Distinguished Research Professor of English
University of California, Los Angeles
“Fearing the Wrong Boogeyman: COVID Vaccines”
With the advent of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, a new kind of anti-viral technology has reached millions of people around the globe. Nevertheless, many do not understand the technology’s implications and feel misplaced anxieties about it, while remaining oblivious to the very real reasons why such technologies might be feared. Perhaps the most common misunderstanding is the belief that these vaccines work the same way older ones did, for example polio and smallpox, by injecting dead or inert pathogens into the body to mobilize the immune system. Some decline the vaccines reasoning that they do not want the COVID-19 virus in their bodies in any form. This belief is not only erroneous but ironically counter-productive, since declining the vaccine makes one much more susceptible to catching COVID, thus leading directly to the feared outcome.
To see why such resistances are mistaken, it helps to understand how the vaccines actually work. Although the two vaccines differ in details, both use messenger RNA (mRNA) to penetrate the nucleus of a muscle cell, where it is read as instructions to build a spike protein on the exterior of the cell wall similar to those on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. Thereafter the RNA is disassembled by the cell and absorbed. The spike protein has no functionality to create a viral cell, but it is easily recognized by the immune system as not properly belonging to the muscle cell and thus initializes the immune system to recognize the virus. The second shot is identical in composition to the first, but because the immune system has now created antibodies against the virus, it will react more vigorously to the protein spikes, which is why many people have more symptoms, such as fever and chills, to second shot than to the first.
The technique of using the cell’s own processes, via mRNA, to create the vaccine’s effectiveness draws on over a decade of research into CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing and engineering techniques, which similarly use (different versions of) RNA processes along with the enzyme Cas9 to cut viral DNA (or any DNA) at a specified location. CRISPR has revolutionized gene editing because it is precise, programmable (that is, adaptive to edit the DNA sequences of any living creature), and relatively cheap. Obtaining the correct RNA sequences tailored to the gene a researcher wants to edit costs less than a hundred dollars for scientific laboratories, compared to twenty-five thousand dollars per gene for an earlier gene editing technique such as ZFN (zinc finger nuclease). Moreover, the suite of CRISPR editing mechanisms now includes gene deletion, addition, insertion, rearrangement, knock-out (disabling the gene’s ability to create functional protein), and knock-in. The central feature that all these editing processes share among themselves and with the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines is using the cell’s own capabilities to accomplish something that humans by themselves could not. Humans need the symbiotic partnership with the cell’s mechanisms to be successful.
The real boogeyman now appears, for CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing has, for the first time in human history, made it possible to direct evolution, both for nonhuman organisms and for ourselves. Plants and animals can now have their DNA altered to increase productivity, resist disease, become more muscular, grow faster, need less sleep, etc. Similar changes can be made to the human genome, including to germ line cells such as sperm, eggs and embryos that would carry the changes into all subsequent generations. Although these changes can bestow (and already have bestowed) remarkable benefits, they could also be used for nefarious ends, for example to create superhuman warriors incapable of feeing pain, remorse or empathy, or other deeply pathological characteristics.
In brief, the problem is that our technical expertise has outstripped our ability to understand and fully prepare for the consequences, including worldwide discussions among scientists, legislators, citizens, ethicists and others about safeguards and procedures for gene editing, standards for what counts as acceptable vs. unacceptable goals, and sanctions for violations. At issue are not only procedures directly relevant to gene editing and engineering but deeper concerns about the relation of humans to other species on the planet. Do we have the right to dominate all other species for our benefit? Should the rights of nonhuman others also be considered? Who speaks for them, and on what authority? Recognizing that humans can accomplish gene editing only with the assistance of bacterial RNA and Cas9 should indicate (as I argue in a forthcoming essay in Critical Inquiry, summer 2021) that symbiosis trumps dominance, and that human flourishing depends in many and subtle ways on other species, including the bacterial RNA that we use to instruct our bodies to erect defenses against COVID viruses. For their part, viruses can be benign as well as malignant and carry out processes essential for human well-being, including such bodily activities as digestion and reproduction. Humility, caution, and respect for nonhuman others must be primary values as we achieve the God-like power to intervene directly in human and nonhuman evolution. Maybe the ultimate boogeyman we should fear is human arrogance, failure to take responsibility, and obliviousness to unintended consequences.