So the first of three grants was submitted on Tuesday, and, I must confess, I was so tired that I let things slide a couple of days before dipping my toe back into social media and the news to see what’s been going while I was distracted that piques my interest sufficiently, and it wasn’t long before I found it. By way of background, I’ll take a backseat to no one when it comes to being provaccine, not even Paul Offit or Peter Hotez. yet, over the last four months I’ve written four posts expressing concern about a potential COVID-19 vaccine. It started when I became concerned about Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s program to break all vaccine development speed records to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. In August, I pushed back against Russia’s approval of its Sputnik-V vaccine with barely even a phase I clinical trial and suggestions that we should approve a vaccine without necessarily completing phase 3 clinical trials. Just before I took my brief hiatus to attend to the first of three grant deadlines, I even wrote a post entitled Can we trust the CDC and FDA any more?, which was partially about whether the politicization of these agencies by the Trump administration would lead the FDA to approve a COVID-19 vaccine without sufficient safety evidence. (The rest was about how the Department of Health and Human Services was actively interfering with the CDC’s messaging on the coronavirus pandemic.)
I’m not alone, either. Heavyweight vaccine advocate Paul Offit has repeatedly expressed concern about rushing a COVID-19 vaccine to market without adequate safety testing, referring to the name “Operation Warp speed” as “terrible” and warning that it’s not realistic to expect a vaccine before 2021. So have other vaccine experts ranging from Peter Hotez, who urged against “overpromising,” to Natalie Dean to others. Even our pseudonymous reptilian friend Skeptical Raptor has warned that Operation Warp Speed could be a disaster, often using more Star Trek metaphors. Meanwhile, the Black doctors’ group National Medical Association, acting on the longstanding mistrust the African-American community has for medicine, has set up a task force to vet COVID-19 vaccines in order to assuage distrust and, it is hoped, increase vaccine uptake in underserved communities.
Antivaxxers are now trying to portray this justified and understandable caution on the part of tried-and-true, died-in-the-wool vaccine advocates in one of two ways, either as evidence that we’ve somehow come over to their side or as a pretext for some serious whataboutism. I came across an example of the latter yesterday while perusing the usual wretched hives of scum and antivaccine villainy that I monitor in order to be up on the latest antivaccine talking points, on the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism (AoA) where the whataboutism was baked right into the title, National Medical Association Members Question CoVax But What About MMR? Regular readers of the blog who’ve followed my writings about VAXXED and the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory about CDC investigator William Thompson will know right where this is going, and go there it does…right away:
We can’t help but wonder if the members of the National Medical Association, a group formed in 1895 by and for Doctors of Color, are aware of William Thompson’s information regarding the CDC and their willful altering of data to mask the autism rate among African American toddlers based on age at which MMR was administered? Perhaps this is a good time to reach out to them.
In June, we posted an article about Melinda Gates’ announcement that African Americans should be among the first to receive the Covid vaccine, and traced her Southern, white experience in a high school that retained “slave day” as a jovial fundraiser 100 years after slavery was abolished. Read The One In Which Melinda Gates Bestows COVID Vaccines
“The slave trade became legal for one last time … as the Senior class members sold themselves along with thirteen brave and courageous teachers,” the caption read in the yearbook, titled Acres. Two white students who darkened their skin appear in photos on the page.” NBC Dallas on Melinda Gates High School Yearbook from 1979. She was a Freshman that year.
The CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory is a conspiracy theory that emerged in 2014 after biochemical engineer turned incompetent epidemiologist Brian Hooker befriended a troubled CDC researcher named William Thompson. Hooker had several long telephone conversations with Thompson and, unbeknownst to Thompson, recorded these conversations. (Ultimately, an antivax lawyer named Kevin Barry published transcripts of four of these phone conversations.) In them, Thompson complained that a 2003 study by Frank DeStefano and colleagues (including him) that found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism left out raw data showing a 3.4-fold increase in autism risk in African-American boys. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, as I’ve explained the conspiracy more times than I can remember in the last six years, but suffice to say that it didn’t. It is, however, true that an unadjusted analysis in this small subgroup did yield this number. As I like to say, that’s why epidemiologists and statisticians apply appropriate adjustments to the raw numbers.
Thompson also helped Hooker obtain the raw dataset, which Hooker promptly abused by doing and redoing his own incompetent “analysis,” fueled by his love of “simplicity.” As I also like to say, in epidemiology and statistics, “simple” analyses are often not correct analyses. How bad was Hooker’s “reanalysis” of DeStefano et al? Let’s just put it this way. After having been retracted, it ended up in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, a.k.a. JPANDS, the house organ of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) that John Birch Society masquerading as a medical professional society known for publishing antivaccine misinformation and pseudoscience, among other quackery, and trafficking in conspiracy theory. I deemed JPANDS the appropriate place for Hooker’s incompetent analysis to be published. In any event, I liked to joke that Hooker’s reanalysis actually proved Andrew Wakefield wrong, because, other than in a small subgroup (African-American boys) using unadjusted data, there wasn’t even a hint of a whiff of a correlation between vaccination with MMR and a higher chance of being diagnosed with autism in any other group. No one ever accused antivaxxers of consistency. In any event, the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory soon replaced the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory as the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, popularized by Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s antivaccine conspiracy film disguised as a documentary, VAXXED. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of a coverup, even in all the documents that Thompson had taken from the CDC about the study.
So, whenever you see antivaxxers making comparisons to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the context of the MMR vaccine, they’re almost certainly referencing the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory. Indeed, they’ve used this conspiracy theory to make an alliance with the Nation of Islam and to try to recruit African-Americans to their ranks. Indeed, just last year Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. appeared in Harlem using just this angle, while a few years ago Del Bigtree and Andrew Wakefield made an appearance in Compton.
The above is just one example that I’ve seen of “whataboutism.” It’s not hard to find others. More outrageous is the claim that those of us who have expressed alarm at Operation Warp Speed as potentially representing a rush to a produce a vaccine fast at the expense of safety have become antivaxxers. The most famous example of this hit the news a couple of weeks ago, when Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris said in an interview with CNN, quite reasonably, that she wouldn’t trust Donald Trump’s word on whether a COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective:
“I will say that I would not trust Donald Trump” on the reliability of a vaccine, Harris said. The California senator, however, added that she would trust a “credible” source who could vouch that a vaccine was safe for Americans to receive.
Harris also expressed concern that Trump has continued to contradict his own health officials amid a pandemic and suggested Friday that a vaccine would “probably” be available in October for the virus, which has killed more than 188,000 people in the U.S. as of Saturday.
“If past is prologue … they’ll be muzzled. They’ll be suppressed,” Harris said of health experts and scientists. “They will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days, and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend he has been a leader on this issue when he has not.”
Yes, it’s not unreasonable to be worried that the fix is in to get a vaccine out before the election, regardless of safety.
Again, Harris wasn’t saying anything that people like Dr. Offit or Hotez hasn’t said before or that I haven’t said before. There is a general concern that the FDA has become politicized, and there is a more specific concern that the current FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn won’t be able to resist the pressure from the White House to approve a vaccine before the election using an emergency use authorization (EUA), the way it approved hydroxychloroquine (with the EUA later revoked) and convalescent plasma. This led Donald Trump (who was antivaccine before he perceived a need to have a COVID-19 vaccine to have any chance of being reelected) to accuse Joe Biden and Kamala Harris of “antivaccine rhetoric”:
Donald Trump accusing anyone of “undermining science” nuked yet another one of my irony meters, but none of that stoped his sycophants, toadies, and lackeys from penning articles like this one and this risibly ignorant and stupid article by Marc Thiessen. It’s so dumb that I can’t help but quote the most brain dead passage:
For Harris to undermine public confidence in a vaccine for political gain is shameful. Every candidate vaccine has already passed safety trials. They are now being studied for efficacy. To question their safety, without a shred of evidence, puts lives at risk.
Only someone utterly ignorant of how clinical trials work could conclude that the candidate vaccines are safe based on phase I trials, which are the primary safety trials done before larger phase 2 and 3 trials. The bottom line is that vaccines, because they are administered to people without disease in order to prevent disease, have the highest bar to pass for safety. One can’t decide if a vaccine is safe until after the phase 3 trials, at least. Indeed, postmarket surveillance is still carried out using one passive and three active surveillance systems. OK, I’ll stop.
No, I won’t. Just as I was finishing this last night, this story appeared in the New York Times:
President Trump said Wednesday that the White House “may or may not” approve new Food and Drug Administration guidelines requiring outside experts to weigh in before the agency approves a coronavirus vaccine, and said the plan “sounds like a political move,” undercutting government scientists who had said the opposite just hours earlier.
The president’s comments to reporters in the White House briefing room came after four of the administration’s top health officials who are helping to steer the government’s coronavirus response appeared in front of a Senate panel in an effort to bolster public trust in the F.D.A.
The officials told the panel that they had complete faith in the agency and that science and data — not politics — were guiding its decisions.
Their testimony came as the F.D.A. prepared to issue stricter guidelines for the emergency authorization of any new coronavirus vaccine. That would add a new layer to the vetting process.
But Mr. Trump has insisted a vaccine may be ready as early as next month — and he sounded more than a little skeptical about the new guidelines.
“That has to be approved by the White House,” he said, adding, “We may or may not approve it.”
No, it’s not unreasonable, when President Trump says things like this, to worry that the White House might do its damnedest to put pressure on the FDA.
Of course, accusing those with justifiable concerns over Trump’s pressure on the FDA to approve a vaccine of being “antivaccine” is just political rhetoric. Moreover, the accusation actually assumes that being antivaccine is a bad thing, which is why Trump and his allies tried to portray Biden and Harris as antivaccine. Antivaxxers, however, don’t consider being antivaccine a bad thing (although they know that society does, which is why they lie or convince themselves that they “aren’t antivaccine”). That’s why AoA was gloating a couple of months ago:
Public Health and the media have long considered anyone who questions vaccine safety to be an “anti-vaxxer.” As the world has been turned inside out because of COVID-19, people who likely never questioned pediatric vaccines are beginning to wonder how a rushed COVID vaccine can be safe and effective. People in droves are asking hard questions about a rushed vaccine that has been touted as the one and only path to a “new COVID normal.” We’re going to need a much bigger tent for the anti-vaxxer holiday party….
Elsewhere, AoA proclaims that “58% of Americans are antivaxxers,” based on a poll showing that only 42% of Americans plan to get a new COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available.
There is, of course, a huge difference between being concerned about Operation Warp Speed and being antivaccine. Antivaxxers are deluded if they think that being concerned about Operation Warp Speed and Donald Trump’s track record of politicizing the FDA in his effort to be perceived as coming up with cures to or a vaccine against COVID-19 means that we are coming around to antivaccine views. We’re not. Their whataboutism asking why their conspiracy theories and pseudoscience demonizing vaccines with a long track record of safety (like the MMR) aren’t treated as seriously as concerns about a new COVID-19 vaccine is, of course, ridiculous. It is, however, rhetoric that might sound plausible to some people, though, which is why I’m pointing it out.