While I was…indisposed…writing a grant application that was due yesterday, something came to my attention that I just knew I had to write about to get the blogging circuits firing again after over a week away. Basically, it came in the form of a Tweet thread a couple of days ago featuring two out of the three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) appearing on a discussion panel with antivax tech bro Steve Kirsch, who has repeatedly—and falsely—claimed that COVID-19 vaccines have killed more people than they have saved and Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Malone. Indeed, as you can see, he claims that COVID-19 vaccines have killed a half a million people!
Helpfully, The Real Truther provides a link to Steve Kirsch and his antivax livestream:
The schedule was quite the stacked bill of COVID-19 grifters, deniers, antimaskers, and antivaxxers, too:
Schedule for May 16. All times EST.
8:45 AM – 9:55 AM: Panel 1: Efficacy of Non-Pharmaceutical Public Health Interventions Jay Bhattacharya (moderator), Aaron Kheriaty, Clare Craig, Eran Ben-David
9:55 AM – 10:45 AM: Panel 2: COVID-19’s Impact on Universities and Their Research and Teaching Missions Retsef Levi (moderator), David Shmoys, Chirag Patel
10:45 AM – 11:15 AM: Coffee Break
11:15 AM – 12:25 PM: Panel 3: Vaccine Efficacy, Safety Martin Kulldorff (moderator), Steve Kirsch, Neeraj Sood, Joe Fraiman, Retsef Levi
12:30 PM – 1:30 PM: Lunch for participants (Room E62-350 at MIT Sloan)
Wong Auditorium (E51):
1:30 PM – 2:40 PM: Panel 4: The Effect of COVID-19 Policies on Trust in Science and Public Health Scott W. Atlas (moderator), David Katz, Andrew Noymer, Sylvia Fogel
2:40 PM – 3:10 PM: Coffee Break
3:10 PM – 4:15 PM Panel 5: The Way Forward Jay Bhattacharya (moderator), Robert Malone, Alex Washburne, Don Boudreaux
4.15 PM – 4.30 PM: Farewell comments
Just look at that bill! Hilariously, too, apparently both Kulldorff and Bhattacharya moderated panels, and others appearing on the bill included, in addition to Kirsch and Malone, Scott Atlas, Aaron Kheriaty, and many other quacks, grifters, antimaskers, and antivaxxers. Truly, the antivax content must have flowed. I will admit to not watching the entire thing. (I have better things to do with my time than to spend 8 hours watching a “debate” that was not a debate, but rather antivax propaganda.) I did, however, surf the “highlights.” If you really want to subject yourself to the whole thing, here’s the Gettr link (because of course it’s on Gettr), and, yes, it is nearly eight hours long.
Before I move on, I feel, as always, obligated to provide a bit of background for newbies. I include links to posts about specific statements, but try to write the background so that you don’t have to click on the links unless you want more information. As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of the GBD, a document written by three “lockdown” hating scientists recruited for a meet-and-greet with sympathetic journalists at the headquarters of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a right wing “free market” think tank in Great Barrington, MA, the town that gave the declaration its name. The basic idea behind the Great Barrington Declaration, which was published in early October 2020, was that “lockdowns” were doing more harm than COVID-19. Based on this premise, the authors (Profs. Martin Kulldorff, then faculty at Harvard University, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, and Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University) proposed, in essence, a “let ‘er rip” strategy for COVID-19 in order to reach “natural herd immunity” more rapidly by infecting those least likely to die from the disease. The idea was to lift protections and let the young and “healthy” go back to “normal life,” while using “focused protection” to keep the elderly and those with chronic health conditions who were at much higher risk for severe disease and death from contracting COVID-19. Remember, this was months before effective vaccines were expected to become available.
Over time, GBD proponents (and at least two of the authors, and I bet that you can guess which two) have become more and more antivax and aligned with right-wing politics. AIER communications director Jeffrey Tucker left the AIER to spawn another right wing think tank, the Brownstone Institute, which he lovingly characterized as the “spiritual child” of the Great Barrington Declaration and for which he recruited Martin Kulldorff as scientific director. AIER, Brownstone Institute, and a host of other “free market” anti-regulation astroturf rapidly became the new merchants of doubt about public health and struck back at critics who pointed out the connections between right wing think tanks and anti-public health activities increasingly linked to the far right and its media ecosystem. xplicitly antivaccine and attacking vaccine advocates on social media while portraying vaccine and mask mandates, as well as “lockdowns,” as slavery, religion, fascism, and Communism. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, plus the founder of the Brownstone Institute, have openly embraced fantasies of retribution against public health advocates very much like the sorts of fantasies of retribution antivaxxers have held for decades, in particular the idea of a “Nuremberg 2.0,” a Nuremberg-style tribunal in which public health advocates will “be held accountable” for their supposed “crimes.” Yet, through it all, Bhattacharya and Kulldorff keep claiming that they are “not antivax” while bemoaning how supposedly “persecuted” and “canceled” they have been.
Apparently, they are now so “canceled” that they willingly take part in antivax confabs, this one apparently held at MIT. You might recall that a few months ago that, as an MIT grad, Kirsch was complaining to high heaven about having been “canceled” because no faculty member there would invite him to hold his panel there. Since then, he’s been harassing the Dean of Science there about his “vaccine safety data.” How he apparently managed to land a venue at MIT now, I don’t know—and didn’t really care enough about to go digging through his copious Substack output to find out—but he did, and somehow he landed Jay Bhattacharya (whom he must have flown in from California) and Martin Kulldorff (who lives in Boston anyway). By agreeing to appear with people promoting the most bonkers conspiracy theories about COVID-19, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya have forfeited any defense against being called “antivax.” Let’s take a look at some of the “highlights” and see why, as these are the “data” that led to Kirsch’s claim at the antivax panel.
I was interested in the claim that COVID-19 vaccines. had killed over 500,000 people. Looking at the slide, I saw that Kirsch linked to what appear to be two of his Substack posts. One of them appears to be this post, entitled Survey shows over 500,000 killed by the COVID vaccines so far. I laughed as I read the opening paragraphs:
A simple survey of my readers provided some extremely compelling evidence that 1) the US government has killed over 500,000 previously healthy Americans and 2) that the vaccine actually caused the deaths.
It took me around 30 minutes to create the survey and 11 hours to wait for highly statistically significant results.
I was able to accomplish something in less than 12 hours that the CDC has been unable to accomplish in 18 months: prove causality. We see both dose dependency and enormous changes in ACM deaths pre- vs. post-vaccine. We satisfy all five Bradford-Hill criteria applicable to vaccines.
Wow! If only it were so easy to determine adverse reactions up to and including death from vaccines (or any other medication or biological)! Damn! How is it that we stupid egghead scientists, epidemiologists, and clinical trialists didn’t think of something so simple and obvious! Why didn’t we just survey the readers of an antivax Substack?
Let’s take a look at the survey! I took screenshots, too, for your edification:
I’m not a statistician, an expert on designing surveys, an epidemiologist, a social scientist, or anyone who might have a lot of expertise in designing surveys. I have, however, designed some surveys in my time, and I do know that a survey like this publicized on an antivax Substack, is utterly worthless for producing anything resembling reliable information. It is comical just how awful this survey is, so much so that normally I’d think that the only proper response would be to ridicule Steve Kirsch for even thinking that his “survey” proves anything, much less that COVID-19 vaccines killed a half million Americans.
Still, you should enjoy the comedy too. Here, Kirsch tries to argue why his sample is a good one:
We used 400 independent observers. I should note that all follow my Substack so they are correlated: all have excellent judgment, high intelligence, and immunity from mass formation effects. So they have the ability to see what is truly going on.
Kirsch seems oblivious to the definition of “independent” for purposes of a survey like this. How “independent” can these 400 “observers” be if they are all correlated because they are followers of his Substack? I get it! Because they follow Kirsch’s Substack, they must have “excellent judgment.” Of course, from my perspective, their following Kirsch’s sub stack indicates exactly the opposite. Most likely they are antivax (or at least lean antivax) and very prone to confusing correlation with causation.
And then there’s the matter of the extrapolation:
The survey compared the all-cause mortality (ACM) death rates just PRIOR to a vaccine dose to the ACM death rates immediately AFTER the dose. I predicted they would be dramatically higher after the dose and the effect would be dose dependent. It appears I was right. In fact, the survey projects far more deaths than I thought possible.
The number of deaths computed from the reports could be as high as 2M Americans, but the 500,000 number seems more credible, so I’m discounting the result by 4X to account for biases and confounders.
Wait a minute. I thought that there were no biases or confounders. Kirsch told us so! Yet he decided to pull a number out of his nether regions to use to divide the total estimate! You’ll see why when you look at his “back of the envelope” calculation. (Statisticians and mathematicians, please try not to laugh too hard; that is, after you get through scratching your head trying to figure out exactly what Kirsch did.)
Here it is:
So let’s do the math. I’m just going to use round numbers because this is just an estimate. To do it right, we’d stratify by age, but we’re going to use average death rates, etc.
Around 3M people die a year in the US which is roughly a 0.86% death rate.
They don’t die evenly throughout the year, so like I said, this is just a rough estimate just to find the ballpark number.
According to Google (which uses Our World in Data):
250M got dose 1. The monthly death rate is 250M/12*.0086 = 179K. So if ACM is elevated to 5X normal, we’d expect 4*179K= 716K excess deaths. Just from the dose 1 effect. Whoa! That’s way higher than I expected and higher than the 610K available to us. So I believe our survey is overstating the effect.
220M got dose 2. So we’d do the same math as before. Our spreadsheet shows a 8X normal death rate in the following month so (8-1)*(220/12*.0086)= 1.1M excess deaths. Whoa! One shot does it all!
100M got booster which shows a 2.3X increase so (2.3-1)*(100/12*.0086)=93K excess deaths.
So 716+1100+93 = 1.9M excess deaths clearly caused by the vaccines.
Is 1.9M excess deaths too high? That’s equivalent to a 40% ACM increase over the entire 18 month period (not just in a few quarters)Of course, one could ask Mr. Kirsch if he ever considered what else might be contributing to large increases in all cause mortality during the middle of a pandemic?
Kirsch also provides an actual table with a Fisher’s exact test to “prove” how “statistically significant” his results are:
I’m left scratching my head. How did Kirsch go from 400 responses to an estimate of 1.9 million excess deaths? To figure it out, I looked at the spreadsheet, and there were 39 deaths listed within four weeks before getting vaccinated (although how the respondents would know that the person who died planned on getting vaccinated within four weeks is not asked or stated), with 217 deaths recorded within four weeks of the first dose of a vaccine. Now I get it! He just divided 217 by 39 and concluded that the all-cause mortality was 5.6X higher within four weeks after the first dose. He then just used 5X and concluded that the all all-cause mortality after dose one increased by five-fold! He then did the same with the second dose (8.4X). With boosters, he then took 67 deaths of people within four weeks before getting a booster and used it to divide the 156 deaths reported within four weeks of getting a booster to come up with a 2.3-fold increased all-cause mortality rate. He did the same thing with booster #2 (44 deaths before, 56 after) to come up with a 1.3-fold increased death rate. Then he used these estimates to multiply by the regular monthly death rate in the US to come up with his number.
There is only one appropriate reaction to an “analysis” this comically, risibly, stupidly bad.
Does anyone want to tell me what’s wrong with this analysis? It’s so obviously wrong that a high school student should easily be able to explain why it’s so wrong it’s not even wrong, and that’s not even counting the fact that Kirsch didn’t ask if any of these people reported to have died turned out to have died of COVID-19. Kirsch spends a lot of time “reality checking” his numbers, and I really don’t see a lot of point in going through that in detail. When the very premise of your data collection is so wrong it’s not even wrong and then you extrapolate from a tiny biased dataset in such a manner, all the “reality checking” in the world isn’t going to make your data more credible. That’s leaving aside the innumeracy, in which somehow the death rate goes up by as much as 67%—all because of vaccines!—and supposedly no one in public health notices.
To bring it all back to the GBD and two of its coauthors, Jay Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, I went back and watched their panel, starting with the introduction. Bhattacharya starts out by saying that there is a “wide range of views” about the vaccines represented by the panel. (I’ll say! As was famously said about the music acts that perform at a bar in The Blues Brothers, “We got both kinds, country and western!” Here, we have both kinds, antivax and utterly loony antivax.) He also notes that this panel would be a “test case” too see if a “civil discussion” is possible about COVID-19 vaccines.
At this point, I note that others on the panel, besides Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, include Neeraj Sood, Joe Fraiman, and Retsef Levi, none of whom I had heard of. Sood has advocated treatment “instead of pushing boosters and tests for everyone” while repeating a lot of the same anti-lockdown talking points favored by Brownstoners. Joseph Fraiman is an emergency medicine doctor with no expertise in vaccines, infectious disease, epidemiology, or pandemics who appeared on an “Urgency of Normal” panel organized by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to argue against vaccinating children. Retsef Levi is MIT faculty and co-author of a widely criticized paper claiming a huge increase in cardiovascular events after vaccination based on cardiac arrest and acute coronary syndrome EMS calls. It’s an analysis almost as bad as Kirsch’s that somehow got published in Scientific Reports:
Kulldorff kicks off the panel by saying he’s a “huge fan of vaccines” and waxing how they are such a fantastic invention for health. It didn’t take him long, however, to go on about how those who have recovered from COVID-19 have “excellent natural immunity” and don’t need to be vaccinated, likening it to measles, even though we now know that even “natural immunity” (more properly called postinfection immunity) for COVID-19 is not lifelong, as it is for measles. It’s not even that durable, given the rise of COVID-19 variants that can evade immunity from prior strains, as Omicron has for immunity due to infection by the original Wuhan strain and the Delta variant. Basically, he repeated the same old shtick about natural immunity, which, whether he realizes it or not, is a very old antivax trope. He even paraphrased this line that he’d once Tweeted:
Basically, his message is the same, a conspiracy theory that “they” are “denying” supposed “natural immunity.” He even likened it to the head of NASA denying that the earth is round! No one is doing anything of the sort; they’re just recognizing the limitations of “natural immunity” and the superiority of hybrid immunity from vaccines.
There are only two reasons why people like Kulldorff and Bhattacharya would appear on a panel like this, in which some truly ridiculously bad antivax “science” was presented by Kirsch. One reason is that they were naive and, like so many legitimate scientists, thought that they could counter antivaccine misinformation in a debate format, even though such forums are almost always propaganda for science denial that allow cranks to Gish gallop and obfuscate to their hearts’ content. The other reason is that they are now antivax cranks themselves, whether they can admit it to themselves or not (which Kulldorff obviously cannot). Seriously, to sit next to someone like Kirsch and remain silent as he claims that vaccines have killed 500,000 Americans, don’t save very many lives, and that “they” are keeping that information from you is not a good look. (If I had somehow been duped into appearing on such a panel, as soon as I heard that, I would have stood up, said, “This is utter bullshit!” and left.) The bottom line is that Kulldorff and Bhattacharya are now firmly antivax, no matter how much they try to tell the audience (and themselves) otherwise, as Bhattacharya did on Twitter yesterday:
I’ll conclude by saying two things. First, I hope Dr. Bhattacharya reads this post to learn the true origin of Kirsch’s claim of 500K deaths due to COVID-19 vaccines. Second, both Drs. Kulldorff and Bhattacharya can deny it all they want to audiences, critics, and themselves, but they have become antivaccine. Nearly every antivaxxer claims he’s “not antivax,” but when their behavior includes appearing on an antivax panel and not countering the antivax disinformation being spread there, they reveal the truth about themselves, no matter how much they try to hide behind their screens:
Or slouch back to make themselves as small as possible to the audience, all while asking what went wrong in his life to lead him to such a point:
Those of us who have been countering antivax misinformation for decades know antivaxxers when we see them, and in this case I see two of them among the authors of the GBD. They can deny it all they like, but they spent the day on panels with some of the worst COVID-19 antivaxxers out there and said nothing.
Lovely. It’s not enough for Kirsch to have done this atrocity of a “survey” and analyze it in a way that makes epidemiologists either laugh or cry. Oh, no. Now he’s doing two new versions of the same survey, one to ask his readers if they know any children who have died before or after COVID-19 vaccines and another to ask if they know anyone who has had a miscarriage before or after COVID-19 vaccines. And guess what? He has reported the results but they’re only for paying subscribers! I guess he doesn’t want me making fun of these results too. (He always knows when someone writes about him. I suspect that he has a Google Alert set to his name and to anyone linking to his Substack.)
It looks like the birth of a new antivax disinformation franchise!