If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the last two decades dealing with antivax propaganda, it’s that bad papers written by antivax ideologues designed to promote a narrative that vaccines are dangerous and/or ineffective (but mostly dangerous) never die. Just take a look at the prototypical example of the modern antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 case series published in The Lancet that purported to show an association between the MMR vaccine and “autistic enterocolitis,” a finding that was also promoted from the beginning as a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. It took 12 years to get the paper retracted (as it should have been very quickly), with an investigation by journalist Brian Deer resulting in findings demonstrating scientific fraud. Unfortunately during that 12 years, Wakefield’s paper caused all manner of havoc stoking vaccine hesitancy in the UK and beyond. Even after retraction, it still has way more influence than any paper that bad and deserving of retraction should. I could go on and on discussing antivax papers that somehow either never died, survived retraction, or reappeared in new journals after retraction—Anthony Mawson, anyone?—but this time around I want to discuss a retracted paper that has reappeared, leading tech bro turned ridiculously over-the-top antivax influencer Steve Kirsch to write a post over the weekend on his Substack entitled MSU Professor Mark Skidmore was exonerated by MSU; his landmark paper showing over 250,000 killed by the COVID vaccine is now back in the peer-reviewed literature.
As you will see, this title is a mixture of one likely accurate piece of information that I will need to investigate further next week (about the IRB), a lie (that Skidmore’s study showed that as many as 278,000 people had been killed by COVID-19 vaccines), and a half-truth (that his awful “study” is back in the peer-reviewed literature).
First, let’s see what our antivax tech bro has to say, Predictably, he is crowing, because of course he is:
Mark Skidmore wrote a paper that showed that 217,000 Americans were killed in 2021 by the COVID vaccine.
The journal retracted the article and Mark’s university commenced a 7-month investigation into unethical behavior by Professor Skidmore.
Today, I’m pleased to announce that Professor Skidmore has been exonerated on all charges and his paper, with some helpful additions suggested by Dr. Susan Oliver (and her dog, Cindy), has now been published in another peer-reviewed journal.
Oh, dear. He’s dragging Dr. Oliver—and her dog Cindy!—into this and not me? It’s true that her video deconstructing Prof. Skidmore’s nonsense is an epic takedown of a really “stupid” paper (her words):
But, hey, Prof. Skidmore, Liberty Counsel, and Steve Kirsch, where’s the love for your humble SBM blogger too? After all, I wrote detailed deconstruction over at my not-so-secret other blog of why his paper was utter crap, why I thought that the IRB should have exercised better oversight, and why his “estimate” of over a quarter million people killed by COVID-19 vaccines was so risibly detached from data and reality. There’s a reason why I originally referred to his “study” as “antivax propaganda disguised as a survey.” (I’ll stop whining now, at least about this other than to assure Dr. Oliver that, no, even as bad as Prof. Skidmore’s paper is, contrary to what you say, it’s still not the worst antivax paper ever. I know. I’ve been at this a long time. Unfortunately.)
Since it’s been a long time since I wrote about the original iteration of this “study,” I will have to take some time to repeat major criticisms here as I discuss the situation., mainly because I think it’s necessary and better than just referring readers to my previous post, although that’s still there if you want to read it.
There’s also something very telling in how this “exoneration” supposedly came about:
See this press release that Mark sent me.
Bottom line: After a 7-month ethics investigation, Michigan State University found that Mark did nothing wrong!
Note: What this really means is that they tried for 7 months to find something they could nail him on, and they failed.
Not exactly, as I will explain. Before I get to the issue of the MSU IRB, let me point out that a powerful right-wing advocacy group that is not just Christian dominionist but antivaccine and rabidly anti-LGBTQ+ promoted this study and defended Prof. Skidmore during the IRB investigation. Interesting. Let’s see what the Liberty Counsel press release dated October 17 claims:
Liberty Counsel recently helped exonerate a Michigan State University professor after he received allegations that he had used “unethical practices” during a published COVID-19 shot study. The study highlighted a correlation between the COVID shot and nearly 300,000 nationwide fatalities. The peer-reviewed journal BMC Infectious Diseases originally published the study in January 2023, but later retracted it amid the allegations. Despite the study’s retraction, it remains in the top one percent of shared research around the world.
Remember what I said about how bad antivax papers have an outsized influence on social media? That link shows that Skidmore’s paper still has an Altmetric score of 4,962, which is #2 most shared from all BMC Infectious Diseases papers, with Altmetrics noting:
Altmetric has tracked 24,654,416 research outputs across all sources so far. Compared to these this one has done particularly well and is in the 99th percentile: it’s in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric.
Depressing, but it shows how popular antivax papers are, and, of course, Steve Kirsch relentlessly flogged this incompetent paper when it was first published. Now let’s look at the BMC Infectious Diseases retraction notice:
The editors have retracted this article as concerns were raised regarding the validity of the conclusions drawn after publication. Post-publication peer review concluded that the methodology was inappropriate as it does not prove causal inference of mortality, and limitations of the study were not adequately described. Furthermore, there was no attempt to validate reported fatalities, and there are critical issues in the representativeness of the study population and the accuracy of data collection. Lastly, contrary to the statement in the article, the documentation provided by the author confirms that the study was exempt from ethics approval and therefore was not approved by the IRB of the Michigan State University Human Research Protection Program.
This, of course, is just a very brief version of what I wrote about the paper and of the many criticisms that others made about it starting as soon as it was published. I will, however, have to go into the issue of the Michigan State University institutional review board (IRB), as it demonstrates how clueless many IRBs are about antivax “science.”
To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at the gloating of the Liberty Counsel:
After a seven-month ethics investigation, Michigan State University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) cleared Dr. Skidmore of any wrongdoing stating they did not find any “noncompliance” to their protocols within the study. Dr. Skidmore’s COVID shot study did not involve clinical work, but rather involved an online survey that posed little risk to human respondents. Due to his study being a survey only, the IRB at the onset of the research determined Dr. Skidmore’s study to be “exempt” from those clinical protocols and was cleared to proceed.
Later, I will then explain why this is a questionable finding that suggests a serious problem with university IRBs—a problem that is, unfortunately, more serious than even I had thought at the time. Finally:
While the original study remains retracted, the peer-reviewed journal Science, Public Health Policy & the Law recently published an updated version of the study titled, “COVID-19 Illness and Vaccination Experiences in Social Circles Affect COVID-19 Vaccination Decisions.” According to the study’s abstract, the primary goal was to identify what factors affect Americans in their decisions to get the COVID shot.
Does the journal Science, Public Health Policy & the Law sound familiar? It should. One thing lost in all the gloating by Steve Kirsch and the Liberty Counsel is that this particular journal is published by IPAK, as you can rapidly see by just glancing at the top of the first page of Prof. Skidmore’s revised paper. Then, take a look at the editorial board of this “journal”! It’s chock full of a veritable rogues’ gallery of antivaxxers, many of whom I’ve discussed before multiple times, including Russell Blaylock, Gayle DeLong, Brian Hooker, Mary Holland, Rick Jaffe (Stanislaw Burzynski‘s former attorney whom he stiffed for $250,000 in legal bills!), Anthony Mawson, Christopher Shaw, and Paul Thomas. (It’s a list that needs updating, because, sadly, Ms. DeLong passed away nearly two years ago.) Let’s just say that such a panoply of pseudoexperts, quacks, and pseudoscientists on the “journal’s” editorial board does not give me much confidence in its peer review. Basically, Prof. Skidmore, if he had any shame, would be super embarrassed by this, as his manuscript went from being retracted by a real journal to being published in a fake journal founded by an antivax pseudoscience that is used primarily to promote antivax pseudoscience.
What is IPAK, you ask? IPAK stands for the Institute of Pure and Applied Knowledge. If that name alone, even devoid of any knowledge of who is behind the “institute,” isn’t enough to send up huge red flags, then consider this. IPAK was founded by James Lyons-Weiler, an antivaxxer about whom I’ve written on many occasions dating back to before the pandemic, both here and on my not-so-super-secret other blog. As you will see, while it is true that the survey appears to have been to “identify what factors affect Americans in their decisions to get the COVID shot,” Prof. Skidmore went way beyond that by taking the results of the survey and extrapolating them to estimate that COVID shots had killed over a quarter million people.
Let’s start with a discussion of what’s wrong with this paper, how Skidmore revised it, and why the new paper is no better than the old, all in the context of how, in my opinion, the IPAK “journal” where the revised manuscript found a new home is not a real scientific journal at all, but an antivax propaganda rag that isn’t even indexed by PubMed.
The first version was a “bait and switch” study using horrible methodology
In my original analysis of the first version of this survey published in BMC Infectious Diseases, I referred to the whole “study” as a “bait-and-switch” designed to promote an antivax narrative. Here’s why. On the surface, the primary aim of the original version of Prof. Skidmore’s survey seemed not at all unreasonable, as related in the original abstract:
The primary aim of this work is to identify the factors associated by American citizens with the decision to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Nor was Prof. Skidmore’s methodology out of the ordinary—on the surface:
An online survey of COVID-19 health experiences was conducted. Information was collected regarding reasons for and against COVID-19 inoculations, experiences with COVID-19 illness and COVID-19 inoculations by survey respondents and their social circles. Logit regression analyses were carried out to identify factors influencing the likelihood of being vaccinated.
However, the true purpose of Prof. Skidmore’s survey rapidly became apparent, from what read to me like a tacked-on analysis:
In addition, the proportion of fatal events from COVID-19 vaccinations was estimated and compared with the data in the VAERS database.
As Scooby-Doo would, say, “Ruh-roh!” I sensed…an antivax assumption behind the survey, the same antivax assumption behind deceptive dumpster-diving into VAERS, namely that every report of a death or adverse event that occurs after vaccination must have been caused by vaccination.
And that appeared to be exactly the assumption that Prof. Skidmore had. First, let’s look at an entirely unsurprising finding of the original survey:
A total of 2840 participants completed the survey between December 18 and 23, 2021. 51% (1383 of 2840) of the participants were female and the mean age was 47 (95% CI 46.36–47.64) years. Those who knew someone who experienced a health problem from COVID-19 were more likely to be vaccinated (OR: 1.309, 95% CI 1.094–1.566), while those who knew someone who experienced a health problem following vaccination were less likely to be vaccinated (OR: 0.567, 95% CI 0.461–0.698). 34% (959 of 2840) reported that they knew at least one person who had experienced a significant health problem due to the COVID-19 illness. Similarly, 22% (612 of 2840) of respondents indicated that they knew at least one person who had experienced a severe health problem following COVID-19 vaccination.
As I noted at the time, it made intuitive sense that people who know someone who experienced a significant health issue after a bout with COVID-19 would be more likely to be vaccinated, while those who know someone who experienced a severe health issue after COVID-19 vaccination—whether that health problem was related to the vaccine or not, I hasten to add—would be less likely to be vaccinated. I conceded at the time that there might have been some utility in demonstrating this point about vaccine hesitancy yet again and perhaps attempting to quantify the effect. As I also said at the time, I had no problem with that sort of survey. What I did have a problem with is when such a survey was used as a jumping-off point to support conspiracy theories involving vaccine “depopulation” and “died suddenly” narratives. Here’s what I meant, again, quoting from the original version of the paper:
With these survey data, the total number of fatalities due to COVID-19 inoculation may be as high as 278,000 (95% CI 217,330–332,608) when fatalities that may have occurred regardless of inoculation are removed.
“Fatalities that may have occurred regardless of inoculation are removed”? How, pray tell, did Prof. Skidmore figure this out? Then there was the original conclusion:
Knowing someone who reported serious health issues either from COVID-19 or from COVID-19 vaccination are important factors for the decision to get vaccinated. The large difference in the possible number of fatalities due to COVID-19 vaccination that emerges from this survey and the available governmental data should be further investigated.
See what I meant at the time by a “bait-and-switch”? Prof. Skidmore started with what seemed to be a fairly reasonable conclusion (health issues among a person’s social circle after COVID-19 or COVID-19 vaccination influence will influence that person’s decision to get vaccinated) but then used unjustified extrapolation to buttress an antivax conclusion, namely that vaccines killed nearly 300K people. Prof. Skidmore then JAQed off about the supposed discrepancy between this estimate and government statements about the safety of the vaccines, using his JAQing off to call for an “investigation.” True, at the very end Prof. Skidmore conceded that there are “limitations with using a survey to collect COVID-19 health information, particularly for a politicized health issue” and respondents “often interpret events with bias due to perceptions based on history, beliefs, culture and family background.” (Well, duh.) Unfortunately, these limitations were only mentioned in a paragraph near the very end of the paper and did not dispel the overall narrative that this survey was evidence that COVID-19 vaccines had killed—as of the end of 2021, when the survey period ended—close to 300,000 people.
Regular readers know that the most significant limitations of the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database are that anyone can report anything and that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. That’s why antivaxxers have long loved to dumpster dive into the VAERS database and misrepresent every report as being slam dunk evidence that a given adverse event (AE) reported was definitely due to the vaccine that it happened after. As antivaxxers do with VAERS, Prof. Skidmore appeared to accept nearly every respondent’s report of a death from the vaccine as having been caused by the vaccine.
The first issue, though, was that a survey like this is just not a valid method to calculate a valid and accurate estimate of the number of deaths due to…well, almost any cause, regardless of the source of the survey subjects, in this case Dynata, a company that was billed as the “world’s largest first-party data platform” and having provided a sample that was “representative for the US American population.” Let’s assume for the moment that this claim is justified and the sample used was representative of the US population. Even in that case, Prof. Skidmore’s methodology that extrapolated from his survey results to claim such a high death toll from COVID-19 vaccines was completely bogus, given that deciding whether any given death is plausibly due to a vaccine is far from the straightforward determination that Prof. Skidmore apparently thinks it is. When someone in a person’s circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances dies, generally that person will just take the family members’ word for what the cause of death was, regardless of whether the family member is correct or not about that cause of death. Prof. Skidmore even conceded as much reporting one of his original results, sort of:
Estimated nationwide COVID-19 vaccine fatalities based on the Democrat, Republican and Independent subsets are 109,564, 463,444 and 247,867, respectively. With the vaccinated and unvaccinated subgroups, estimated COVID-19 vaccine fatalities are 110,942 and 659,995.
There was actually a germ of an interesting observation here, namely that political and ideological orientation has a huge effect on whether a person attributes the death of a loved one, friend, or family member to COVID-19 vaccines.This observation, however, said absolutely nothing about whether that death of a loved one, friend, or family member was actually caused by COVID-19 vaccines. Indeed, the huge discrepancy in the numbers based on ideological groups should tell you in and of itself that these numbers were perceptions, not reality. In the hands of a researcher not hellbent on spinning these results into antivaccine disinformation, these results could have served as the preliminary data from which to develop interesting hypotheses to test in further studies. Prof. Skidmore is an economist, however, not a social scientist, and instead he used these numbers to argue that we should “investigate” the apparent discrepancy between these numbers and the government’s figures. In other words, he used them to bolster the antivax “died suddenly” conspiracy theory that claims the vaccines are killing huge numbers of people but “they” are “covering up” the evidence:
The ratio of COVID-19 vaccine deaths to COVID-19 illness deaths of the people respondents knew best who had health problems is 57/165 =0.345, whereas the ratio of vaccine-associated fatalities to COVID-19 fatalities from government sources is 8023/839,993 = 0.0096. The null hypothesis (H0) that the true ratio, X, is equal to the CDC ratio which is also equal to the survey ratio: X = CDC Ratio = Survey Ratio.
This hypothesis is tested using state-by-state VAERS data on reported COVID-19 vaccine-associated deaths and COVID-19 illness fatalities. The alternative hypothesis (Ha) is: X = CDC Ratio < Survey Ratio. The mean (u) and standard deviation (σ) of the ratio of vaccine fatalities to COVID-19 fatalities from the state-by-state data are u = 0.0136 and σ = 0.0111. The probability that the Survey Ratio > CDC Ratio = X is P(CDC Ratio > 0.345). With P(CDC Ratio > 0.345) = 0 and a Z-score = 28.86; the null hypothesis is rejected.
So science-y! So statistics-y! So wrong!
So basically, Prof. Skidmore, for reasons known only to him, tested a fantasy hypothesis that his estimate of how many deaths resulting from COVID-19 vaccines based on a survey that reflected the perceptions of the respondents and notactual medical reality, should match government statistics and declared the hypothesis falsified when the two numbers turned out to be very different from each other. Then he did the same thing with VAERS. Truly, this was fractal pseudoscience whose abuse of frequentist statistics was truly impressive.
I also noted at the time that Prof. Skidmore’s ideological bias was far from secret, citing his website Lighthouse Economics, where he maintains a personal blog. Just a brief perusal of his blog demonstrates that he’s a hard core antivaccine conspiracy theorist. If you don’t believe me, just peruse some of these entries for yourself, such as:
- Technocrats-At-Work: Medical Profession Implements WHO’s Digital Diagnosis Code For The Unvaxxed
- All Hell Breaks Loose: Elon Musk Tweets He Felt He Was Dying After Booster, Young Cousin Hospitalized With Myocarditis; Scott Adams Says Anti-Vaxxers Were Right, Protests Outside BBC, Fox News VP Dies
- Africa Is Starkly Unvaccinated, and Starkly Unvanquished by COVID
- MRNA Vaccine is a “Shotgun Blast” to Brain and Reproductive Organs
- “Fully Vaccinated” 27 Year Old Model Dies Suddenly
You get the idea. Prof. Skidmore conducted his survey because he’s antivax.
More interestingly, the Funding section revealed to me that this entire survey had been funded by one person, Catherine Austin Fitts. At the time, I had never heard of Ms. Fitts; so Google was my friend. It didn’t take long to find out that she’s worked with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. before, with a Washington Post article noting:
The viral clip from “Planet Lockdown” depicts an interview with Catherine Austin Fitts, who served as assistant secretary of housing and urban development under President George H.W. Bush and has since worked in finance. Fitts, who has no background in medicine or public health, has worked with anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to promote unfounded claims about the pandemic and to oppose lockdown measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus.
So the original survey was carried by an antivaxxer using funding from an antivax conspiracy loon who’s worked with one of the longtime leaders of the antivaccine movement, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Moreover, the real purpose of Prof. Skidmore’s “research had been hidden in plain sight for nearly a year before the publication of the first version of his survey, as I discovered when I did some digging last January. Buried in a list of papers in a Steve Kirsch Substack entitled License to kill (and how to redpill patients) there’s a link to a paper published as a PDF on Prof. Skidmore’s site as a “working paper” entitled How Many People Died from the Covid-19 Inoculations? An Estimate Based on a Survey of the United States Population*. Interestingly, the primary and secondary aims listed in the “working paper” were identical to the aims in the retracted version originally published in BMC Infectious Diseases, but flipped. The primary aim in the old “working paper” dated February 28, 2022 was to examine “the potential fatalities and injuries from the COVID-19 inoculation using an online ‘Covid-19 Health Experiences Survey’ administered to a representative sample of the United States (US) population,” while almost as an afterthought Prof. Skidmore wrote that “I also analyze the factors that influence the likelihoods of being inoculated, experiencing an adverse event, and knowing someone who was injured by the COVID-19 inoculation.” (Emphasis mine.)
Looking at the original paper in light of this nearly year-old precursor (which quoted antivax luminaries like Sen. Ron Johnson and Informed Choice Australia—even the execrable Stephanie Seneff “review” article on vaccine harm), I remain even more convinced that the original paper was a total bait-and-switch and still think that Prof. Skidmore did the survey to come up with an inflated estimate for the number of COVID-19 vaccine “deaths” but also did an analysis of factors leading to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, which would be much more palatable to reviewers and thus more likely to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. He then shoehorned in the inflated, implausible, and unproven death estimates, whose successful publication in a reputable peer-reviewed journal was the realpurpose of this survey. The “working paper” version of the manuscript is a “greatest hits” collection of antivaccine tropes, distortions, and misinterpretations of scientific studies; the published version is cleaned up just enough to make it past peer review by people clearly not familiar with antivaccine disinformation but still keep the claim that COVID-19 vaccines caused 278,000 deaths in the final version, so that antivaxxers can point to it instead of the correlations between various responses and likelihood to accept the COVID-19 vaccine.
Now let’s take a look at the “revised” paper published by IPAK.
Second verse, same as the first (mostly)
The first thing I did examining the “revised” paper was to do a quicky text comparison of the abstracts of the two using BBEdit. It turns out that the abstracts are virtually identical, except for the format. Take out the headings and line breaks after each section from the retracted paper, and the text of the “revised” paper is identical to that of the original. Not a good sign. It is equally a bad sign that the entire introduction of the second version is virtually identical to that of the original version, other than referring to the CDC as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and differences in references cited in the more recent version. The second paragraphs of both introductions are identical, word-for word.
I did find some minor differences in the Methods section. For example, in the new manuscript Prof. Skidmore deleted a passage going on about how the CDC had supposedly changed the definition of COVID-19 deaths and was overcounting them, in essence a restatement of what I called the “only 6% gambit” from that claimed that “only” 6% of deaths attributed to COVID-19 were actually COVID deaths. It was a conspiracy theory that claimed that the CDC and others were misattributing deaths from other conditions to COVID-19. In addition, part of the passage deleted stated:
Additional analysis is conducted wherein CDC data on deaths per 100,000 people for pre-pandemic 2019 are used to calculate the expected number of fatalities by age group, which is subtracted from reported COVID-19 vaccine fatalities in the survey to obtain COVID-19 vaccine-related fatalities net of deaths that might have occurred regardless of vaccination status.
Apparently this analysis is not in the new version. More suspiciously, an entire section in the first version about how “severe” AEs were defined appears not to have made it to the new version. Basically, in the original version, a non-physician economist decided which AEs constituted potentially “severe” life-threatening AEs. In the new version, the criteria for severe AEs are much less clear, and Prof. Skidmore writes merely, “‘Severe’ and ‘less severe’ adverse events are calculated separately.”
Looking at the results in both papers shows…not much change. Other than format, Table I appears to be identical in both papers, as do Tables 2, 3, and 4. There is, however, a chart in the new version that was not included in the old, Figure 1:
To find out how Prof. Skidmore got this figure, you have to read the file named Supplementary Material 4, which contains a Microsoft Word file describing the methodology. It turns out that it’s basically the same nonsense that Prof. Skidmore did, just with more verbiage. Basically, he tries to estimate how many people would have “died anyway” not necessarily because of the vaccines by, well, let me just let him explain, so that you can facepalm at his “sensitivity analysis”:
It is possible that reported deaths following vaccination were not caused by vaccination but rather were coincident with vaccination. To address this issue, one could subtract deaths that might have occurred regardless of vaccination status. The phrasing of the survey question with regard to potential vaccine related health problems made it clear that health issues that emerged following vaccination should be reported. This suggests that it may be inappropriate to subtract deaths resulting from ongoing chronic conditions or other ongoing illnesses that would likely be known by respondent prior to vaccination. In other words, deaths that arise relatively quickly that might have occurred in tandem with vaccination but would have occurred regardless of vaccination status should be subtracted. According to Slovis, et al. (1), the five most common causes of sudden death are fatal arrhythmias, acute myocardial infarction, intracranial hemorrhage/massive stroke (cerebrovascular accident), massive pulmonary embolism and acute aortic catastrophe.
Available from the author upon request are the calculations for the reported Covid vaccine deaths from the survey along with the 2019 standardized mortality rates per 100,000 people for the top ten causes of death for each age group, which are obtained from the National Center for Health Statistics (2).
So basically, Prof. Skidmore assumes—and remember what they say happens when you “assume” anything—that any increase in “sudden” deaths over the “baseline” in 2019, as opposed to deaths from chronic diseases and conditions, that occurred after the vaccines rolled out,. were most likely due to the vaccines, assuming that people with chronic diseases who died relatively quickly would probably have “died anyway.” Maybe an epidemiologist will request the calculations. I know that Prof. Skidmore knows who I am and would be highly unlikely to provide me his calculations.
In the revised paper itself:
This evaluation is conducted under the assumption that the reported vaccine-related fatalities and injuries are caused by the COVID-19 vaccine but is now relaxed by reducing the number of reported fatalities by the deaths due to other causes that would be expected to have occurred anyway. Subtracting expected fatalities from “quick onset” conditions (diseases of the heart and cerebrovascular diseases) generates estimated nationwide COVID-19 vaccine fatalities of 205,737. If all expected fatalities except those from external causes are subtracted, estimated nationwide COVID-19 vaccine fatalities are 126,407. More detail on these calculations is provided in Supplementary Material 4.
And in Supplemental Material 4:
As shown in Figure 1 in the body of the article, expected fatalities exceed reported fatalities for the 65-74 and 74-85 age groups, but the other categories generate positive vaccine deaths after subtracting expected fatalities. Setting COVID-19 vaccine fatalities to zero for the 65-74 and over 74 age groups, and tallying net fatalities for the other age groups generates 39 vaccine-related fatalities. Applying the same method described in the article to calculate estimated nationwide vaccine-induced fatalities generates 205,737 fatalities. Subtracting expected fatalities from all causes generates negative net fatalities for the 55-64 age group as well. In this case, the sum of fatalities net of all expected fatalities is 25, which generates projected fatalities nationwide of about 126,407 fatalities.
Wait, what? I thought that the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval was 229,319!
In any case, surely you can see the problem with extrapolating in this fashion from 39 fatalities—or 25 fatalities or however many people who reported knowing someone who died after COVID-19 vaccination—even if they were truly related to COVID-19 vaccines, to produce an estimate in the hundreds of thousands of deaths. It’s the same essential problem with the first manuscript, and the second is no better. It’s the same analysis, with the same four tables, just with an additional tacked-on graph based on a meaningless extrapolation from small numbers. To put it more broadly, extrapolating the results of a survey with 2,840 respondents to a population of roughly 330 million is problematic enough, even if you leave aside the fact that what is being reported is perception, not reality.
Truly, the new and “revised” version of this “study” is, for all intents and purposes, nearly identical to the retracted study. Both are bad science. The only difference is that now the “study” is published in an appropriate journal, a fake journal with an editorial board full of antivaxxers sympathetic to bad “science” like this, letting Prof. Skidmore come to use invalid assumptions, unwarranted extrapolation, and general bad science to come to exactly the same conclusion as he did in his retracted paper, “The large difference in the possible number of fatalities due to COVID-19 vaccination that emerges from this survey and the available governmental data should be further investigated.”
But what about the IRB?
Now that we’ve established that Prof. Skidmore’s revised paper is just the same old rancid wine in a new skin, it’s important to address the second part of all of the crowing coming from Steve Kirsch, the Liberty Counsel, and, yes, James Lyons-Weiler himself over how Prof. Skidmore has been “exonerated” (and therefore you should believe his crappy paper just because the IRB didn’t find that he had done anything wrong and an antivaxxer was willing to publish his dreck in his fake journal). The Liberty Counsel, being a right-wing crank group run by lawyer and former pastor Mat Staver, couldn’t resist framing its victory thusly:
Since 2021, there have been several instances of publications retracting research that has identified possible causal links between COVID-19 shots and adverse reactions. In July 2023, Dr. Peter McCullough, an internist, epidemiologist, and one of the most published cardiologists in America with more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications to his credit, was quickly censored within 24 hours after he published an article showing clear evidence that the COVID-19 shots were responsible for many deaths. Out of 325 autopsies from various global locations, the study revealed the COVID shots directly caused or significantly contributed to up to 74 percent of those deaths. The Lancet, which initially published the article, took less than 24 hours to remove it citing the study fell short of the journal’s “screening criteria” and that the study’s methods did not merit its conclusions.
Not mentioned is that Dr. McCullough is now a quack selling dubious supplements to treat COVID-19 and to “detoxify” you from the supposedly deadly spike protein made after vaccination with mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines and that both of those paper were pure dreck. I laughed out loud at this part, though:
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The allegations against Dr. Mark Skidmore were baseless. Researchers with integrity like Dr. Skidmore are using rigorous scientific protocols to validate the dangers of the COVID-19 shots. Censoring scientific debate is reprehensible and our researchers need to be free to conduct proper science without fear of late
Again, to me such retractions are quality control, not “censorship,” although I remain continually frustrated how poor and slow that quality control is. Also, “rigorous scientific protocols”? You keep using that term. I do not think it means what you think it means, but, then, neither Mr. Staver nor Prof. Skidmore are physicians or scientists.
As for the MSU IRB, what happened? Liberty Counsel, before crowing about Prof. Skidmore’s “exoneration,” writes:
The study’s author, Dr. Mark Skidmore, is an economics, natural disasters, and pandemics researcher with more than 90 published papers. Liberty Counsel assisted him in reviewing the anonymous complaints and responding to the investigation to appropriately address all the concerns. In essence, the complaints alleged Dr. Skidmore did not follow the rigorous oversight procedures required for clinical studies. A “guilty” finding from the university on this type of complaint could have serious consequences for a researcher’s credibility and career, since clinical studies involving human subjects have strict oversight and protocols to ensure no harm comes to study participants.
That’s laying it on a bit thick. Prof. Skidmore is described on his MSU webpage as tenured Professor and Morris Chair in State and Local Government Finance and Policy, while currently serving as a resident fellow with the MSU Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy, as well as holding appointments in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics and Economics. His areas of expertise include public finance policy and the relationship between policy and economic development, with recent research areas including work on property taxation, regional development, and the economics of natural disasters. None of this betrays any evidence of work on pandemics before this. I perused his list of publications, and didn’t find anything related to pandemics other than this most recent paper.
First of all, I always rather half-feared that the MSU IRB would fail to find any wrongdoing or failure. As I asked while discussing the now-retracted first version of this manuscript: How did this study manage to get approval from MSU’s IRB, anyway? My guess at the time was that the survey looked like a straightforward assessment of factors that affected people’s decision to be vaccinated against COVID-19, without any obvious indication how the authors would use the results to deceptively claim that close to 300,000 people had been killed by COVID-19 vaccines and then bolster a conspiracy that the government was somehow hiding this carnage. Again, the whole study struck me (and continues to strike me) as a bait-and-switch designed to get antivaccine disinformation published in a peer reviewed journal. Also, Prof. Skidmore purchased access to the sample surveyed from a company, which anonymized the data, meaning that Prof. Skidmore did not have access to personally identifiable information of the subjects.
IRBs are tasked with ensuring the safety of human subjects in research, as well as with protecting their rights. The definition of “human research” is not always clear, however, when it comes to social sciences and surveys. It is true that many surveys fall into a human subjects research category that is exempt from detailed IRB oversight—but not exempt from all IRB oversight. For example, my guess is that Prof. Skidmore’s research most likely qualified for this exemption, which requires a limited IRB review:
Exempt 2(iii). LIMITED IRB REVIEW REQUIRED. Research involving the use of educational tests, survey procedures, interview procedures or observation of public behavior and information obtained is recorded by the investigator in such a manner that the identity of the human subjects can readily be ascertained and disclosure of the responses outside the research could reasonably place the subjects at risk.
This exemption requires a limited IRB review to make the determination that “[w]hen appropriate, there are adequate provisions to protect the privacy of subjects and to maintain the confidentiality of data.” That’s it.
If the IRB didn’t know about the antecedent “white paper” showing the true purpose of Prof. Skidmore’s survey as an instrument designed to estimate how many people had died from COVID-19 vaccinations, I’m sure that the survey probably looked benign enough to the IRB, just a tool to estimate vaccine hesitancy and relate it to different socioeconomic and societal characteristics. The only reason it needed limited review was because the identity of the human subjects might have been able to be ascertained. Also, the survey itself (in Supplemental Materials 1) describes the purpose of the research only as, “You are being asked to participate in this web-based survey in order to increase our understanding of the health experiences people have had during the COVID-19 crisis period.” Again, that sounds pretty benign, with no indication of what Prof. Skidmore was really going to do with the results.
If the failure of the MSU IRB to detect that this survey was really human subjects research in the form of a pseudo-epidemiological study was quite understandable two years ago, when the initial study was being reviewed, why is it that the IRB did not find any violations on the part of Prof. Skidmore once he had published his paper misusing the results to extrapolate in a completely invalid fashion from his survey a huge number deaths due to COVID-19 vaccines? After all, if the scope of a survey-study expands to become arguably human subjects research, then a good case can be made that the IRB should treat it as more of an epidemiological or clinical study.
So why did the IRB fail to act? One possible reason is that the subjects were drawn from a company, meaning that, although the company knew who the survey subjects were, Prof. Skidmore did not because the data were anonymized. (That’s one reason to use a company like Dynata.) Another possible reason is a common view that it’s not the job of the IRB to police bad science except when the poor quality of the science endangers the human subjects in the study. As a result, IRBs are less likely to intervene against bad science when the study is “just a survey” than when it is an actual clinical trial or clinical study with patients. Finally, one can’t discount the very real possibility that the university was afraid of litigation by the Liberty Counsel, which has very deep pockets, aggressive lawyers, and a propensity to sue, sue, sue, and found it easier just to let Prof. Skidmore off rather than face the wrath of the Liberty Counsel. Which of these, either alone or in combination, was the reason for the shameful dereliction of duty by the MSU IRB? I have no way of knowing. I just know that the MSU IRB failed miserably in this instance, even if it did so by following the letter of the law governing human research but ignoring its spirit.
I began this post by stating that the antivax narrative about the “exoneration” of Mark Skidmore is based on one possibly accurate piece of information, a lie, and a half-truth (that his awful “study” is back in the peer-reviewed literature). The likely accurate piece of information is that the MSU IRB did “exonerate” Prof. Skidmore of violating US regulations with respect to human subjects research. (Note that it did not “exonerate” his study on a scientific basis.) The lie is that Prof. Skidmore’s study is evidence that COVID-19 vaccines might have killed well over a quarter million people by the end of 2021, which was only a little more than a year after the vaccines had rolled out. The half-truth is that the study is back in the peer-reviewed literature. I’m sure that Science, Public Health Policy & the Law probably does do a form of “peer review,” but, if its editorial board full of antivaxxers is any indication, that peer review is perfunctory, low quality, and biased towards papers claiming to find nonexistent dangers du to vaccines. Also, the journal is not indexed by PubMed, for obvious reasons. In my opinion, it’s a fake scientific journal run by cranks.
Whether the MSU IRB failed or not, I do take some consolation in the utter humiliation of an antivax crank like Prof. Skidmore, except that he appears to be too shameless to care about how much his credibility outside of right wing antivax circles has likely been devastated. His paper was retracted by a real journal with a good reputation, and, MSU IRB “exoneration” notwithstanding, he was reduced to publishing it in a not very heavily revised form in a highly dubious journal that was founded by an antivaxxer and whose editorial board consists of the dregs of antivax “academics.” It is a fate that he richly deserves, although, again, I fear that he is far too shameless to appreciate just how far he has fallen. On the other hand, his cachet in the antivaccine movement has been bolstered because now not only does he have a narrative of having been “censored” when his original manuscript was retracted but he now has added a narrative of “exoneration,” even if it requires publishing in an antivax journal that, I daresay, before the pandemic he never would have considered, recognizing it for what it is.
Unfortunately, the power of crank journals like IPAK’s resurrected the rotting corpse of Prof. Skidmore’s antivax “study,” and Skidmore was all too willing to let the dark necromancy do its dirty work. On Halloween, Prof. Skidmore’s zombie antivax pseudoscience is back from the grave and ready to party with COVID-19. Worse, it’s already bitten Steve Kirsch, who, infected by the zombie virus of bad science, is no longer content just to promote Prof. Skidmore’s incompetent survey but rather needs to one-up him with an even worse antivax survey. Truly, this bad survey virus produces brain-eating zombies.