The tragic collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin on Monday night due to a cardiac arrest after a tackle led to a tsunami of conspiracy mongering from antivaxxers falsely insinuating (and outright claiming) that it had to be the COVID-19 vaccines that caused it. A lot of people were surprised by the ghoulishness of it all. They should not have been. False claims that vaccines kill have been a staple of antivax conspiracy narratives going back as long as I can remember, starting with false claims that vaccines are responsible for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and, more recently, that HPV vaccines were causing the deaths of adolescent girls and young women. As I mention every time I discuss the antivax “death after vaccination” narrative, there was even an antivax movie about Gardasil called Sacrificial Virgins…in 2018! The Damar Hamlin tragedy is a “teachable moment” because it has featured so prominently in the news over the last three day, which is why I want to discuss it further, particularly how it feeds into a false narrative that COVID-19 vaccines are killing young people, but not just young people, young healthy athletes as well. First, let’s discuss some background again.
Those of us who follow the antivaccine movement were not the least bit surprised when, immediately after COVID-19 vaccines were granted emergency use approval (EUA) by the FDA in December 2020, antivaxxers started claiming that they were claiming that they were responsible for a wave of death and destruction, ignoring the fact that COVID-19 itself was literally responsible for a wave of death and destruction. Although they shouldn’t have been, my colleagues were surprised at how rapidly claims of a “vaccine holocaust” showed up on full display within weeks to a few months after the mass vaccination program began two years ago and by 2021 antivaxxers were in full COVID-19 “vaccines are depopulation” mode. By 2022 the antivax narrative was fear mongering using false claims that vaccines were responsible for a wave of cardiac deaths of young people, which became “died suddenly” narrative, even though the phenomenon of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS) had been described as early as the 1970s. This claim produced a variant that showcased recently in a conspiracy movie disguised as a documentary entitled Died Suddenly, whose central narrative was the false claim that COVID was so over-the-top that more “reasonable” conspiracy theorists (or at least those who wanted to portray themselves as “more reasonable”) attacked it.
First, an update on Damar Hamlin
What the Damar Hamlin case publicized is a specific variant of the “died suddenly” narrative that I haven’t discussed before; so I would be remiss not to take this opportunity to discuss it now. Before I do that, however, I would be even more remiss if I didn’t note that, fortunately, Damar Hamlin appears to be neurologically intact (always a concern after any cardiac arrest) and recovering:
Damar Hamlin remains in an intensive care unit at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, but there were positive signs for recovery on Thursday.
The 24-year-old second-year NFL player woke up after being sedated, and his first thoughts after waking up were about Monday night’s Buffalo Bills–Cincinnati Bengals game that was suspended and later canceled by the NFL. Doctors said Thursday that Hamlin was making substantial progress and his neurologic condition and function are intact.
He is now also reported to be off the ventilator and talking.
That’s great. What’s not so great is how rapidly and shamelessly antivaxxers weaponized his collapse, which was most likely due to commotio cordis, a condition in which a blow to the chest—even one that doesn’t necessarily cause any damage to the heart muscle—can if suffered at the wrong time during the cardiac electrical cycle cause life-threatening ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest. Now let’s show how Damar Hamlin’s collapse on national TV happened just as the narrative that young athletes are dropping dead of heart problems due to COVID-19 vaccines, trust providing antivaxxers with an unprecedented propaganda opportunity.
The young athlete “variant” of the “died suddenly” narrative
You might think that his collapse and resuscitation were viewed by millions on live television, and certainly that is a major reason. However, what most people didn’t know at the time is that there was a preexisting “variant” of the “died suddenly” narrative claiming that an unprecedented number of athletes were collapsing and dying due to—you guessed it!—COVID-19 vaccines. Generally, the reasons claimed by antivaxxers involved myocarditis or clots, but after I started Tweeting about the cardiac arrest, I immediately started seeing antivaxxers Tweeting images like this at me:
This was a claim amplified by—of course—Tucker Carlson:
We’ve seen how Damar Hamlin’s collapse seemed tailor-made to amplify the subtype of the “died suddenly” antivax narrative in which supposedly an “unprecedented” number of young athletes are dropping dead due to COVID-19 vaccination, but where did that claim come from? Let’s take a look.
Peter McCullough amplifies an antivax narrative using numbers from an astroturf antivax website
As I saw my Tweets and my post from Wednesday about Damar Hamlin attract antivax attention, I soon noticed that many of the Tweets and social media posts featured this graph:
As you can see, this graph comes from a website called Real Science (GoodSciencing.com), whose tagline is “Science needs open discussion anything else is totalitarian.” (I normally say that grammar flames are weak, but I’ll make an exception here to point out the run-on sentence, mainly because it pains me to read it.) A quick perusal of the site shows that, contrary to its name, the website and blog is full of COVID-19 misinformation about vaccines, ivermectin, and masks, as well as science denial about climate change. The specific post featuring the graph above was 1616 Athlete Cardiac Arrests, Serious Issues, 1114 of Them Dead, Since COVID Injection.
First, I should mention that it’s blog post from anonymous authors, who describe themselves thusly:
We are a small team of investigators, news editors, journalists, and truth seekers, now backed up by others, who are discovering pieces of information that we can investigate. It doesn’t really matter who we are. What really matters is that we care carrying on an investigation and we’re presenting the evidence we’ve found, almost all of it documented in mainstream media publications.
We’re doing this anonymously because we’ve seen people viciously attacked and threatened for doing things like this, so we’re not going to open ourselves or any of our contacts to that. Also, please note, we’re not being paid and we’re not making any money from this – it is costing us time, effort, and money. We’re doing it because there is a concerted effort to block all of this information, but as some smart people used to say, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”Orac replies: Sunlight would indeed be the best disinfectant if that sunlight were shone on the identities of the “investigators” behind this blog and website. And before you say that Orac is the same, I will simply point out that, unlike the case for “Good Sciencing” or “Real Science” or whatever BS name these anonymous bloggers prefer, my real name has been one of the worst-kept “secrets” of the blogosphere for at least 15 years and that my real name is easily findable right here on this blog.
I call BS on the expressed fear expressed by these “investigators” of revealing their names. Rather, I suspect that there’s a good reason why they are hiding their identities. More likely than being afraid of professional consequences is the possibility that they are part of a dark money astroturf organization and have no relevant credentials, training, or experience to carry out the analysis they claim to be carrying out. (That much is obvious just from their “analysis.”) More likely, they are political operatives and propaganda specialists, rather than physicians, scientists, public health people, or any relevant specialty. I note that the Whois entry for the website shows that it was registered through Domains by Proxy in order to keep its owners private and anonymous. I note that this website is registered similarly, although the reason for that is because I don’t want to have to provide my home address, don’t have a P.O. Box, and my place of employment probably wouldn’t appreciated it if I were to use my business address to register this site.
It turns out that my suspicion is probably correct. A reader helpfully sent me a link to an investigation by Lead Stories that strongly suggests that my initial impression of “Good Sciencing” was correct, that it is pure astroturf. Hilariously, those behind the website were caught through their use of Gravatars.
If the same Gravatar profile image (with the same MD5 hash) shows up associated with user accounts on multiple sites it is undeniable proof they were created using the same email address. And if one of these accounts has a real name associated with it while the other one is anonymous, it makes for a pretty strong case they are both run by the same named person.
Indeed it is:
One of the first places where Lead Stories discovered the “1d94cab96e42e144bbcaf36675119606” Gravatar ID was also being used was in the user profile of a “Sally Gray” (archived here) on “The Editor’s Blog” of NewsBlaze.com. Other user accounts on that site can be found on this page: https://newsblaze.com/blog/wp-json/wp/v2/users (archived here). The main one appears to be “Alan Gray,” who is identified as follows in the data: “Alan Gray is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of NewsBlaze.” According to Crunchbase, “Sally Ann Gray” is the CFO of NewsBlaze as well as the co-founder (along with Alan Gray).
The same Gravatar ID again appears in the source code of this Folsom Local News article (archived here), attributed to user “admin,” with an author page reported to be at https://folsomlocalnews.com/author/alan. That page now redirects to https://folsomlocalnews.com/author/alan-2 (archived here), where it shows the name “Alan Gray.” In the source code the user is listed with a new Gravatar ID “2550a5dfe960d26581464c92430d5adc” and a Twitter account at https://twitter.com/newstext (archived here). That Twitter account has a bio identifying him as “Alan Gray” and “Editor at NewsBlaze,” located in Australia.
Even though it would at first seem strange for someone in Australia to be writing stories for a local news website of a California town, a lot became clearer after we found a press release titled “NewsBlaze Announces Strategic Business Marketing Partnership with Folsom Local News Media” (archived here).
NewsBlaze? That tracks, as there are examples of the writers there using British spellings and grammar, which led me to suspect that this site originated in the UK or Australia. Summing up the evidence, Lead Stories lists these lines of evidence:
- Alan Gray is the CEO and editor-in-chief of NewsBlaze.
- The “admin” user on goodsciencing.com uses an email address from a NewsBlaze-owned domain name.
- The same email address is used on accounts for several other websites connected to Alan Gray and to NewsBlaze.
- “Alan Gray” on Telegram and NewsBlaze Australia on Twitter were among the earliest to promote the site.
- NewsBlaze was communicating with a known anti-vaccine activist on Twitter only weeks before goodsciencing.com went live.
In any case, the above article is just a post from a bunch of anonymous astroturfing COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. Where’s the “peer-reviewed” article by Peter McCullough that antivaxxers were citing? Elsewhere, antivax presenter Liz Wheeler was Tweeting:
Later in her thread:
You might recognize the above quote as coming from a 2012 review article that I also cited when\ I first discussed Damar Hamlin’s collapse. However, note the article cited. It’s actually not an article at all, but a letter to the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology entitled Rational harm-benefit assessments by age group are required for continued COVID-19 vaccination, by Panagis Polykretis (whom I have never heard of before) and Peter McCullough, who has been fear mongering about COVID-19 vaccines causing a “holocaust” for nearly two years. Interestingly, Polykretis is a postdoctoral fellow at the Italian Research Council and a structural biologist. Unfortunately, my university doesn’t subscribe to this particular journal, but I did find a response by Polykretis to criticisms of his letter as being misinformation, and guess what he references?
Archive.org led me to the very earliest version of this post that has been on Wayback Machine, dated November 9, 2021. It was listed as an “update,” implying that there was an earlier version of the post that was never archived or existed under a different UR. However much earlier than November 9, 2021 this article was posted, at that time there were only 77 athletes listed, with the title of the post being 77 Athletes Suffer Cardiac Arrest, 28 Die, After COVID Shot.
Fortunately, I could glean enough of the text of the original “peer reviewed” letter from news reports and social media to know a couple of things. First, the anonymous blog, not any peer-reviewed source, really was the original source for the figure of 1,598 athlete cardiac arrests since early 2021. Second, the comparison being made was a specious one. Basically, McCullough and Polykretis compare the blog’s highly dubious estimate of “1,598” recent incidents of cardiac arrests in athletes to a 2006 study that found 1,101 reports of sudden cardiac death in athletes over a 38-year period, which is where the oft-cited (by antivaxxers) average of 29 per year comes from.
Right off the bat, we can easily say:
That analysis, however, reviewed literature specifically for reports of sudden cardiac death among athletes under the age of 35. The study also noted that its findings were limited because “SCD in young athletes as reported in the published and studied papers is certainly underestimated.”
Dr. Neel Chokshi, medical director of Penn Medicine’s Sports Cardiology and Fitness Program, said it would be “inaccurate” to make conclusions by comparing the 2006 study and the blog’s figures.
Or, as Dr. Eric Burnett observed, conveniently enough including a screenshot citing a large swath of text from the article so that I can show it to you:
He also noted that there were…differences…between how the authors of the 2006 paper estimated the number of sudden cardiac deaths (SCDs) in young athletes and how the anonymous antivax bloggers did it.
As I perused the blog post for the first time, like Dr. Burnett I immediately noticed a lot of questionable entries. Many of these athletes were indeed older than 35 years (some a lot older). For example, just a brief scroll down the list showed that the antivax blog had included:
- Mike Leach, a 61-year-old football coach who suffered a heart attack in his home (as if 61 year olds never suffered heart attacks in their homes before the vaccine).
- Antonis Mandalos, a 60-year-old Olympiakos Volos Football (soccer, for my US readers) player for 18 years and then coach, who collapsed due to a cardiac arrest.
- Tommy Kloza, the 65-year-old “popular owner of a long-standing gym in Rhode Island,” who “died “suddenly” and “unexpectedly” in the gym car park.” (Consistent with Newsblaze being behind “Good Sciencing,” that latter use of the term “car park” strongly suggests that the anonymous antivaxxers who wrote the article are British or Australian, as in the US we would say “parking lot.”)
I could go on and on, but a search for the word “coach” in the list revealed 179 matches. Some entries had the word “coach” or “coaching” more than once, but you get the idea. At least 150 of these people were coaches and no longer athletes, with many of them being much older than 35 and in prime heart attack age. Similarly a search of the word “retired” led to 42 matches, suggesting that dozens of these deaths were in people who had retired. One was a 47-year-old owner and breeder of trotters. Another was a 19-year-old who had gone on a swim on his own in Thousand Island Lake in California, trying to reach one of the islands. He didn’t make it. Again, it’s as if before the vaccines no one had ever overestimated his swimming ability before and died trying to swim too far in a very cold lake. How one relates this to COVID-19 vaccines other than delusional, I don’t know.
One of these deaths was from suicide:
15. 12/08/21, USA (27), Dead
Cameron Burell, Sprinter died mysteriously, ruled suicide by self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Was he vaxxed and if so, did he know his career was over? News Story
And right after that one:
16. 19/08/21 Dead
Phil Hernon (55), Bodybuilder died after ‘sudden recent decline,’ possibly dialysis related News Story
Here’s a hint: If you’re over 50 and on dialysis, your risk of dying in any given time period is way higher than that of a healthy 25-year-old athlete. In any event, I could cite example after example having just scrolled down part of the list. There are athletes and former athletes included on the list who died of suicide, car crashes, drownings, cancer, and even falling off of a cliff! As multiple fact checkers pointed out, this this article is nothing that in any way resembles serious science, and the fact that the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology actually published a letter that actually cited a blog post like this tells me all I need to know about the journal’s editorial standards.
As for how the group of anonymous antivaxxers behind “Good Sciencing” justifies its list, I can’t resist actually quoting their own blog post with its ever morphing and growing list of the dead, whether they are still athletes or not, no matter how old they are, no matter whether they were healthy or not—dialysis, anyone?—no matter whether their deaths could even remotely plausibly be linked to COVID-19 vaccines or not (e.g., suicides, falls, car crashes, and the like), no matter if we even know the vaccine status of those included on the list or not (in nearly all cases we do not) as they respond to the obvious criticism that the vaccination status of the people on the list is unknown:
In response to their pronouncement, here is a non-exhaustive and continuously growing list of mainly young athletes who had major medical issues in 2021/2022 after receiving one or more COVID vaccines. Initially, many of these were not reported. We know that many people were told not to tell anyone about their adverse reactions and the media was not reporting them. They started happening and ramping up after the first COVID vaccinations. The mainstream media still are not reporting most, but sports news cannot ignore the fact that soccer players and other stars collapse in the middle of a game due to a sudden cardiac arrest. Many of those die – more than 50%.
We also note that many posts in Facebook, Instagram, twitter, forums and news stories are being removed. So now we are receiving some messages saying there is no proof of the event or of vaccination status. That is partly because this information is being hidden.
More people are writing to tell us that in many cases, we didn’t mention a person’s vaccination status. There is a good reason for that. None of the clubs want to reveal this information. None of their sponsors want to reveal it. The players have been told not to reveal it. Most of their relatives will not mention it. None of the media are asking this question. So what should we do? Stop this now? No, we will collect as much information as we can, while it is still available, because eventually, more information will come out, and we will be here to put it together. Will it mean anything? We don’t know. What we do know is that there is a concerted world-wide effort to make this information go away, so that fact alone tells us it must be collected, investigated and saved so other researchers can look at it to see if there are any useful patterns.
Got it? “They” are covering up whether the athletes (and no longer athletes) on the list were vaccinated against COVID-19 or not, just as “they” are covering up whether Damar Hamlin was vaccinated or not. Never mind that sudden cardiac events are a common cause of death:
With about 325,000 adult cases annually, sudden cardiac death is “the largest cause of natural death in the United States,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. The condition is responsible for half of all heart disease deaths, the academic medical center says, and most frequently affects adult men in their mid-30s and 40s.
Nor is this variant of the “died suddenly” narrative a new conspiracy theory. As Dr. Susan Oliver showed in her video deconstructing this claim, the priming of the pump had begun months ago, when Pierre Kory amplified the claim that athletes were “dying suddenly” due to COVID-19 vaccines. Note that the video was first published on June 22, 2022, which is why neither Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest nor Dr. McCullough’s article is mentioned:
I’m also going to cite an actual peer-reviewed article that Dr. Oliver cited showing that, according to the FIFA Sudden Death Registry, 617 players with sudden cardiac events were reported from 67 countries, with 142 of them surviving their arrests. This was only for soccer players (or football to the rest of the world), not all athletes.
Unfortunately, Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was the inciting event for a perfect storm of antivax disinformation, timed perfectly. It happened on national TV during a Monday night NFL football game on the last night of a long holiday season, when a lot of people were off work and watching. It also happened only a couple of weeks after Dr. McCullough had become merely the most recent antivaxxer to have resurrected the conspiracy theory claiming that there had been a huge increase in the number of young athletes dying suddenly since early 2021 when, not at all coincidentally, the mass vaccination against COVID-19 really got underway, his letter to the editor having conveniently (for antivaxxers) been published right before the holiday season. The bottom line is that Damar Hamlin collapsed on January 2, but antivaxxers had been priming the “athletes dying suddenly” conspiracy pump for at least a year before he ever set foot on the field. They were ready, and they took full advantage, starting even before doctors and medics had finished resuscitating him.