Original Antigenic Sin

Dear colleagues,

The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced no shortage of new words and phrases into our daily usage: quarantine; social distancing; herd immunity; mRNA; and much else. Recently, I came across a new such phrase: “original antigenic sin.”

As I understand it—and I won’t actually claim to understand it fully—original antigenic sin is concerned with how your body first reacted to an infection, such as Covid-19, and how that first reaction shapes your body’s subsequent reaction to further infections. So if you were infected with Covid-19 during an earlier wave, your body may react differently to an omicron infection later on in comparison with someone whose first Covid-19 infection was with omicron.

Thinking about original antigenic sin will, apparently, give us some insight into the future course of the pandemic. I’ll leave that for the scientists. What I find myself thinking about is the prevalence of Christian-related words outside of the church, in this case that fundamental Christian word “sin” and, even more, “original sin.”

Across the Christian tradition there are a range of understandings and emphases on sin. Some Christians talk about it frequently. Others far less often. There is an even greater range when it comes to talking about original sin. Some Christians reject this idea completely. How can we say that babies are sinners? For others, it is foundational to their understanding of who we are as people. I have always liked the definition of original sin given by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams: “inbuilt into human beings is a sort of dangerous taste for unreality.”

Given this range of opinions, it is striking how the idea of original sin has ended up in scientific discourse. What I think it demonstrates is that on some fundamental level, regardless of whether we are people of faith or not, we all know what it means to sin, to do wrong, to not get it right. The responses to this knowledge vary widely and can include guilt, shame, and fear. All of this is part of who we are as human beings. It’s why scientists can appeal to the idea of sin and expect people to understand what it means.

It’s in this context that I remember some words of Vincent Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest who served for a long time as a missionary among the Masaai people in Tanzania. “Jesus,” he wrote, “came not to preach about sin but to preach about the forgiveness of sin.” In a world in which people know what sin is, may our churches be able to share that same good news that Christ himself once shared: “take heart, your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink

This message was written by Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.