The thwarting of science will always be a human failing

The writer is an FT contributing editor and author of ‘Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations’

Should the prediction of Geoffrey Hinton, godfather of AI, that our imperfect “biological intelligence” will be superseded by the artificial version be realised, then it will be because of the paradox in which humanity seems fatefully trapped. We are at one and the same time a marvel of infinite ingenuity, but also a bundle of barely evolved primitive impulses: harrowing fears, conspiratorial suspicions and needy gratifications. All too often the latter get in the way of the former; unreason thwarting the hard-earned achievements of science.

When Covid-19 vaccines were created and made available at record speed, I naively imagined that the pandemic would be one of those events in which, from sheer collective self-interest, common, global good might prevail over nationalist opportunism. Needless to say, this was not what came to pass. Worse, vaccines have since become a political football. Government agencies responsible for monitoring infectious disease epidemics and providing public health advice are now routinely accused by libertarians of being the tools of a deep state conspiracy bent on robbing citizens of sovereignty over their own bodies. In some quarters, virology is itself caricatured as an occupationally reckless or even sinister enterprise: the enabler of a Chinese lab leak of Sars-Cov-2 (an event for which there is, to date, still no evidence).

The demonisation of vaccines, and the battle for their acceptance, has a long history: one I’ve tried to write in Foreign Bodies. Resistance to introducing matter from infection into a healthy body, in the belief that a little of the poison would save you, is not surprising. James Kirkpatrick, the author of the Analysis of Inoculation (1754), wrote: “Seeking security from a Distemper [smallpox] by rushing into the embraces of it could naturally have very little tendency to procure it a good Reception . . . ”

It did not help that the first accounts of successful inoculation came from Greek physicians in the Ottoman Empire, reporting that the practitioners were mostly elderly matrons. One of inoculation’s fiercest critics, William Wagstaffe, a physician at St Bart’s hospital in London who believed that different nations had different qualities of blood, wrote in 1722 that “posterity will scarcely be brought to believe that an experiment practic’d by a few ignorant Women among an illiterate and unthinking People” would find favour in “one of the Politest Nations in the world . . . ”

Even after the microbial revelations of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the 1880s, vaccines remained controversial. In 1899, the Ukrainian-Jewish microbiologist Waldemar Haffkine, who had created vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague and inoculated tens of thousands of volunteers in India, was hailed in London as a saviour of the masses. Haffkine had vaccinated not just the native troops in whose health the British government had an obvious strategic interest, but multitudes of India’s poor too — slum dwellers in Calcutta and Bombay; pilgrims and cultivators; labourers in the tea plantations of Assam — travelling thousands of miles on epically extended campaigns.

But Haffkine had a past. In 1881 he had been among a group of Jewish students in Odesa who had armed the community against pogroms and was imprisoned three times before being sprung by his professor, the pioneering immunologist Elie Metchnikoff. Rumoured in some quarters to be a Russian spy, the Indian Medical Service, suspicious of the new science, kept Haffkine at arm’s length, starved of funds, space and authority. Mass vaccination, as he tactlessly pointed out, would make redundant the coercive disinfection campaigns that the British imposed on disease-struck populations in cities such as Hong Kong and Bombay: segregation camps isolating and dividing families; destroying houses and property; forced inspections of persons and homes.

Eventually, after a plague officer had been assassinated in Pune during celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and British India was hit by waves of strikes, the imperial medical establishment gave more credence to Haffkine’s data demonstrating the effectiveness of his vaccines. He was given space in the old Government House in Bombay to establish what became a mass production facility where, in stunningly short time, millions of doses were produced for Indian use, as well as being exported to Asia, Australia and Africa.

But when, in 1902, 19 Punjabi villagers died of tetanus poisoning following vaccinations, Haffkine took the blame, even though the fatal contamination, as was eventually revealed, took place at the site of the village rather than in the production facility. The dubious Russian Jew became a scapegoat; Lord Curzon, the viceroy, fumed that he ought to be tried and hanged for bringing the Raj’s reputation for caring for its subjects into disrepute. Haffkine was fired, his career broken. It took another three years and a crusade to overturn the appalling miscarriage of justice to vindicate him and return him to India. But the damage had been done; Haffkine’s life as a working scientist was effectively over and his history passed into near oblivion.

When the next wave of infectious disease strikes, will the lessons of the recent and not so recent past smooth the way for the next generation of vaccines? Or will vaccination be politicised once more so that, yet again, we stumble over our own inventiveness? The signs are not necessarily on the side of science. Robert Kennedy Junior, who argued that vaccines were a cause of autism in children (a theory that has been exhaustively debunked), has declared himself a candidate for the Democratic party’s nomination for president of the US. It’s tempting to write him off as an unelectable crank. But just a few days ago, a journalist for an American broadsheet assured me that his campaign was anything but quixotic. Money and attention is apparently already flowing Kennedy’s way. This candidacy against science is an alarming prospect; just another feverish item to add to our growing inventory of dismay.

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