Vaccine conspiracy theories could undermine efforts to control the pandemic

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The crudely drawn image shows the gates to Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi extermination camps. There stand two black-clad figures, each holding a syringe. Look more closely, and the steel sign above the entrance, which in the real world reads “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”), has been altered to “Impfen macht frei,” or “Vaccination makes you free.”

Look closer yet, and a portrait in the distance turns out to be that of Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, who has devoted much of his energy to improving public health. Conspiracy theorists falsely believe he will profit from coronavirus vaccinations. In an especially outlandish variation of that baseless charge, vaccinations are a cover for a plot to inject everyone with microchips that will track their locations.

Vaccines do not contain microchips.

“All these Neo-Lib Zio-globalist rats must be locked up in an island with huge walls,” the accompanying caption says in part. Another image shared by the same Twitter account compares Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading American immunologist, to Satan.

This is what the Biden administration will be up against come Jan. 20, when the president-elect takes the oath of office. Two versions of a coronavirus vaccine have been manufactured during the Trump administration; Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who is heading the vaccination effort for the outgoing administration, said he expects some 20 million Americans to be vaccinated by the end of the year.

That means the brunt of the effort will be borne by Biden and his top health officials, who will need to overcome the objections of political opponents, conspiracy theorists and skeptics in order to reach the 70 percent vaccination rate that is generally accepted as the threshold for herd immunity. They will have to do so in a climate where misinformation and political recrimination travel at the speed of light.

Although the Biden coronavirus task force has not released many details about how it plans to distribute the vaccine, its members are acutely aware of what they are dealing with.

“Convincing people to get vaccinated is going to be our biggest challenge of all,” the epidemiologist Celine Gounder told CBS News last month. Gounder, who is a member of the Biden coronavirus task force, acknowledged that “a history of vaccine skepticism” will add to the burden. That many of President Trump’s supporters do not accept that Biden legitimately won the election will also complicate matters.

Vaccine protesters
Vaccine protesters at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing on Nov. 14. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

“You have people who don’t want to be told by the government what to do,” Gounder said. “You have people who don’t trust pharmaceutical companies. You also have communities of color that have a long distrust of the health care system.” She added that it will be necessary to “think outside the box here and be a bit creative,” but did not specify what she meant.

A spokesperson for the Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

As the grotesque Auschwitz parody suggests, the most conspiratorial vaccine skeptics believe that vaccination is tantamount to death, either because those vaccines contain deadly chemicals or because they have side effects that did not surface or were not disclosed during clinical trials. Neither of those claims is true, but that won’t stop people from making them.

The Auschwitz meme is but a small sign of the enormous challenge that public health officials will have in the coming weeks and months, as the U.S. and some European governments prepare to inoculate their populations against COVID-19. The disease has killed about 1.5 million people worldwide.

“There’s not two sides to everything,” says Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, widely regarded as one of the foremost vaccine experts in the world. Offit told Yahoo News that he regards himself as a “vaccine skeptic,” by which he means that he looks for scientific evidence before declaring a vaccine safe for public use.

Offit acknowledges that “vaccines do have serious side effects.” But those effects are not, as vaccine conspiracists would have it, locked away in the vaults of “deep state” operatives but, rather, freely published by the U.S. government. Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, the three Western companies that have already manufactured vaccines, have published their own safety data, which strongly suggests that their vaccines are safe.

A vaccine volunteer
A vaccine volunteer in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Some worry that because the vaccines were manufactured and tested within months, not years, dangerous side effects could manifest later on, after millions have already been vaccinated.

“There are no long-term side effects of vaccines. That is a myth,” Offit counters, explaining that vaccine side effects manifest within a matter of six weeks, which means that people participating in clinical trials would have already shown those more troubling, longer-term symptoms.

To some people, such fact-based assurances will make no difference. Among the nation’s most prominent anti-vaccination advocates is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of John F. Kennedy and a onetime environmental lawyer. Kennedy’s anti-vax activism has recently been amplified by groups that endorse the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Although he has no medical expertise, and although he routinely makes claims that have been debunked, Kennedy insists he is merely engaging in the scientific process. Somehow, that engagement consistently puts him at odds with the medical establishment and public health guidelines.

Speaking to Yahoo News earlier this week, Kennedy downplayed the wide availability of vaccine safety data. “Let’s not approve a vaccine for which we don’t have safety data,” he said, steering clear of accusations about shadowy cabals injecting the unsuspecting masses with microchips. Yet he essentially came out on the side of discouraging people from receiving an inoculation.

A longtime nemesis of the anti-vax movement, Offit distinguishes between vaccine skeptics, who may have concerns that could be assuaged, and “vaccine cynics,” as he calls the more hard-core detractors. Those cynics, Offit says, will remain unpersuaded no matter how much evidence they are shown. “Forget them,” he says. “I think they’re a minor player in this game right now.”

But then there are people like Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who has two degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I support your right to take a vaccine and I support your right to refuse a vaccine,” he wrote recently on Twitter. “This should not be controversial in America.”

A demonstrator
Anti-vax demonstrators at the State House in Boston on Aug. 30. (Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

That might align with Massie’s staunchly libertarian principles, but it’s not what epidemiologists want to hear. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told Yahoo News that for a vaccine to be effective, at least 70 percent of the population has to be inoculated. Otherwise, the virus will continue to proliferate.

Massie’s office declined an interview request from Yahoo News.

The writer Molly Jong-Fast, who participated in the Pfizer vaccine trial and wrote about her experience for the New York Times, says she has encountered few outright conspiracy theorists who consider her an unwitting puppet of an international cabal. She is more aware of “low-key” detractors who “just don’t trust” the coronavirus vaccine.

“Thank you for doing it, but I won’t ever do it,” such people tell her. “These people are not anti-vaxxers,” she adds. Jong-Fast specifically blamed Massie for enabling this more muted form of skepticism.

It doesn’t help that the vaccine is arriving at a time of acute political mistrust, which poses risks for both the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden one. The president-elect will struggle to gain credibility with the millions of Americans who believe Trump’s false claims that he won last month’s election. In fact, he lost it by about 7 million votes. But some far-right outlets continue to promulgate Trump’s claims of victory, intersecting in places with equally erroneous claims that the coronavirus vaccine is unsafe.

To make matters more complicated, suspicions about the presidential election and suspicions about the vaccine have been absorbed into QAnon, says Martin Gurri, a scholar of media and politics who was formerly an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency. The QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that a global ring of pedophiles is trafficking children for sexual purposes or to extract their blood, is itself a version of Pizzagate, which posited that a sex trafficking operation was being run by Democrats out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.

The connection between all these shadowy forces is difficult to comprehend, which may well be the point, if you believe that those forces are powerful beyond the understanding of an ordinary citizen. The mindset is that one should unravel conspiracies where possible, but also resist — including by refusing to take a coronavirus vaccine.

Proud Boys and supporters of the police
Proud Boys and supporters of the police participate in a protest in Portland, Ore., in August. (Maranie Staab/Reuters)

“We must stop at nothing to #SaveTheChildren,” wrote a Twitter user who goes by the handle of @mgarner1317, and who has more than 1,000 followers, earlier this month, using one of QAnon’s trademark hashtags. “Pedos are the first battle next up, mandatory vaccines, big pharma, GMOs, fluoride, hateful indoctrination, gang culture, Trans agenda, drug normalization, social media, big tech, MSM, and many more. The war against them, is real.”

In this version of events the coronavirus vaccine is part of a broader multinational, neoliberal agenda, one that includes expanded rights for transgender people and the legalization of drugs. Those are, of course, unrelated developments, but the very allure of conspiracy theories is that they tease out connections where none seem to exist.

Gurri says this convergence of conspiracies reflects a crisis that is bound to outlast the coronavirus pandemic, whenever it finally ends. That crisis stems from a growing distrust of elites and the institutions they represent. The world of the internet — social media in particular — incessantly feeds that distrust, offering compelling counternarratives.

“People are looking for something that is not the elites,” Gurri says. “They have absolutely lost all trust” in official authority and are bound to look for insight from “very intelligent amateurs” who seem to promulgate credible information in responsible ways.

Not all those amateurs believe that pedophiles are drinking the blood of kidnapped children. Today’s vaccine conspiracies are bolstered by groups with official-sounding names, like the National Vaccine Information Center, which sounds like it may be a government clearinghouse (it is very much not), or Physicians for Informed Consent.

“This whole anti-vaccine empire is mainstream now,” Hotez says. “It’s not fringe anymore.” He notes that Amazon’s vaccine page is dominated by “fake” books that cast doubt on vaccinations. The retail giant allows such books to be sold and issues no warning that they peddle misinformation. Hotez believes that Silicon Valley has been far too lenient, and that the Biden administration must confront that leniency as soon as it can.

“We’ve got to figure out how to dismantle the empire,” Hotez told Yahoo News. It will be imperative to shut down anti-vax Facebook groups or Instagram accounts, he believes. “It would create a massive dent in what they’re doing.”

For the next month and a half, any such efforts will fall to the Trump administration, despite the fact that the president himself lost interest long ago in responding to the pandemic in a substantive way.

A protester holds an anti-vaccination sign as supporters of President Donald Trump rally to reopen California as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen, on May 16, 2020 in Woodland Hills, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Supporters of President Trump rally to reopen California as the pandemic worsens on May 16. (David McNew/Getty Images)

An official currently working at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, alluded to a badly bungled attempt by HHS communications adviser Michael Caputo to enlist pro-Trump celebrities in pitching the vaccine to the American public. Caputo has since left the administration, and that contract was canceled.

The HHS official said that the “vaccine acceptance effort is focused on what we are calling ‘the movable middle,’” a reference to the skeptics both Offit and Hotez believe could be persuaded to take the vaccine. The department would do so through a “science-based approach that included rigorous evaluation and regular impact reporting,” the official said, referring to a report commissioned by HHS Secretary Alex Azar following Caputo’s public meltdown and eventual departure from Washington.

The official said the department was “still working through market research” compiled by the Fors Marsh Group, a public relations firm based outside Washington, D.C.

Other, less formal efforts are also underway. Former Presidents Obama, Clinton and George W. Bush have all said they will take the coronavirus vaccine, potentially on live television.

But they will be up against social media influencers who spread a countervailing message. The actress Letitia Wright, who starred in the popular film “Black Panther,” recently posted an anti-vaccine video to her Twitter account. After heavy criticism, she appears to have deleted the video. But subsequent posts maintained a defiant attitude.

“If you don’t conform to popular opinions. but ask questions and think for yourself...you get cancelled,” Wright wrote.

It is not yet clear what Trump will do. Formerly a skeptic of vaccines, he has been angered by the timing of the coronavirus vaccines’ arrival, accusing pharmaceutical companies of delaying their announcements of successfully concluded trials intentionally to undermine his reelection chances. He may have little desire to take steps that would ultimately redound to the benefit of the Biden administration, even if those steps would save American lives.

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