The real scientists on the frontlines of the anti-vaccine movement

Masho Lomashvili

 

Dr. Robert Malone confuses me. He is the man who played an important role in the invention of MRNA technology that is used in Covid-19 vaccines. But his Harvard University post-doctoral research is also widely cited by anti-vaccination groups as proof that the vaccines do not work.

Just watch this “SW Ohio School Board Meeting,” where a man who identified himself as Dr. Sean Brooks, opened his speech with “Dr. Robert Malone, who created the messenger RNA [mRNA] vaccine has said no one should ever take these jabs, under any circumstance whatsoever — he created it! And he says, ‘Don’t ever do it!’”

Dr. Malone is not the only one. As Omicron spreads, several serious scientists, some with Ivy League affliations, are providing incredibly potent fodder to opponents of the vaccine. These professors are the darlings of the right-wing media, Reddit forums and anti-Covid-19 vaccine social media groups. And their academic credibility lands unprecedented potency to the anti-vaccine movement. 

“I literally invented mRNA technology when I was 28,” Malone told me, pointing to his graduate research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He says he is not sceptical about vaccines, but is rather conflicted about the “rapid approval process” and thinks that adverse effects of vaccines need deeper examination. No wonder the anti-vaccine movement loves him.

As we talk, I also hear notes of bitterness that may provide an insight into the ego issues within the scientific community. Something that can surely be manipulated by the anti-science movement.  

“I’ve been written out of history,” Dr. Malone tells me “It’s all about Kati.” 

By Kati he means Dr. Katalin Kariko who has been also described as a pioneer of mRNA vaccines and is now a senior vice president at BioNTech, the manufacturer of Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. I got in touch with Dr. Kariko too. “Hundreds and thousands of scientists, experts contributed to the creation of the mRNA vaccine,” she tells me in an email.

Another notable spat within the science community involved Dr. Harvey Risch, professor at the Yale School of Public Health and also a darling of vaccine skeptics. Dr. Risch advocated for the use of controversial treatments and said that doctors who used hydroxychloroquine despite the criticism were “heroic.” 

“As his colleagues, we defend the right of Dr. Risch, a respected cancer epidemiologist, to voice his opinions. But he is not an expert in infectious disease epidemiology and he has not been swayed by the body of scientific evidence from rigorously conducted clinical trials, which refute the plausibility of his belief and arguments,” came a polite rebuttal in the form of a letter from 20 Yale faculty members. They went on to explain why using hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 is a bad idea. 

Wading our way through these debates between scientists is a nightmare for us, the mere mortals. And some of their ideas do not even have to be controversial in order to become controversial.

Take for example the case of Harvard Professor of Population Health and Geography, S.V. Subramanian who published a paper that argued for a joint use of vaccinations and other public health measures in combating the spread of Covid-19. His paper, which does not contain a single argument against vaccination, had an unfortunate title: “Increases in Covid-19 are unrelated to levels of vaccination across 68 countries and 2947 counties in the United States.” Anti-vaccine movement ignored the paper, but picked up the title and ran with it.

Should scientists be more sensitive to the possibility of their research being used against science? Surely, it can’t hurt, but as for Dr. Malone, he told me he learned that he simply can’t win:

“It’s funny. There’s kind of two schools of thought. I’m guilty of genocide because I am a vaccine skeptic and I’ve caused people to not take the vaccines by questioning their safety and effectiveness. And then there’s a school of thought that I’m guilty of genocide because I invented the mRNA technology. So, you know, you can’t win. I can’t control people who want to weaponize things for their agenda, and that’s just the nature of modern social media.”

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS: 

It’s been a good week for Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy in Central America. Just days after Nicaragua announced that it was severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan and resuming relations with China, it received the first batch of a one million dose vaccine donation from Beijing. While the backstory of the China-Nicaragua deal is murky, the news comes less than a year after Paraguay accused China of offering its vaccine in exchange for cutting off ties with Taiwan. That’s all playing out against the backdrop of the troubled UN-backed global vaccine distribution effort, COVAX. A recent analysis by the Nicaraguan news outlet Confidencial found the program failed to live up to its promise to vaccinate at least 20% of the population in four of the ten poorest countries in Latin America. At the bottom of the list, Haiti received enough doses to vaccinate just 2.6% of the population.

Germany is debating banning Telegram after it emerged that the platform was used to call for an assassination of a regional prime minister. Michael Kretschmer, the elected prime minister of eastern state of Saxony received death threats from “Free Saxons” a group described as a mixture of anti-vaxxers, far-right extremists, conspiracy theorists, hooligans and members of the Reichsburger movement which denies the existence and authority of the modern-day German government. The combination of protest mood against Covid restrictions and Telegram has given Free Saxons reach far beyond the region. The group is currently running a network of nearly 100 Telegram channels nation-wide and using them to organize protests against Covid restrictions. The German government is clearly concerned.

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