Why are viruses and microbes necessary for healthy immunity?

Pic of child playing with soil: Shutterstock

How does a fear of germs make us less safe?

Professor of Immunology, Dr Steve Templeton states, "The knowledge that immunity is protective and durable upon recovery from infection in most people is the basis of every textbook in immunology and epidemiology, yet since early 2020 this truth has been summarily jettisoned out of political expedience. As a result, the immune system has gotten a bad rap. Like our microbial environment, the immune system’s reputation is in serious need of rehabilitation."

Essential ImmunologyIt does not take long to test Dr Templeton's starting point. On opening the standard immmulogical textbook by Ivan Roitt (see pic), the second paragraph of the introduction states, "The first contact with an infectious organism clearly imprints some information, imparts some memory, so that the body is effectively prepared to repel any later invasion by that organism." So, the question is, why have policies and expedience jettisoned the fundamental importance of the immune system? Is the reaction to the pandemic really just about control, politics and profit? Why do we hear so little from those scientists who are most qualified to comment i.e. the immunologists and microbiologists?

Antifragility is critical for our health

Immunologist Steve Templeton points out the critical co-dependence that we have with our intimate microbial partners. An absolutely fundamental aspect of our lives - and the balance of our existence with all life is the concept of antifragility. Antifragility is one of those incredibly important factors in life that everybody should be fully aware of. Antifragility is generally defined as a property of systems in which they increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors - such as viral infection. With very few exceptions, exposure to and living with micro-organisms including bacteria, fungi and viruses makes us stronger and improves our long-term viability. 

Although for the most part we are blissfully unaware, the very essence of sustainable life is dependent on our connectivity, balance with and interoperability with other life. As reported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "Microbes inhabit just about every part of the human body, living on the skin, in the gut, and up the nose. Sometimes they cause sickness, but most of the time, microorganisms live in harmony with their human hosts, providing vital functions essential for human survival."

Quality of immune repertoire

Total Health has previously discussed concerns over the short-comings of treatments that are too narrowly targeted at small sections of a virus (antigen), and therefore in this sense may not trigger the full benefits of antifragility. The quality of the initial immune prime is critical if it is not to interfere with natural or innate immunity. According to the concept of original antigenic sin, the first (original) exposure of the immune system to an antigen (or the 'pioneer' strain), is critical for how effectively immunity will subsequently develop, and the composition of the antibody repertoire (i.e. the quality of your defence mechanisms). The more surface antigens that the immune system responds to, the more 'memory' the immune system will have for dealing with subsequent infections. 

Fear mongering

With all the political fear mongering and in the face of daily blood-curdling "case" and "death" statistics, awareness of certain fundamental biological principles and realities is helpful for putting any fear of micro-organisms and disease in context.

Fear - stoking spectres of devastation

The scare stories and tactics are nothing new. Writing about Bird Flu for Total Health ten years ago, Prof Mabey reminded us that pandemic scares are not uncommon. The professor of communicable diseases introduces his highly informative article, A big flap about a bit of flu saying; "Of course, we shouldn’t forget that this is not the first time a spectre of devastating pandemic has grabbed headlines and altered government policy: in 1976 the highly hypothetical suggestion of a ‘Swine Flu’ outbreak drove the American administration to initiate a population - wide vaccination campaign. Ultimately there was no pandemic – just a lot of people with Guillain-Barre secondary to the vaccine. The current panic should therefore be considered with that note of caution in mind." The problem is that despite the frequency of these events, we still have not learned to take the best scientific advice, and instead rely on theoretical models that paint the bleakest possible pictures. This results in people being terrified, losing control of their lives and their sense of security, and being prepared to do whatever was necessary to get some semblance of safety back. 

See - Fear of a Microbial Planet: The Book

The following is a copy of Prof Templeton's correspondence:

Back in March of 2020, I was completely dismayed by the tsunami of mass panic and irrational behavior in my community and around the world, triggered by the looming pandemic threat. I spent a lot of time engaging with others on social media, trying to calm the irrational terror that would ultimately lead to prolonged, disastrous and ineffective shutdowns and the end of life as everyone knew it. Yes, the news was bad, and the predictions worse, but already it seemed there was no way the virus could be stopped in the wider population, and that draconian measures had the potential to cause tremendous collateral damage without clear benefits. Schools were closing, even with early reports that children were not susceptible to severe diseaseCommunity groups were shutting their doors at a time they were most needed. People were avoiding their relatives, especially the elderly. There were runs on masks and other PPE even though public health officials had warned of their lack of efficacy. Journalists, doctors, scientists and politicians were giving mixed signals, increasing uncertainty and fueling more panic. Scientific studies were becoming hyperpoliticized. People were terrified and losing control of their lives and their sense of security, and they were willing to do whatever was necessary to get some semblance of it back. 

When I talked to people in the community or others on social media, it became clear that many lacked even a basic knowledge of the microbial world around them. Some acted as if even going outside, or being in rooms that had been occupied by others days before, or handling any object touched by another person were hazardous. Very few individuals understood concepts like age stratification of severe disease, cross-protective immunity, herd immunity, or case or infection fatality rates, and almost no one accepted the fact that the highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 was already present and spreading at a frequency and speed that would make it virtually unstoppable. They had no clue of the history of pandemic responses and the pre-pandemic consensus of what was achievable and what wasn’t.

Germs and You: A Codependent Relationship

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that living in the modern world has left most people, including journalists, politicians, physicians, and even many scientists, with little or no appreciation of how important their relationship with microbes is to their overall health. Not just bacteria and fungi, but also viruses, too. Many think the only good bacteria, fungi, or viruses are dead bacteria, fungi, or viruses. That simply isn’t true, because people need to be exposed to, colonized by, and infected with these microbes in order to develop properly, because we are antifragile organisms. We need to be challenged by our environment in order to survive and thrive in it.

This isn’t a new concept, in fact it is a very old one. Yet the concept of antifragility in human health has eroded over time in a modern world of unparalleled abundance and technological advances that have reached a point that many believe a zero-risk, clean world free from infectious disease is within reach. At best, this is unrealistic, and at worst, delusional.

Critics will invariably say that I’m downplaying the threat of serious infections, although I disagree. There are certainly some microbial infections or exposures that can and should be avoided, but this doesn’t change the fact that there are also some that cannot or should not be avoided, or that there are tradeoffs to individual treatments or population-level mitigation that can’t be ignored, but yet clearly have been. Our relationship with microbes is a balancing act that has become decidedly unbalanced.

Brought To You By The Safety Culture

There isn’t one single person or even a small group of people that can be blamed for the disastrous pandemic response. Politicians aren’t powerful enough and government agencies aren’t competent enough to operate as cabals of sophisticated supervillains, even if their ham-handed tyranny seems orchestrated and purposeful to some. Instead, the root problem behind the disastrous pandemic response in many developed countries is a cultural one, a culture that places safety as one of its highest virtues, and risk as its lowest vice. Certainly, there are a large number of opportunists that have taken advantage of the pandemic to position themselves as heroes of their own movie, to gain political power, or just to make a buck. But those people aren’t the cause of the disease, merely a symptom of its severity. Our safety culture fully enabled their destructive behavior, and that’s where the real problem lies.

In their landmark book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff coined the term “safetyism”, to describe a cultural shift that has placed the avoidance of cognitive dissonance above the pursuit of truth, a shift that has been painfully evident in American universities in the last two decades. In their book, they layer anecdotes with studies detailing how this shift has poisoned the well of academic discovery, and has left universities and college graduates completely incapable of functioning in a pluralistic world full of nuance and uncertainty. After many years of educating students to see themselves as fragile victims, it should not be surprising that this belief system has infiltrated the broader public, resulting in an unprecedented wave of political polarization. Self-segregation of people into virtual and actual bubbles in social media circles and urban and rural communities has become increasingly evident. Media organizations specifically cater to political preferences at the ends of the spectrum, careful not to offend their audience’s sensibilities. A tense atmosphere of intellectual risk avoidance has become normal, where crossing established lines results in mob-enforced censorship.

Haidt and Lukianoff explain that humans and their ideas need to be challenged by others, especially at a young age, so that they may develop into rational, tolerant, and well-adjusted adults. They use the immune system as a clear example of an antifragile system; it has memory and responds rapidly and specifically to reinfections after infection or vaccination, and confers protection with less collateral damage. The immune system can’t learn if it isn’t challenged, and neither can people if they are sheltered with their prejudices.

But is the immune system a clear example of an antifragile system that safety culture- reared individuals can understand? I’m an immunologist, and that’s not at all clear after almost two years of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The knowledge that immunity is protective and durable upon recovery from infection in most people is the basis of every textbook in immunology and epidemiology, yet since early 2020 this truth has been summarily jettisoned out of political expedience. As a result, the immune system has gotten a bad rap. Like our microbial environment, the immune system’s reputation is in serious need of rehabilitation.

A Manual for Post-Pandemic Germophobia Therapy

As I pondered how to communicate our antifragile relationship with microbes, the politicization of pandemic science, and the destructive mass panic and safetyist response, I realized I had a unique theme for a book. There were going to be lots of books on how “no one would have died if we had just shut down and masked earlier and harder”, and there would be lots of books on the other side detailing the mass paniccorrupted politics, and resulting collateral destruction of lockdownsschool closures, and mandates. But I suspected there wouldn’t be another book with this unique combination of themes. So I was going to have to write one. And that’s what I’ve been doing since the beginning of 2021. It’s going to be a long process, but I’m enjoying it.

Initially, my efforts were focused on pitching the idea purely as a science communication book. If I had written about many of these topics prior to 2020, they would not have been considered controversial. But they are now. Thus the book was considered political by traditional publishers, and they were less willing to commit to anything they deemed risky (no surprise that there is also a publishing safety culture).

Fortunately, my efforts to introduce these ideas to a wider population attracted the attention of Jeffrey Tucker and the Brownstone Institute. Since September Brownstone has reposted and promoted many of my Substack articles. I’ve been fortunate to meet Brownstone-affiliated scholars and other principled individuals, each committed to standing up for those on the short end of the pandemic response—working class people, children, and those in developing nations. It is admirable to see this commitment endure despite a constant barrage of withering personal and professional attacks and censorship. A supportive community is essential for these principles to survive.

As a result of this relationship, I’m delighted to announce that the Brownstone Institute will publish Fear of a Microbial Planet: How a Germophobic Safety Culture Makes Us Less Safe, (hopefully) by the end of 2022. This will be one of a select number of books published by Brownstone in the next year or two, and I’m thrilled to have made such a distinguished list.

Some may think the importance of this message will wane as the pandemic comes to an end. But it’s critical to remember, for the pro-lockdown, pro-mandate mob this is now the playbook for any future crisis. Politicians and public health officials are desperate for a victory parade, and they’ll continue to write self-aggrandizing booksabout how their decisive action and courageous leadership saved the world. That means they are committed to their own distorted version of history, and are also doomed to repeat it.

The only alternative is to voice the truth loudly and repeatedly, in as many accessible and visible forms as possible. And that has to happen, because there can be no victory lap.

Thank you for reading and sharing my Substack posts. Now, I’ve got some book writing to do. Although I’ll be posting much less here in the next few months, I’m not going away.

An abbreviation for atrial fibrillation Full medical glossary
One of a group of special proteins in the blood that are produced in response to a specific antigen and play a key role in immunity and allergy. Full medical glossary
A substance that prompts the immune system to fight infection with antibodies. Full medical glossary
A group of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye, which are usually made up of just a single cell. Full medical glossary
A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
blood pressure Full medical glossary
The large intestine. Full medical glossary
The abbreviation for computed tomography, a scan that generates a series of cross-sectional x-ray images Full medical glossary
The growth within a laboratory of microbes, organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye. Full medical glossary
An abbreviation for duodenal ulcer. Full medical glossary
One of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body. Full medical glossary
foreign body Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of genetic material carried on chromosomes. Full medical glossary
glandular fever Full medical glossary
gastrointestinal Full medical glossary
haemoglobin Full medical glossary
An animal or plant that supports a parasite. Full medical glossary
Prefix suggesting a deficiency, lack of, or small size. Full medical glossary
intermittent claudication Full medical glossary
The organs specialised to fight infection. Full medical glossary
Invasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. Full medical glossary
An element present in haemoglobin in the red cells. Full medical glossary

An abbreviation for luteinising hormone, which is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland.

Full medical glossary
Myocardial infarction. Death of a segment of heart muscle, which follows interruption of its blood supply. Full medical glossary
Organisms that are too small to be seen with the naked eye, such as bacteria and viruses. Full medical glossary
multiple sclerosis Full medical glossary
osteoarthritis Full medical glossary
otitis externa Full medical glossary
onychogryphosis Full medical glossary
otitis media Full medical glossary
An outbreak of infection that affects numerous people in different countries. Full medical glossary
Abbreviation for percutaneous coronary intervention, or angioplasty: the mechanical widening or clearing of a narrowed or obstructed blood vessel. Full medical glossary
pulmonary embolism Full medical glossary
proctalgia fugax Full medical glossary
polymyalgia rheumatica Full medical glossary
peptic ulcer Full medical glossary
pyrexia of unknown origin Full medical glossary
per vaginam Full medical glossary
rheumatoid arthritis Full medical glossary
The treatment of a person with an illness or disability to improve their function and health. Full medical glossary
septic arthritis Full medical glossary
Symphisis Pubis Dysfunction Full medical glossary
One of a class of drugs that inhibit cholesterol formation in the liver. Full medical glossary
Relating to injury or concern. Full medical glossary
The abbreviation for tuberculosis, an infectious disease. Full medical glossary
trigeminal neuralgia Full medical glossary
trichomonal vaginosis Full medical glossary
The means of producing immunity by stimulating the formation of antibodies. Full medical glossary
A microbe that is only able to multiply within living cells. Full medical glossary
Microbes that are only able to multiply within living cells. Full medical glossary
ventricular tachycardia Full medical glossary