If anti-addiction vaccines are successful, a new problem may arise. The reality that this huge social epidemic could become a significant source of revenue for some of the same businesses is ethically wrong. But now the grim reality is that you have to get ready for new behavioral vaccines.
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The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), emphasized the potential of “anti-addiction vaccines aimed at eliciting antibodies that block the effects of a specific drug” in its 2016 to 2020 strategic plan (read below).
Addiction is unquestionably a major issue, with opioid addiction leading the way, claiming the lives of more than 140 Americans every day, thanks in part to the widespread distribution of fatal fentanyl. Other drug addictions, such as meth and, of course, alcohol, have devastating and frequently fatal effects.
In a New England Journal of Medicine Special Report published in 2017, Drs. Nora D. Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Francis S. Collins, then-director of the National Institutes of Health, called for scientists and industry to assist create opioid-specific vaccinations. The search for such treatments is still ongoing.
What is the mechanism of action of anti-addiction vaccines? In the case of heroin, according to Chemical and Engineering News, the vaccination “would stimulate a person’s immune system to produce antibodies that bind to heroin. The antibodies would block the drug from crossing the bloodstream into the brain, stopping the person from experiencing a high and preventing a relapse.”
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According to The New York Times, these antibodies “would shut down the narcotic before it could take root in the body, or in the brain.”
Limits to Behavioral Vaccines
Although many medical voices applaud such vaccines and hope for their availability, others are more cautious. Some argue that, like the alcoholism treatment Antabuse (disulfiram), which makes a person sick if they drink, a vaccine demands the addict’s motivation—they must want to stop drinking.
A prospective anti-cocaine vaccination proposed in the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics would need “six additional boosters given as one every 3 months” to create “a period of protection lasting 2 years.”
A vaccination is just part of the answer if the addict craves the escape that the high gives and is not prepared to confront the world without it. The addict could simply switch to a different substance.
There are also other difficulties. According to Angela Garcia of the Los Angeles Times, addicts may just consume more of a drug to overcome the vaccine’s effects. Garcia expressed concern that the immunizations could be pushed on addicts or their children, a worry echoed in the BMJ’s Journal of Medical Ethics.
Many critics of the vaccination are concerned about NIDA’s biological approach to addiction, which may neglect the addiction’s fundamental cause, which is frequently related to prior trauma.
The problem is viewed by NIDA in a less personal light.
“We have identified many of the biological and environmental factors [of addiction] and are beginning to search for the genetic variations that contribute to the development and progression of the disease,” Volkow, NIDA’s director, said in 2007.
Volkow believes “that all addictions can be eliminated if the brain’s receptors can be controlled,” according to a leaflet promoting her presentation to the Commonwealth Club of California in 2013. Some people think such comments are Orwellian or eerily similar to the dystopia depicted in “Brave New World.”
What other socially unpleasant illnesses would we be willing to treat if addiction can be treated in the brain? What punishments might a person incur if he or she refuses after COVID-19?
Addiction Isn’t Just a Brain State Say Experts
The “brain disease” model promoted by NIDA not only benefits psychiatric drugmakers and Big Pharma, but it also overlooks all of the societal factors that contribute to substance abuse.
“Even the most effective anti-addiction vaccine can’t cure the underlying factors that make people prone to using drugs, including poverty, violence and lack of opportunity,” Garcia wrote. “[The] underlying issues of addiction causality, including inequality, hopelessness, and the human desire for pleasure, cannot be addressed by a vaccine alone.”
Certainly, drug addiction has characteristics of a social disease, and the locations where it is prevalent reflect something about our broader society and people’s daily circumstances. People do not pursue drugs or alcohol as a means of escape for no reason, and some do grow addicted. We should not dismiss the reality that, despite ongoing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and sellers, the opioid treatment drug Suboxone was a top seller in 2018, with $859 million in sales.
Drug addiction is definitely a profit center for the drug industry.
According to an editorial in the journal Addiction, treating addiction as a brain illness has severe consequences. It has the potential to downplay social and psychological factors.
“Depicting addiction as a ‘brain disease’ could privilege the development and use of expensive and sometimes risky medical interventions, such as drug vaccines and deep brain stimulation, to the neglect of proven social policies,” the editorial reads. “The idea that addiction is a ‘brain disease’ might also lend itself to the view that we should identify the minority of people who are most susceptible and subject them to individually focused preventive measures (e.g. vaccines) rather than using strategies that target the entire population.”
Several studies have found that a person’s feeling of self-efficacy—their belief that they can influence the path of their lives by their own choices—is a key element in addiction recovery.
If addicts feel that a medical practitioner or an injection may treat their addiction, their sense of self-control is further eroded, potentially leading to unforeseen repercussions.
Addicts surrendering personal responsibility is an issue, according to research published in the journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry in 2021.
“While NIDA’s neurobiological understanding of addiction has been crucial in advancing pharmacotherapeutic interventions and advocacy for people experiencing problematic substance use, it can nevertheless be internalized by people such as Vivian [a cited case] who understand their chronic relapse as ‘just part of being an addict,’” the article reads.
According to the article in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, drug epidemics are not universally prevalent across diverse groups of people and can be related to “chronic experiences of dispossession and postindustrial decline and dislocation,” as other voices have suggested.
On a more positive note, the researchers speculated that NIDA is expanding its narrow brain-and-vaccine model of addiction by incorporating social and environmental elements into a more “biopsychosocial model” that acknowledges the “complex interactions between biology, behavior, and environment.”
“Anti-addiction vaccines aren’t intended to be used on their own, nor would they work that way,” an article posted by the Texas Addiction Treatment Centers reads. “They are designed to be a part of a comprehensive treatment plan that incorporates other evidence-based treatment methods and behavioral therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, 12-step therapy, or individual and group counseling sessions.”
Will Anti-Addiction Vaccines Take Off?
Human experiments with vaccines against nicotine and cocaine, which began in 2008, have so far failed, according to NIDA’s Ivan Montoya. This was not good news for vaccines that were being developed at the time.
However, if anti-addiction vaccines are successful, a new problem may arise. The lack of barriers between government officials and industry has been exposed by the COVID-19 vaccinations. Volkow has worked on research with five pharmaceutical companies to help translate “basic information… into Food and Drug Administration–approved treatments.” A major conflict of interest seems to exist here. Although faith-based and 12-step recovery programs are free, the search for high-tech remedies like anti-addiction vaccinations promises huge windfalls for pharmaceutical companies, which should worry all of us.
Seeing as how the opioid crisis is explicitly connected to drug companies’ misrepresentative assertions when marketing their products, as well as ongoing over-prescribing of those products, the reality that this huge social epidemic could become a significant source of revenue for some of the same businesses is ethically wrong, to say the very least.
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