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COVID-19 vaccine “skeptics” are just antivax now

Dr. Pierre Kory and the pseudonymous Substacker known as A Midwestern Doctor provide two more examples of how “anti-COVID” antivax has now become just antivax.

Ever since the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines were first granted emergency use approval (EUA) by the FDA in early December 2020—and, truth be told, even before that—I knew that the antivaccine movement would latch onto them and do its best to stoke fear, uncertainty, and doubt about their safety and efficacy. This was not a difficult prediction to make of course, given that that’s what antivaxxers have always done with a new vaccine, the most recent example being vaccines against human papilloma virus (HPV), such as Gardasil, which, as soon as it was approved by the FDA, ran into a buzzsaw of antivax misinformation, including false claims that the vaccine was causing sterility or, even worse, killing adolescent girls and young women. There was a time when I though that maybe—just maybe—it would be somewhat different with COVID-19 vaccines, given that we were in the middle of a global pandemic that had, in the US alone, already killed roughly 300,000 people by the time the vaccines started rolling out (and went on to produce a death toll of over a million). I soon realized that even my mild optimism had been way, way too optimistic. Antivax misinformation and lies about COVID-19 vaccines flowed rapidly and in vast quantities on social media and certain ideologically slanted old media outlets, including misinformation that the new vaccines caused sterility, “turbo cancer,death, “permanent” alteration to your DNA, neurologic injury, and many more problems, all while not working.

One thing I saw as these antivaccine myths about COVID-19 vaccine proliferated was that there was now a new breed of antivaxxer, or more appropriately, anti-COVID-19 vaccine activists. These were people, a disturbing number of them physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals, who believably stated that they were never “antivax” before. Rather, it was the “newness” of the lipid nanoparticle- and mRNA-based technology (never mind that it wasn’t that new but had just never been successfully used to make a vaccine that had been widely used in humans) and the speed with which the vaccine had been designed, tested, and rolled out that had made them suspicious of these vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer, and then a little later the adenovirus-based vaccines by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. It was a reasonable-sounding gambit, and, for most of these “new school” antivaxxers, very likely true at the time. However, if there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught me, it’s that, once you start believing antivax misinformation about one vaccine, you become much more susceptible to antivax misinformation about all vaccines. In other words, in retrospect I now realize that it was inevitable that many of these “anti-COVID-19 vaccine antivaxxers” would become just antivaxxers, which is exactly what happened.

I was reminded of this by a post on X, the hellsite formerly known as Twitter, by a familiar name, someone who has been featured on this blog and my not-so-super-secret other blog a number of times, Pierre Kory:

You’ll also recognized that the post being shared by Dr. Kory is by an anonymous doctor who goes by the ‘nym A Midwestern Doctor, whose has gone deep down the rabbit hole of antivax misinformation and pseudoscience. Indeed, the article linked to by Dr. Kory is nearly a year old, which at first gave me pause, leading me to hesitate about whether I wanted to discuss an article from summer 2023. Then I decided, “What the heck?” Also, given that “A Midwestern Doctor” (whom I now consider A Midwestern Quack) has provided copious examples of their antivax quackery to choose from and, sadly, is not alone among physicians in that. The only thing left making me hesitate is that AMD/AMQ is as verbose—or even more so—than yours truly, making taking on one of their articles difficult mainly from a logistical standpoint and the sheer firehose of misinformation, pseudoscience, quackery (even COVID-19 vaccine shedding!), and conspiracy theories that he is capable of spewing. No wonder quacks, antivaxxers, and conspiracy theorists are so unduly impressed by them.

No wonder AMD/AMQ is afraid to let people know their real name and who they really are, even to the point that I noticed in an interview AMD/AMQ did with Rav Arora, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya’s podcast collaborator” Arora referred to AMD/AMQ by the dreaded singular “they” and “their” pronouns, whose use is generally detested mightily by those holding the ideologies generally associated with COVID-19 era antivax movement. I will be forthright here and mention that I strongly suspect that AMD/AMQ is male, given the writing style, but will maintain the use of the singular “they” because—who knows?—AMD might be nonbinary. (But I doubt it.) It doesn’t really matter anyway what gender AMD/AMQ is; they’re just plain wrong, as in antivax wrong. I only mention the pronoun thing because it amuses me to see AMD/AMQ using the singular “they” to further obfuscate their identity, given how Arora and Bhattacharya prominently mention transgender care in their Substack blurb as one of the areas of medicine that has “been wholly corrupted by one monolithic consensus that has proven to bear many costs on our society,” while AMD/AMQ has written a whole long piece of nonsense about gender and gender-affirming care that I’ve been meaning to address. Maybe next week.

A dive into the deep end of old vaccine-autism nonsense

We likely all recall that Pierre Kory is one of the co-founders of the Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC Alliance) who got his start by promoting various “early treatment protocols” for COVID-19 that included ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and other drugs now known to be ineffective but rapidly turned antivax, to the point that by December 2022 he Tweeted (it was still Twitter then):

This is, of course, the very definition of antivaccine.

No wonder Kory was impressed by AMD/AMQ’s—oh, hell, I’m just going to call him A Midwestern Quack (AMQ) from now on—article, which began:

One of the most challenging things for me throughout my time in the medical field has been watching children become neurologically damaged by vaccines, and the widespread blindness of the medical profession to this issue.  Unfortunately, because so much money has been spent to engineer the societal belief that vaccines do not cause autism, anyone that asserts otherwise is immediately subject to widespread ridicule, to the point it’s mostly a lost cause to convince medical professionals vaccines aren’t always safe. In many cases, the only thing that can open their eyes is their own child being severely injured.

This is, of course, something that could have been written by pretty much any antivax pediatrician or physician of another specialty 20 years ago. Heck, Andrew Wakefield probably wrote something similar on many occasions. Moreover, note the conspiracy theory: “The Man” is covering up the evidence that vaccines cause autism, and as a result the entire medical profession—except for the “englighted” few (like AMQ), who “know.”

It’s also never a good sign when someone like AMQ quotes someone like Steve Kirsch, the tech bro turned rabid antivaxxer and COVID-19 conspiracy theorist:

Recently Steve Kirsch started looking at that question, and in an attempt to bring attention to the issue, raised three very important points:
  1. Contrary to popular belief, there is actually a great deal of compelling evidence linking vaccines to autism. For example, regressive autism always develops shortly after vaccination—but never before, something that cannot happen unless one causes the other. Likewise, there is a significant amount of evidence correlating vaccine uptake with autism rates.
  2. There is presently no accepted explanation for what is causing the explosion of autism we are facing.
  3. The explosion of autism is one of the costliest diseases facing our country, so decades of hand waiving that has insisted there’s no scientifically valid explanation for this explosion doesn’t cut it.

Each of these points is classic antivax misinformation of the most rudimentary variety, in particular #2, a topic that I’ve written about a number of times before. The CliffsNotes version is that a combination of widening of the diagnostic criteria in the 1990s, coupled with increased awareness and screening, has resulted in a large increase in autism spectrum diagnoses. The long version is here, for those who are interested, as well as here and here. #1, of course, is the usual citation of a litany of low-quality evidence, often published by antivax scientists, in which the quantity of publications that supposedly support a vaccine-autism link is emphasized over the much higher quality of publications that do not. It’s an old antivax trope.

It is this trope that leads AMQ to cite a list of 224 studies that supposedly support the idea that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine of course, cause autism. A number of them are ones that I’ve written about before, such as the very first one on the list, whose deficiencies I wrote about in great detail after Byram Bridle had promoted the study as slam-dunk evidence. As I noted at the time, funny how antivaxxers will seize on single studies in rats to support their beliefs. Also, one reason that I wrote about the study when it came out earlier this year is because it was validated for my longstanding prediction that, sooner or later, antivaxxers would blame COVID-19 vaccines for autism, with the only reason they hadn’t being that the vaccines weren’t recommended for infants 6 months of age and older until relatively recently. I also have to express amusement at this statement by AMQ:

 Of these, I believe the final book provides the most concise (but detailed)‚ summary of those mechanisms.

The book cited? This one:

J.B. Handley? Founder of Generation Rescue, one of the oldest antivax orgs out there, the one that managed to recruit Jenny McCarthy to be its figurehead back in the day (~2008-2012 or so)? This is some seriously “old school” antivax propaganda, of the sort that I’ve been debunking for nearly 20 years on my not-so-secret other blog and here since 2008.

Unsurprisingly, many of the studies cited have nothing to do with vaccines, but rather the immunological changes and abnormalities associated with autism. However, in the antivax mind, any potential immune component to any condition means that vaccines can cause it. For example, get a load of this line of “reasoning” (if you can call it that):

Much of the research on the link between vaccines and autism has focused on the following areas:
  1. Immune activating events being repeatedly correlated with an increased likelihood of developing neurological developmental disorders like autism.
  2. Increased blood levels of inflammatory cytokines (e.g., “Plasma levels of IL-1β, IL-6 and IL-8 were increased in children with ASD and correlated with regressive autism, as well as impaired communication and aberrant behavior”). Autistic individuals also appear to have a predisposition to developing inflammatory immune responses.
  3. Vaccinations creating inflammation in the brain and inflammation in the brain being linked to autism. This neurological inflammation is often chronically active in the brains of autistic individuals and appears to be most specifically linked to aluminum and the measles virus component of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. For example, the vaccine measles virus was observed to correlate to the production of autoantibodies to brain tissue, increases levels of measles antibodies were found to be significantly higher in autistic children (but not antibodies to mumps or rubella), and live measles viruses were found in immune cells of autistic children with inflammatory bowel disorders. The strongest case for the link between the measles vaccine virus and autism came from the discovery that vaccines with the measles component have triggered severe brain injury and death but those with only the mumps or rubella components have not.
  4. Enlarged brains are also often associated with autism (likely due to that inflammation). This swelling may play a key role in the pathology of autism and explain why certain individuals are more susceptible to it.

The reference in #2 is a 13-year-old study says nothing about vaccination or vaccines (it doesn’t even mention them), being relatively small (223 subjects total) observational study that examined immune parameters in patients with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders compared to age-matched neurotypical children. Of course, automatically to antivaxxers “increased cytokine levels” = “vaccines done it.” The same is true for the other articles cited, although, amusingly, one of the articles cited is a Wakefield paper, albeit not his original 1998 fraudulent case series. It is, however, one of the papers in which Wakefield’s use of PCR to detect measles virus sequence was so incompetent that an actual PCR expert, Stephen Bustin, totally schooled Wakefield repeatedly for almost certainly having detected sequences from contaminating plasmids in the laboratory, not actual measles virus sequences from the vaccine, for reasons that I’ll briefly quote:

Absence of transparency: the key publication shows no data; hence an expert reader cannot evaluate the reliability of its conclusions

Unreliable techniques and protocols: analysis of the qPCR data was incorrect

Disregard for controls: obvious evidence of extensive contamination was disregarded

Lack of reproducibility: the data could not be duplicated by several independent investigators

His conclusion was:

The only conclusion possible is that the assays were detecting contaminating DNA. Since MeV is an RNA-only virus and never exists in DNA form, these data must be ignored and it it is my opinion that the authors should withdraw this publication from the peer-reviewed literature.

Seriously, AMQ, citing any Wakefield paper in which he used PCR to detect measles virus is a fool’s errand given the sloppiness of the PCR procedures used by him and his collaborators and his general incompetence. Come to think of it, citing any study by Wakefield is a fool’s errand, unless you’re citing it as an example of scientific fraud or incompetence—or both. Seriously, AMQ, you really do need to learn to read studies critically, rather than as an antivaxxer.

Of course, the rest of AMQ’s list consists of antivax claims about vaccines and autism that will be very familiar to longtime readers, such as citing aluminum adjuvants as the cause of autism. He even cites the utterly awful paper by Christopher Exley that claimed to find elevated levels of aluminum in the postmortem brains of autistic children, which, of course, I deconstructed when it was first published online. He also cited another Exley paper and a rat paper, neither of which show that aluminum adjuvants cause autism.

A cornucopia of “old school” antivax claims

Of course, AMQ had way, way more than this, given their penchant for even-longer-than-Gorski-length diatribes. That’s why some more of their antivax tropes trotted out, besides appeals to “ongoing inflammation” and others mentioned above out included:

  • The claim that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in childhood vaccines until over 20 years ago caused autism. Nope, and we knew this at least 16 years ago. At least AMQ notes that “despite vaccine mercury being mostly pulled from market, autism has increased rather than decreased since thiomersal (mercury) was pulled,” even after stating that there was “quite a bit of research that substantiated this link.” (Hint: There wasn’t.)
  • “Too many too soon,” a favorite claim of antivaxxers that somehow the baby’s immune system was overloaded by “too many” vaccines given—you guessed it!—too soon. That’s yet another long-debunked antivax trope, one of Jenny McCarthy’s favorites.
  • Appeals to the “gut microbiome. (Shades of Andy Wakefield!) This is a longstanding antivax trope that likely confuses correlation with causation, given a recent study that suggests that changes in gut microbiome observed in autistic children are more likely due to restricted eating or picky eating. (Yes, I know that antivaxxers harp on the erratum, but the investigators showed that the error noticed did not affect their conclusions.)
  • Cell danger response. This is basically the whole claim that vaccines cause mitochondrial dysfunction that causes autism, just rebranded. Basically, AMQ co-opts a phenomenon known as the cell danger response. Perusing PubMed, I see that this concept seems to be primarily associated with University of California Professor Robert K. Naviaux and seems not to have gained much traction in the scientific literature given the paucity of publications on it, most of which are by him. Alternative medicine practitioners, however, seem to love the idea that a chronically activated cell danger response in the mitochondria is the cause of all chronic disease. Cell danger response is rather a “theory of everything” that perhaps I should examine in more detail in a future post, as it might or might not have some value. The claims arising from the idea that I’ve read thus far, however, seem suspiciously grandiose, as though by treating cell danger response we can treat all chronic disease. In other words, from what I’ve read about it, “cell danger response” seems to accommodate basically any mitochondrial quackery, whether that was Prof. Naviaux’s intent or not.
  • Zeta potential collapse. I note that AMQ seems to like to point to this, as they did when discussing how COVID-19 vaccines. As I said at the time, zeta potential is a measure of the magnitude of the electrostatic or charge repulsion/attraction between particles, a variable used in optimizing waste water treatment processes in which size, density, and charge of particles to be removed are considered. Zeta potential is also used in optimizing drug delivery systems and in enhancing hemagglutination, but, contrary to AMD’s handwaving, there is no evidence that it has anything to do with “shed” spike protein from vaccines causing hypercoagulability of the blood. Here, as previously, AMQ is doing some highly speculative handwaving linking it to vaccines supposedly causing autism. Moreover, antivax quack Andrew Moulden is apparently the first person to have proposed zeta potential as a “mechanism” for “vaccine-induced autism.” Of note, Moulden in an example of everything old being new again given how much antivaxxers like to link COVID-19 vaccines to clotting, originally proposed that autism was due to “microvascular strokes” caused by vaccines. As I pointed out in 2008, even if childhood vaccines did cause “microvascular strokes” (which they don’t), there is no evidence that the etiology of autism has anything to do with such microvascular strokes.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Let’s just say that AMQ goes on to write something that, again, Andrew Wakefield might have written after he had branched out from MMR vaccines as the cause of autism to more general antivax claims about vaccines and autism:

Autism is one critical example, as the severe regressive cases caused by vaccination represent the visible extremes of the injury while far more moderate neurological injuries from vaccines also occur throughout the population (including less severe forms of autism—hence why it now is termed “autism spectrum disorder”). For example, many of the same mechanisms that cause autism, when instead allowed to work over a slower period are the most likely causes of Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., elevated aluminum concentrations are also found in those brains). Likewise, one of the common tragic COVID-19 vaccine injuries is rapid cognitive decline in elderly individuals following their vaccination, which is then typically written off as Alzheimer’s and never further investigated.

Like autism, many effective treatments exist for Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., treating the CDR or restoring fluid circulation to the brain), but since none of them revolve around utilizing lucrative drugs, they have all been swept under the rug. It is my sincere hope that the need to address the severe consequences of the COVID-19 vaccines throughout the population will make the world be open to looking at the much broader consequences of the vaccination program and what can be done to heal the ever-increasing damage it has inflicted upon society.

Longtime readers will recognize everything in this paragraph as nothing new, in particular the false claim that vaccines cause Alzheimer’s disease, a claim that I first wrote about way back in 2005, when Bill Maher trotted the claim out on his show.

COVID-19 vaccine skeptics are just antivax now

When the first “not antivax” doctors and people claiming to be just “skeptical” of only COVID-19 vaccines appeared, it didn’t seem that unreasonable that these people really weren’t antivax, just suspicious of a new vaccine. Unfortunately, as I pointed out, when it comes to antivaccine claims there was (and is) nothing new under the sun, which explains why every fear mongering claim about COVID-19 vaccines has antecedents in antivax claims about all vaccines. True, some of those old antivax claims took on seemingly new, more alarming forms. For example, the old claim that vaccines kill turned into the “died suddenly” conspiracy theory positing that COVID-19 vaccines were causing young healthy athletes (like the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin) to drop dead of cardiac arrests, just as the claim that vaccines cause cancer morphed into the much scarier claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause not just cancer, but “turbo cancers,” a form of cancer found in younger people that is so much nastier and more aggressive than regular run-of-the-mill cancers. Eventually, as I mentioned above, even the hoary old claim that vaccines cause autism was repurposed to include COVID-19 vaccines.

Indeed, one particularly depressing old antivax claim is that those who are not “vulnerable” to severe complications of COVID-19 (especially children) don’t need to be vaccinated because the disease is “harmless” to them. A number of docs embraced this viewpoint, even though exactly the same argument could be made about (and before the pandemic was being made by antivaxxers about), for example, the measles vaccine given the number of children who died of measles every year before the vaccine, which was very similar, adjusted for population growth, to the number of children who died of COVID-19, with COVID-19 now being a major cause of death among children.

In retrospect, it should be no surprise that suspicion of COVID-19 vaccines that led some people to become “antivax” but “only about the COVID-19 vaccines” was an enticing gateway to becoming just generally antivax. I might have harped on Pierre Kory and AMQ in this post, but we’ve seen it happen to so many physicians, including Drs. Drew Pinsky, who’s been captured by his audience and now features the vilest antivax quacks on his show; Vinay Prasad, whose evidence-based medicine fundamentalism has led him down the path to becoming antivax, even to the point of embracing Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s deceptive trope about childhood vaccines supposedly not having been tested in saline placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials; Peter McCullough, who’s become an out-and-out antivax quack selling bogus supplements to treat “spike protein toxicity”; and many others. One wonders if they all would have slid so easily down the rabbit hole of antivax misinformation, pseudoscience, quackery, and conspiracy theories if only they had been inoculated with knowledge that none of the antivax tropes applied to COVID-19 are new. They might have then recognized them when they saw them, as I immediately did as they came up.

Or maybe I’m being too optimistic again. Clearly a quack like AMQ is beyond reaching and probably would have gone antivax regardless. Maybe, though, someone like Vinay Prasad would not have. It’s impossible to know.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

7 replies on “COVID-19 vaccine “skeptics” are just antivax now”

Good. There’s a real bias/group think/regulatory capture problem here that needs to be sorted out. It’s good that it’s getting more scrutiny.

So, the anti-vax side of the equation isn’t biassed, doesn’t think as a group and wouldn’t like to control the regulations relating to vaccines or ‘alternative’ health products?

Good to know. There’s me thinking they were a bunch of hypocrites.

Yoi of course could tell more about that “regulatory capture”. Throwing around slogans is not enough.

I think they always were. All their claims that they loved real vaccines, and that it was just new ones that scared them were lies – they were out to promote disease from day one, whether from a religious desire to see human suffering, a contrarian urge to reject any idea that the common folk like, or from simple desire to profit. The mask that they refused to wear has slipped off is all that’s happened now.

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