Tamil Nadu makes scientifically dubious claim on vaccines in the Supreme Court

An affidavit filed by Tamil Nadu Government in the Supreme Court makes the questionable, and scientifically false, claim that the unvaccinated can spread the virus, but not the vaccinated

Representative photo
Representative photo

Bhaskaran Raman

Covid-19 vaccines have brought hope to many, especially the elderly and the vulnerable, in reducing their risk of severe Covid. However, several authorities in India have been resorting to coercive techniques, even as the Central Government has clearly said that there is no provision for coercion.

Notwithstanding the benefit of vaccination, coercive techniques are legally as well as ethically questionable. The United States Supreme Court recently struck down President Biden’s workplace vaccine mandate. There is an ongoing case in the Indian Supreme Court since several months, to similarly strike down vaccine mandates issued by various authorities.

On 19 Nov 2021, the state government of Tamil Nadu (TN) issued a notification prohibiting unvaccinated people from even stepping onto the street. Is this a reasonable and proportionate measure? To explain this, the state of Tamil Nadu (TN) was impleaded (along with three other states) in the ongoing Supreme Court case on Covid-19 vaccine mandates.

In response, the TN government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court on 03 Jan 2022, justifying its notification. While the Honourable Supreme Court will decide on the legal merit of the affidavit, we examine here the scientific correctness of the claims made in the affidavit.

The main justification offered by the TN affidavit is that unvaccinated people can be virus carriers, but not the vaccinated. Such a claim is doubly wrong scientifically. First, the claim that unvaccinated people are a threat is emphatically false, because at this time most Indians have already been exposed to the virus and have recovered naturally. Even as of Aug 2021, a serological survey releaved that as much as 70% of people in TN, and as high as 82% of Chennai residents were already exposed and had antibodies. After Omicron, this percentage is likely to be well above 90% now.

Furthermore, it is well known that the protection offered by immunity after natural infection is robust, and various studies have confirmed this. For instance, a study in Israel found that immunity after natural infection is 13 times stronger than immunity after vaccination. Even the US’s CDC recently released a study which found that protection against infection is much stronger in the case of immunity from natural exposure and recovery, than from vaccination. The protection from natural immunity was strong even against the Delta variant, while vaccine-induced immunity had waned over time.

Second, the claim that vaccinated people are safe to be around is contradicted by the government’s own protocols. Even a layperson knows by now that Covid-19 vaccination does not prevent infection, or transmission from that person to others after infection.

Indeed, an overwhelming majority of Omicron cases has been found in fully vaccinated adults, even in boosted adults. As per recent data from the UK, 2-dose vaccinated are more at risk of infection than the unvaccinated. Scotland’s recent detailed report shows more than twice the case-rate among 2-dose vaccinated than among the unvaccinated. It is worth noting that both England and Scotland have declared the end of vaccine passports as well as other pandemic restrictions.

Therefore, TN’s attempt to paint the unvaccinated as unsafe and vaccinated as safe is doubly wrong. The affidavit also wrongly claims that Covid-19 jabs are “preventive inoculation”. The ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) has clearly said Covid-19 jabs are not preventive, but “disease modifying”. Given the ongoing surge of third wave cases in fully jabbed people, claims of “prevention” are both false and misleading.

Yet another false claim in the affidavit is that an unvaccinated population leads to development of new virus variants. The known science is that use of vaccines which do not prevent infection leads to development of virulent mutant strains.

A research study of Marek's disease virus in chicken says “Vaccines that keep hosts alive but still allow transmission could thus allow very virulent strains to circulate in a population”. A more recent study of SARS-Cov-2 variant evolution across continents says: “the occurrence and frequency of vaccine-resistant mutations correlate strongly with the vaccination rates in Europe and America”. This is due to evolutionary pressure, and has led to Delta and Omicron infections in fully-jabbed individuals.

The affidavit also claims that the drop in Covid-19 cases since the second wave was due to vaccination. We can see the fallacy in this claim of causality if we remind ourselves that the fall in cases in 2020 happened well before vaccination was even started. And the recent Omicron surge happened despite vaccination, not just in India, but even in highly vaccinated populations. Israel, with a large section of the population even triple jabbed, saw its steepest rise in cases!

Inaccuracies are unacceptable in a document submitted at the highest court of the land. The TN government should exercise caution and scientific rigour while filing a sworn affidavit.

(Bhaskaran Raman is Professor in the Department of CSE at IIT Bombay. Views are Personal)

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