previously outlined how and why coercive vaccination mandates and compulsory vaccination are wrong. 

It is worth noting that Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated populations, is seeing rapid growth in hospitalisations of fully vaccinated people, despite rolling out a Pfizer booster jab (i.e. a third vaccination within 12 months). Is this wise? What about unknown long-term effects or SAGE’s concern about vaccine escape? Many other countries and regions seem to be managing just fine using the vaccines as they were initially intended, namely to protect those at risk. Kate Bingham, the UK Vaccines Czar, stated unequivocally in October 2020: “People keep talking about ‘time to vaccinate the whole population’, but that is misguided. There’s going to be no vaccination of people under 18. It’s an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50, focusing on health workers and care home workers and the vulnerable”.

This would be a completely rational approach. Some observers have previously noted the success of various islands that have succeeded in suppressing SARS-CoV-2.  But following extensive breakthrough cases, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist confirmed a few days ago that it was pointless attempting to eradicate a virus that is becoming endemic. Instead, he recommends allowing the virus to spread and protecting the vulnerable, vindicating the proponents of Focused Protection and the UK’s pandemic preparedness plan as of February 2020. An entirely sensible approach, given that more and more evidence is emerging that natural immunity is long lasting and has “greater potency and breadth than antibodies elicited by vaccination”.

The final word should probably go to Professor Sir Andrew Pollard of the Oxford Vaccine Group, and also a member of the JCVI, speaking this week: “One of the strongest arguments that has been repeated is to vaccinate children to protect adults, but vaccinating children is not going to completely block transmission, so it doesn’t achieve that goal”. Aside from the fact that this “strongest argument” is in any case ethically unsound (what kind of society deploys its children as human shields?), why would one proceed down this path until safety issues – such as the risk of myocarditis in young people – have been fully bottomed out?

Phew – we’re still a few days shy of the middle of the month, but at this rate there will be plenty more silly season madness to report. Stay tuned.

Dr Alex Starling (@alexstarling77) is an advisor to and non-executive director of various early-stage technology companies.