I realize that I’ve written about just how antivaccine environmental activist turned antivaccine crusader turned independent Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is, but the more attention he gets the more I feel the need to periodically remind everyone just how antivaccine he is. What prompted me to post yet another in this series of posts about RFK Jr. was his appearance a week ago at a conference in Georgia run by his own antivaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense (CHD). Usually, what periodically prompts me to feel obligated to address RFK Jr.’s antivaccine misinformation is seeing someone, either a blogger or in the press, trying desperately to argue that RFK Jr. isn’t antivaccine—and especially when I see a formerly respected physician start saying that RFK Jr. “makes fair points.” This time, around, it was something about RFK Jr.’s message to his fellow antivaxxers plus the setting of the antivax gathering itself that inspired me to discuss him yet again. Specifically, it was what RFK Jr. said in this news story about the conference:
At an anti-vaccine conference in Georgia on Friday, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.confirmed his commitment to the cause and spoke to his base about how he, as president, would serve the movement he built.
“I feel like I’ve come home today,” he said to a standing ovation, crediting the assembled audience with his candidacy.
He then laid out his vision for a Kennedy presidency, which would include telling the National Institutes of Health to take “a break” from studying infectious diseases, like Covid-19 and measles, and pivoting the agency to the study of chronic diseases, like diabetes and obesity. Kennedy has suggested without evidence that researchers and pharmaceutical companies are driven by profit to neglect such chronic conditions and invest in ineffective and even harmful treatments; he includes vaccines among them.
“I’m gonna say to NIH scientists, God bless you all,” Kennedy said. “Thank you for public service. We’re going to give infectious disease a break for about eight years.”
You have to admire the false confidence in RFK Jr.’s statement, namely the assumption that he will not only be elected in 2024 but will serve two terms. Of course, most Presidential candidates express similar confidence, whether justified or not, but coming from him it is a bit more jarring than the usual candidate blather. More importantly, the biggest “WTF?” moment was RFK Jr.’s promise to institute an eight year “pause” in research into infectious diseases like measles and COVID-19 because supposedly pharmaceutical companies have been “neglecting” chronic diseases because infectious diseases and vaccines are supposedly so much more profitable for them.
My first thought was: Seriously, man. Get your story straight. You might recall that before the pandemic one of the most common tropes in the antivaccine movement was that “managing” chronic diseases with medications that people have to take for the rest of their lives is so much more profitable than “curing” those diseases. According to antivaxxers, that was supposedly why there was so little appetite for truly “revolutionary” approaches to diseases like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease or, more commonly, why “natural treatments” that could supposedly reverse these diseases were ignored by physicians, who supposedly profited from the supposed big pharma gravy train. Like all good conspiracy theories, this concept seemed convincing to many because there was a grain of truth at its core. There can be an incentive to produce drugs that people have to take for long periods of time—or even the rest of their lives. Where antivaxxers like RFK Jr. and CHD dive deeply into conspiracy theories is in their claims that, not only is big pharma incentivized to produce medications that require lifelong usage, but they are creating the very chronic diseases that require them, as was argued in CHD multiple times, for instance here, where Nate Doromal contrasted chronic health conditions to COVID-19:
Clinicians have been aware of the rise of chronic illnesses in children, yet they cannot explain why. If doctors do not fully understand these chronic illnesses, they cannot prevent them. Nor does the practice of medicine deal with the underlying causes of these illnesses.
Instead, medicine focuses on the short-term treatment of symptoms. Children with diabetes are given insulin for the rest of their lives, asthma patients are given inhalers, children with severe food allergies carry around EpiPens and many others take a cornucopia of pharmaceutical drugs.
Medicine is not hurrying to change the status quo. There is no accompanying public health mobilization to find permanent solutions to chronic illness as there was with COVID-19. Instead, things are fine and dandy as clinicians prescribe short-term remedies while passing the buck on dealing with root causes.
Elsewhere, CHD claims that pharma is happy about the epidemic of obesity in children because they can market weight loss drugs to kids, which are also supposedly linked to heart disease and cancer. You get the idea behind the conspiracy theory: Medicine ignores what creates chronic diseases but medicine and pharma are only too happy to profit from long term treatment of chronic illnesses. Before I get to RFK Jr.’s message about infectious diseases and vaccines and why it’s so at odds with reality, let’s take a look at the meeting itself.
“Rise and Resist”: CHD’s 2nd Annual Conference
The first thing I did after seeing Brandy Zadrozny’s news report on the CHD conference and its keynote speaker, founder RFK Jr., was to wander over to its website. Contrary to RFK Jr.’s attempts to claim that he is “not antivaccine”—or even that he is “fiercely provaccine”—the speaker lineup proved to be a veritable rogues’ gallery of antivax grifters, headlined by RFK Jr. himself. Here is a decent sampling of the lineup:
Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of some of these people, but most of them I am very familiar with, having written about them many times. Obviously, there’s RFK Jr., whom I’ve been writing about for over 18 years ever since he first wrote Deadly Immunity, which posited a vast conspiracy that the CDC “knew” that mercury in vaccines caused autism but covered it up. Not content to have arguably the most famous antivaxxer on its lineup, CHD also invited the granddaddy of the 21st century antivax movement, Andrew Wakefield. Seeing Wakefield in the lineup, I half wondered: Where’s Del Bigtree, given that Wakefield and Bigtree produced what was arguably the most influential antivax pseudodocumentary of the prepandemic era, VAXXED, but Brian Hooker likely fills in ably given that he was the one who first found the “CDC whistleblower” at the heart of the antivax conspiracy theory woven in the film. Then, of course, there’s Aseem Malhotra, a UK cardiologist turned antivax conspiracy theorist and propagandist who is one of the more famous faces of the anti-COVID-19 movement in the UK. Suzanne Humphries is, of course, a blast from the past, a longstanding antivax activist going way back, who has written a book about polio that has to be seen to be believed.
Among all the rest, I can’t help but notice that Christina Parks has moved up in the antivax world. She used to be a regular at local Michigan antivax and anti-“lockdown” protests early in the pandemic, as well as having spewed antivax talking points during testimony to the Michigan legislature against vaccine mandates, but now apparently she rates an invitation to the big time, which CHD definitely is in the antivax world. I note that Parks is not a professor, researcher, or academic, having apparently abandoned such pursuits long ago, even though to my embarrassment at having to admit it she did get her PhD at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with her being a teacher. It’d be great if more PhD scientists went into teaching science, as it is indeed a noble calling. However, whenever I encounter Parks, I also can’t help but point out for my readers that she and CHD are clearly using her PhD to imply that she is still a molecular biology researcher. So she was—over twenty years ago—and she apparently isn’t even a teacher any more, having left her job to do homeschooling, while more recently she appears to have founded an educational consulting business. Basically, hers is an appeal to false authority. Does her training two decades ago make her more knowledgeable than the average Joe about molecular biology and science? Sure. However, her knowledge is likely highly out of date if she hasn’t been in the field keeping up. She’s also clearly gone woo:
Thus, Dr. Parks brings a wealth of knowledge about how vaccines affect the immune system. Dr. Parks has spent many years studying the biochemistry of how pharmaceuticals and natural substances that enter our bodies affect the expression of genes and biochemical pathways that are essential to our health and well-being. Dr. Parks focuses on supporting the body in activating its natural detoxification and healing pathways by bringing signaling pathways back into balance.
Ah, “natural detoxification and healing”! Also, get a load of the panels that she’s on:
I realize that readers might have wondered why I devoted an so much verbiage to Dr. Parks. It’s simply because she’s from my home state and alma mater, as well as because her speaking at this conference signals to me how much she’s moved up in the antivax world. In addition, I had to note how Mark Skidmore, whose unbelievably awful “survey” claimed to have found that COVID-19 vaccines killed over a quarter million people in 2021, is also moving up in the antivax world. His paper, of course, was retracted and then laundered through James Lyons-Weiler’s fake journal. Let me just say this: If you appear at a CHD conference, you lose all plausible deniability when it comes to charges of being antivaccine. Also, if you actually work for CHD as a director, “scientist,” legal advisor, or whatever, similarly, you also lose all plausible deniability about being antivax. The same is true if you appear on a CHD video with longtime antivax activist Leslie Manookian. Remember her? Now there’s a blast from the past!
As for the rest, many are likely so familiar to our readers, such as antivax pediatrician Paul Thomas and Andrew Wakefield’s buddy Polly Tommey (not pictured above) that I don’t feel the need to recount just how antivax all of them are. I was, however, curious about Brad Skistimas and his Five Times August act; so I looked him up and, well, his music is basically what you might expect, folk/folk-rock antivax:
Anyway, whether the act was any good before going antivax during the pandemic, Five Times August now sounds like the folkie version of the Refusers (remember them?), a hilariously bad antivax rock group whose heyday in the antivax world was a decade ago, although these days Eric Clapton and Van Morrison have been sounding more and more like the Refusers. (Maybe Five Times August will be opening for Eric Clapton and Van Morrison the next time they tour.) Also, let’s just say that his Instagram account is…something else. I suspect that Tom Morello would not appreciate this:
In any event, I think I’ve made my point about the CHD conference being totally antivax, although in fairness it also features quacks who are luminaries in the anti-5G fear mongering movement, as well as that all purpose defender of quacks and antivaxxers everywhere who was formerly cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski’s lawyer until Burzynski stiffed him for a $250,000 legal bill, Rick Jaffe. If I haven’t just peruse the advertised topics:
- The Ominous History of the Vaccine Program
- What You’re Not Told about the Vaccine Schedule
- Cover-Ups, Censorship & Persecutions
- The Truth About Vaccine Injury
- The Financial System Crisis & What You Can Do
- CHD.TV from Savannah
- How to Reestablish Scientific Integrity
- Functional Assessments: A Better Approach to Healthcare
- Environmental Contaminants: Proper and Improper Mitigation Strategies
- Threats to Our Food Supply and Solutions
- Wireless Technology & EMR: Solutions To Protect Your Home & Your Community
- The Legal Battles: The Wins, The Losses & Our Next Steps
- The CHD Bus — Vax-Unvax: The People’s Study
You get the idea. But what about RFK Jr.’s speech? Let’s take a look.
RFK Jr: Still antivax after all these years
Since he first announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President before eventually figuring out that he has no chance of winning the nomination and pivoting to run for President as an independent, RFK Jr. has been trying to convince people that he’s not antivaccine. For example, this news story from Zadrozny published in June noted:
But Kennedy doesn’t want to talk about vaccines — at least not from the campaign trail.
In a 108-minute speech in Boston in April announcing his run, Kennedy never brought up vaccines — alluding only once to some mystery cause for all childhood ailments. It was a striking omission for the founder of Children’s Health Defense, the country’s largest anti-vaccine organization, which describes itself as a “child health protection and advocacy group.” The organization’s employees sell Kennedy’s buttons and bumper stickers and its on-leave president is now the campaign’s director of volunteers.
Full-page newspaper ads supporting Kennedy make no mention of vaccines. The super PAC that paid for them — an anti-pharmaceutical industry organization that pivoted to supporting Kennedy’s candidacy — is run by John Gilmore, the president of Children’s Health Defense’s New York chapter. A main funder, Wall Street trader Mark Gorton, is also a major donor to Children’s Health Defense.
Kennedy also doesn’t discuss vaccines in the 8-minute promotional video posted on his social platforms in June. Titled “Running on Truth,” the video features heroes of the anti-vaccine movement who similarly skate past any talk of vaccines.
And Del Bigtree, founder of the second-best-funded anti-vaccine nonprofit (after Kennedy’s) who acts as Kennedy’s hype man at fundraisers, only winked at the reason for his endorsement, tweeting, “I just donated $100. If you know why I did it then join me.”
Bigtree’s response immediately brings to mind a famous Monty Python sketch. More recently, this weekend there appeared a puff piece on RFK Jr.’s campaign in the Deseret News. Curiously, it only mentions vaccines briefly and in passing:
An environmental lawyer, he spent decades litigating to protect waterways. He was also involved in several controversial issues, founding Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit that has advocated against vaccines for children, claiming links to autism. He’s shared a number of controversial theories relating to school shootings and COVID-19 vaccines. In more recent interviews, however, he’s taken a more measured approach. “All I’m saying,” he told Bill Maher, “is let’s test (vaccines) the way we test other medicines. That does not seem unreasonable.”
“Controversial”? I think the correct description is “bonkers conspiracy theories about vaccines.” It also reports something that is out-and-out false:
But Kennedy knows Trump, too — at Trump’s invitation, Kennedy served on a vaccine safety commission during the Trump administration.
Not exactly. Then President-Elect Trump did invite RFK Jr. to meet with him during the transition in 2017, ostensibly to discuss the possibility of his chairing a “vaccine safety commission.” However, the commission never came to be; so RFK Jr. never chaired it, even though the meeting did fire up antivaxxers to flood the transition team with anecdotes about “vaccine injury.” I repeat, though: The commission never happened, even though Donald Trump himself had had a long history of credulity about antivax pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism and had met with Andrew Wakefield himself during the 2016 Presidential campaign.
Normally, whenever I see a speech like RFK Jr.’s CHD speech hyped, I look to the antivax crankosphere to find video of the whole thing, or at least more quotes, either video or documented, then I could find in Zadrozny’s report. Oddly enough, I was unable to find video or a transcript of RFK Jr.’s speech, despite searching rather vigorously on his website. RFK Jr. doesn’t mention it on his own X/Twitter feed, nor can I find it on any social media feeds. It’s almost as though RFK Jr. and his antivax supporters don’t want the full speech to be easily findable, and I can see why from Zadrozny’s account. First, let’s look at some of the other things RFK Jr. was reported to have said, and then I’ll circle back to his “break” from infectious disease research:
A representative for Children’s Health Defense declined my request to attend the conference in person, citing my record of “reporting on CHD’s themes and activities.” NBC News paid $275 for a virtual ticket and watched the conference via a livestream provided to remote attendees.
On second thought, it’s not necessary to attribute to malice what can be attributed to grift. Perhaps the reason that the video is nowhere to be found online is because CHD doesn’t want anything to prevent it from profiting from its conference. But let’s continue:
In the hourlong speech, Kennedy covered well-worn subjects, railing against the evils of pharmaceutical companies, warning against researchers who he said improperly frame scientific findings for profit, and expounding on conspiracy theories around Covid measures, including what he called the “totalitarian regime” that controls public health and censorship of dissenting voices. Referring to vaccines, he said to the mothers in the audience: “You have a duty to do research when you’re giving your child a medical intervention.”
In addition to his proposed moves at NIH, Kennedy said that as president, he’d appoint a like-minded attorney general, “maybe Aaron Siri,” he said. Siri is a lawyer who has done millions of dollars of work for leading anti-vaccination groups, including a recent case that opened up religious exemptions for childhood vaccines in Mississippi. The crowd erupted in applause.
He said he would use the power of that attorney general to threaten editors of medical journals and force them to publish studies that had been retracted (he often cites the retracted studies saying ivermectin, a parasite drug, is an effective treatment for Covid). “We’re gonna say we’re fixing to file some racketeering lawsuits if you don’t start telling the truth in your journals.”
I always love how these “free speech warriors” have no problem imposing their beliefs on what speech should be published and amplified on journals, websites, and other privately-owned entities when they don’t like the editorial policies of those entities. Basically, it’s “unlimited free speech for me, but not for thee.” After all, free speech rights involve not being forced to publish something that you do not agree with or just plain don’t want to publish, but RFK Jr., showing his authoritarian bent, would happily force journals to publish crappy studies because he doesn’t like the peer review process that excluded them from being published. When he accuses his enemies of being a “totalitarian regime,” it’s pure projection.
As for Aaron Siri, you might remember that he is a master propagandist, the man apparently behind the antivax trope that childhood vaccines aren’t tested against saline placeboes. It’s a trope that RFK Jr. has repeated for years and years now, and, as I’ve discussed, it rests upon an obvious failure (or lack of desire) to understand clinical trial ethics and design. I won’t go into detail here, as I’ve discussed this trope and why it’s so deceptive a number of times, while Susan Oliver recently posted an excellent video describing why it’s nonsense.
Infectious diseases versus chronic diseases: A false dilemma
I’ll conclude this post by circling back to RFK Jr.’s proposal for an eight-year “break” in infectious disease research. I must admit that when I heard that I was amazed that someone trying to sound reasonable would make such a proposal. If I were an antivaxxer trying to appear reasonable to the vast majority of the public who is not antivax, I might propose shifting some emphasis from infectious disease and vaccine research to research on chronic diseases, but I wouldn’t propose stopping funding infectious disease research at the NIH altogether for eight years—or even at all. After all, if anything, the pandemic should have taught us how underfunded and understudied infectious diseases were before the pandemic, with whole disciplines (e.g., parasitology) described as “largely empty” fields. It’s true that funding had been increasing before the pandemic with the recognition of the toll of infectious diseases, particularly in the developing world, but funding for tropical diseases, for instance, remained stagnant.
Another piece of evidence that, far from being flush with cash, infectious disease research has generally been underfunded comes from the observation of how few new antibiotics have been brought to market, in part because venture capitalists fund far fewer funds to support the development and testing of new antibiotics than they do for many other classes of drugs. Indeed, the fight against resistant bacteria has been termed by some as the “underfunded pandemic.” Indeed, shortly before the pandemic the World Health Organization was warning that the lack of new antibiotics was threatening global efforts to contain drug-resistant infections. If anything, arguably more funding, not less, should be directed towards infectious diseases, antibiotics and vaccines, because, contrary to RFK Jr.’s claim, infectious diseases are not a particularly profitable area of research, aside from the COVID-19 vaccines, which are becoming a lot less profitable as the pandemic recedes and people are less interested in getting them.
It’s difficult not to wonder whether this particularly stupid gem of a proposal from RFK Jr. arose because of his personal enmity towards Anthony Fauci, who ran the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for four decades before retiring last year, because even in the antivax worldview this proposal is off, particularly given the longstanding embrace of quackery involving “chronic Lyme disease” by antivaxxers. Then there’s long COVID, which, while not yet well understood, many antivaxxers still accept as a syndrome that requires treatment, as evidenced by all the quackery sold on antivax websites for “long COVID” along with the quackery for “vaccine injury.” Moreover, as I said before, even the messaging is off. Sure, antivaxxers have long claimed that vaccines are insanely profitable, even though they generally are not and liability concerns were so bad forty years ago as to force Congress to pass the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 that created the “no-fault” compensation system for vaccine injury and a Vaccine Court to hear cases, lest the last vaccine manufacturers abandon the US market. Then, as I mentioned above, antivaxxers and quacks have long claimed that “treating” as opposed to “curing” chronic diseases is what is really insanely profitable.
The bottom line, of course, is that RFK Jr. has been antivax for at least 18 years. He remains antivax. He will likely continue to be antivax for however long he lives. Zadrozny’s characterization of his speech at CHD on Friday was spot on: RFK Jr. was indeed coming home. I only wonder if he used any Holocaust analogies. Perhaps I should ask Zadrozny.