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Another antivaccine conspiracy theory, flu vaccine edition

An antivaccine blogger is amazed that big pharma has allowed its lackeys in the press to publish negative stories about the flu vaccine. Naturally, she thinks she knows why and sees a conspiracy. Not surprisingly, her conspiracy theory doesn’t make much sense.

It’s Friday, and it’s been a rough week. So, after digging into an epidemiology study yesterday, I’m in the mood for something a bit less…heavy. Antivaxers sometimes call me to task when I point out what to me is a simple fact, namely that antivaxers are basically conspiracy theorists. In essence, to believe many antivax views, you have to believe that there is a vast conspiracy among big pharma, the government, and the media to hide great harm from vaccines because…well, it’s never quite clear. To protect pharma profits? Really, this is no different than the cancer quacks who claim that a cure for cancer is being suppressed in order to protect big pharma’s profits. Rarely do the purveyors of such conspiracy theories consider that employees of pharma are human too. How many of them would be able to stay silent and keep up the conspiracy if one of their family members had a cancer that could be cured by one of these “suppressed cures,” particularly high ranking executives who are presumably in on the conspiracy? It’s the same with vaccines. How many “in the know” would stay silent if vaccines really were causing so much damage to so many children and one or more of their children or grandchildren happened to be affected?

I mention the conspiratorial mindset of the antivaccine movement because I was pointed to a beautiful example of it. It comes from—who else?—Levi Quackenboss, the pseudonymous antivaccine blogger whom we’ve encountered before, doxing and attacking a 12-year-old Mexican boy who posted a pro-vaccine video and gloating about the meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Andrew Wakefield during the campaign in August and, after Trump’s victory in November, reiterating antivaxer demands to Trump. This time around, she sees conspiracies everywhere. I did briefly wonder if this was some misguided attempt at satire, but, no, it looks as though Quackenboss is serious.

Basically, Quackenboss has made two observations. First, she thinks there’s a conspiracy involving the media to spike or minimize stories in which vaccines fail or are suspected of causing harm. Indeed, get a load of how her post starts:

We all know by now that our “free press” has deeply embedded editors and producers who take their marching orders directly from pharmaceutical companies and the CDC. Their job is to postpone, water down, spin, or kill stories that hurt public health profits.

Whenever you see a vaccine article that strikes you as negative– or hell, even fair and balanced– it’s a red flag that big wheels are in motion behind the scenes; you just don’t know what the outcome is going to be yet.

Got that? Basically, to Quackanboss any story that tries to be balanced or nuanced in any way (unless it’s a pro-vaccine story that is “balanced” by including antivaccine viewpoints) and that doesn’t paint a completely negative picture of vaccine safety and effectiveness is proof that the big pharma conspiracy theory is suppressing, spinning, or otherwise downplaying the unacceptable news.

Then she mentions two examples of stories that seem to undermine her very thesis, except that they don’t, because she uses them to head down the antivaccine conspiracy rabbit hole. The stories involve the meningitis B vaccine. One was about two young women who were vaccinated against meningitis but contracted the disease and died anyway. One girl, Emily Stillman, contracted serotype B meningitis despite having been vaccinated against meningitis because there was not yet a vaccine against serotype B approved in the US. The vaccine required by most colleges only covers serotypes , C, W and Y, and B is a much less common serotype. Meningitis B vaccination is a “permissive” recommendation (doctors are free to recommend it and patients to take it, but it is not generally recommended for everyone, although those at higher risk should receive it) because of how uncommon the serotype is. Quackenboss basically marveled that the press would publish such an article.

The second story is about skepticism over whether the meningitis B vaccine is being promoted unnecessarily. It’s a reasonably balanced article that clearly puzzled Quackenboss mightily. Actually, the article didn’t puzzle her. The fact that the article was published did:

Then on September 7th the New York Times, of all newspapers, wrote about men b outbreaks, describing them as “small” and “extremely rare,” and said men b vaccines are “lucrative” and “pricey” and “playing to parents’ fears.” They pointed out that making vaccines for less rare diseases has the potential to make the vaccine industry into a “cash cow” and they didn’t mean it in a good way. Mmmm-hmmm. I mean duh, but still. Not what you’d expect them to say.

The Times even included a quote from a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The risk, he said, “is not a large enough problem to warrant routine vaccination.”

So why are Pfizer’s and GSK’s men b vaccines on the media chopping block? I don’t know, but we’re not reading investigative vaccine journalism on NBC and in the Times. Keep your eyes peeled for the Godsent explanation the overlords will provide us with. They don’t usually announce the problem more than 30 days before announcing the solution, so it should be any day now.

So, basically, Quackenboss sees some deeper, darker strategy by pharma in “allowing” these two articles on meningitis B vaccines to be published and expects that the pharma strategy behind permitting them will become apparent soon. I can hardly wait to hear from Quackenboss what that nefarious scheme is whenever Quackenboss finally figures it out. I’m sure it will be epically hilarious.

Quackenboss then moves on to the flu vaccine, noting a couple of stories about studies questioning the effectiveness of the flu vaccine in certain circumstances. Then, of course, the story earlier this week about a certain study finding a potentially increased risk of miscarriage associated with having received the H1N1 vaccine the year before and the seasonal flu vaccine within 28 days of miscarriage caught Quackenboss’ attention. (It’s the same study I deconstructed yesterday in detail, showing how it didn’t really show what antivaxers were touting it to show, something the authors themselves pointed out.) She’s practically giddy, the way JFK conspiracy theorists are giddy when they discover some new new anomaly noted in a blurry black and white photograph of the grassy knoll around the time Kennedy’s motorcade drove by:

Then! On September 13th the Washington Post wrote about a new study that linked the flu vaccine to a 7.7x increased chance or a 670% increase in miscarriages. I know that one of my favorite bloggers has written an incredibly researched piece about WaPo’s bullshit spin of 7.7x being just a “hint” of increased fetal death, but I’m seeing this a little differently.

Of course, that’s not what the study found. It was a a case control study, and what that study found is that women who suffered a miscarriage were 7.7 times more likely to have received the flu vaccine within 28 days and to have been vaccinated against H1N1 the year before. The magnitude of the increased risk can’t really be inferred that way. But, hey, who expects an antivaxer to understand the difference between a case control study and a cohort study.

Quackenboss is just getting warmed up, though:

If protecting the flu vaccine was WaPo’s goal, I don’t think the press would even bother with the spin when they could just ignore the study completely, a la William Thompson. So the fact that this finding– in a study I can’t believe was conducted by the CDC’s Frank Mothereffing DeStefano and published in the journal Vaccine— is getting mainstream coverage is spelling death for the annual flu vaccine as we currently know it.

Yes, this one study, which resulted in a questionable finding linking the flu vaccine with miscarriage is going to “spell death for the annual flu vaccine as we currently know it.” I don’t think so, but Quackenboss does. Even more amusing, she thinks she knows why:

I might have the answer: the universal flu vaccine is about to arrive.

The universal flu vaccine is supposed to offer long lasting broad protection against the constantly-mutating flu. You know, since most of America doesn’t want the good-for-nothing annual vaccine anyway, it doesn’t work in the elderly, and it’s killing the babies of women who get it while pregnant.

Four years ago an FDA scientist was in a Congressional committee hearing and he testified that a “universal flu vaccine was 5 to 10 years away.” I think that day is here.

That’s right. According to Quackenboss’ conspiracy theory, big pharma and its lackeys in the media are letting the “truth” about the current annual seasonal flu vaccine out, the better to pave the way for the new, universal flu vaccine! Its approval by the FDA and its marketing must be imminent! Otherwise, why on earth would big pharma allow so many negative stories about the flu vaccine? She seems blissfully aware with the holes in her conspiracy theory. For example:

A quick scan of Google News tells me that BiondVax, an Israeli company working on a universal flu vaccine, just voluntarily de-listed from the Tel Aviv stock exchange two weeks ago. The reason given is that the universal flu vaccine needs an international presence, so forget about little ol’ Tel Aviv; they’re sticking with the big boys at NASDAQ. Just three months ago BiondVax got an exciting $23.8 million investment as they enter phase 3 trials for their universal flu vaccine, so things are heating up.

But get this! The new universal flu vaccine isn’t just a replacement for the annual shot. They’re also seeking approval as a flu shot “primer.” This shit is endless! So depending on what they get approval for, your elderly parents might get a primer universal vaccine and then get the season’s regular flu vaccine, but women of child bearing age will be told to get the stand-alone universal flu shot before they get pregnant. But that’s just my guess.

It’s true. BiondVax is taking a two-pronged approach: Testing its vaccine as a single universal flu vaccine but also testing it as a “primer” to be used with the annual seasonal flu vaccine. That latter approach makes me think that big pharma as portrayed by Quackenboss isn’t that smart if it’s trashing the seasonal flu vaccine. After all, if its approach using its universal flu vaccine as a primary flu vaccine fails but its combining its universal vaccine as a primer to boost the efficacy of the annual flu vaccine it sure wouldn’t make much sense to “allow” pharma’s lackeys in the press to start publishing articles about studies like the miscarriage study.

But, then, whoever said antivaxers were consistent in their conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists are rarely consistent, and Quackenboss is a conspiracy theorist.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

13 replies on “Another antivaccine conspiracy theory, flu vaccine edition”

It’s hard no to believe there is a conspiracy. I have gotten the flu vaccine/shot for years and never once was I protected. I got the flu every time. So what now? I decided it was of no benefit to me so I will no longer take it

I hope that it’s obvious to my fellow minions that the above comment isn’t me, but some other guy using the same ‘nym.

I suspect that what Other Johnny says was the flu was just a run of the mill respiratory infection. The real flu is a kick-a$$ disease. I’ve had it, and do not want it again.

Proper Johnny
Accept no substitutes

There are conspiracies that are kept secret for decades. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study left black men untreated for 40 years! It ended when a reporter exposed it. And you say “employees of Pharma are human too.” Wouldn’t you have thought DOCTORS (who take an oath to do no harm) would have been “human” in not letting those men suffer for 40 years?

I don’t know if there is a conspiracy but the argument of pharma employees not willing to with-hold information when a family member gets cancer, etc. doesn’t hold water. Cigarette companies suppressed the harm of smoking for decades when I’m sure they had family members who suffered. And many tabacco employees themselves ( including executives and educated people) smoked and probably still do. People can twist their minds into contortions of denial to get along.

I’m an antivaxer , and i don’t have a conspiracy…..all i have is personal experience. I got sick quite frequently as a kid, got the flu shot every year (as most kids were forced to do) when i hit my mid teens in 94/95 i stopped, my reasoning was odds are i’ll get sick anyway who cares….and i did but 98-00 i wasn’t sick, 2 straight seasons no sickness, in 2001 i got the shot for my ex and her boys……sure enough we all got sick, and that was the last flu shot i ever took.

2003,2005, 2011, 2015 those 4 years out of the last 17 are the only years i’ve had anything, flu , cold, sniffles, stuffy nose…..anything. and that is why i dont take the shot, i went 6 straight years (even being in the house with sick kids and my ex) and didnt get sick, i used to tell her every year, dont give them the shot…..and she did, and every year they got sick and i did not

Now i’m not going to say it’s the flu shot making them sick, but it is an odd coincidence….. i don’t take the shot and i no longer get the flu,colds,sniffles,sinus colds…and thats all that matters

Since you’re going to argue by anecdote, here’s mine.
I’ve never been sick after getting the jab.
Also, I’ve had a bad bout of flu. In bed for two days, sick for three weeks, lost 9 KG. I get my shot as soon as it becomes available now.

I got sick quite frequently as a kid, got the flu shot every year (as most kids were forced to do) when i hit my mid teens in 94/95 i stopped

The boldfaced part strikes me as rather unlikely in the U.S.

Free health care in the northern communist nation above the states. (Several other communist countries like Switzerland,Sweden,Norway,Finland, the U.K,Demark,Germany,Australia,New Zealand,Norway,Iceland and of course Japan and Russia offer universal healthcare)

Yes. As I remember it was tough to get an influenza vaccine for kids before 2009. Before then I could schedule a flu vaccine for the kid who had the genetic heart disorder, but needed to wait much later to see if even I could get a vaccine. They were kind of rationing the vaccines.

Universal healthcare does not automatically translate to vaccine policy, nor if there is availability.

Free health care in the northern communist nation above the states.

What does “free health care” have to do with anything? It was forced in your telling, remember? Unfortunately, this story <a href=”’t jibe (PDF) with the 1998 Canadian recommendations for influenza vaccination, either.

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