Vaccines as Pharmaceuticals

Vaccines aren’t pharmaceuticals—but they might as well be. A friend told me about a visit to his doctor who, knowing better than to recommend a flu shot, nevertheless urged him to be vaccinated for conditions associated with aging. 

I’m sure my friend is not alone in having vaccines strongly promoted very much the way pharmaceuticals are promoted. With drugs, I’m sure you’re aware of major medical conditions such as heart disease for which there is a statins drumbeat. With something such as the flu, there’s a comparable vaccine drumbeat. What my friend’s experience shows is that it’s also true that hitherto obscure or inconsequential medical conditions get the spotlight, official concern or even alarm is expressed, and voilà a drug or vaccine is offered that alleges to protect against or cure or reduce the risks of the condition.

But vaccines aren’t drugs. They’re not chemical agents that trump our biology. They’re biological agents that train our biology. It sounds almost natural. Except that vaccines are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies and as a consequence have the same product life cycle as drugs and the same commercial essence.

My friend is not alone in distrusting vaccines. Most of that distrust is based on experience and evidence that the risks associated with vaccination outweigh the potential benefits. A highly contested terrain is the vaccination of children. Parents who don’t march to the vaccination drumbeat are at significant odds with public health authorities and can face harassment, up to and including forced vaccination.

A recent project by the Council on Foreign Relations’s Global Health Program, paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, attempts to demonstrate that anti-vaccine forces throughout the world are killing people. This Internet-based map enables a user to select a “vaccine-preventable disease” and see where in the world there’s been an outbreak. You can select from measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, and rubella. You can also submit your own candidate “vaccine-preventable disease” outbreak.

This map is propaganda. It is based on news reports, not independent scientific studies. And yet the release of the map was covered by the mainstream media as “evidence-based”—the current phrase used in place of the now laughably discredited “trust us, we’re experts.”

And so we have vaccination promoted by the Council on Foreign Relations, which is one of the places where the ruling class figures out its interests in the world and what to do about them, with financial support from the Gates Foundation, which supports technological solutions to social problems (solutions that are politically safe; as in solutions that promote social stability; as in solutions that maintain the power of the ruling class). The end result benefits the pharmaceutical industry by promoting the purchase of its vaccine products and maintaining its grip on how medical technologies are developed.

I’d like to call this the pharmaceutical mode of production. It’s an institutional dedication not just to interventionist technologies but technologies that meet basic commercial characteristics. Challenges to it are met with hostility (open and otherwise), alternatives in the form of natural and non-interventionist practices are ignored, suppressed, or worse, and socially based treatment and prevention are patted on the head and sent out of the room so the grownups can take care of business.

Consider measles...

There’s a considerable body of evidence that measles outbreaks in the US are the result of failed vaccines not the absence of vaccination. In one study of a 1988 measles outbreak, all of the people who were not vaccinated had measles antibodies while 10% of vaccinated people had no measles antibodies. In other words, the immune systems of the unvaccinated were in better shape than the immune systems of vaccinated people. That’s not how vaccines are supposed to work.

And measles vaccinations are not without risk: in developing nations, some measles vaccination programs have been followed by an increase in infant mortality—not a decrease.

It’s common to distinguish science from technology. Science is neutral, so the thinking goes, but technology is burdened with the political economy of the use to which the science is put. The science behind vaccines is about our immune systems and epidemiology and so on while vaccination is an instrument used by the likes of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the pharmaceutical industry to achieve their individual and collective goals.

But do not think that eliminating the profit motive from the science and technology of preventing and curing “vaccine-preventable diseases” liberates the process from the pharmaceutical mode of production. Vaccination is only one way to immunize and immunization is not the only way to prevent and treat disease.

But that’s not how the discourse is framed. It’s framed as about vaccines. This is one of the ways in which technology is corrupted.

More broadly, technology is corrupted by primal forces of the capitalist mode of production other than money. Those forces include maintaining an empire (for which there is the Council on Foreign Relations) and ensuring that technologies embody capitalist social relationships (for which there is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

The pharmaceutical mode of production, like the larger capitalist mode of production, corrupts technology and science with it because, despite the culture of objectivity and neutrality promoted by scientific institutions and scientists themselves, they and we have been corrupted to see science and technology as one and the same. And so it is always relevant to ask, “Whose interests are served by a technology such as vaccination?”