Despite contracting COVID-19 himself last year and spending the past few weeks being quite literally forced out of vaccinated society, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro still refuses to get the shot.
It “makes no sense,” he says – reaffirming the fact that immunology, like environmental studies, is just another branch of science he doesn’t understand.
“With regard to the vaccine, I’ve decided not to have it anymore,” Bolsonaro told a right-wing radio station on Tuesday. “I’ve been looking at new studies, my immunity levels are through the roof. Why would I get vaccinated?”
“It would be the same as betting 10 reais on the lottery to win two. It makes no sense,” he said.
It appears that Bolsonaro’s latest angle is the old “acquired immunity” gambit: if you’ve already got sick with COVID-19, you don’t need to get a vaccine. While there does seem to be some evidence that so-called “natural” immunity, gained from infection rather than vaccination, is effective against the virus, experts and officials generally agree vaccine immunity is stronger than natural immunity.
"Natural immunity can be spotty. Some people can react vigorously and get a great antibody response. Other people don't get such a great response," explains infectious diseases expert Mark Rupp. "Clearly, vaccine-induced immunity is more standardized and can be longer-lasting."
It’s unclear which “new studies” Bolsonaro has been looking at, but a number of papers published in the past few months have shown a sharp drop off in antibody levels for around 30 to 45 percent of those with “natural immunity”. Even if Bolsonaro is one of the lucky recoverees whose antibody levels remain high, it’s still unclear whether that would truly translate to higher immunity levels.
“The level of antibodies in your blood is not a metric for understanding whether someone is protected or not. Antibodies go up and down according to your exposure to the virus … so constantly measuring the level of antibodies in your blood isn’t what will tell you if you are protected or not,” explained Natália Pasternak, the head of civil society group the Question of Science Institute, speaking to the Guardian. “What will tell you if you are protected or not is if you have memory cells, a sufficient cellular response – and you don’t measure this with a simple antibody test.”
“[Bolsonaro is making] a stupid and selfish decision, because vaccination isn’t just about protecting yourself,” she said. “Vaccination is about protecting those around you.”
Currently, over 600,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil.
As long-time followers of the sexagenarian science-denier will recall, Bolsonaro has already gone through a gamut of excuses for avoiding a COVID-19 vaccination: first it was too experimental, then it infringed upon unspecified rights. Next things got very bizarre when he suggested the vaccine might turn people into crocodiles (it doesn’t, obviously, but since reptiles don’t seem to be affected by the virus it might not be a bad idea, vaccine scientists if you’re reading), and then he tried to recast his refusal in more heroic terms, saying that only “after the last Brazilian gets vaccinated, if there’s a spare shot,” would he consider taking the vaccine.
For now, Bolsonaro’s stance is not shared by the majority of Brazilians. Despite his widely-criticized (mis)handling of COVID-19 in the country, nearly three-quarters of the population have now received at least one dose of a vaccine. While the populist president passes off questions about Brazil’s mind-boggling death toll as “whining” that leaves him “bored,” his political rivals – and his wife – are contradicting his dangerous rhetoric.
With Bolsonaro’s chances of re-election next year in question, we may not get to see what his next excuse for not getting vaccinated is. For Pasternak, though, the danger is that Brazilian society starts to follow his lead, and stumbles into the “ridiculous situation” currently found in the US: “an abundance of vaccines, yet … people who have refused to be vaccinated die,” she told the Guardian.
“We should not take this lightly,” she added. “We need to think about what the impact of this could be in 10 years. With this kind of statement, the president is opening the door for the anti-vax movement to take root in Brazil.”