On March 6, 2021, a Belgian veterinarian named Geert Vanden Bossche published an open letter "to all authorities, scientists and experts around the world" asserting that, in his expert analysis, the current global COVID-19 vaccination program will "wipe out large parts of our human population." The way to avoid this purported calamity, Vanden Bossche asserts, is for scientists to pay more attention to his own invention — a "universal vaccine" that uses the body's innate immune system to kill SARS-CoV-2.
Perhaps no more tired a trope exists in the world of faux cures than the "I have found a problem that no other scientist in the world has thought of and only my untested and unproven cure can stop it" gambit. Vanden Bossche has been able to avoid allegations of peddling such a cure — at least in the credulous anti-vaccine community — because his resume legitimately includes stints at companies or initiatives involved in vaccine development, including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since 2014, however, he has been trying (apparently unsuccessfully) to develop his so-called universal vaccine. A company claiming to develop such a product is currently registered to an address identified on Yelp as his veterinary practice.
Vanden Bossche's scientific argument in broad terms is that the current COVID-19 vaccines, through a mechanism analogous to antibiotic resistance, will create mutant variants of the virus that escape the protection of those vaccines. This problem will be exacerbated, he claims, because people who have been vaccinated (and/or social distancing and staying inside during the pandemic) will be less capable of fighting off those strains than someone who has not been vaccinated. As we explain below, this scenario is speculative, scientifically flawed, logically inconsistent, and belied by actual data.
(Vanden Bossche did not respond to a detailed list of questions sent by Snopes on March 23, 2021.)
Vanden Bossche's Flawed Science
Vanden Bossche presented his ideas to the public in a series of open letters or powerpoint presentations on his personal website. He asserts that his statements "are based on nothing else but science." While Vanden Bossche's ideas may be rooted in actual scientific concepts, his argument quite explicitly relies on sweeping assumptions. In the first two letters alone, he uses some variation of the phrase "it is reasonable to assume" at least seven times. These assumptions come without scientific studies or data to support them and — indeed — are not always reasonable.
RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 do mutate. Several variations of the originally isolated strain have emerged since the start of the pandemic, and some of these variants are more infectious, contagious, or possibly deadly. While mutations to SARS-CoV-2 would be happening regardless of any human intervention, the notion that vaccination might apply evolutionary pressure toward variants that can escape current vaccines is not untenable.
Variants are "a thing to keep an eye on," Saad Omer, an epidemiologist who serves as director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, told us in a phone interview. But, he said, Vanden Bossche's arguments "take a little bit of truth and then add a whole lot of misrepresentation."
Vanden Bosche argues that widespread vaccination will put evolutionary pressure on the viruses to develop adaptations — in this case changes to the spike protein that allows the virus to infect cells — in a way that will allow it to escape the vaccine's protection. He invokes the discovery of variants currently in circulation that have altered portions of the spike protein — the target of COVID-19 vaccine — implying that these observations lead credence to his hypothesis. They do not. All of these variants were discovered prior to any widespread vaccination program.
Vanden Bossche asserts that COVID-19 vaccines pose a unique risk of producing dangerous variants in part because people who are vaccinated will be spreading the mutations while asymptomatic. Mass vaccination programs, he claims, are "turning vaccinees into asymptomatic carriers" who can unknowingly spread these more dangerous strains by "shedding infectious variants." However, increasingly clear evidence exists that the current COVID-19 vaccines reduce transmission, as well as the amount of viral material available for shedding, even in asymptomatic cases. Evidence exists that they achieve this effect even against the variant strains of SARS-CoV-2.
Vanden Bossche's Flawed Solution
While there is no doubt that current vaccines will become less effective over time due to genetic drift, this is not something that vaccine science is unaware of or unprepared for. One benefit of several current COVID-19 vaccines, most notably the mRNA vaccines, is that they can be easily modified to induce the development of antibodies programmed specifically to deal with whatever new variants crop up.
In an effort to sidestep this self-evident solution, Vanden Bossche seems to have made up a second mechanism to stoke fear over COVID-19 vaccines. He claims that the vaccines will destroy our bodies' ability to use our innate immune system (which produces, among other things, non-specific cells capable of clearing a wide variety of infectious material from the body) to fight off the variants vaccines allegedly could not.
"It is," Vanden Bossche asserted in one of his letters, "reasonable to assume that vaccination of young and healthy people will inevitably lead to long-lived suppression of their variant-nonspecific, innate immune defense." The mechanism he invokes is that vaccine-produced antibodies will "outcompete" the more general defenses of the innate immune system.
This makes no sense, Yale's Omer told us. The production of targeted antibodies obviously creates a different response than a natural infection because "you're producing antibodies against specific needs … therefore you have a limited targeted immune response, not the whole response that you see after an infection." The notion that this is somehow a problem relies on the unsupported claim that a natural infection would be better equipped to kill SARS-CoV-2. "The underlying fallacy," Omer explained, is that a natural infection is better than a vaccine. "It isn't," he told us. "Natural infection kills."
On top of the false notion that imperfect vaccine antibodies will hamper the overall immune system on its own, Vanden Bossche claims that the prolonged lockdowns have left our innate immune system out of practice. "There can be no doubt," Vanden Bossche asserts, "that lack of exposure due to stringent containment measures implemented as of the beginning of the pandemic has not been beneficial to keeping people’s innate immune system well trained."
The notion that lockdowns have weakened our innate immune system is equally without basis. Speaking with McGill University's Office for Science and Society, Dr. Paul Offit, a doctor and vaccine scientist who serves as director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, explained that no matter where one is or was quarantined, you are still constantly exposed to microorganisms challenging your immune system. "The food you eat isn’t sterile,” he explained, “the dust you inhale isn’t sterile, the water you drink isn’t sterile.”
Reality aside, invoking the innate immune system provides two rhetorical benefits. It is, as McGill's Jonathan Jarry wrote and as Yale's Omer told us, a classic example of the appeal-to-nature fallacy that invokes the primacy of natural solutions, mechanisms, or substances over those deemed unnatural and human created. This fallacy is one of the anti-vaccine movement's favorites, and as such his claims have been amplified extensively by the biggest names in that movement.
The second benefit to Vanden Bossche's claim is that it places his purported invention as the miracle solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. "There is a sound scientific rationale to assume," Vanden Bossche wrote, "that it is possible to ‘prime’ NK cells" in ways for them to recognize and kill Coronaviruses at large (including all their variants) at an early stage of infection." NK cells are pathogen destroying cells that are part of the innate immune system. Vanden Bossche describes himself on LinkedIn as the inventor of a new type of vaccine that "harnesses the power of the immune system by unlocking the untapped potential of self-centered [NK] cells capable of recognising these unconventional antigens."
While a universal vaccine that could eradicate virtually any disease certainly sounds great, no evidence exists that such a vaccine has ever successfully been developed. In online biographies, Vanden Bossche describes himself as "inventor on a patent application for universal vaccines." This is not all that impressive, given that Snopes could only identify two patent applications in Vanden Bossche's name — both for "immunologic formulations" — and both of these patents, records indicate, had their "applications terminated before publication."
The Bottom Line
Vanden Bossche has created a scientific-sounding argument that vaccination will encourage the production of COVID-19 variants that our immune systems will be unprepared to fight. Because his proposed solution appears to be a fantasy, its effect would be to stop vaccinations completely and replace them with nothing. This is an absurdly counterproductive solution if Vanden Bossche were truly concerned about variants. Mutations occur during viral transmission and in the bodies of unvaccinated people. Immunocompromised individuals with persistent COVID-19 infections, in particular, may play a huge role in the development of variants.
The solution to that risk is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, thereby reducing both transmission of the virus and the number of environments in which mutations could occur. This is what COVID-19 vaccines do, and their ability to reduce the opportunities for the virus to mutate is why rapid vaccination is imperative. “We’re in a race with the new variants,” Sara Del Valle, a computational epidemiologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico explained in a March 2021 feature in the scientific journal Nature.
Waiting for Vanden Bossche's "universal vaccine" is no way to win such a race.