Differential Immunity as Our Responsibility | Wan-shuan Lin

by Critical Asia

by Wan-shuan Lin, June 2022】

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused global public health and economic crises, prompting the development of vaccines and treatments at an unprecedented rate. A number of technologies have been adopted to make different types of vaccines. Among these, COVID-19 messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines have drawn great attention for being both the fastest-ever vaccines from concept to reality and the first-ever mRNA products approved. Skeptics have raised concerns over the efficacy and safety of the novel vaccines. Some of them have gone to the extreme of claiming that mRNA vaccines magnetize the recipient’s body or even permanently alter human DNA.

In Taiwan, “becoming-Magneto” photos of people sticking spoons, forks, and even pans to where they received Moderna shots went viral on social media in mid-2021. Taiwan Centers for Disease Control Deputy Director-General Philip Lo had to reassure citizens that mRNA vaccines would not turn them into hybrids at a daily press conference. Another widely-used COVID-vaccine, Oxford-AstraZeneca, was developed with the adenoviral vector-based platform technology. Health experts have also made efforts to debunk the claim that those who receive the vaccine will have their DNA altered when the chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector used grows in humans.

Some people have reservations even about COVID-19 vaccines that use tried and tested methods. One of the most common concerns regards whether scientists and pharmaceutical companies compromised safety to develop these vaccines in record time. Several doubts have been cast on whether approvals of COVID-vaccines have been premature. Notably, the Taiwanese Medigen vaccine, a protein subunit COVID-19 vaccine, has sparked debate as its phase three clinical trial, instead of sticking to regular practice, used immuno-bridging trials to compare the performance of the Medigen vaccine with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Some critics have therefore questioned whether such a comparison was scientifically valid. Rumors once circulated on Taiwanese social media that Tsai Ing-wen’s government would resort to blowguns to force its citizens to get the domestically produced vaccine for political gain. There have also been media reports about Medigen takers being ridiculed for their vaccination decision.

Much of the mistrust surrounding COVID-19 vaccines stems from anxiety that “fast-tracked” vaccines developed with new technologies and unconventional protocols could hurt human health or even permanently alter human DNA. Health officials and medical specialists around the world, in an attempt to tackle vaccine hesitancy fueled by misbeliefs and even conspiracy theories, have asserted that vaccines do not make recipients sick or interact with human DNA in any manner. These public health efforts have evidently resorted to the strategy of upholding true science against false claims. The “vaccination-without-genetic-communication” scenario that they tout, nevertheless, shares an emphasis on a self-contained human body with the myths they aim to counter. Researches by scientists, among them Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, have already led to the conceptualization of human being as a composite of diverse elements emerging from cross-species encounters. In other words, significant attention has long been brought to how the human, rather than being a molar totalizing organism, has been implicated in molecular movements and connections.

Such a shift in perspective enables us to reassess infectious diseases and immune responses. What Deleuze and Guattari put as “our viruses” facilitate the exchange of molecular particles, such as genetic materials, and thereby the creation of novel links among all kinds of bodies (D& G 10; Lin 82). Immunological activities involve the incorporation of antigens present on pathogens into the immune system and thereby the reconfiguration of what we recognize as human body (Lin 159). Vaccines are designed to elicit immune responses. Bashford has therefore argued that it is more contamination than demarcation that constitutes the underlying logic of immunization or vaccination (40). The COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it yet again drive home the fact that humans are deeply entangled with infinitesimal worlds. These messy and situated entanglements mobilize ongoing processes of the reconfiguring of bodies.

Each pandemic changes the world in one way or another. Karen Barad’s discussion of apparatuses of bodily production opens a venue to more adequately explore the particularities of the COVID-19 phenomenon, especially the introduction of new vaccine approaches and novel development process. Her understanding of apparatuses is framed in her theorization of agential realism. Barad argues that what we experience and recognize as material bodies are not independent objects with fixed boundaries and properties but phenomena that are enacted through intra-actions of agencies. Agencies can be material practices through which material phenomena come to matter or discursive practices through which “boundaries, properties, and meanings are differentially enacted” (139). Both material and discursive practices do not enjoy prior existence as individual elements but are constituted and reconstituted in their mutual entanglement. They are “produced and productive, generated and generative” (137). Phenomena, enacted through ongoing agential intra-actions, therefore refer to certain “dynamic topological reconfigurings/entanglements/relationalities/(re)articulations of the world” (141).

Barad proposes to reconceptualize apparatuses as material-discursive practices that insistently reconfigure meanings and bodies as part of the dynamics of intra-activity. They are not simply laboratory equipment waiting to be deployed but certain material arrangements that are, according to Niels Bohr, who Barad heavily draws from, “productive and (and part of) phenomena” (142). Concepts and things are enacted and re-enacted when apparatuses dynamically (re)configure space, time, and matter as part of the ongoing dynamism of intra-activity in which they themselves are continually being constituted and reconstituted. Barad’s insight would lend itself to a fit approach to navigating a pandemic-hit world where many people are concerned that science is not yet settled and public health conditions seem to be characterized by uncertainties. What we are witnessing, through the lens of Barad’s agential realism, is the reworking of material-discursive apparatuses of bodily production. The specific intra-actions of human, nonhuman, and hybrid forms of agencies that emerge out of reconfiguring material-discursive practices enact changes that shatter a huge array of old assumptions about life as we knew it.

In this sense, the adoption of new vaccine approaches for COVID-19 and the unprecedented pace at which these vaccines were developed involve the remaking of material-discursive conditions of possibilities and the reformulation of temporality. As emphasized by Barad, doing science involves getting material arrangements, among them instruments and procedures that materialize in the working process, to “work in a particular way for a particular purpose” (203). The instruments and procedures employed remain open to rearrangement whenever new insights arise and new phenomena materialize. The intra-actions among phenomena and apparatuses lead to, in Barad’s words, specific reconfigurations of spatiality and temporality (223).

The development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, for example, depends on an array of apparatuses produced through particular material-discursive practices. Both Moderna and Pfizer began their work based on the 2017 study from Barney Graham’s and Jason McLellan’s laboratories. The collaboration between the two scientists can be traced back to 2008 when McLellan, a trained X-ray crystallographer, worked as a postdoc in Graham’s group. Their study, based on the image of antibodies binding the prefusion F protein determined by X-ray, led to the conclusion that the protein conformation assumes greater significance than protein sequence in vaccine design. The phenomena that emerged out of these laboratory exercises reconstituted the reality of immunology by changing the way scientists think about designing vaccines.

Graham and McLellan, who started his own lab in 2013, then proceeded to apply their technique to the then-emergent MERS coronavirus. They failed despite of numerous attempts, which amount to ongoing rearrangements of apparatuses, to “get the MERS spike protein to cooperate” (Cross no page). After a postdoctoral fellow in Graham’s lab returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia with a respiratory tract disease, the two research teams turned to study the culprit pathogen, a coronavirus known as HKU1. As the coronavirus spike proteins were “large, floppy” and therefore hard to crystalize, McLellan needed a method other than X-ray crystallography. He then resorted to cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to facilitate the materialization of the virus (Borrell 75).

Brendan Borrell describes how the structure of HKU1, the phenomenon in question, emerged out of the intra-action among human, proteinic, particulate, and machinic agencies as follows: “[Andrew Ward] flash froze the spike protein, irradiated it with low-energy electrons to produce two-dimensional images, and then used thousands of these images to construct a three-dimensional model of that prefusion structure—the first-ever of a human coronavirus” (76). After a series of follow-up protein-engineering experiments, McLellan’s lab discovered a way, later named 2P mutation design, that makes it possible to stabilize the spike proteins from MERS and SARS in 2017.

When the phenomena of SARS-CoV-2 were enfolded into these practices in 2020, the apparatuses of bodily production were open to yet other rearrangements and rearticulations. Among them are facilities, equipment, instruments, computer programs, and experimental procedures to open and modify the SARS-CoV-2 spike’s makeup, to print out the digital gene sequence in the form of DNA, to grow gobs of the spike protein in specialized cell cultures, to manufacture vaccines based on the 2P sequence, etc (Borrell 24-28). Instead of relying on GenScript, an outsourcing company, to synthesize the whole gene, Nianshuang Wang, a researcher in McLellan’s lab, came up with a new technique of stitching smaller gene fragments together to streamline the process (Borrell 27-28).

To sum up, COVID-19 vaccines for mRNA materialize through agential intra-actions of apparatuses of bodily production which are themselves phenomena made up of intra-actions among human and nonhuman agencies. Some of the new concepts and new bodies enacted through the processes of ongoing reconfigurations include newly created vaccine molecules, first-ever images of antibodies binding the spike protein, new experimental protocols, the patent and publications describing the vaccine design, etc. The intra-actions of these material-discursive practices also constituted a particular configuration of temporality. To accelerate the development of COVID-19 vaccines, different groups of scientists around the world worked with overlapping schedules. The overall dynamics of these COVID-19 vaccine projects were more of compressing the typical timelines than rushing the processes. For vaccine development teams, such efforts were about, in Graham’s words, building up public health preparedness by getting one step ahead of pathogenic threats (Borrell 20). Through the lens of agential realism, the so-called race against viruses should be accounted for in terms of the mutual enfolding of viruses, humans, and other phenomena which constitutes certain hybrid temporality.

Reconsidering vaccines as phenomena implicated in specific material arrangements highlights the ongoing dynamic of intra-activity through which new concepts and new bodies are both produced productive. Human practices such as laboratory experiments did play a part in constituting apparatuses and reconfiguring the world. The scientists, however, did not get to unilaterally choose how to design, build, and assemble apparatuses. As Graham and McLellan’s experience with MERS demonstrates, the apparatuses of bodily production were configured and reconfigured through the intra-actions among human and nonhuman agencies. Human practices were part of the world’s intra-active becoming; moreover, what we recognize as humans were themselves phenomena that emerged out of the differential constitution of the humans and nonhumans (Barad 218).

Finally, I argue that the specific intra-actions of human and nonhuman agencies in the development, distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines enact the materialization of certain differential immunity, which refers to the differential constitution of immunity through ongoing agential intra-actions. As is the case with other infectious diseases, a majority of scientists worldwide agree that mass vaccination is the most effective approach to reduce illness and death from COVID-19 pandemic. As Wong explains, what is known as herd immunity is achieved when a sufficient percentage of a population gets immunized against a certain disease and therefore provides indirect protection for those who lack immunity (208). However, not only has rapid scale-up of COVID-19 vaccination worldwide proved challenging but the emerging issues of waning immunity and breakthrough cases add more complexities to the situation. Along with the call for further intensifying vaccination efforts globally come heated debates about whether booster shots are necessary. Moreover, as some COVID-19 vaccines, such as those from Pfizer and Moderna, require two doses but the vaccine supply lacks consistency, the World Health Organization and several countries have decided to allow people to mix-and-match vaccines from different makers or with different approaches.

All of these challenges involve the issue of partial immunity, medically understood as partial protection against viruses or an intermediate level of immunity. Some public experts expressed concerns that partial herd immunity is not enough to protect a not fully vaccinated population against variants of SARS-CoV-2. There is also study that suggests COVID-19 vaccine dosing regimens that generate partial immunity could lead to the emergence of immunity-escape variants. Venla Oikkonen’s theorization of partial immunities through influenza provides an alternative understanding that emphasizes the multiple connections enabled by immunological responses instead of partially protective vaccination. As the influenza virus keeps mutating, revaccination against influenza with a reformulated vaccine is necessary annually. With a focus on the entanglement between viral mutation and future-oriented biotechnological research, Oikkonen finds that the concept of partial immunities makes us aware of the incomplete nature and temporal situatedness of immunity.

Taking into account of the specific agential intra-actions through which COVID-19 vaccination practices are produced, I propose to bring due attention to the ongoing dynamic of intra-activity and name the configuration of immunity enacted through the practices as differential immunity. Differential immunity emerges out of the differential constitution of people who are and who are not immune to COVID-19, fully or partially vaccinated people and under-vaccinated populations, diverse immune responses and mutation of SARS-CoV-2, different vaccine approaches or dosing regimens with different efficacies, further vaccination research and the so-called Disease X, etc. Immunization is never about strengthening human bodily boundaries against pathogenic surroundings. The entanglements among the multiple participants in specific apparatuses of bodily production, which produce the phenomena of vaccination and immunity but are themselves open to configuration and reconfiguration, prompt a reconceptualization of immunity as a dynamic process that continually enfolds mutually constituted phenomena. I believe the concept of differential immunity enables us to be more attentive to the other agencies with which what we recognize as humans and populations are differentially mutually constituted in the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to learn to intra-act responsibly as part of the material-discursive practices that produce differential immunity. After all, we have a role, no less significant than any other agencies, in reconfiguring the apparatuses of bodily production.

Wan-shuan Lin, Independent Scholar, Taiwan


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