In its recent cover edition on the potential vaccine against the coronavirus, The Economist sees an “immense promise” of a first global mass trial in using synthetic RNA sequences in a vaccine. As with all complex technological advances, questions arise when it comes to potential side effects, its capacity to respond to the pandemic and the nature of the scientific knowledge used. Currently, too much focus is put onto “fighting” the virus with high-end technologies, while little is being done to prevent future pandemics.

The advances in vaccine research have led to the development of a new type of RNA-based vaccines that could be more easily developed, according to the pharmaceutical industries developing them.

For the Economist it is time to „celebrate how far biology has come and how fruitfully it can manipulate biochemical machinery for the good of humanity”, adding that “there will be time later to worry about how that power might also be abused.“ While the outlook on a vaccine may be a sign for hope for many, the mechanistic understanding of biology and redemption-sounding promises – without considering potential risks – give reason to concern.

The Economist, November 2020

First, one may ask about the effectiveness and effects of the vaccine itself. According to the peer-reviewed Nature, „there are unique and unknown risks to messenger RNA vaccines, including the possibility that they generate strong type I interferon responses that could lead to inflammation and autoimmune conditions.“ Little is also known about the potential effect on not directly affected cells. Furthermore, modern-day PFAS chemicals, used in waterproof clothers, non-stick pans or pizza boxes, were shown to significantly reduce the effectiveness of certain administered vaccines. When it comes to the validity of the knowledge about the new vaccines, the independence of research is subject to concern. According to the WHO, there are „relatively few vaccine manufacturers that meet international standards of quality established by WHO. Many of the individual vaccine markets are monopolies or oligopolies, either by product or presentation.“

Second, it is important to understand if the “immense promise” of a vaccine will actually deliver on ending the coronavirus pandemic. Although billions of euros are invested by public and private into vaccine development, this scenario seems rather unlikely. Historically, only Smallpox has been eradicated through vaccines. It would require a truly global and shared effort. Furthermore, as written on many occasions, the coronavirus pandemic is in many ways exacerbating many pre-existing crises – similar pandemics could easily return, if we don’t increase systemic resilience. The loss of biodiversity, austerity in public healthcare, the insufficient consideration of (severely deteriorating) mental health in lockdown measures and others showcase that the challenges need to be tackled together.

Third, the vaccine can be seen as yet another high-tech solution to a challenge that has also biological, social and psychological components. That is to say, a response to the pandemic also requires solutions like restoring biodiversity, investing in public health infrastructure or preventing collateral damage (such as mental health impact) of lockdown measures. The current response to the pandemic has also something to do with the scientific paradigm looking at it. A disease is not something that can be “fixed” like a broken clock. Particularly in Western medicine, disease is still mostly understood as the opposite to health. The “war” and “fight against” narrative are expression of this approach. While its progress in recent decades has brought great advances, its knowledge is highly specialized and departamentalised (i.e. cardiology, neurology etc.). This paradigm is prone to ignoring the interconnectedness of health, with regards to organs, the microbiome, but also the role of consciousness and relationships.

Symbolically, the two serpents of the Caduceus represent the unification of opposite forces, such as day and night, male or female or, in this case, Western (analytical focus) and Eastern (interdependent focus) medicine. Casting the own skin like a snake is also a symbol of eternal renewal of life, but also of healthcare. The snakes spiral up the spine, through what has been called the chakras or electromagnetic energy centres. Bringing the best wisdoms from both Eastern and Western health traditions together could have a truly profound and beneficial impact on our health. Their respective strengths in prevention and (emergency) treatment could be seen as complementary rather than opposites. To overcome the pandemic, it is more than ever about a more holistic empowerment of people’s, society’s and nature’s health.

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