- The Facts: Dr. Geert Vanden Bossche recently shared his belief that the COVID-19 vaccine may create more variants of the virus and an increase in cases. His claims have been labelled as false by many fact checkers and other scientists in the field.
- Reflect On: What sources of information do you seek out when making decisions about this topic?
Is it possible that COVID vaccines could somehow lead to to the spread of more infectious variants? According to the current consensus, because each of the COVID vaccines in circulation contain a single gene from the virus that causes COVID-19, and the gene instructs our cells to make the protein with no other proteins from the virus being made, no. The whole virus particles are never present, and as a result, people who are vaccinated cannot shed or spread the virus to other people. As of right now, there is no evidence that indicates vaccination will cause more variants of the virus, and the claim that variants can escape vaccine-induced immunity and cause more severe disease is unsupported.
A new hypothesis from Dr. Geert Vanden Bossche, suggests that it’s a possibility, despite being criticized my many scientists in the field, as well as Facebook face-techekrs.
In India right now, there is wide scale spread of new variants and a sharp rise in cases. This comes after nearly 120,000,000 people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 23,000,000 have received two shots. Their vaccine campaign began months ago, and the recent exponential explosion is creating headlines all around the globe.
If you take a look at the graph below, India has experienced more than 300,000 cases a day for multiple days now. India’s vaccination campaign began in January. The uptick in cases, along with a variant strain that is correlated with an increased vaccination rate. But correlations does not mean causation, the graph below could simply be a reflection that India’s vaccination rollout has resulted in a very small percentage of the population being vaccinated. One could argue that 120,000,000 shots does not even represent 10 percent of India’s total population, and the rise of cases could be due to the fact that not enough people have been vaccinated yet. There is preliminary date showing that COVID vaccines reduced viral transmission to some extent, and that they can prevent disease as well as possible protection from variants. This completely contradicts Bosschen’s claims.
There are several factors that could have lead to this sharp spike, some scientists have argued that isolation measures, like lockdowns, simply create more infectious waves due to the fact that these strategies prevent natural herd immunity from taking place, as well as weaken our immune systems due to lack of exposure to various pathogens. Again, this in itself is also heavily debated among scientists, as there is data on the other end of the coin showing that lockdowns have been very effective in stopping the spread.
Furthermore, if the vaccine was connected to the spread, why wouldn’t we be seeing the same type of thing in the United States for example, where vaccinations have correlated with a drop in cases? Again, there are many questions to ask, and things usually become more clear in the long term than they do in the short term. In Canada, one could make the same argument as India with regards to the emergence of new strains. Right now, there’s a lot that we don’t know.
Dr. Geert Vanden Bossche is one of many vaccine experts, scientists and doctors from around the globe that are voicing their concerns about the current COVID-19 vaccine. His current positions are more theory than evidence based, but we should still listen. Who is he?
Bossche received his DVM from the University of Ghent, Belgium, and his PhD degree in Virology from the University of Hohenheim, Germany. He held adjunct faculty appointments at universities in Belgium and Germany. After his career in Academia, Geert joined several vaccine companies (GSK Biologicals, Novartis Vaccines, Solvay Biologicals) to serve various roles in vaccine R&D as well as in late vaccine development. Geert then moved on to join the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Discovery team in Seattle (USA) as Senior Program Officer; he then worked with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) in Geneva as Senior Ebola Program Manager. At GAVI he tracked efforts to develop an Ebola vaccine. He also represented GAVI, with other partners, including WHO, to review progress on the fight against Ebola and to build plans for global pandemic preparedness. Back in 2015, Geert scrutinized and questioned the safety of the Ebola vaccine that was used in ring vaccination trials conducted by WHO in Guinea. His critical scientific analysis and report on the data published by WHO in the Lancet in 2015 was sent to all international health and regulatory authorities involved in the Ebola vaccination program. After working for GAVI, Geert joined the German Center for Infection Research in Cologne as Head of the Vaccine Development Office. He is at present primarily serving as a Biotech/ Vaccine consultant while also conducting his own research on Natural Killer cell-based vaccines.
Bossche penned a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), stating the following:
I am all but an anti vaxxer. As a scientist I do not usually appeal to any platform of this kind to make a stand on vaccine-related topics. As a dedicated virologist and vaccine expert I only make an exception when health authorities allow vaccines to be administered in ways that threaten public health, most certainly when scientific evidence is being ignored. The present extremely critical situation forces me to spread this emergency call. As the unprecedented extent of human intervention in the Covid-19- pandemic is now at risk of resulting in a global catastrophe without equal, this call cannot sound loudly and strongly enough. As stated, I am not against vaccination. On the contrary, I can assure you that each of the current vaccines have been designed, developed and manufactured by brilliant and competent scientists. However, this type of prophylactic vaccines are completely inappropriate, and even highly dangerous, when used in mass vaccination campaigns during a viral pandemic. Vaccinologists, scientists and clinicians are blinded by the positive short-term effects in individual patients, but don’t seem to bother about the disastrous consequences for global health. Unless I am scientifically proven wrong, it is difficult to understand how current human interventions will prevent circulating variants from turning into a wild monster.
You can read the letter in its entirety, as well as a more in depth explanation a few weeks after he wrote the letter, also addressing the many criticisms against him, here.
He brings up the topic of viral immune escape, which, based on my understanding of his explanation, is when our immune system starts to defend against a virus, threatening its replication potential and ability to transmit to others. As a result of this, the virus itself will do what it has to do so that it can no longer be recognized by our immune systems, meaning it is trying to develop other ways to survive. If it develops in ways it cannot be recognized, it cannot be attacked by our immune system and is therefore able to escape immunity. This is called “viral immune escape.” It’s no secret that viruses have ‘studied’ immunology over millions of years of coevolution with their hosts. During this ongoing education they have developed countless mechanisms to escape from the host’s immune system.
A study published in the International Journal of Experimental Pathology explains,
These viruses persist, usually at low levels, and the biology of their persistence represents one set of linked evolutionary strategies. These are DNA-based pathogens, with large genomes by viral standards, containing hundreds of genes. Their major weapons could be described as ‘camouflage’ and ‘sabotage’, possession of highly evolved molecules, which are encoded with the incoming virus and which have evolved to disrupt conventional host defence mechanisms. The other mechanism employed by these invaders is targeting sites for replication in regions of the body perhaps less readily accessible to host defence.
In contrast, there are multiple viruses with RNA-based genomes, often much smaller, which also manage to set up persistent infection, and survive within hosts in the face of ongoing immune responses. The strategies used by this group of organisms, which have much less ‘technology’ at their disposal, are quite different. Unlike their more stable DNA counterparts, the mutability of these RNA genomes allows this group, potentially, to evolve within their host, and to set up ‘high level’ persistence. The principle strategies employed here could be described as ‘speed’ and ‘shape-change’.
Bossche explains his reasoning more in-depth, with all of his scientific reasoning in his recent work found on his website. For a full explanation and more specific details/science, I suggest you check that out to get the full explanation.
According to Matt Ferrari, an epidemiologist at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics in University Park, Vaccines will “almost inevitably create new evolutionary pressures that produce variants.” (source)
There’s another problem to contend with as immunity grows in a population, Ferrari says. Higher rates of immunity can create selective pressure, which would favour variants that are able to infect people who have been immunized. Vaccinating quickly and thoroughly can prevent a new variant from gaining a foothold. But again, the unevenness of vaccine roll-outs creates a challenge, Ferrari says. “You’ve got a fair bit of immunity, but you still have a fair bit of disease, and you’re stuck in the middle.” Vaccines will almost inevitably create new evolutionary pressures that produce variants, which is a good reason to build infrastructure and processes to monitor for them, he adds.
Bossche Has Received A Lot of Criticism
It’s also important to note that while Bossche is calling for a stop of mass vaccination with current COVID vaccines and is instead leaning towards the use of a future NK vaccine he claims to be developing. This might represent a conflict of interest.
Viral immunologist, Professor at the University of Guelph, and vaccine expert Dr. Bryan Bridle, has explained several concerns regarding the rollout of COVID vaccines. He makes it clear that “there’s lots of people who are very deep thinkers about this, doing their own research about the COVID-19 vaccines and coming up with very legitimate questions.”
An article published by Jonathan Jarry for McGill University calls the claims by Bossche “complete nonsense.”
This is complete nonsense. I reached out to Dr. Paul Offit, a paediatrician specialized in vaccines and immunology and the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, to get his thoughts on whether antibiotic resistance and vaccine-associated immune escape are indeed comparable. “In a sense it is, but he misses the main point,” Dr. Offit told me. A vaccine shows your body an inert part of the virus so that it can make neutralizing antibodies against it. If the body ends up making low levels of these antibodies, i.e. not enough to swiftly kill the virus when you catch it, this could allow the virus to stick around in your body for a little bit and make copies of itself. Some of these copies may by chance have the right kinds of errors in their genetic code to become variants of concern, although the mutation rate of this coronavirus is quite low.
“But if you have a vaccine that results in high levels of neutralizing antibodies, that’s not a way to create variants,” he continued. To use an analogy, if a gaggle of invaders is coming but you have only managed to round up a few soldiers, be prepared for a long siege during which the enemy might learn a thing or two about your defences and adapt. But if you have a full and overpowering army at your command, the invaders won’t stick around for long. So the question becomes: do the COVID-19 vaccines give us low or high levels of neutralizing antibodies?
I’m not sure if I agree with the statement, “the mutation rate of this coronavirus is quite low” especially given the fact that we are seeing more variants arise. Offit also claims that that if you have a vaccine that results in high levels of neutralizing antibodies, it’s not a way to create variants. But According to Bossche:
Viruses, in contrast to the majority of bacteria, must rely on living host cells to replicate. This is why the occurrence of ‘escape mutants’ isn’t too worrisome as long as the likelihood for these variants to rapidly find another host is quite remote. However, that’s not particularly the case during a viral pandemic! During a pandemic, the virus is spreading all over the globe with many subjects shedding and transmitting the virus (even including asymptomatic ‘carriers’). The higher the viral load, the higher the likelihood for the virus to bump into subjects who haven’t been infected yet or who were infected but didn’t develop symptoms. Unless they are sufficiently protected by their innate immune defense (through natural Abs), they will catch Covid-19 disease as they cannot rely on other, i.e., acquired Abs.
AFT Fact Check makes their opinion clear that what Bossche is sharing is false information:
Gary McLean, a professor of molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University, told AFP that rather than creating a “monster” as Vanden Bossche suggests, mutations in the spike protein may hinder the spread of the virus.
Mutations are relatively subtle in spike and cannot go so far as suggested otherwise they will no longer resemble spike,” he said, adding “the virus will lose its way of infecting cells if spike continues to mutate and the virus will die out.”
Additionally, variants of the virus emerged prior to the widespread availability of vaccines.
Science Feedback has also addressed this issue.
Again, Bossche has answered most criticisms to his claims in his paper on his website. A recently posted video by Bossche gives a summary of his conclusions, where he stated it will probably be his final commentary on the issue.