After the COVID-19 pandemic hit and by the end of 2020, a generation of new vaccines against the disease based on a long-studied but never before widely utilized technology was rolled out in the form of mRNA-based vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna, a new generation of antivaxxers has arisen to dominate the antivaccine movement. Like most antivaxxers who view themselves as scientific and reasonable, these antivaxxers really, truly, honestly believe that they are not “antivaccine.” Back in the old days, antivaxxers would claim that they are “not antivaccine” but one or more of excuses such as “I’m pro-safe vaccine” or “I’m against mandates/for ‘freedom.'” New antivaxxers, while spewing the same old antivax tropes repurposed for COVID-19 vaccines (and not realizing that they are old), think of themselves as “not antivaccine” but just highly skeptical of the new COVID-19 vaccines. It turns out, though, that the longer these “new school” antivaxxers preach their pseudoscience and intermingle with longtime antivaxxers, the more they start sounding just like the old school antivaxxers they once dismissed. This principle was on display a couple of weeks ago at a panel held during an antivax conference held in Bath, England called the Better Way Conference.
Before I discuss the panel in question, let me first reiterate that, just as it was for “old school” antivaxxers, it is delusion on the part of “new school” antivaxxers that they are “not antivaccine,” because they have been spewing the hoariest antivaccine tropes, just repurposed for and applied to COVID-19 vaccines, including false claims that these new vaccines:
- Kill lots of people. This trope is based on the VAERS database and anecdotes, of course, just as the old trope was.
- Make women infertile and/or cause miscarriages.
- Shed. The old version of this trope was that live attenuated vaccines shed virus, endangering those around them; the new version is that COVID-19 vaccines “shed” the spike protein used as the antigen in the mRNA- and adenovirus-based vaccines. Either way, the vaccinated are not “purebloods.”
- Are unnecessary because the disease is harmless to all but the elderly and those with chronic diseases or is diagnosed with a bogus test that produces lots of false positives.
- Are unnecessary or even harmful because “natural immunity” is superior to vaccine-induced immunity and the disease is (mostly) harmless, which is why we should just let the disease spread, the better to reach “natural herd immunity” faster.
- Permanently alter your DNA. The old-school version said the same thing, although having Andrew Wakefield spew the new version was a nice touch.
- Cause cancer. Anyone remember SV40 and polio vaccines?
- Are immoral to use because “fetal cells” were used to produce them. (Sound familiar?”
- And on and on and on and on…
I know that I’ve bored some of you by recounting how everything old is new again with respect to vaccines and that there is no “new” antivax trope that isn’t a new version of an old trope that can be directly traced to the hoariest of hoary antivax misinformation from decades ago, but it needs to be repeated. It also needs to be understood in the context of the Better Way Conference. Unfortunately, the grift is strong, and I can’t find a way to get access to the livestream of the entire conference without paying. Fortunately, antivaxxer Del Bigtree couldn’t help but include relevant clips in a segment of a recent episode of his video podcast The Highwire With Del Bigtree. Here’s the segment:
This was, of course, just one segment from a weekend conference, but it is very informative. I would have liked to viewed the entire “hour-long debate” touted by Bigtree, but we’ll have to settle for the segments that he chose to include o his show, because I’m not paying £49 (even with the discount) to access the livestream of the whole conference. First, though, let’s look at who’s on the panel. Besides Del Bigtree, who was the MC of the entire conference and moderator of this panel, there was Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines—not” Malone, Geert Vanden Bossche, Bret Weinstein, Tess Lawrie, Maajid Nawaaz, Jessica Rose (I think), and some other people whom I can’t identify, both on stage and by video conferencing. I note that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was also in attendance at the conference but apparently not on this panel. Truly, this was, as it has been stated, the Davos of COVID conspiracy theorists.
Antivaxxers vs. science
Bigtree introduced his segment with that hoariest of hoary anti-science tropes, that the conference was about nothing more than “scientific debate,” touting how there was “disagreement” and that that was the “true essence” of science compared to (apparently) a supposed lack of “debate” indicating something other than science. Of course, I’ve long pointed out how it’s not a “debate” when one side is Gish galloping with pseudoscientific misinformation and bad studies while the other side tries vainly to swat each curated piece of misinformation down. This panel doesn’t even really qualify as one of the pseudodebates that I eschew in which a real scientist is paired with a crank, all to make the crank look more credible. Basically, it boiled down to all cranks, with one of the cranks showing extreme discomfort as Del Bigtree and the other cranks made very clear what a bunch of cranks with whom he’d thrown his lot in.
In brief, what happened is that during his presentation Geert Vanden Bossche had stated that, while he thought that mRNA viruses were a selective force that was generating ever more transmissible variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (and that could generate more deadly variants), he thought that live attenuated vaccines could potentially be very important for producing and maintaining herd immunity. You might recall that I discussed why Vanden Bossche was wrong, specifically how letting the virus circulate widely was far more dangerous, from an evolutionary standpoint, strategy to generate variants than trying to minimize transmission and how the percentage of the population that had been vaccinated where various variants had arisen wasn’t large enough to produce significant selective pressure on the virus anyway. I also noted that Vanden Bossche’s claim that mass vaccination would lead to selective pressures to create a supervirus was a very old antivax trope, one that Andrew Wakefield himself had published a mere few months before the first cases of COVID-19 were multiplying in Wuhan, China. Wakefield had even said that the MMR vaccine could lead to a “mass extinction.”
Let’s just say that Vanden Bossche’s concession that vaccination might play some role going forward did not sit well with Bigtree. When the time came for the Q&A session after panelists’ talks, instead of simply asking the questions that were being beamed to his iPad from the audience, Bigtree decided to “go there.” What do I mean by “go there”? He went straight to old antivaccine talking points about the childhood vaccine schedule, including false claims that vaccines cause autism and that the current generation of children is the “sickest generation” (a favorite of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) due mainly to the expansion of the vaccine schedule in the 1990s. He did it even though he knew he would be blindsiding panelists who had been “dancing around” the topic of the childhood vaccine schedule. In this, I think that Bigtree inadvertently did everyone a service, because he showed unequivocally that “new school” COVID-19 vaccine “skeptics” are really no different than old school antivaxxers. They are, in fact, antivaccine.
Bigtree started by asking the panel how many thought that vaccination has a place combatting the pandemic “in a better way moving forward.” Only half of the panel raised their hands, Malone, Vanden Bossche, and Weinstein. Next, Bigtree asked:
How many of you are aware that, since the increase of vaccinations, when we were giving ten vaccinations—I’ll use the United States of America stats—we were giving ten vaccines in the United States of America by the time you were 18 up until about 1986 when we took all liability away that the vaccine program increased to 54 vaccines
How many of you are aware that in that time we went from a chronic illness rate in the United States of America of 12% to a chronic illness rate of 54% and that data has been given to us since 2012? How many are aware of that increase in chronic illness?
Longtime readers and those who follow the antivaccine movement will immediately recognize these very old talking points. The first one is the claim that “all liability” was taken away from vaccine manufacturers through the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which is just plain false. What the NCVIA did was to mandate that all vaccine injury claims first go through a special Vaccine Court, where complainants, win or lose, are reimbursed for reasonable legal expenses and expenses incurred preparing their case, which is way better than the case for regular civil litigation. Also, the evidentiary standard for the Vaccine Court is, as they say for civil litigation, “50% and a feather.” Moreover, the Vaccine Court has a list of “table injuries” (injuries known to be caused by vaccines based on science) for which compensation is basically automatic. In addition, complainants are free to utilize Federal Courts if they lose in Vaccine Court. To fund the system, there is a tax on every dose of vaccine sold in the US.
As I’ve often noted, antivaxxers hate the NCVIA and the Vaccine Court and frequently attack it based on misinformation and distorted information. Antivax lawyers hate the vaccine court, too. I’ve always strongly suspected that trial lawyers hate the Vaccine Court because they want to sue for big fat judgments of millions of dollars on contingency (from which they can extract one-third of the judgment as payment, of course), rather than simple reasonable hourly rates paid by the Vaccine Court, which, while reliable income for representing their clients—win or lose—do not provide the opportunity to win eye-watering court judgments and settlements.
The second trope is the exaggeration of the number of vaccines, which requires counting every dose of a series individually and counting combination vaccines as their component parts; e.g., the MMR vaccine would count as three vaccines each time it’s administered.
The third trope is a direct citation of RFK Jr.’s “sickest generation” trope, right down to the claim that 54% of children today suffer from a chronic illness of one sort or another, up from 12% in decades past. As I explained in detail, it’s a deceptive narrative that relies on cherry picked and carefully curated studies that ignore context and also the consequences of increased screening and widened definitions of many of the chronic illnesses cited.
Geert Vanden Bossche vs. the “old school” antivaxxers (sort of)
So how did the panel respond? To his credit, Geert Vanden Bossche looked very uncomfortable, as though for the first time he was realizing just what he had gotten himself into and being forced to face it. He responded first by stating that he didn’t like such “blunt statements,” how it was “more complicated than that,” and how Bigtree should be very careful about citing correlations as though they represent causation. Bigtree, seeing that Vanden Bossche had started to fall into his trap, was more than happy to conceded that he was “strictly stating correlations.” Bigtree included clips showing how only Vanden Bossche had pushed back against Bigtree’s attacks on the childhood vaccination schedule, although I can’t resist repeating again how Vanden Bossche remains apparently unaware that his claims about COVID-19 vaccines had echoed those of one of the big macher of the modern antivaccine movement himself, Andrew Wakefield, about the MMR vaccine.
Unfortunately, Vanden Bossche appears to have been the only panelist who even weakly pushed back against Bigtree’s old antivaccine narrative. The next clip showed Robert Malone emphasizing that, when he had raised his hand to agree that vaccination should be part of a “better way” going forward to tackle COVID-19, he was not defending our current childhood vaccination schedule, adding:
In raising my hand, I was not in any way endorsing our current vaccine schedule. For me as a vaccinologist who has often assumed—has integrated—a belief system that I was brought up in about the efficacy and utility of childhood vaccines, I had a moment of epiphany when I sat down with Candace Owens and we talked about what the temporal relationship has been with many of these classic pediatric diseases and their quenching in the population, which was more concurrent with implementation of modern public health and sanitation practices than it was with implementation of vaccines. And yet the industry has taught me and many of us that there was a causal relationship when in fact it was correlation, which is one of the big flaws we’ve seen again and again, conflating correlation with causation.
Candace Owens, it turns out, is a die-hard Donald Trump supporter and one of the new school antivaxxers who has completely embraced antivax conspiracies, old school and new school. More importantly, though, how many readers recognize the hoary old antivax trope that Malone repeated You know, the claim that it was sanitation, not vaccination, that eliminated childhood diseases? It should not surprise anyone that Malone has embraced it, given how deeply he has drunk the antivaccine Kool-Aid and peddled conspiracy theories over the last couple of years.
It’s an easy one to debunk. All you have to do is ask: Was sanitation in the US much different in 1960 than it was in 1970? Why then, did the incidence of measles plummet so dramatically during that decade? Simple. It was the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963. Also, measles is a highly transmissible viral respiratory disease that is primarily transmitted through the air via respiration; improved sanitation would not be expected to have much of an effect on its spread. Similarly, what about polio? Was sanitation in the US so much better in 1960 than it was in 1950? So what happened in the 1950s? The Salk polio vaccine was introduced. The list goes on and on, for example the Haemophilus influenza type B vaccine introduced in the 1990s. The “sanitation, not vaccination” trope is a deeply ahistorical and unscientific bit of misdirection. No one is saying that sanitation was not important for bringing infectious diseases spread by water or feces under control, but the fact is that vaccination was a far greater contributor to the elimination of most childhood diseases than sanitation, particularly those transmitted by air through respiration.
Next up, Bret Weinstein:
Is it true that a great many vaccinations is bad for you over a lifetime and that we should treat this technology very sparingly, right, that we should be choosing very carefully which few things it makes sense to use it for and what to hold it in reserve for, rather than just imagining that if vaccines are good then more vaccines are better?
Regular readers, can you name that antivaxxer trope? It sounds to me like a variation of the “too many too soon” trope that was very commonly aimed at the childhood vaccination schedule to claim that “too many” vaccines were making our kids sick with autism, autoimmune diseases, etc., etc., etc. (Indeed, that line about “if vaccines are good then more vaccines are better” could have been directly lifted from any number of antivaccine websites 15 years ago.) It’s just not true, and we have known that it’s not true for a long time, no matter how long antivaxxers have been repeating it. Welcome, though, Bret Weinstein, to the antivax camp. I also noticed Malone nodding enthusiastically behind Weinstein. Vanden Bossche looked more and more fidgety and uncomfortable. Good. I want him to feel uncomfortable among the antivaxxers. Maybe it will lead him back from the brink, back from conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, although probably not.
Next up, Tess Lawrie. You might remember that she started out promoting ivermectin as a cure for COVID-19, but, as has been the case with so many ivermectin cultists, she’s now joined the antivaxxers:
My opinion is that our children are not suffering from infections. They’re suffering from chronic diseases, autoimmune diseases, autism, and depression. So it seems we might need to reevaluate health and now we need to look at those things that potentially might be affecting our children’s health.
Gee, are vaccines among those “other things”? Also, why are our children not primarily suffering from infections anymore? It couldn’t be due to vaccines preventing them from getting infections that used to kill so many children in previous centuries before they could grow up, would it? Lawrie has clearly gone antivax, too.
Another exchange occurred when Bigtree cited “retrospective vaccinated/unvaccinated studies” that supposedly show unvaccinated children to be much healthier, which led Vanden Bossche to interject that he was “having a tremendous problem here,” because “guys, guys, this is way more complicated than you’re discussing” and noting that if you are just considering safety issues you’re not “considering the impact of losing herd immunity.” And you know what? He was right! Again, referring to Tess Lawrie, the reason we’re not dealing with so many children with infections is because those infections are prevented by vaccines and the herd immunity they provide! He further noted that public health interventions not involving vaccines don’t work very well if there is asymptomatic spread, such as with COVID-19, the flu, and measles, concluding by asking how without vaccinations you can maintain herd immunity against these diseases without having the “next epidemic.”
Vanden Bossche then went on:
Can you calculate what the damage will be of that? You cannot. [Bigtree and Vanden Bossche briefly talk over each other.] I’m having a huge problem with taking these shortcuts, right, and with saying, “No injections.” OK, guys, then we are not going to vaccinate, and these diseases that we have kept under control for many years through herd immunity, lose that herd immunity, and have your epidemics to reestablish it every single time.
Vanden Bossche was partially correct. Before safe and effective vaccines, there was never any true “natural herd immunity” to any of the childhood diseases for which we routinely vaccinate. The reason was simple. Every year, millions of new susceptible children were born, and, of course, many, if not most, of them got the diseases. I don’t want to be too hard on Vanden Bossche, but on the other hand he did throw in his lot with antivaxxers and has been promoting a narrative about COVID-19 variants that echoes old antivax narratives about measles and, especially, pertussis. Personally, I can’t help but feel a fair amount of schadenfreude watching Vanden Bossche being forced to grapple with his cognitive dissonance over his COVID-19 antivaccine fear mongering and the consequences of it that led him to be on a panel with some major league antivax cranks, particularly Del Bigtree.
Bigtree then goes on to feature a Gish gallop of what I like to call “antivax greatest hits,” such as the claim that “vaccinated/unvaccinated” studies show a five-fold increased prevalence of neurologic disorders and a 40-fold increased prevalence of asthma among vaccinated children. Again, these are crappy studies done by crappy antivaxxers who might once have been scientists. They’re retrospective and almost always fail to control for obvious confounders (which is why they often get retracted). Such awful studies have, however, been a favorite go-to argument of antivaxxers going back as long as I’ve been paying attention to this topic, now more than two decades.
None of that stopped Bigtree from asking a hell of a hypothetical, namely that “if” we could get large vaccinated/unvaccinated studies done that showed that vaccines actually did cause autism, neurodevelopmental disorders, autoimmune disorders, and death, would the panelists reconsider their positions? I’ll actually give Vanden Bossche a little bit of credit for his response, in which he turned Bigtree’s question back on him and asked him if he’s willing to do an experiment where we stop vaccinating against childhood diseases that herd immunity from mass vaccination has long kept at bay. He even asked Bigtree point blank if he had any scientific rationale whatsoever to justify such an experiment? (Hint: Bigtree didn’t, doesn’t, and never will.) My only complaint is that I would have pointed out that clinical trials can’t be designed just on the basis of pure science. They have to be ethical. The concept of clinical equipoise, which is mandatory for a clinical trial, tells us that there has to be genuine uncertainty over which group, control or experimental, will do better. We know that stopping vaccination would harm the control group—or any group of children whom we stop vaccinating—which means that any trial of the sort that Bigtree apparently wants would be highly unethical right from the start.
Vanden Bossche then goes on:
Wait a minute. What you are talking about all the time, what I’m hearing here of course of concern, is the children and health issues in children, but if we talk about herd immunity, for God’s sake, it’s about the vulnerable people, the elderly, people with underlying diseases, etc. Are you willing to sacrifice those people?
As Vanden Bossche asked that question, Malone looked as though he was going to burst an aneurysm. I also can’t help but point out that, yes, Bigtree is more than willing to sacrifice such people. He said as much about them and COVID-19 two years ago on his show, about six months before the first COVID-19 vaccines started rolling out. At that time, he basically advocated locking up all the “vulnerable” to protect them while the rest of us “catch that cold” to reach “natural herd immunity,” During his rant, he engaged in a fair amount of victim blaming and shaming as well, which is why I’m going to quote him at length yet again even though I’ve cited this exact passage at least twice before. If Geert Vanden Bossche sees this post, I want him to read exactly what Bigtree has long been consistent about with respect to the medically vulnerable and COVID-19 and what antivaxxers have not infrequently also said.
Basically, COVID-19 antivaxxers and the Great Barrington Declaration supporters who advocate a “let ‘er rip” approach to COVID-19 to achieve “natural herd immunity” are profoundly judgmental and eugenicist:
What is the group that is really at risk? Let’s be honest about this and say something that might get me some trouble here, but let’s be honest. That group is very well known. It’s people over the age of 65—not just because you’re over the age of 65, but you’re sick with other diseases. You have heart disease. You have COPD. You have diabetes. You have issues, many of those issues coming from the fact that you didn’t treat your body very well while you were on this planet. And I want to talk about this for one minute as we close this down. That 0.26% are the most sick among us, and I have nothing against you. Go ahead and bubble wrap your house. Lock yourself in your basement. Go and do what’s necessary.
But here’s the problem. When you were my age, you were most likely eating food and fast food and Doritos and drinking Coca-Cola, which you’ll never find in my home. You were eating that all the time. You probably were drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages and really liked to party and enjoyed your cigarettes and said to yourself, “You know what? It’s more about the quality of my life right now. I don’t care if I live to be 100 years old. I want to enjoy my life right now. I like the finer things in life. I like good rich food. I like smoking a cigarette once in a while. I like to drink my drinks.” And you know what? Good on you! That’s the United States of America. No problem, that, some of my best friends think like that. It’s great, and they’re fun to hang out with. That’s perfectly OK.
But here’s what’s not OK. When you reach that point in your life where now your arteries are starting to clog up, your body is shutting down, and the alcohol is eating up your liver, and you have diabetes, or you have multiple COPD, you have asthma, you can’t breathe, all the cigarette smoking has finally caught up with you, you have heart disease because of the way you decided to live your life in the moment, here’s what you are now. You are pharmaceutical-dependent. You did that to yourself, not me. You decided that the moment mattered, and now you find yourself pharmaceutical-dependent, which is really what that 0.26% is, and that’s OK too. Thank God there’s drugs out there! There’s drugs that allow you to eat the Philly cheesesteak even though your body knows it hates it, but, go ahead, take the Prilosec. What difference does it make? Drug yourself! Drug yourself! Get through the day! Don’t exercise! Maybe just attach an electrode and see if a little electricity to the stomach will give you the abs you want.
Come on! Grow up! You made choices! And now that you’re pharmaceutically dependent, here’s what you don’t get to do. You don’t get to say I have to take a drug to protect you. That’s what this is. You don’t get to say I have to wear a mask and suck in my own CO2 to protect you. You don’t get to say I have to lock myself in a basement and destroy my career and take away my own ability to feed children because you are pharmaceutical dependent. You lived your life. You made your choice. And thank God we live in the United States of America so you don’t have to worry about grocery police standing outside a grocery store saying, “Really? You really need four liters of Coca-Cola? You really need four bags of Doritos or Chitos or Fritos or whatever the heck it is, little cupcakes with synthetic icing on them? You really need all that?” Because we could go there. We could go there. If we’re really going to get into each other’s schiznit, that’s what we could do.
Or could we live and let live? Eat all the Twinkies you want! Drink all the bourbon you want, and smoke as many cigarettes as you want, and when you find yourself pharmaceutical-dependent I will go ahead and say thank God the drug companies are there for you, but you do not get to make me pharmaceutical-dependent. You do not get to put me in the way of Heidi Larson, who wants to eradicate natural health and natural immunity and make us all pharmaceutical dependent.
Again, I know I’ve directly quoted that long passage a couple of times before (at least), but I deem it necessary to do so again.
To answer Vanden Bossche, yes, sacrificing “those people” is exactly what Bigtree has long advocated. And, yes, Dr. Vanden Bossche, I am rubbing your face in Bigtree’s words and longstanding antivaccine agitation and will continue to do so. These are the people with whom you’ve thrown in your lot. They are antivaxxers, through and through, and they’re more than happy to sacrifice the vulnerable, although they will hide their eugenicist tendencies behind the ridiculous call to “catch that cold” to save the vulnerable. If hearing old antivaccine narratives about childhood vaccines makes you so uncomfortable, perhaps you should rethink what you’ve done with the last two years of your life. Seriously, for your conscience’s sake, you should.
Once you go antivax, you rarely come back
I’ll conclude by noting one other thing. To achieve this, I’m going to quote Jedi master Yoda’s warning to Luke Skywalker during The Empire Strikes Back about the Dark Side of the Force:
“If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”Although I find it hard to believe that there is anyone who doesn’t know this given the ubiquity of Star Wars in our culture, I will note that Obi-Wan’s apprentice was Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi who was corrupted by the Dark Side of the Force and became the evil Darth Vader.
I would argue that Vanden Bossche is currently well into the middle stages of being consumed by the antivaccine movement and rapidly moving into the later stages. He has repurposed an old antivax trope used by Andrew Wakefield about measles and the MMR to claim that vaccinating against COVID-19 will drive evolution of ever more deadly variants of COVID-19 that will cause “disaster,” but still has enough of his scientific conscience left to push back against old school antivax talking points, even though he clearly is not familiar enough with these old school tropes to do so effectively. He thinks he’s truly pro-vaccine (just skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines), but doesn’t realize that he’s parroting old antivax tropes in his “skepticism.” When blindsided by Bigtree and the other antivaxxers on the panel, he didn’t really know how to respond.
Antivaccine conspiracy theories and misinformation are a lot like the Dark Side of the Force in this, and antivaxxers who were once scientists are a lot like Jedi corrupted by the Dark Side. Once a formerly reputable scientist starts down the dark path of antivaccine pseudoscience, even if it’s to opportunistically dip his toe in the waters of “skepticism” about a single vaccine, forever will it dominate his destiny, as it is now doing for Vanden Bossche. Is it too late for Geert Vanden Bossche? Can he redeem himself, as Darth Vader did? Only he can tell us through his actions.
Sadly, I suspect that the way Vanden Bossche will resolve his very obvious cognitive dissonance over his increasingly antivaccine views as evidenced by his responses at the Better Way Conference panel will not be to reject his anti-COVID-19 vaccine tropes, but rather to cast off the last of his provaccine beliefs that he tried gamely to defend (weakly) at the Better Way Conference. If that happens, his journey to the Dark Side will be complete.