I’ve written many times before about how antivaccine beliefs are rooted in what I like to call the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, which should not surprise anyone given that, when you boil any form of science denial down to its essence, all science denial is a conspiracy theory. In the case of antivaxxers, that conspiracy theory goes something like this. Vaccines are harmful/don’t work, but “They” (the CDC, medical profession, government, pharma, insurance companies, etc.) are hiding The Truth—with a capital T!—from you. However, antivaxxers are among the enlightened few who know The Truth—with a capital T!—and, as a result, have become brave maverick warriors for The Truth—with a capital T!—against the nefarious forces arrayed to defend the conspiracy. Once you understand this central premise, the antivaccine movement becomes a lot easier to understand as a movement; in brief, the antivaccine movement is really no different than QAnon, which, unsurprisingly, features a similar conspiracy theory, only about the evil elites. Understanding this central premise will lead you to understand as well articles like one by Alex Berenson (a.k.a. “the pandemic’s wrongest man“) How vaccine advocates think, to which he helpfully added the blurb:
An mRNA skeptic went to the World Vaccine Congress last week to find out. What he saw will disturb you.“Skeptic”? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Before I go on, I couldn’t help but wonder: What, exactly, is an mRNA “skeptic”? After all, mRNA exists. It was discovered 60 years ago and our understanding of what mRNA is, how it is produced, how the cell processes it, and how to use it in molecular biology experiments and, increasingly, for therapy in humans has only increased. Is this “skeptic” skeptical the mRNA exists? That it does what molecular biology and biochemistry have, as science, established what it does over the last five or six decades? I know, I know. To an antivaxxer an “mRNA skeptic” is just an antivaxxer who doubts that the mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 are safe and effective, but the sloppy language grates to the ear of a trained molecular biologist like myself. It bespeaks a lack of knowledge about the topic that makes an antivaxxer unable to think coherently.
That is a description that appears to fit Berenson quite well:
Last week, Dr. Madhava Setty, an anesthesiologist, decided – in his words – to go in “the belly of the beast” and attended the World Vaccine Congress, which bills itself as the “largest, most established meeting dedicated to vaccines.”
Setty didn’t find any conspiracy to depopulate the world or use nanochips to control humanity.
Imagine my relief that Setty didn’t discover a cabal of scientists led by Bill Gates, George Soros, and the lizard people planning to implant microchips or depopulate the world. That would have been quite the discovery in the “belly of the beast” at the World Vaccine Congress. I’ll also note that in 2018 I attended a spinoff of the World Vaccine Congress in San Diego, the World Vaccine and Immunotherapy Congress, where I was honored to meet two of my heroes, Drs. Peter Hotez and Richard Pan, with whom (among others) I took part in a discussion of the antivaccine movement and vaccine hesitancy. It was a little more than a year before the pandemic hit, and, from the perspective of 2023, seemed a much more innocent time.
Before I go on, though, I should mention that we have met Dr. Madhava Setty before, specifically when he used ridiculous “logic” to attack a randomized clinical trial that found that ivermectin didn’t work against COVID-19. Setty is also listed as a senior science editor at The Defender, which is the publication of Children’s Health Defense, which is the website of one of the most influential leaders of the antivaccine movement, none other than Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is getting ready to run for President.
In any event, Berenson continues:
Instead, he discovered widespread ignorance about the data on mRNA Covid shots – combined with a deep arrogance among conference leaders toward anyone who questioned those jabs.
As Setty explained in an email to me:
It was supposed to be a fact-finding mission but within the first few hours I couldn’t hold my tongue and began to ask simple but thoughtful questions of the presenters who were clearly ignorant (willfully or not) of the vast body of evidence that demonstrates that these shots are neither safe nor effective.
He has now published what he saw in a Substack that is equally enlightening and disturbing (and well worth your time).
Consistent with a conspiracy theorist’s view that he is one of the enlightened few who know The Truth—with a capital T!—and that the whole of the rest of the scientific community consists of brainwashed sheeple, it never occurred to Setty that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t know what he was talking about and that the vaccines are indeed safe and effective. Perish the thought! Setty knows The Truth—with a capital T!—and he couldn’t stand that the brainwashed sheeple scientists at the World Vaccine Congress apparently were unaware of that Truth. So Setty had to make a pest of himself and then write about it on his Substack and—of course!—for RFK Jr. on The Defender.
Basically, Dr. Setty summed up his views on how “they” think with some bullet points, which I will list here:
- The majority of attendees truly believe they are doing the right thing.
- The majority of attendees look no further than recommendations from agencies of public health to guide their opinions. In other words, they fully believe COVID-19 mRNA (and other) vaccines are exceedingly safe and have saved millions of lives.
- Beyond members of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) and officers from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), few, if any, are aware of vaccine trial and post-marketing observational data around COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy.
- The keynote speakers and expert panel moderators who raised the topic of “vaccine hesitancy” were dismissive of those who managed to avoid vaccination and were openly contemptuous of those who encouraged others to do the same.
- Except for a few instances, the tone of the presentations and round table discussions were collegial. Aside from the pointed questions that Mumper and I were able to pose, there were no open hints that any of the attendees questioned the conventional narratives around the COVID-19 pandemic response.
- One-on-one exchanges revealed encouraging signs that not everyone there has bought the conventional narratives around the pandemic.
- Calls for public-private “partnerships” were a common theme.
That second from the last bullet point is a common theme in antivax conspiracy theories. The basic idea is that “they” present a united front in public, but in private antivaxxers are having an effect and even members of the cabal behind the conspiracy are starting to have their doubts. Another common theme among antivaxxers is that the regulatory bodies (e.g., VRBPAC, UKHSA, the rest of the FDA and CDC, etc.) are completely oblivious to the supposed dangers of the vaccines. Seriously, it’s their job to examine the observational postmarking data for these vaccines and look for worrisome safety signals, and that’s just what they have been doing. In the US, they do it so publicly that antivaxxers can get onto the list of people providing public comment at, for instance, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) to try to score points. Similarly, any criticism of the antivaccine movement or discussion of how it stokes vaccine hesitancy is perceived as “contempt,” whether there is evidence of contempt or not.
This leads Setty to observe:
To summarize, leaders of the vaccine industry and the regulatory agencies are, in my impression, convinced that they have offered the world an amazing product and are frustrated that it is not being readily and universally accepted.
That’s because they have done exactly that. They have offered the world an amazing product, having developed it in record time, and that product has an amazingly good safety record after billions of doses administered. Are the vaccines perfect? Obviously not. They are not as effective at preventing infection and transmission as we would like, being only partially effective at that. However, the vaccines are very effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization, even in the face of the evolution of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, that can evade immunity due to prior infection or vaccination. Would it be better if the vaccines produced sterilizing immunity (that is, immunity that is so effective that it prevents infection completely or near completely)? Of course. Most vaccines, however, do not produce sterilizing immunity; yet they are still very useful and effective. Moreover, scientists understood that producing sterilizing immunity against a coronavirus would be difficult, but they also understood that a COVID-19 vaccine did not have to produce sterilizing immunity in order to be a highly useful tool to bring the pandemic under better control. They even wrote about it in 2021! As I’ve said, a good vaccine doesn’t have to induce sterilizing immunity or to be 100% effective at preventing transmission to accomplish a lot of very good things, again, not the least of which is preventing severe disease. Heck, during the conference, one of the speakers even said as much:
Marks, flanked by his partners — I mean counterparts — in industry let the audience know what the future would look like. “I am not going to hold my breath waiting for a sterilizing vaccine, protecting against severe disease is enough,” he said.
Again, sterilizing immunity would be great, but the goal is to prevent severe disease and at least slow the transmission of COVID-19. Antivaxxers make the perfect the enemy of the good by portraying any vaccine that is not 100% effective as not working at all and any vaccine that is not 100% safe as dangerous, toxic sludge.
Dr. Setty also expresses amazement that Dr. Gregory Poland, a famous vaccine scientist, still supports the vaccines and views them as a fantastic achievement, namely because Dr. Poland apparently suffered an adverse event after vaccination:
This first session was possibly the most fascinating 90 minutes of the entire week. Poland, I learned in a brief conversation with him after the conference, is also a pastor. His oratory skills were on full display during his opening and closing remarks, quoting both William Wordsworth and William Shakespeare among others. He asked us to acknowledge the limitations scientists have when looking at the world through the lens of duality.
Poland is also vaccine-injured.
In February 2022, Poland reported suffering from significant tinnitus after receiving the second dose of “an mRNA vaccine.” At the time, Poland described his symptoms as “extraordinarily bothersome.” Nevertheless, he chose to receive a third dose (monovalent booster).
Poland’s commentary on the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines was extremely positive. He said the rapid deployment of the new therapy saved millions of lives and would have saved millions more if it weren’t for the disturbing trend of growing vaccine hesitancy.
I assumed that his vaccine-induced tinnitus had resolved over the last year. It was only at the end of the conference, several days later, when he told me personally that his symptoms were still debilitating, making his unmitigated support of these products even more astonishing.
See what I mean? Dr. Setty finds it astonishing that an older man at high risk of severe complications from COVID-19 who, assuming for the moment that it was causation and not just correlation between his development of tinnitus and being vaccinated, would weigh the benefits of being vaccinated against what would appear to be in his case a higher risk of adverse events and then decide that the risk-benefit ratio of betting boosted would still be favorable enough to do it. Indeed, no doubt Dr. Poland related his reasoning, as he did to a reporter for this MedPage Today story a year ago:
Since then, Poland said he has been experiencing what he describes as life-altering tinnitus, or ringing in the ear. It occurs in both ears, but is worse in the left than in the right.
He remains steadfast that opting to receive his booster — after which his tinnitus briefly disappeared but then returned at a slightly higher pitch that made it just a bit less bothersome — was the right move. After all, it would be “way too ironic” for a prominent vaccinologist to die of COVID, he said. He also worried about the possibility of contracting COVID and spreading it to his patients.
Yet Poland realizes his life may never be the same, and that many others may be grappling with the same reality. He continues to receive emails from other individuals across the country and around the world who say they have also developed tinnitus after COVID vaccination.
The same story notes that there had not been definitive research linking the vaccines to tinnitus and:
And in a recent Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) analysis reported in the Annals of Neurology, tinnitus was among the most commonly reported adverse neurological events following vaccination. But its authors noted that rates of neurological adverse events were far higher following SARS-CoV-2 infection than after vaccination.
Just because I was interested, I searched PubMed for articles on COVID-19 vaccines and tinnitus. There were studies that didn’t find a correlation, others that suggested a correlation, and studies that pointed to confounding factors, such as inconsistent reporting, recall bias, and possible nocebo effects, that made it difficult to determine if there is a causal link.I will point out that the number of articles was surprisingly small; so I will agree that more research is needed. However, given the uncertainty and his high risk from COVID-19, I would also agree that Dr. Poland likely made a very reasonable decision. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Setty tries to portray Dr. Poland as a fanatic. His taking pains to mention that Dr. Poland is also a pastor was not coincidental. It is a common antivax talking point to liken support for vaccines as a religion. (This is, of course, purest projection.)
But what about this “contempt” of which Dr. Setty speaks? Apparently, this is one example:
The only failure came in the form of “inexplicable” vaccine hesitancy, a phenomenon driven by anti-vax pseudoscientists who are profiting from spreading baseless, fear-driven propaganda.
Combatting vaccine hesitancy, he said, is as big a challenge as protecting the world from the next deadly pathogen. Indeed, a significant portion of the events focused on strategies to dismantle the troubling “anti-vaxxer” movement.
That is actually the part of the conference that I’d be interested in, given that I have repeatedly expressed grave disappointment in how clearly unprepared public health, government, and regulatory authorities have consistently demonstrated themselves to have been and how little the understand the antivaccine movement. Indeed, I would argue that the very fact that Dr. Poland finds vaccine hesitancy with respect to COVID-19 vaccines “inexplicable” (assuming Dr. Setty’s characterization is accurate) to be evidence of that failure that I’ve lamented time and time again.
Marks supported Poland’s position that the vaccine-hesitant are irrational, “It’s crazy that they don’t get how great vaccines are,” he said. “I am past trying to argue with people who think that vaccines are not safe.”
This remark was particularly disquieting to me. What is it going to take for the director of the FDA’s CBER to ever reassess the safety profile of the mRNA shots, especially if he no longer wishes to engage with those who disagree with him?
The panelists expressed shock that some states (Idaho and North Dakota) are considering bills making the administration of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines illegal.
“How can we get the public to understand that science is iterative?” Heaton asked. “COVID vaccines save lives!”
Poland responded: “Can we get an amen?!!”
I groaned. I know what Dr. Poland was probably trying to do there, but antivaxxers love to portray supporting vaccines as a religion. Giving them obvious targets that make it easy for them to lend support to that idea is just not a good idea. Maybe he assumed that there were no antivaxxers in the audience, but anyone who can come up with the registration fee can attend these meetings. Why would vaccine advocates assume that antivaxxers wouldn’t “go undercover” like this to “find out how they think” and learn what they are saying?
Dr. Setty was also very unhappy to learn that his heroes on the antivaccine side are not viewed favorable at all by real vaccine experts. Why would they be? They peddle pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. For example, he related a conversation with to Dame Jennifer Margaret Harries, a British public health physician and chief executive of the UKHSA, about Dr. Aseem Malhotra:
Harries looked at me sternly and said, “There are a number of prominent physicians in my country who are gaining fame for their unfounded positions around vaccine dangers, most recently a cardiologist.”
“Do you mean Dr. Aseem Malhotra?”
“Yes. He has gotten a lot of attention of late.”
Harries didn’t think Malhotra or Lawrie held credible opinions, or at least that’s what she told me. It wasn’t easy for me to accept this. We didn’t have a chance to speak about this further. I had another brief interaction with Harries later in the week (see below).
Recall that Tess Lawrie has, in addition to promoting ivermectin as a cure for COVID-19 and cancer, recently started promoting The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy. Recall, further, that Malhotra has started promoting the “died suddenly” conspiracy theory about COVID-19 vaccines. And Dr. Setty is surprised that Harries doesn’t “think that Malhotra or Lawrie held credible opinions”? They don’t! They are quacks of the lowest order, and I’m glad that Harries understands this. I also understand that docs like Malhotra, Setty, and Lawrie love to engage in projection, accusing their critics of spreading “misinformation.” It also really got Dr. Setty’s hackles up every time an vaccine advocate
A common theme continued, in which Dr. Setty would ask antivax-based questions, didn’t get the answers he wanted or had the moderator move on, and then decided he was being disrespected. Meanwhile, Dr. Mumper also doesn’t like how vaccine advocates think, and Dr. Setty quotes her:
It was profoundly disturbing for me to hear details about how social scientists and public health officials worked directly with Twitter to remove content they deemed to be misinformation. Their assertion ‘that we know what is true’ did not ring true. Their efforts were directed at increasing vaccine uptake in all age groups for which emergency use authorization had been granted.
The speaker did not seem to take into account the First Amendment rights for free speech of those who posted data questioning the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.
I was surprised by the vitriolic rhetoric directed at those who reported side effects from the vaccine or who questioned the risk-benefit ratio.
It was unsettling to hear how public health officials courted social media influencers to spread messages for their followers to get vaccinated. Yet they scrubbed messages from doctors and scientists who posted inconvenient data about COVID-19 vaccines.”
This is another theme that runs through antivaccine conspiracy theories, namely that any effort to reach the vaccine-hesitant and persuade them demonstrates “contempt” and lack of respect and that the dismissal of antivaccine cranks (like Malhotra and Lawrie) represents arrogance. What I found from Dr. Setty and Mumper’s account is different, namely that these experts are distressingly unaware of common antivax misrepresentations of COVID-19 safety data, which led them to retreat to excuses of “I’ll have to look into it” instead of being able to refute the antivax misinformation right on the spot. This, in turn, fed Dr. Setty’s false narrative that those directing regulatory agencies are utterly unaware of the “real” safety data concerning COVID-19 vaccines, when in reality what Dr. Setty did was to confirm my critique of public health authorities: They are oblivious to specific antivaccine conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories.
It also allowed Setty and Berenson to write with a straight face:
In his note to me, Setty counted himself as somewhat optimistic:
I feel that there are huge strides that can be made towards clarity if we stop calling every single person on their side a mass murderer. They know not what they are doing and are beginning to understand what is transpiring. I think we can hasten the inevitable fall of the narrative if we handle this right.
I hope he’s right, but am not so sure.
Obviously, name-calling is counterproductive (and the paranoid speculations of some of the loudest mRNA vaccine skeptics, like Dr. Michael Yeadon, do not help those of us trying to raise more serious objections), but it is very hard to talk to people who don’t even know what they don’t know, unless they have some interest in finding out.
And an antivaxxer destroys yet another irony meter, given that Berenson has been quite prolific at name calling and “paranoid speculations.” Don’t believe me? Just peruse his Substack. I particularly like this part where he castigates “liberals” for “believing in science” and then says this about mRNA vaccines:
The mRNA jabs are extraordinary science. They are an incredible feat of biotechnology. We have figured out how to hijack our own cellular machinery in the same way viruses do.
As someone with a PhD whose thesis was heavily based on cell and molecular biology, I facepalmed. This isn’t the same thing. Viruses hijack cellular machinery for one purpose: To make lots of copies of themselves. That’s it.They use the cells they infect to replicate their genetic code and make proteins that coat that genetic code only for one purpose: To make copies. mRNA vaccines don’t do that at all. They “hijack” the cell to make one protein for a limited period of time in order to induce an immune response. In the same article, he portrays vaccine advocates as ignorant fanatics and himself as the one who knows The Truth (with a capital T, of course), while dismissing the scientific consensus (as all science deniers do) as “not science” and nothing more than a tool to suppress dissent (as Maryanne Demasi does here.)
Berenson even makes his belief that he and his fellow antivaxxers know The Truth—with a capital T!—while scientists do not:
As if those of us raising questions must be treated with kid gloves because we just don’t understand how science works. Don’t we understand basic biology? Don’t we know these drugs have been tested? Don’t we know there’s a process? Don’t we understand that sometimes terrible things can happen to people after they’ve received the mRNAs purely by coincidence?
We sure do. We understand everything these nice folks who got the shot do.
The problem is that we understand more.
No, Berenson, Setty, and Mumper do not understand basic biology. (I’ve written about more examples of this than I can remember.) They don’t understand the process. (I’ve written about this more times than I can remember too.) They don’t understand that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. (Their love of VAERS as seemingly the only vaccine safety monitoring system is evidence enough of this.)
More importantly, their belief that, not only do they understand science as well as experts, but they understand “more” shows one of the most important aspects of how antivaxxers think—and how they think vaccine advocates think. It’s the arrogance of ignorance. It’s also projection, as demonstrated by Berenson’s claiming that above “it is very hard to talk to people who don’t even know what they don’t know, unless they have some interest in finding out.”
A better description of hard core antivax conspiracy theorists would be difficult to find.