Drs. Martin Kulldorff and Jay Bhattacharya are the scientific director and a senior scholar, respectively, at the Brownstone Institute, a right wing “free market” think tank founded by Jeffrey Tucker, who left his previous position as editorial director at another right wing think tank, American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), to found Brownstone as the “spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration.” I’m writing this post because last week I noticed an article by the two of them that repeats a common antivaccine trope that dates back to long before the pandemic, namely the claim that “vaccine fanatics” are turning people into antivaxxers (excuse me, “vaccine skeptics”). Where did they first publish their little missive? Believe it or not, they first published it on the conspiracy theory and antivax website The Epoch Times under the title How Vaccine Fanatics Fueled Vaccine Skepticism. Then, a week later, they republished it on the Brownstone Institute website under the title Vaccine Fanaticism Fuels Vaccine Skepticism. Let’s just say that publishing an article like this on The Epoch Times—which is a lot like Mike Adams‘ Natural News, only with slicker graphics, fewer ads, and only somewhat less histrionic headlines—is not a good look if you are “not antivaccine,” and both Kulldorff and Bhattacharya really, really, really don’t like being called “antivaccine,” even though both oppose COVID-19 vaccination for children, with Kulldorff even having recently written an article Should I Vaccinate My Child Against COVID?, which, predictably, concludes that the answer is no. Of course, I’ve never called either of them “antivaccine”; rather, I’ve pointed it out when they parrot—apparently unknowingly—antivaccine talking points. That doesn’t stop them from whining about being called “antivaccine.”
Before I discuss the article and its particularly annoying antivax trope, here’s a bit of background. Those of you who’ve been regulars here for a while will understand what I just described and why it’s important, but I realize that newbies might not know the history. In brief, the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) is a statement published by Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, plus Oxford scientist Dr. Sunetra Gupta in early October 2020 that, boiled down to its essence, claimed that (1) COVID-19 wasn’t that dangerous to “healthy” younger people and (2) “lockdowns” (i.e., apparently any COVID-19 mitigation instituted by governments that wasn’t completely 100% voluntary, such as business closures and mask mandates) were doing far more harm than good, both through economic and health damage, but also by slowing down the process of reaching “natural herd immunity,” a point at which enough of the population is immune due to previous infection that huge outbreaks can no longer happen. As a result, the GBD argued, all COVID-19 “lockdowns” should be stopped, society (and business) “reopened,” and those vulnerable to severe disease and death from COVID-19 shielded through a strategy of “focused protection.” Never mind that at this point there were no vaccines available to the public yet.
Unsurprisingly, the GBD was always more of an ideological document designed to provide the false appearance of scientific authority to an ideological narrative arguing that protecting the population against a pandemic costs too much, rather than a scientific one. After all, “focused protection” of the vulnerable is not really possible when a highly transmissible virus is spreading through a population, and “natural herd immunity” is impossible to reach, when variants like Delta and Omicron emerge and can evade “natural immunity” (more properly called post-infection or infection-induced immunity) almost as well as they can evade vaccine-induced immunity, making “natural immunity” apparently no more robust or durable than vaccine-induced immunity. Remember, reaching “natural herd immunity” requires that post-infection immunity be lifelong or at least very long-lasting, and clearly, given the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to mutate to become more transmissible and evade post-infection immunity, that prerequisite doesn’t apply to COVID-19. It’s not as though scientists didn’t know in October 2020 that, given the behavior of prior coronaviruses, that the emergence of more transmissible variants that could evade prior immunity was a very distinct possibility.
As has been described in detail, “focused protection” was more a rebranding than anything else of some public health interventions that were already being done, while other parts of “focused protection” were wildly impractical. As we like to say about, for example, naturopathy, what was good about the GBD was far from unique to the GBD, and what was unique to the GBD was definitely not good. None of that stopped the GBD and its authors from beoming hugely influential “merchants of doubt” with access to the highest levels of government and massive press coverage amplifying their message of, in essence, doing nothing to slow the spread of COVID-19, while likening COVID-19 public health mitigations to historical atrocities like the Chinese Cultural Revolution and slavery.
But what about us “vaccine fanatics”?
Superficially, you might think it very odd how the the Brownstone Institute has embraced antivax views to the point of spreading antivaccine disinformation, oppose childhood vaccination against COVID-19, and, now, parrots common antivax tropes in its war against COVID-19 vaccine mandates. (Again, the GBD was published before vaccines were available to the public at a time when it was expected that it would be months, if not over a year, before vaccines started finding their way into arms on a large scale.) You’d think that the GBD and Brownstone Institute would recognize that there’s no better tool for the “focused protection” of the vulnerable than safe and effective vaccines. Yet it didn’t take long for the Brownstone Institute to start to oppose vaccine mandates as vociferously as it had opposed “lockdowns” and mask mandates before, which leads us to Kulldorff and Bhattacharya’s take in The Epoch Times (I will keep reminding them that publishing in The Epoch Times is one of the best ways conceivable to kill off any scientific credibility that they might have had left):
The development of COVID-19 vaccines is one of the few successes during a pandemic that saw major failures in public health strategy and treatments. While the vaccines can’t prevent transmission, they have reduced mortality. Before the pandemic, there was almost universal trust in vaccines, and vaccine skeptics were a small but vocal minority.
With a life-saving vaccine during a major pandemic, one would expect more vaccine enthusiasm, but instead, it collapsed. What happened?
Ironically, the problem is vaccine fanaticism, which has caused vaccine skepticism, with problematic consequences extending beyond COVID-19 to trust in other vaccines. Vaccine fanaticism comes in many forms.
In their drive to increase uptake, the vaccine fanatics denied basic scientific facts, such as immunity provided by COVID recovery. This, despite numerous careful studies that showed that COVID-recovery provides better protection versus both infection and severe disease than the vaccine. Nevertheless, vaccine fanatics insisted that natural immunity shouldn’t “count” in the vaccine mandate schemes. By denying science, the vaccine fanatics created further public skepticism about the vaccines.
First, let’s address some of the revisionist history behind Kulldorff and Bhattacharya’s introduction. There was almost “universal trust in vaccines” before the pandemic? Clearly Kulldorff and Bhattacharya hadn’t been paying much attention before the pandemic to the rising influence of the antivaccine movement. While it is true that those who are outright antivaccine were (and still are) a pretty small minority, usually estimated to be in the low single digits, percentage-wise, of the population, their influence had been growing and contributing to vaccine hesitancy. This influence was amplified by social media and increasingly adopted by the right, which was seduced by the message of resistance to vaccine mandates as an issue of personal and parental “freedom” versus government overreach. By five years ago, vaccine mandates, which had previously enjoyed wide bipartisan support and were viewed as about as apolitical (or at least as nonpartisan) a policy as you can imagine, had already become hopelessly politicized. As a result, more and more “anti-mandate” conservatives were exposed to antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories and started to drift into antivaccine territory themselves. The result has been a strong rightward shift in the antivaccine movement that’s led to the Republican Party more and more openly pandering to and even embracing antivaccine conspiracy theories and more and more affinity between the far right and antivaxxers.
I also can’t help but note that Bhattacharya and Kulldorff have cleverly misstated the situation when it comes to vaccines and the prevention of transmission. A common antivaccine narrative is that COVID-19 vaccines don’t prevent infection or transmission at all, which is incorrect. They are, of course, imperfect at preventing transmission, particularly since the rise of the Omicron variants, but that does not mean that they “can’t prevent transmission,” as this not-so-dynamic duo claim. They do, just not as well as we would like, and, unfortunately, they have waning efficacy. They are, however, still highly effective at preventing severe disease resulting in hospitalization and death. I suppose I should be grateful that Kulldorff and Bhattacharya admit at least this.
It’s also not true that “vaccine fanatics” are unwilling to count “natural immunity” in vaccine mandate schemes. It’s more that antivaxxers ascribe magical properties to “natural immunity” that it doesn’t have, such as its being lifelong, to the point of touting policies based more on magical thinking than on the more complex reality that postinfection immunity is as imperfect as vaccine-induced immunity and that hybrid immunity (vaccine plus prior infection) is probably most efficacious and long-lasting, but that it is still better to avoid infection with the vaccine, if possible, and thereby avoid potential complications up to and including death due to COVID-19.
Here’s what really grates Kulldorff and Bhattacharya, though:
When these tactics failed, the public health establishment embraced vaccine coercion. They instituted vaccine passports to exclude the unvaccinated from participation in civil life, including access to libraries, museums, and restaurants. The federal government went further, using its vast regulatory powers to mandate vaccines as a condition of employment. These coercive actions effectively cast the unvaccinated into second-class citizenship. As they watched the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike contract COVID-19, they undoubtedly began to wonder whether public health truly had their best interests at heart.
Some vaccine fanatics have adopted the repellant tactic of falsely labeling people they disagree with as anti-vaccine. For instance, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a tabloid-style slander that epidemiologists and vaccine experts at Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford are opposed to “mass vaccination.” How might readers interpret that statement? “Well, if Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford professors are against the vaccines, maybe I should be too.”
Such false claims fuel vaccine hesitancy by putting the BMJ imprimatur on the lie that medicine and epidemiology professors are anti-vaxxers, when they aren’t. This damages vaccine confidence.
Once again, word to Bhattacharya and Kulldorff: If you don’t want to be called “antivaccine,” let me just suggest that publishing articles like this in an antivaccine rag like The Epoch Times is not a good way to counter that accusation. Just sayin’. Also, I’ll mention that that “slander” to which our duo refers happens to be an article by Gavin Yamey and myself that described the links between AIER, the driving force that recruited Kulldorff as its useful idiot, fired him up with enthusiasm for the project of opposing “lockdowns,” and set him loose to recruit Bhattacharya and Gupta to the weekend conference at AIER headquarters in Barrington, Massachusetts that ultimately birthed the GBD. The results appear to have exceeded AIER’s expectations.
More importantly, do Kulldorff and Bhattacharya understand that they are repeating a longstanding antivax trope that goes way, way back to many years before the pandemic? (I’ll assume for the moment, in the interest of charity, that they do not and that they will stop repeating this trope now that they know it’s an antivaccine trope.) Sometimes, I call it the “vaccine bully” trope, in which antivaxxers portray vaccine advocates, public health officials, and pediatricians as “bullies” whose hostile, “bullying” reactions drive those with “questions” about vaccines into the arms of antivaxxers. Let me just quote a woman named Dara Berger wrote in 2015:
Bullying is a horrible thing to live through especially when it involves a child. It can leave lasting physical and emotional scars. Children have even lost their lives to bullying as some get pushed over the edge and commit suicide. We here these stories everyday. Luckily there is more awareness and parents have some recourse. They can sue the school or do something more drastic like move or change schools to protect their child.
But what happens when an entire country is bullying individuals? I find that this is the case for Vaccine Bullying.
The Vaccine Bully is comprised of our entire government who doesn’t even accept that vaccines are hurting adults and children even though they secretly pay out billions of dollars in their not well disclosed Vaccine Court. Most Americans barely know that it exists.
This sounds rather similar to what Kulldorff and Bhattacharya are arguing, doesn’t it? While it’s not entirely unreasonable to be concerned that mandates might provoke a backlash, I note that it is almost always only the hard core antivaxxers, not the vaccine hesitant, who portray vaccine advocates as “bullying” and vaccine mandates a violation of “civil rights” akin to slavery, the Holocaust, and Jim Crow. Apparently, it’s just fine for them to use vile slanders to describe proponents of vaccine mandates, but if anyone calls them out for echoing old antivaccine talking points it’s an affront so awful that it will turn everyone antivax.
Here’s an example, apparently, of how “vaccine fanatics” have done harm:
Vaccine fanatics have politicized the vaccine, using it to paint political opponents as science-denying troglodytes by falsely claiming that they’re against vaccines. If a person trusts a particular politician that’s falsely accused of being against vaccines, that person may only hear the false accusation and therefore reject the vaccine. In a public health crisis, such political gameplay has devastating consequences. What should have been a bipartisan achievement of a vaccine being developed and deployed in record time during a pandemic turned into just another tool for a political food fight, fueling vaccine skepticism.
Again, as I pointed out above, formerly bipartisan school vaccine mandates had already been hopelessly politicized before the pandemic hit, the culmination of a process that had preceded the pandemic by at least a decade. It wasn’t the “vaccine fanatics” who politicized vaccine mandates; it was antivaxxers appealing to right wing ideas such as “parental rights” and “medical freedom.” The kindling had already been set ablaze. The pandemic just provided an abundant fuel source. Meanwhile, apparently Bhattacharya and Kulldorff don’t think it’s “polarizing” or “politicizing” to describe lockdowns or mask and vaccine mandates as incipient fascism, slavery, or a new “Cultural Revolution,” all of which are comparisons you can easily find on the Brownstone Institute website. As is always the case with cranks, it’s civility for thee but not for me and, when I use harsh language it’s truth but when you do it it’s horrible “politicization” and ad hominem. Of course, this is an effective strategy for trying to discredit your opponents.
I’ve also observed over the years that the “vaccine fanatics” line of ad hominem attack against vaccine advocates, besides parroting antivaccine talking points dating back decades, tends to be a favorite of those who are “vaccine skeptical” but so very, very desperate to portray themselves as “reasonable” as they delude themselves that they are not parroting antivaccine propaganda. For example, seven years ago, Alice Dreger was using the same schtick, although she chose a different word than “fanatics,” instead falsely portraying vaccine advocates as frenzied, self-righteous “zealots” who view vaccines as beyond criticism, as she invoked false equivalence between antivaccine pseudoscience and vaccine science in a manner that reminded me of these cartoons:
Before that, historian Mark Largent did the same thing ten years ago in which he strangely equated respecting parental concerns with pandering to antivax fears. It’s also been a longstanding antivax talking point to counter charges of being antivaccine by dismissing the term as a meaningless attack word applied to anyone who “questions” the narrative around vaccines—and a word that also somehow drives parents to become antivaccine. That’s why Kulldorff and Bhattacharya so strenuously object to any characterization of them as apologists for the antivaccine movement (even unwitting ones), but, as much as they deny it, that’s what they’re functioning as when they write articles like this for The Epoch Times that portray vaccine advocates as “fanatics” and their efforts as “fanaticism” that drives people into the arms of antivaxxers and turns them vaccine hesitant. Above all, antivaxxers crave legitimacy and to have their concerns, no matter how bizarre and based in pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, be taken seriously and viewed as “reasonable” (or at least as not unreasonable). Note that I’ve never said that Kulldorff and Bhattacharya are antivaccine. I have said a number of times that they are—I assume unwittingly—using the same arguments that antivaxxers have used for a long time.
After all, when you refer to vaccine advocacy as a religion, as both Kulldorff and Bhattacharya have, you are not exactly contributing to toning down the rhetoric:
Whether Kulldorff and Bhattacharya are just useful idiots or true ideologues who know that they are echoing and amplifying longstanding antivaccine talking points but don’t care because it serves their ideological goals probably doesn’t matter much any more at this point. They, and the GBD that they wrote, are now part of the right wing anti-public health disinformation machine. If they whine about being called out for promoting antivaccine talking points, such as trying to paint vaccine advocates and public health officials as “fanatics” or “zealots,” I really don’t care any more. By writing for The Epoch Times, they have basically shred any last vestige of scientific credibility that they ever had. It’s not an ad hominem attack to say that, and pointing out that they are parroting old antivax talking points while trying to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are doing it unknowingly is not calling them antivaccine. However, if they persistently fail to learn from those of us who have warned them that, by repeating hoary old antivaccine tropes repurposed against COVID-19 vaccines, they are sounding antivaccine and keep doing it, there’s really only one conclusion that I will be reluctantly forced to come to. There’s only so long I can keep giving them the benefit of the doubt after so many have tried to educate them.