Stanford anthropologist Lochlann Jain was one of seven Stanford faculty to be honored last month with a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship. Jain’s prescient research on the history and hazards of vaccine development was supported in part by IRiSS Seed Grants in 2019 and 2016. “The WetNet” is Jain’s term for the complex infrastructures that arose in support of biomedical projects like blood transfusions, organ transplants, and vaccine development. The infrastructures required by such projects created networks of “fluid bonds” that linked human beings not only to each other, but also to the whole menagerie used in trials and manufacturing. As we have learned all too well in the past year, such bonds can become the vectors through which viruses leap from one species to another.
IRiSS's newest team member, Christopher Fraga, asked Jain to describe the origins of this research and to tease out some of its implications.
Your interest in vaccinology predates the Covid-19 pandemic. Can you tell me a little about your intellectual trajectory, and connect the dots from your work on injury law to your book on cancer to your current project?
The link between the injury stuff and the cancer stuff first took place in thinking about tobacco and cigarettes. Here you have a very finely designed consumer product that causes cancer, and yet for decades they were able to conceal that fact and get around any possible way of bringing a suit in part because it takes cancer so long to present as an injury.
The way I got into the vaccine project was really bizarre. As I was driving an acquaintance home one evening, he started confiding to me that he had evidence of a conspiracy that linked the origin of HIV to some vaccine trials in the 1970s. Out of curiosity I started Googling around, and I became more interested in all these stories about the origin of HIV. Reading about one theory that involves oral polio vaccine trials in Africa, I became interested in the question of how possibilities for viral crossovers were being created with seemingly little attention to the potential dangers —and certainly no oversight or consent of those receiving vaccines, blood transfusions, and so on. Borrowing some language from the polyamory community, I started thinking of these exchanges as “fluid bonding.”
That kind of counterfactual reasoning plays a big role in the argument you develop in your article in Medical Anthropology Quarterly. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would have played a part in the research process itself.
Some of the feedback I’ve received in grant applications has been along the lines of, “This never happened; there were no crossovers that we know of.” But that’s not the point. The possibilities for crossover were there, and they were dangerous. If you’re not even willing to think about the possibility, how can you think about languages of consent, disclosure, and so on? And there is a long history of contamination. It’s hidden in the discourse of vaccines, which is such a teleological progress narrative. To raise anything that doesn’t conform to that narrative is to be cast as an anti-vaxer, so it requires some really careful negotiation to get around that. That’s what the concept of The WetNet does for me: it removes me from having to identify as pro- or anti-vax.
You have to walk a very thin line: in your article you show how the charge of conspiracy theorizing was invoked to discredit Edward Hooper and to close the debate on the OPV hypothesis. But you don’t want to invite your work to be misread as being anti-vax in principle.
Whenever I publish anything I have to be very careful about stating that I am not anti-vax. So I stick with these really clear historical examples. It’s a way of separating myself from whatever’s happening now. That provides a measure of protection. We as a culture —if there is such a thing— are not well versed in how to read things that don’t take a position in that way. We’re so used to positioning ourselves, putting it in the language of bioethics, putting it in the language of policy recommendations. Sometimes when we’re writing for a wider audience we have to explain what it means to do structural analysis or a wider reading that doesn’t put it in a pro-or-con framework.
One thing I find particularly intriguing about this project is that you’re doing good-old-fashioned archival research in the service of something that’s conceptually very innovative.
I’ve never been good at justifying my research methods. As anthropologists, we’re interested in specifics. We’re really interested in how many monkeys were gang caged when they were brought from New Delhi to New York to be sacrificed to provide the kidneys on which polio virus would be grown. What regulations were there to determine whether they had simian viruses? We’re really interested in the actual specifics, and in the gaps between what was supposed to happen and what did happen. So the goal is to track those areas in that gap, the thing that wasn’t reported. Those specific incidents and how they were written and thought about were really crucial in doing the kind of tracking that actually would determine when and where and how these crossovers would have taken place. If you just look at the official record of what gets said, you’re going to end up agreeing that there were no crossovers, because you’re not really looking.
Your concept of The WetNet seems to spill out beyond the specific history of vaccinology that initially led you to it. It makes me think of forest bathing, for example, and the recent studies that try to measure the effects of aerosolized phytochemicals on human immune systems and hormone levels. You could make the case that there’s a different kind of interspecies fluid bond at work there. Do you foresee pursuing The WetNet down those kinds of pathways, too? Or is it too soon to ask what’s next after vaccines?
I don’t know. The little switch there involves changing these infrastructures from being the means by which pathogens can travel to the means by which anything can traverse these spaces and shift the other organism. Where does the concept lose its specificity? I’m totally open to playing and figuring that out.
For a fascinating introduction to The WetNet, see Jain’s article in Medical Anthropology Quarterly.