Recently, I’ve been writing about the “new school” antivaccine movement that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic to oppose COVID-19 vaccines is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from “old school” antivaxxers, the ones who falsely claimed that vaccines cause autism, autoimmune diseases, the “sickest generation” of children, and even death. In particular, I saw this confluence at the Better Way Conference held in Bath, England last month, where new school antivaxxers like Robert Malone were echoing old school antivaxxer Del Bigtree‘s attacks on the children’s immunization schedule, which included hoary old antivax tropes, such as “too many too soon.”
Steve Kirsch, as readers might remember, is a former tech bro and entrepreneur who started out during the pandemic as a semi-reasonable advocate for testing repurposed drugs to combat COVID-19 and fund research into such treatments. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for him to go full conspiracy crank and, more recently, full tilt antivaccine. Indeed, last month he hosted a conference at which he claimed based on an Internet survey introduced on his Substack that COVID-19 vaccines had killed a half a million people. These days, he’s been reduced to begging experts on public health and infectious disease to “debate me” in order to “prove” that vaccines are safe.
There’s no more “old school” antivaxxer out there than Andrew Wakefield, who almost single-handedly ignited the most recent iteration of the antivaccine movement with a poor quality case series published in 1998 in The Lancet that claimed to link the MMR vaccine with “autistic enterocolitis.” True, the DPT scare in the 1980s did fire up an antivaccine movement and even led to the passage of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) of 1986 (which antivaxxers hate) to prevent vaccine manufacturers from abandoning the US market en masse due to the tsunami of lawsuits provoked by the scare, but for some reason Andrew Wakefield’s pseudoscience really resonated and for nearly 13 years did real damage; that is, until Brian Deer’s reporting demonstrated it to have been fraudulent. Also, Wakefield’s was struck off in the UK (i.e., the revocation of his medical license), which also helped. Despite those much deserved humiliations, Wakefield remained very popular among antivaxxers as a “martyr” and even helped Del Bigtree make an antivax propaganda film (VAXXED) in 2016. COVID-19 does seem to have led to new school antivaxxers eclipsing the very much old school Wakefield (his attempts to demonize COVID-19 vaccines notwithstanding), but he’s still out there grifting, hence the interview (I guess), even though I haven’t heard much from him lately.
So it was with some interest that I perused Kirsch’s interview with Wakefield and even watched the video, albeit not all of it, given that it’s an hour and a half long:
Kirsch begins by asking old school Wakefield to introduce himself, which results in a narrative that regular readers have heard many times before. Wakefield claims that he became interested in whether MMR causes autism in 1995-1996, when (or so he says) parents started telling him stories about how their children were “absolutely normal” before getting the MMR, but then had a seizure or “went to sleep for three days” and when they woke up “they were gone.” (Notice the conflation of being autistic with the “real child” being “gone.” That is an incredibly common narrative among antivaxxers.)
I don’t necessarily want to retread a lot of the same sorts of narratives that I’ve heard before many times from Andy ad nauseam in interviews, writings, and even in documentaries, although I do feel obligated to point out that this “observation” supposedly raising suspicions about a link between MMR and autism came about as a result of a trial lawyer seeking to sue vaccine manufacturers approaching Wakefield and paying him £400,000 to find evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Let’s go on, though, because pointing out that Wakefield lies constantly is like pointing out that water is wet.
A lot of the answers that Kirsch got from Wakefield will be familiar, the same old justifications, but if you want evidence to counter claims that Wakefield is not antivaccine, Kirsch helpfully supplies it—inadvertently:
- Are there any safe vaccines? No.
- What do they think your motivation is? They know his motivation is to save lives.
- What’s the real story behind this quote from CNN: “An investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study’s author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study — and that there was “no doubt” Wakefield was responsible.” It was a setup. All the authors support the study.
- Why didn’t your other collaborators stand up for the truth? Do you still talk to them? Some caved to the pressure to admit something that the paper never said.
- Will anyone debate you face-to-face, on-camera, for a live discussion? Never happened.
- Why is there no risk-benefit data for any childhood vaccine? How can they justify this with a straight face? No. They are never challenged on it.
- How old were you when you turned “anti-vaxxer”? About 30 years old.
- What was your “red pill” moment when you realized that what you had been told was all a lie? When mothers told him their stories connecting the vaccine with autism. Too many cases where kids were perfectly fine before the vax and changed suddenly after the vax. This sounded just like the COVID vaccines.
- What is the best way to convince people that you got it right? He’s made movies.
- Do you have any friends in mainstream media? I know the feeling! Not that he knows about.
- Are there any doctors who tell you privately they support you, but admit they can’t say so publicly? Plenty. He can’t reveal who they are.
I’ll briefly comment on these points:
- So Wakefield states that there are no safe vaccines. That is rather the definition of “antivaccine,” wouldn’t you say?
- Of course, the saintly St. Andrew is only in it it to save lives! Perish the thought that he made money from trial lawyers back in the 1990s and that he has been grifting on his claim that MMR vaccines cause autism for 24 years.
- The authors supported the study, until they didn’t after the realization that they’d been played by Andy…
- …and, of course, they “caved to the pressure,” rather than admitting a mistake.
- Here we go again, with the challenge to a “debate.” While it’s true that, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, no scientist has publicly “debated” Wakefield, his desperate “challenges” notwithstanding, ironically enough, one physician, Michael Fitzgerald, has said that he’d debate Wakefield. Wakefield consistently dodged such challenges.
- This is utter nonsense. Childhood vaccines are among the most studied interventions there are.
- So Wakefield was about 30 years old when he turned antivax? Given that he was born in 1956, that would imply that he became antivax a good ten years before the 1996 timeframe when he started investigating the MMR vaccine. Interesting, but not surprising.
- Wakefield’s “red pill” moment is, of course, a familiar story that he’s told many, many times before.
- I laughed out loud at this. Wakefield is convincing people he’s right by making movies? That tracks.
- Sadly, Wakefield has many sympathizers, some in the mainstream media.
- And, of course, there are lots of doctors who “secretly” support Wakefield but are too afraid to say anything! Same as it ever was for every Brave Maverick Doctor who spreads conspiracy theories and becomes viewed as a crank claims that.
So the conclusion of this interview really nails the confluence between old school and new school antivaxxers. For example, Kirsch amplifies Wakefield’s messages that “you’ll be WAY healthier if you AVOID *ALL* vaccines” and “vaccines do cause autism.” Again, I don’t know how you can interpret statements like this as being anything other than antivaccine, particularly the statement that you’ll be “way healthier” if you eschew not just some vaccines, but all vaccines. He then parrots hoary old antivax tropes that were ancient before COVID-19 ever hit, such as:
- “It’s not clear at all that vaccination did anything to eradicate diseases.” This is, of course, a variant of the “vaccines didn’t save us” or the “sanitation did it, not vaccines” gambit, both very much old school antivax tropes that have been resurrected for COVID-19. Of course, sanitation is not particularly effective against diseases that are primarily airborne, like measles or COVID-19, and “natural herd immunity” never eradicated a single disease. It always took vaccines.
- “Vaccines can be quite problematic since unlike recovered immunity, the immunity doesn’t last. You’d have been much better off getting the virus when you were young.” This is, of course, the claim that “natural immunity” is always better than vaccine-induced immunity. Of course, given the rate of reinfection with COVID-19 and waning “natural immunity” after infection, coupled with the rise of more transmissible variants of SARS-CoV-2 that also have increasing abilities to evade preexisting immunity (vaccine-induced or postinfection), “natural immunity” isn’t actually that long lasting or great for COVID-19. Also, even for diseases—such as measles—for which postinfection immunity is long lasting, even lifetime, attaining “natural immunity” means suffering through the disease and risking the complications, such as pneumonia, neurologic injury, immune system suppression, and death.
- “The CDC, FDA, NIH and drug companies are adept at silencing critics, especially if you lack the funds to properly defend yourself.” This is, of course, the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, that “they” know vaccines “don’t work”/”are harmful” but “they” cover it up.
As I’ve been arguing, there is increasingly very little daylight between old school and new school antivaxxers. Those of us who have followed the antivaccine movement are not surprised by this. After all, all science denial is based on conspiracy theories. Because of this, there is a strong tendency to embrace other sets of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories once one has embraced one set. Steve Kirsch is simply much further along in the process than, for instance, other new school antivaxxers like Geert Vanden Bossche.
They’ll get there, though. At least, the vast majority of them will. Other than rare exceptions, once you go full antivax, unfortunately, you don’t come back.