Predicting Anti-Vaccine Explanations for the Eventual End of the Pandemic

Audio version read by Karl Hunter

When this pandemic eventually ends, the anti-vaccine movement will claim that it wasn’t because of vaccines. If the anti-vaccine movement is anything, they are consistent. Historically, they have always tried to point to some other variable besides vaccines to explain away a disease’s decline. The favorite explanation is that many communicable diseases declined precipitously because of widespread access to better sanitation, nutrition, access to clean water–not the introduction of vaccines. Let’s see how well this claim holds up before gazing into our crystal ball for their upcoming claims.

Of course, historically, these variables did contribute to the decline of vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) but not to the degree that the anti-vaccine movement supposes. This line of argument does not explain why the decline of specific diseases correlates so closely to the widespread introduction of the relevant vaccine. If sanitation, nutrition, and access to clean water were the only relevant variables, then we should have seen the decline of all vaccine preventable communicable diseases at the same time–but of course we didn’t. Each particular disease’s prevalence declined precipitously only after the introduction of the corresponding vaccine. Small pox, varicella, measles, polio, etc… did not all decline at the same time as the hygiene hypothesis would predict.

The “sanitation, clean water, nutrition” line of argument fails for other reasons. Suppose it’s true that the worst of the VPDs declined exclusively with the introduction sanitation, clean water, and nutrition and not because of vaccines. In parts of the world that still lack adequate sanitation, clean water, and nutrition, the introduction of vaccines should have no effect on the prevalence of VPDs.

But we observe exactly the opposite.

Where communities lack access to adequate sanitation, clean water, and nutrition but have been vaccinated, the corresponding VPDs have essentially been eradicated. In other words, communicable diseases are virtually eradicated when the corresponding vaccine is introduced into a population–regardless of hygiene conditions.

Finally, if we supposed the sanitation, clean water, and nutrition hypothesis were true we would not expect to find a return of VPD in wealthy, hygienic, and well-fed communities. Yet, once again we observe exactly the opposite. In wealthy communities where access to the best sanitation, clean water, and nutrition is held constant but vaccination rates fall below those required for herd immunity, we see the return of VPDs. Recent measles outbreaks have occurred in wealthy US and European neighborhoods with low vaccination rates.

Now What?

Anyhow, I’m wondering what the anti-vaccine movement will attribute the decline of Covid-19 to this time. It can’t be the lockdowns because many of them already claimed that those don’t work. It can’t be masks, because many of them also claimed that those don’t work. It can’t be 5G because 5G will not have been turned off (despite some anti-vaxxers’ best attempts).

Natural herd immunity? The proportion of the infected population is currently too low for that to explain the decline. As of early Feb, about 20% of the US population has been estimated to have been infected with Covid-19. Depending on what study you read, herd immunity for Covid-19 will require 60-90% of the population to have been infected.

My guess is that they will use a combination of strategies. The most prevalent will be to contradict their previous positions. They will say that the lockdowns started to work and that more and more people were wearing masks.

They will also definitely claim (without evidence) that the virus petered out on its own just like a seasonal flu.

You heard it here first.

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