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Posts Tagged ‘vaccine

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Dr Sanjay Gupta asked the CDC Director, Dr Rochelle Walensky, to address a common question that some people have about COVID-19 [timestamp]. If they already developed immunity from being infected with SARS-CoV2 before the vaccines were ready, why did they still need to be vaccinated? 

This is a fair question and it stems from a poor understanding of how viral mutations work. Dr Walensky gave a straightforward answer, but I do not think that it connected with its intended audience.

Some among that audience will be gamers who know what game bosses are, so here is an analogy. When reach the end of a game stage, you face a boss that is tough to fight. If you beat that boss, the game does not end. You proceed to the next stage and meet another boss.

The original SARS-CoV2 was like the first stage boss. Those who overcame it without a vaccine developed natural immunity, but the battle continues with more stages and bosses. They are not guaranteed a win against the bosses in the next stages simply because they got past stage 1.

As gamers play through each stage, they pick up skills, abilities, or tools that might enable them to  fight the next boss more effectively. The vaccines are like these pickups — they help us fight against the new viral variants.

Analogies can only go so far, but they might connect with certain people more effectively than raw explanations. The skill is knowing when and which analogies to use. 

Rising above, teaching is not about trying to reach everyone generically. It is about ensuring that learning happens specifically. In this context, it means explanations that could be scientific, analogy-driven, and/or peer-generated. There is no single way to defeat a game boss, but everyone can do it if they find their own way. 

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The video above is about how mistrust for the SARS-CoV2 vaccine grows. I highlight a late segment with an educator’s point of view.

A paediatric group created its own communications department to educate its stakeholders and to counter misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. It did this because lives and reputations were at stake.

Educators need to adopt a similar mindset as well. It is not enough to just keep our heads down and toil away. We need to speak up against bad ideas, policies, or practices. We need to share our ideas and resources openly and freely.

In our case, lives and reputations are also at stake, but seemingly not as urgently and not as obviously. Educators deal primarily with infodemics not epidemics. If we do not fight against bad ideas like learning styles, ill-informed policies like online proctored exams, or practices like e-doing instead of e-learning, then we passively enable them.

The epidemic lockdowns raised our collective profiles and reputations. Instead of returning to a normal of unseen educator work, we need to rise up and share. We do this to maintain or raise our reputations as knowledge workers. We do this to beat back the infodemic.

Recently, five Singapore doctors cautioned against inoculating younger males with mRNA-based vaccines because of a small chance of myocarditis, i.e., heart inflammation [source].

Their view was informed more by “heart inflammation” than by “small chance”. How small? According to this CNA article, there were 1,226 cases of myocarditis out of almost 400 million vaccine doses in the USA. This works out to a 0.0003% chance of getting myocarditis.

The same article reported that Singapore reported 6 cases out of about 5 million doses. This is an almost one in a million chance. You might be more likely to win a lottery than to get myocarditis.

The doctors also cited a USA report of the “death of a 13-year-old boy after being vaccinated with the second dose of an mRNA vaccine”. However, an expert committee here countered that by stating that “the news report cited by the doctors did not state death from heart failure as alleged”.

The small group of doctors might be well-meaning, but they have chosen to write a fear-based headline, speculated a causal link between vaccine and death, and ignored the statistical part of the narrative.

The group of five doctors overlaps with the 12 doctors who wrote an earlier letter, which like the latest one, was roundly debunked by the expert committee. Eleven of the 12 doctors who wrote that letter retracted what they said [CNA] [Today].

What damage both letters caused is difficult to determine. We might get some inference by measuring vaccine hesitancy and queues outside private clinics that offer non-mRNA-based vaccines, i.e., Sinovac in our case [source].

We have vaccines as a class of weapons against the current pandemic. We are less well-equipped with the infodemic. We need to learn to read, think, and act beyond a headline. If we do not, infected minds will lead to infected bodies.

If you think about it, there are not many things in life that you can be absolutely sure of. Of that I am certain.

My mind wandered to an experience I had when I was pursuing a Masters twenty years ago. I was the first Singaporean in the program, so everyone seemed to have questions. But a few already had answers.

One of my course mates, a US citizen, insisted that Singapore was a city in China. She claimed that her father travelled a lot and that was how she knew. She was ridiculously sure.

I wanted so say this: Who would you rather get your information from — your traveller-father or a Singaporean born and bred? Instead I gave a simple geopolitical lesson that Singapore was an independent country located about one degree above the equator and definitely part of China. My inquisitor was still not so sure about how sure I was.

Certainty of factual information is also function of confidence, not just cognition. You can be supremely confident while ignorant (check your Facebook feed for evidence) or relatively quiet about your expertise. The former can get more attention and sound more convincing than the latter.

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Case in point? See the video above. The two women in the video, one reportedly a doctor and the other nurse (and both anti-vaxxers) were sure that there are magnetic components in the vaccines and that these are linked to larger and nefarious schemes.

They get a lot of attention in broadcast media because stories like these are good for ratings. Some choose to parody or mock such ignorance (see the end of the clip) to get likes on TikTok or Instagram. Few actually counter these ridiculous claims [example 1] [example 2].

I chose to answer the call to be an educator because we are the grunts in the war against ignorance. When morale is low or the cause fuzzy, this memory and the video are reminders on how sure I need to be in the next battle.

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I do not need to go very deep in this reflection. It is appalling how companies and states in the USA resort to extrinsic rewards and motivation to get more people vaccinated.

Cognitively I understand how this is a strategy to push the numbers closer to herd immunity. But I also understand how this rewards those who were hesitant or reluctant earlier. I understand that those who get vaccinated now might do so for the wrong reasons.

I understand the difference between asking “What is in it for me?” vs “What is good for all of us?” I understand that doing one (relying on rewards and self interest) is easier than the other (educating all about the public good). I understand how this shapes a people and defines context. 

I also understand how/why media companies highlight the negative to grab attention. But I also understand there are elements of truth in what they tell and sell. Ultimately, I understand that when you treat people like small children, it is hard to take those people seriously even if they claim to grow up.

I am a fan of reflective pieces like behind-the-scenes (BTS) peeks at people and processes behind prominent products.

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This televised townhall featured how the Moderna SARS-CoV2 vaccine was borne over the weekend. I wonder how many people watched and listened long enough for a lead scientist to explain how it took at least a decade of work and preparation for that to happen.

I also wish that people would read about the people behind the BioNTech and Moderna vaccines [NYT] [Reuters] [StatNews]. 

There was the lead scientist, Katalin Kariko, whose ideas and findings provided the foundation for both vaccines. Kariko struggled for years on how to deliver a therapeutic mRNA into cells. She could not get funding because her ideas were untested and she was demoted. 

Kariko’s emigration to the USA was also the stuff of movies. She hid money in her daughter’s teddy bear to avoid the US$100 export limit enforced by her home country of Hungary.

The couple behind BioNTech are of Turkish descent. BioNTech’s Chief Executive is Ugur Sahin and is described as “humble and personable”. The husband and wife team are medical professionals and were responsible for building on Kariko’s proof of concept and then getting Pfizer to produce their vaccine.  

By contrast, the story of the Moderna vaccine is fraught with infighting and Wall Street bro culture, e.g., putting money-making potential ahead of everything else. During the vaccine development, Moderna did not publish its findings; BioNTech published about 150 articles.

I am glad that Singapore is partnering with BioNTech in establishing a regional HQ and manufacturing facility here. Good people matter.

Rising above, I am reminded why something that looks quick and/or effortless really is not. There was a lot of toil, pain, and learning from failure that led up to the glam shot.

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If Johnny Harris has his facts straight, then there is a surprising and enlightening historical link between Belgian imperialism of the Congo and the Johnson and Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine. The video is well worth the watch for the story and the skill with which Harris serves it up.

For me, this is a reminder to always be aware of the history of any policy, process, or product. In my field, all three are ingredients of edtech.

Like the J&J vaccine, each form of edtech has storied histories. Some might have dark or dirty roots. While we cannot change the past or if the present might be positively unrecognisable from a shady past, knowing the history is still valuable.

How so? After being informed about the past, I believe that we can do something about making the present policy or practice better. For example, content management systems with strict command and control might be giving way to more open platforms that encourage co-creation and collaboration.

We can also can be humble about what we are involved in. This approach is particularly relevant if we are part of a successful intervention, e.g., the provision of mobile devices and Internet dongles to students-in-need. We acknowledge what others have done to enable online and distance learning, and do our part to keep everyone moving forward and upward.

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This video is timely given the misleading way some people use the efficacy numbers of different COVID-19 vaccines.

The efficacy of the a vaccine is not the same as its effectiveness. I recommend this NYT article for an explanation of how something like “95%” efficacy is derived.

Vaccine trial efficacy is not the same as real use effectiveness. A trial use of the vaccine includes a placebo for one sampled group of people and the vaccine for another group. Actual use only includes the vaccine and is applied across a much larger group of people.

The J&J vaccine trials were also conducted in South Africa and Brazil. Vox video ( on why the vaccine efficacy numbers cannot be compared.

The J&J trials were also conducted outside the USA — in South Africa and Brazil.

The J&J vaccine trial was conducted over a more severe infection period. Vox video ( on why the vaccine efficacy numbers cannot be compared.

The J&J vaccine trial was conducted over a more severe infection period.

Back to the video — it explains why efficacy numbers cannot be compared. For example, the Moderna trial was only in the USA. The Johnson & Johnson (J&J) trial also included countries outside the USA (Brazil and South Africa) where variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerged. It was also conducted over a more severe infection period compared to the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna trials.

Here is something the video did not point out. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have high efficacies after two doses. The J&J vaccine is a single-dose shot.

Screenshot of the range of outcomes after vaccination. From Vox video ( on why the vaccine efficacy numbers cannot be compared.

The range of outcomes after vaccination.

The video also highlighted that all the vaccines are not designed to absolutely prevent COVID-19 symptoms. If after vaccination people got mild to moderate symptoms, the vaccine is considered effective.

During the trials, all the vaccines mentioned in the video prevented hospitalisation and death among sampled participants. By that measure, all the vaccines were just as good. If we focus only on trial efficacy numbers, we lose sight of this more important outcome.

One general takeaway that applies in any problem-solving and policy-making is this: Numbers are a start, but they are not the end. The explanations and narratives that accompany them provide depth, nuance, and exceptions. If we do not go beyond the numbers, we risk misinforming ourselves and others.

The tweet and report above are fodder for anti-vaccination Facebook groups and taxi uncles alike. The headline is irresponsible because it implies causality. However, no other factors for the death were explored or considered in the tweeted article.

Contrast the lack of context and information to the tweet thread below.

If I had to fault the tweet, I would point out that it did not immediately provide sources for the numbers. However, a Guardian article in the second part of Dr Clarke’s thread reported:

The MHRA, which collects reports of side-effects on drugs and vaccines in the UK through its “yellow card” scheme, told the Guardian it had received more notifications up until 28 February of blood clots on the Pfizer/BioNTech than the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – 38 versus 30 – although neither exceed the level expected in the population.

The MHRA is the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the UK.

The actual numbers of blood clot cases will vary over time, but the fact remains that the incidents are so low as to be below actual chance. What does that mean?

In an actual population, a certain number of people would naturally get blood clots. Take this thought experiment: We inject the entire population with saline that mimics blood plasma that has no drugs or vaccines in it. The result: More people will get blood clots with that saline jab than the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine.

The AZ vaccine use is new and the blood clot cases might rise. But for now the data indicate what Dr Clarke and others in the Guardian article have said — it is safe to use, not using it is dangerous.

Thankfully some good sense has prevailed since I started drafting this reflection. The BBC news report below revealed how the EU has declared the vaccine to be safe for continued use.

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I have two takeaways from reading both news reports. The first is the image quote below.

It's easy to lie with statistics, but it's hard to tell the truth without them. -- Andrejs Dunkels

My second is a parallel in teaching. Just as CNA was irresponsible for its misleading article, it is just as bad to teach content without context. While the use of vaccines has regulatory bodies that will correct wayward action, everyday teaching does not.

The AZ vaccine might see a quick comeback with investigation and regulation. But teaching that focuses primarily on content and teaching to the test has a long term detriment — it nurtures students who cannot think for themselves.

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As we start to get vaccinated against SARS-CoV2, it is worth learning about this history of vaccines. This SciShow video tells a less common but no less important account.

When learning about vaccines, most will be taught about Edward Jenner. They will not likely be taught about how the ancient peoples of China and Africa practiced what Jenner “pioneered” (variolation).

I learnt that about 300 years ago, the Brits adopted this practice by observing variolation in Turkey. But they did this only after testing the process on prisoners and orphan children. This was about 30 years before Jenner was born. Jenner figured out a safer way to do this and coined the term vaccine.

Fast forward to today and here are two lessons that some have yet to learn (start at this point in the video). The first is about how we relate history: We oversimplify and forget nuance.

The second was put plainly in the video:

Power dynamics between white men and everyone else have historically minimised the contributions of anyone who was not a white man.

Might we be seeing evidence of these two unlearnt (or difficult to learn) lessons right now? The press seems to conflate vaccine efficacy with efficiency instead of explaining it to the masses. The mRNA vaccines are a technological marvel but there is still so much misinformation about them. Powerful and advanced countries like to pit the COVID-19 statistics of some countries in Asia and Africa while not embracing ideas, mindsets, and practices to control its spread.


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