September 12, 2022 - 10:15am

Did a US federal agency really just compare its citizens to smartphones? A new campaign by the body that regulates food and medicine in America, the FDA, calls on people “install that update” and #UpdateYourImmunity, with a bivalent Covid-19 booster vaccine.

So, yes. But so what? Isn’t this just public health communication in language people understand? Most of us have smartphone apps or computers and are familiar with the idea of updating the software in line with new developments.

The analogy, though, set off echoes in the anti-vaxxer memeplex, where a widely-circulated meme claimed “the Covid-19 vaccines are an operating system designed to program humans and hack their biological functions”. No wonder, the meme suggests, that Bill Gates is so enthusiastic: now he can programme us as well!

As Reuters points out, this is a long way from being literally true. But you don’t have to be an anti-vaxx conspiracy-monger to grasp that the paradigm shift implied in this analogy has disturbing consequences for the relation between citizen, state and Big Pharma.

The pharma industry itself has used software development as a metaphor for how mRNA technology works. The pharma company Moderna described this on its website as “software for the cell”, writing that “recognizing the broad potential of mRNA science, we set out to create an mRNA technology platform that functions very much like an operating system on a computer”. And while it’s not literally true that Bill Gates is reprogramming our bodies for nefarious purposes, it needn’t be so for the analogy to have unsettling implications.

Firstly, it implies a profound paradigm shift: in the new view, bodily health is no longer the default human state, defined by the absence of any need for medical interventions. Now, health is attained through interventions — like a smartphone that gets better the more apps we install. “In our case, the ‘program’ or ‘app’ is our mRNA drug — the unique mRNA sequence that codes for a protein,” Moderna said.

And once we accept the principle that health isn’t intrinsic to us, but something attained through active medical intervention, the second move is to assert that such “upgrades” are not one-off events but (just like apps) something more like a subscription service. In two moves, then, we’ve accepted a paradigm in which “health” isn’t our default state, but dependent on inputs from a for-profit biotech firm, and secondly signed ourselves up for a lifetime subscription to that dependence.

It’s annoying enough to discover that a software product you once bought with a one-off payment now compels you to stay on the hook every month if you want to go on using it. Applied to our physical health, the model of for-profit updates in perpetuity has profoundly disturbing implications. Consider, for example, the eye patients now going blind again, because the company that made their eye implants has declared the technology “obsolete” and stopped supporting it.

Big Pharma has been widely criticised for profiteering from the pandemic. We should ask ourselves if we really want to accept a transition from Covid immunity as a one-off purchase to “immunity as a service”. More profoundly, we should ask ourselves if we really want to accept a view of “health” that reimagines our very organisms as structurally dependent on our ongoing willingness to pay a subscription to for-profit biotech firms, and the willingness of those firms to keep “supporting” our physical “technology”.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.