Today a front-page headline in Times: ‘Coronavirus vaccine hopes raised by success of early trials’.* Read closely this is more a ‘good news because it’s not bad news’ story. Phase 1 of the Oxford vaccine trial has not thrown up any counter-indications, but the major test still lies ahead. The commercial partner of the project, Astrazeneca, is quoted at the end of the article cautioning that ‘news on whether the university’s vaccine worked was unlikely before data was gathered from much larger trials towards the end of the year.’
Nonetheless the story brings back into focus the issue I discussed on July 7 of whether any vaccine would be effective in the face of opposition by a significant minority of the population, in Britain or elsewhere. An insight into the scale of the problem was supplied by an article in the New York Times last week by Anne Borden King.** She is an active opponent of the anti-vax movement, founder of the ‘Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures’ and a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch. She has also just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and shared thee news on Facebook.
The consequence was an avalanche of advertisements on her Facebook feed for ‘alternative cancer care’, promoting ‘everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics – or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.’ There were, by contrast, no legitimate cancer advertisements.
This is not a new problem, either historically in print, as I explained in my piece, or in the internet age where the misinformation comes to you unbidden, or is seductively available via Google searches. What was particularly interesting about Anne Borden King’s article was the connection she made with life in the pandemic. Under any circumstances a cancer diagnosis threatens a sudden loss of personal control as the patient is subjected to intrusive tests and invasive treatment. No matter how supportive friends and family try to be, there are few places as lonely as a hospital waiting room. With the coronavirus restrictions, this sense of social alienation has got worse, which partly explains why fewer appointments for cancer treatment have been made and kept. ‘During the pandemic,’ writes Anne Borden King, ‘many of us are also isolated. Our loved ones can’t come to our appointments or even visit us in hospital. Now more than ever, who is there to hold our hand?’
The pseudoscience cures offer an alternative sense of community, the claim that out there ‘experts’ are on your side, dedicated to supporting the whole person in face of the fragmenting authority of official medicine. They promise to return a sense of agency to the individual, supported by a network of other enthusiastic users.
Facebook, under intense pressure to censor proliferating bogus coronavirus cures, has been slow to act. The only certain defence is to turn off the feed. Which can only exacerbate the sense of isolation.
Add Mss. Yesterday I wrote about the enhanced importance of hearing clearly in the lockdown. Later in the day the BBC ‘PM’ programme ran an item featuring two representatives of the deaf community. They were responding to the newly announced policy (in England) of compulsory face-masks in shops. To communicate with others, they explained, they needed to be able to read a person’s lips. This was impossible if the mouth was concealed by a mask. There were transparent masks on the market, but they tended to steam up. This is not a minor matter. According to the Government Digital Service, 11m people in Britain are deaf or hard of hearing.***