Ten False Narratives About the Coronavirus: Part III

September 21, 2020

False Claim #8: “The most effective strategy against a pandemic is through the ‘magic of the free market’”

The current pandemic has exposed fatal weaknesses in the libertarian philosophy.  In the U.S., the Reagan Administration pioneered the notion that a large centralized government was the problem, not the solution, to societal issues.  The argument was that a large bureaucracy would necessarily be inefficient, and would burden the economy with unnecessary regulations that would stifle free enterprise.  Libertarians took this idea even further, with the notion that the only significant function of the federal government should be national defense.  All other aspects of society could be dealt with more effectively at the local level, or by unleashing the “magic of the free market,” that was supposed to rapidly and efficiently satisfy all societal needs. 

Trumpism took the notions of Reaganism, and carried them out by means of ruthless and widespread purging of civil servants and federal departments.  Here the operating slogan was “Draining the Swamp,” which meant slashing the size of the federal government staff.  One argument was that departments such as Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, or the Department of Agriculture have metastasized into bloated, self-serving bureaucracies.  By downsizing these agencies and savagely restricting their regulatory capacities, one would again allow the free market to blossom.

We have noted in previous posts on this blog that over the past 50 years several right-wing think tanks have emerged.  Their initial funding has come largely from donations by billionaire entrepreneurs who oppose nearly all federal regulations. Thus, the Heritage Foundation’s motto is that it supports “free-market solutions” to national and international issues.  So a global pandemic, that appears to necessitate not only a strong centralized response but even world-wide coordination of efforts, poses a direct threat to groups whose political philosophy is antagonistic to a strong federal government, and even more hostile to multi-national institutions. 

The Libertarian Response to the Pandemic:

Ron Paul is a former Congressman from Texas and a well-known libertarian. He is also the father of current Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.  His initial reaction was to declare the coronavirus a “hoax.”  On March 16, he posted on Facebook “Ron Paul on the Coronavirus Hoax.”  He started out by claiming that “Governments love crises because when the people are fearful they are more willing to give up freedoms for promises that the government will take care of them.”  

“The chief fearmonger,” claimed Paul, “… is Anthony Fauci … Fauci is all over the media, serving up outright falsehoods to stir up even more panic.  He testified to Congress that the death rate of the coronavirus is ten times that of the seasonal flu, a claim without any scientific basis.”  [Fact check: Fauci’s statement was based on the best available scientific data at the time; we now know that the death rate from the coronavirus is between 6 and 10 times that of the seasonal flu.] 

Figure 8.1: Libertarian Ron Paul. 

Paul concluded by stating “People should ask themselves whether this coronavirus “pandemic” could be a big hoax, with the actual danger of the disease massively exaggerated by those who seek to profit – financially or politically – from the ensuing panic.“  When Paul wrote this, the number of American deaths from the SARS-CoV-2 virus was about 100.  The Ron Paul Institute did not relent even on August 17, when the number of deaths was over 160,000.  On that date Jeff Harris uploaded an article on the Ron Paul Institute Website claiming that Big Pharma, the Government and the Media were covering up the fact that a cure for the coronavirus exists. 

Harris called the pandemic a “Psychological terror meme of an out-of-control “novel” killer virus that is supposedly killing millions … across the globe.”   People all around the globe are terrified about this virus, particularly since they are told they must wait for a vaccine until they can be safe.  However, Harris asks, “What if there was a cheap, effective outpatient treatment that has been proven to dramatically improve the health of those stricken by COVID-19? … If such a treatment existed life could get back to normal in short order.” 

Of course, Mr. Harris is talking about the mixture of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), azithromycin, and zinc that was most recently promoted by a group calling themselves America’s Frontline Doctors.  They uploaded a video onto YouTube and held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to tout their claims.  We will treat this in more detail in False Claim #9.  However, America’s Frontline Doctors are totally outside the mainstream of frontline medical personnel, epidemiologists and research.  In particular, Dr. Stella Immanuel holds a number of bizarre views regarding demonic possession, also dealt with further under the next False Claim.  In his August 17 article, Mr. Harris disregards the results of at least two major blinded studies that showed HCQ had no benefit in treating or preventing coronavirus.  These studies were sufficiently negative that the FDA, which had previously granted emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, withdrew that authorization.  

Another prominent libertarian scholar is Richard Epstein.  We reviewed Epstein’s  coronavirus predictions in our blog post on Science Denial and the Coronavirus, and also discussed his predictions in False Claim #7.   As a libertarian, Epstein claimed that efforts to stop the spread of a pandemic “are done better at the level of plants, hotels, restaurants and schools than remotely by political leaders.”  

On March 15, Epstein predicted that the U.S. would experience “about 500 deaths at the end” of the COVID epidemic, which has to rank as one of the more disastrous predictions in modern times.  But it is typical of libertarians.  Since their philosophy of government denies any useful role for a centralized bureaucracy, they need to belittle or deny any issue that seems to require a national response.  Indeed, this was precisely Epstein’s response to the epidemic.  He placed a very low value on large-scale federal programs in favor of small-scale local efforts.  And he catastrophically underestimated the magnitude of the threat from this virus. 

The coronavirus pandemic puts the spotlight squarely on weaknesses in the libertarian notion of government.  When assessing the COVID-19 pandemic and how to combat it, libertarians either resort to conspiracy theories (“the coronavirus is a hoax, or it is nothing more than the seasonal flu, or a cure already exists”), or they espouse small-scale local responses that would be doomed to failure (“have every restaurant devise its own health policy”).  As we have emphasized repeatedly throughout this post, the countries that have most effectively managed the COVID pandemic are those that adopted coherent, aggressive, early national policies to protect their citizens.  While those policies often involved temporary restrictions, they have not led to long-term surrender of individual liberties.

The Trumpist Response to the Pandemic:

Trumpism suffers from all of the defects of libertarianism, with some additional features related to Trump’s unique personality.  In every year of his Administration, Donald Trump has proposed a budget that calls for massive cuts in U.S. support of basic science research.  Furthermore, Trump’s policy of slashing regulation of the environment involves a refusal to accept the best scientific advice, or even non-partisan cost-benefit analyses; instead, the Trump administration prefers to rely on projections that fit their own hunches and desires. 

The right-wing media, from Fox News and One America Network to Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and the darker recesses of the Dark Web, consistently praise Trump and denigrate those who appear to contradict him.  At the moment, much of their vitriol is aimed at Dr. Anthony Fauci, mainly because Fauci challenges the more outrageous statements by Trump – e.g., that the virus will “suddenly disappear,” or that HCQ is an effective treatment against the coronavirus. 

The Coronavirus Task Force has attempted to provide a centralized and coordinated response to the pandemic.  For example, the Army Corps of Engineers has had much success in assembling hospital beds and testing sites to supplement overstressed local resources.  And there was temporarily a successful push to provide respirators and ventilators to areas of the country experiencing COVID “hot spots.” 

Unfortunately, the success of the Task Force has been blunted by Donald Trump’s chaotic and contradictory statements.  Recently, Trump has insisted that schools re-open for the fall with all in-person instruction, despite recommendations from epidemiologists against in-person schooling when the positivity rate in testing is sufficiently high. He has also asked that COVID testing be slowed down, presumably so the number of reported new cases will not impact negatively on his re-election campaign.

Because Trump refuses to take responsibility for any decisions made on his watch, after issuing guidelines and declaring himself a “wartime President” engaged in a battle with the invading virus, he announced that further decisions about how to wage the battle would be left to individual states.  There is some sense in allowing governors to decide which areas require more stringent measures and which areas were experiencing fewer COVID cases; however, the result of Trump’s delegation of responsibility was that individual states were left to the “magic of the free market” in obtaining medical equipment and supplies.  States found themselves bidding against one another for supplies, the supply chain was chaotic, and testing experienced great delays.  The result is that the U.S., with about 4.3% of the world’s population, currently has nearly 25% of the world’s COVID cases and more deaths than any country in the world. 

A solid majority of the American public believe that the federal government should be coordinating the response to the pandemic.  Figure 8.2 from the Pew Research Center shows that 61% of Americans believe that it is mostly or entirely the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that a sufficient number of COVID tests are available to safely lift restrictions on public activity.  However, like so many other dimensions of this pandemic, there is a significant difference between Republicans who agree with this (42%) and Democrats (78%).  But even among Republicans, only 15% say that oversight for COVID-19 testing should be entirely the responsibility of states.

Figure 8.2: Response of Americans to the question: “It is the ____ to make sure there are enough COVID-19 tests available in order to safely lift restrictions on public activity,” broken down by political affiliation (Pew Research poll taken between April 29 and May 5, 2020). 

As we have mentioned, the only countries that have had success to date in fighting the pandemic have been those with a strong centralized approach informed by the best scientific knowledge.  No country that relied on “the magic of the free market,” or that disregarded the advice of scientists, has been successful in combating COVID.  Note that the country with the second-most COVID deaths is Brazil, whose leader Jair Bolsonaro has also expressed his disdain for scientific advice.   Advice from “free-market conservatives” has been a dismal failure in fighting the virus: these groups either propose hands-off policies that have repeatedly failed, or they deny the seriousness of the pandemic and minimize the death toll, or they espouse conspiracy theories about the cause and treatment for the virus.  It is paradoxical that, at the moment, Donald Trump appears to be banking his hopes for re-election on the early development and release of a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  Trump doesn’t seem to realize that the reason we can rapidly develop and test a vaccine against the virus is because, for many decades, the U.S. has provided federal funding for basic research on vaccines and their treatment.  It is the federal support for basic research that allows us some hope that we will succeed in the quest for a vaccine.   Despite that fact, Trump still continues to propose budgets that would impose deep cuts in funding for basic research. 

False Claim #9: “There is already a cure for COVID-19”

This is a claim pushed in various guises by Donald Trump, by Fox News and other right-wing pundits, by some overzealous (and even quack) doctors, and particularly by a segment of the U.S. population that gets its information from the above sources.  Most of the attention has been paid to the drug hydroxychloroquine, often used as a successful preventive medication for malaria, although more recently convalescent plasma extracted from COVID-19 survivors has been highlighted as a “miracle” treatment.  These treatments are worth trying in controlled clinical studies, but clear scientific evidence of their efficacy in preventing or mitigating (let alone “curing”) the effects of COVID-19 is not currently available.

The politically motivated misinformation that has been promulgated about these treatments illustrates the difference between science and pseudoscience stimulated by wishful thinking.  The scientific approach to drug approval is based on large-scale, randomized clinical trials involving control groups, where some participants are treated with the drug under study and others with placebos, in order to draw statistically significant comparative conclusions regarding the drug’s efficacy and potential side-effects.   But some politicians and even some doctors who want to be viewed as saviors are willing to bypass the hard work of such clinical trials, by relying on anecdotal case studies or partially relevant laboratory experiments.  The systematic clinical studies are challenging to carry out in the early stages of a pandemic, such as COVID-19, involving a new virus whose victims rapidly overwhelm health care facilities.  And that challenge often leaves the public stage open to claims without solid scientific backing.

Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and its sister drug chloroquine have been used successfully for decades against malaria, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases.  Its use for those purposes is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The first suggestion that these drugs might also be effective as an antiviral agent to control the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 came from laboratory test tube data.  This was followed up by small-sample trial uses in treating COVID-19 patients, where HCQ was typically administered together with the antibiotic azithromycin.  In late March 2020, a team of French doctors published an observation that six (among 20) COVID-19 patients they had treated with this combination had, after six days, all tested negative for the virus.  Their paper concluded: “Despite its small sample size, our survey shows that hydroxychloroquine treatment is significantly associated with viral load reduction/disappearance in COVID-19 patients and its effect is reinforced by azithromycin.”  

The French report was over-promoted in several Fox News appearances by Dr. Mehmet Oz, who claimed inaccurately that: “This French doctor, [Didier] Raoult, a very famous infectious-disease specialist, had done some interesting work at a pilot study showing that he could get rid of the virus in six days in 100 percent of the patients he treated.” Dr. Oz also informed Donald Trump directly, and Trump became an immediate advocate for what he saw as a “miracle cure.”  The day after Raoult’s study was published, Trump tweeted: “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” In contrast, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious-disease expert on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, cautioned that the findings were “anecdotal,” and would need to be confirmed by much more extensive and controlled clinical studies.  Subsequent trials, as detailed below, have certainly validated Fauci’s caution, but have done little to change the mind of Donald Trump, who ordered the procurement of 29 million doses of HCQ for a National Stockpile, and soon thereafter claimed to have taken the drug himself for a two-week period as a preventive measure.

On March 28 the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization allowing HCQ sulfate from the National Stockpile to be used to treat certain hospitalized COVID-19 patients when a clinical trial was unavailable or participation in such a trial was not feasible for the patient.  There was subsequently a great deal more observational experience gained regarding the efficacy and side-effects of the treatment given to hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but the results were far less encouraging than that early French study.  For example, on May 7, the Columbia University Irving Medical Center released results obtained for “the first 1376 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at a large medical center in New York City (excluding patients who were discharged, intubated, or died within 24 hours of arriving at the emergency department)… After using established and sophisticated statistical techniques to account for known differences between patients in the two groups, including age, sex, and initial vital signs, the researchers found that patients who received hydroxychloroquine had the same risk of intubation or death as patients who did not receive the drug.” The study concluded: “Hydroxychloroquine administration was not associated with either a greatly lowered or an increased risk of the composite end point of intubation or death. Randomized, controlled trials of hydroxychloroquine in patients with Covid-19 are needed.” A second observational study, published at nearly the same time, reported consistent results for 1438 COVID-19 patients admitted to New York area hospitals in the early stages of the surge there: “treatment with hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, or both, compared with neither treatment, was not significantly associated with differences in in-hospital mortality.”

Even more worrisome was a research paper that appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet on May 22.  That paper reported a massive study of 96,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients from 671 hospitals across six continents, alleging serious safety problems among the 15,000 of those patients who were treated with chloroquine or HCQ, either alone or in combination with another drug.  In particular, the paper reported a significantly increased occurrence of heart arrhythmias (a known side-effect of HCQ) and of death among those 15,000 patients.  This was a quite surprising finding, because HCQ has been used safely for decades, with few serious side-effects, for malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients.  Skepticism from outside experts led the study’s authors to request that the raw data that had been compiled by the independent company Surgisphere be subjected to a third-party audit.  When Surgisphere refused to cooperate, The Lancet retracted the paper, at its authors’ request, on June 4.  The New England Journal of Medicine then retracted another paper studying the use of blood pressure medicines by COVID-19 patients, but relying also on data from Surgisphere.

The Surgisphere episode has, unsurprisingly, provided impetus for HCQ proponents to claim a massive conspiracy by drug companies and government agencies to hide the beneficial use of HCQ as a COVID-19 treatment.  As we have detailed elsewhere on this site, Judy Mikovits and other doctors interviewed for the Plandemic video have enthusiastically promoted HCQ as an FDA-approved treatment, without emphasizing that FDA approval is for its use in treating diseases other than COVID-19.  Donald Trump has returned to promoting it, including a late July retweet of a viral HCQ promotional video filmed, under the auspices of the Tea Party Patriot Foundation, by a group that calls itself America’s Frontline Doctors.  The participants in the video claimed that mask-wearing and shutdowns are both ineffective and unnecessary to mitigate COVID-19, and that so-called experts and media personalities are hiding the real cure, HCQ.  The group was founded by Dr. Simone Gold, who runs a “concierge medical” business in California.  According to the business’ website, “Dr. Gold reads the latest research, consults with the foremost experts, and examines the scientific literature, all with an eye toward fixing her client’s exact problem. Dr. Gold then provides this very high quality CEO-level information to her client-patients.” That description hardly sounds like a work plan for a practicing medical doctor.

According to factcheck.org, Dr. Gold appears to work at selling herself as something more than she really is.  In April she recorded videos standing “outside the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles wearing a white coat embroidered with her name above the words ‘Emergency Dept’.” In these videos she spoke about her “experience practicing emergency medicine in this era of the COVID-19 crisis,” and she claimed that “the emergency department volume is down” and “we have been very successful at flattening the curve.” In fact, however, Gold never actually worked at the hospital, having been affiliated with Cedars-Sinai onlywhen she worked on a per-diem basis in a Cedars-Sinai Medical Network urgent care clinic for less than three weeks in 2015.” On the America’s Frontline Doctors website, she has posted a lengthy “white paper” on HCQ, which provides a quite incomplete and misleading record of the research done on HCQ as a treatment for COVID-19, along with the insinuation that pharmaceutical companies are behind a cover-up of the drug’s benefits because generic HCQ is too inexpensive.

The star witness in the viral video Trump retweeted was another doctor, Stella Immanuel, a primary care physician from Houston who works at the Rehoboth Medical Center, which was registered in September 2019 and resides in a strip mall also occupied by Fire Power Ministries, a Christian ministry run by Immanuel. In the video, Immanuel says: “Nobody needs to get sick. This virus has a cure. It is called hydroxychloroquine, zinc and Zithromax [a brand name for azithromycin].” She claims to have treated more than 350 COVID-19 patients, including elderly patients with other serious medical conditions, with this combination and all of them recovered fully, with no complications.  There is no independent corroboration of this claim of a perfect record of success, even though Dr. Immanuel has asked her cured patients to come forward.  She also claimed that a 2005 study already “said it works.” That would have been remarkable, since the SARS-CoV-2 virus was only discovered in 2019.  In fact, that 2005 study had shown that chloroquine was effective in preventing the spread of a different coronavirus – the one that caused the original SARS outbreak – in a cell culture, not in human subjects.  Dr. Neil Schluger, chairman of the department of medicine at the New York Medical College School of Medicine explained to factcheck.org: “Potential drugs are evaluated in test tubes, then in animals, before they move into the three phases of clinical human trials, and 90% of drug candidates that make it to human trials fail because they aren’t effective or aren’t safe.”

Considerable doubt is cast upon Dr. Immanuel’s scientific credentials by others of her claims, which have been documented, for example, in BBC News and Daily Beast articles about her.  In her Fire Power Ministries sermons, available on YouTube, she has alleged that: (1) alien (i.e., non-Earthling) DNA was being used in medical treatments; (2) scientists were developing a vaccine to prevent people from being religious; (3) many medical conditions are caused by “demon sperm” transmitted during sexual relations people have in their dreams with witches and demons; (4) ancestral curses are transmitted through placenta; (5) gay marriage can result in adults marrying children; and (6) the U.S. government is run in part not by humans, but rather by “reptilians” and other aliens.   Despite her medical license, she clearly resides in a different universe from medical science.  Nonetheless, Donald Trump described her and her doctor-for-hire partners in the America’s Frontline Doctors video as “very respected doctors.” After Facebook and Twitter both removed the viral video from their sites (though not before retweets from Trump and his son), since it violated their policies about misinformation, Immanuel tweeted that Jesus Christ would destroy Facebook’s servers if her videos were not restored.  As of this writing, a month after that tweet, Facebook has reported no interruption of its services.

So what does actual medical science have to say about the efficacy of HCQ? The now retracted Lancet article claiming increased mortality among HCQ-treated patients led to pauses in some HCQ clinical trials, while funding agencies tried to determine if the reported safety issues were a real concern.  But after the retraction, several large-scale, randomized, controlled clinical studies resumed, and several have by now reported their results.  The largest of these studies, called RECOVERY and funded by the U.K. government, randomly assigned large numbers of COVID-19 patients across 176 U.K. hospitals to multiple potential treatment protocols within the country’s National Health Service.  The preliminary results were shared via a press release on June 5 and are now available in preprint form. A total of 1561 hospitalized COVID patients received HCQ, while 3155 received usual care. After 28 days of treatment, 26.8% of those on HCQ and 25.0% of those who received usual care had died. That difference was not statistically significant. The RECOVERY preprint concludes: “In patients hospitalized with COVID-19, hydroxychloroquine was not associated with reductions in 28-day mortality but was associated with an increased length of hospital stay and increased risk of progressing to invasive mechanical ventilation or death.”

A second study, led by Dr. David Boulware of the University of Minnesota, carried out a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of HCQ’s preventive efficacy (so-called post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP) for people who had been exposed to one or more COVID-infected individuals but were not yet themselves symptomatic.  They enrolled and tracked 821 participants from across the U.S. and parts of Canada, who had had household or occupational exposure within the preceding four days to someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19, and for whom that exposure was at a distance less than 6 feet, over a time interval longer than 10 minutes, and either without a face mask or eye shield (high-risk group), or with a face mask but without an eye shield (moderate risk). The researchers sent either HCQ or a placebo – chosen randomly – by mail to the participants, and found that 12% who took HCQ went on to develop COVID-19 symptoms, while the same was true of 14% of the placebo participants.  That difference was not statistically significant.  The researchers’ conclusion: “After high-risk or moderate-risk exposure to Covid-19, hydroxychloroquine did not prevent illness compatible with Covid-19 or confirmed infection when used as post-exposure prophylaxis within 4 days after exposure.”

Another large, randomized, controlled PEP study carried out in Spain studied the efficacy of HCQ versus usual care among more than 2300 exposed individuals who were not yet symptomatic themselves. Just as for the Boulware trial, the Spanish researchers found no statistically significant difference between the number of people in each group who developed COVID-19. These large, randomized critical trials are more definitive than the suite of smaller-sample trials and case studies that had been carried out in the earlier months of the pandemic, occasionally with what seemed like encouraging results for HCQ.  A recently published meta-analysis reviews results of 23 such smaller-scale, and mostly uncontrolled, studies reported in any language, and concludes that “Evidence on the benefits and harms of using hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine to treat COVID-19 is very weak and conflicting.”

In light of the emerging results, the FDA on June 15 revoked its earlier Emergency Use Authorization for chloroquine and HCQ in the treatment of COVID-19. On June 20 the National Institutes of Health halted a large, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of HCQ efficacy that it had been funding, because the data from that and previous trials had already indicated “that this drug provided no additional benefit compared to placebo control for the treatment of COVID-19 in hospitalized patients.” These recent results led Dr. Anthony Fauci, in a July 28 interview, to push back against Trump’s retweet of the America’s Frontline Doctors video, by pointing out that “the overwhelming prevailing clinical trials that have looked at the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine have indicated that it is not effective in coronavirus disease.” While the HCQ conspiracy theorists continue to shout “cover-up,” Trump himself has already moved on to his next choice of “miracle cure.”

Under political pressure from the President, the FDA on August 23 issued a new Emergency Use Authorization, this time for treating COVID-19 patients with convalescent plasma. As shown in Fig. 9.1, plasma is the yellow liquid that remains after cells are removed from donated blood.  If the plasma is donated by COVID-19 survivors, it presumably contains some of the antibodies they developed to fight off the virus, and those antibodies may conceivably launch a successful immune response in other infected individuals who receive a transfusion.  Doctors have successfully used convalescent plasma for more than a century to treat other viral infections, including Ebola and the earlier coronavirus disease MERS.  However, plasma donated by different survivors varies widely in antibody concentration, making its efficacy challenging to establish in controlled clinical trials.  In addition, the plasma has been used by doctors to date mostly on a compassionate use basis for severely ill COVID-19 patients, rather than in attempts to randomize clinical trials and include control groups at similar stages of the illness who do not receive the treatment. 

Figure 9.1: Plasma is the yellow liquid left behind after cells are removed from donated blood. If the blood is donated by a survivor of a viral infection, the plasma presumably contains antibodies that may help to treat the virus in others. Photo credit: Guillermo Legaria/Getty

In the absence of control groups, Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic has led a team carrying out the most encouraging, though far from definitive, study to date, by separating 35,000 COVID plasma recipients, across more than 2800 acute care facilities in the U.S. and territories, into groups that had received transfusions of plasma with relatively high vs. medium vs. relatively low antibody concentrations.  The antibody concentrations had not yet been measured at the time the transfusions occurred.  More than half of the treated patients were critically ill in Intensive Care Units and more than a quarter of them were on mechanical ventilators at the time of their transfusions.  The 7-day mortality rates observed among these patients was 8.7% among patients transfused within 3 days of the COVID-19 diagnosis and 11.9% among patients who received later transfusions. 30-day mortality rates were more than twice as high, but showed similar differences depending on the delay to transfusion. For patients who received what turned out to be plasma with high antibody levels, the 7-day mortality rate was 8.9%, while for low antibody levels it was 13.7%.  However, the uncertainty bands for the two latter measurements overlap, so the results are encouraging but not definitive, particularly in the absence of any attempt to analyze or correct for confounding variables involving possible differences in age distribution and health condition, other than the COVID infection, between the two samples.

The authors of the preprint concerning the above study conclude cautiously that: “The relationships between reduced mortality and both earlier time to transfusion and higher antibody levels provide signatures of efficacy for convalescent plasma in the treatment of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. This information may be informative for the treatment of COVID-19 and design of randomized clinical trials involving convalescent plasma.” However, that caution completely disappeared in very misleading mis-characterizations of the results by Trump and other administration officials.  Trump hailed the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization as a “breakthrough” and claimed that the plasma treatment “had tremendous response so far.” Trump asserted that the therapy had been “proven to reduce mortality by 35%” and that assertion was backed up by both Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.  Hahn was even more explicit: “What that means is — and if the data continue to pan out — 100 people who are sick with Covid-19, 35 would have been saved because of the administration of plasma.” The data showed no such thing; the study had not even looked at patients who received no transfusions and had concentrated on mostly severely ill patients.  The limitations on the type of uncontrolled study conducted were completely omitted from the administration’s remarks.

Hahn, in particular, received immediate condemnation for his remarks from the medical community and had to issue a correction the next day: “I have been criticized for remarks I made Sunday night about the benefits of convalescent plasma. The criticism is entirely justified.  What I should have said better is that the data show a relative risk reduction not an absolute risk reduction.” The issuance of a correction will certainly not endear Hahn to President Trump, who specializes in hyperbole.  But it also did not go far enough for the medical community, who continue to point out the absence to date of the type of randomized clinical trial that might provide more definitive results.  The large RECOVERY trial in the U.K. is hoping to provide such results for convalescent plasma, as well as for HCQ, but it does not yet have a sufficiently large patient sample to analyze.  One of the leaders of the RECOVERY trial, epidemiologist Martin Landray of Oxford University, points to the HCQ example in cautioning that: “We have seen in this epidemic just how wrong well-meaning scientific hypotheses can be. There is good science behind convalescent plasma and a good reason for thinking that it may turn out to be an effective treatment. But the bottom line is that we don’t have enough data to know.”

Despite his occasional self-aggrandizing comments to the contrary, Donald Trump does not understand or respect the scientific method. He has promised Americans since the start of the pandemic that COVID-19 would “simply disappear, like a miracle” sometime soon. He has been impatiently trying for six months to promote miracle cures (HCQ, injected bleach, now convalescent plasma) to save him from having to learn from the successful mitigation approaches in other countries.  He now desperately seeks a miracle, and discourages further COVID testing, in order to lessen this stain on his leadership before the U.S. Presidential election in early November.  His desperation is placing control and regulatory agencies, like the CDC and the FDA, under enormous political pressure to support his claims even in the absence of corroborating scientific evidence.  It is leading him to promote quacks and contrarians who will tell him what he wants to hear about the virus.  It will undoubtedly lead in the coming months to enormous pressure for agencies to approve early adoption of a COVID-19 vaccine, even before one has successfully demonstrated both its efficacy and safety in large-scale Phase III clinical trials.  All those desperate efforts only serve to exacerbate public doubts about treatments, and as we discuss below, those doubts are already distressingly strong about vaccines.

False Claim #10: “Even the development of a vaccine will not stop the pandemic”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the anti-vaxxers have been among the most active sources of misinformation and conspiracy theories.  In part, this is simply a continuation of anti-vaxxer propaganda that has been going on for decades.  Much of this is detailed in our blog post on Vaccination.  However, the current pandemic has given rise to new claims from the anti-vaccination lobby.  Some of this has been reviewed in our blog post on Dr. Judy Mikovits, an immunologist who became notorious earlier this year when she featured in a quasi-documentary film, Plandemic, that became a viral sensation on the Web.  Here, we will review some of the arguments circulated by anti-vaccination groups, and we will discuss how these groups are currently active on social media, in an attempt to spread rumors and false information about a possible vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

In truth, vaccination has been one of the most effective public health measures of all time – some would argue that is it the single most effective public-health measure ever.  For example, smallpox killed hundreds of millions of people before it was finally eradicated by vaccination.  Polio was also an infectious disease that killed or crippled many people around the globe.  We have come tantalizingly close to eradicating polio world-wide; in fact, polio as a natural occurrence has now been eliminated in all of Africa.  There remain a few pockets of the disease in Third-World countries, primarily Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the latest vaccination campaigns have been hampered either by warfare in affected areas, or some active anti-vaccination campaigns in countries like Pakistan.  There are sporadic small outbreaks in Third-World countries that still use live virus in their polio vaccines. 

Measles is no longer endemic in the U.S.; recent outbreaks of measles in this country have all been started by infected individuals arriving from abroad.  Even when measles is introduced into the country, it will not produce an epidemic so long as the local population has achieved herd immunity.  The percentage of the population necessary to achieve herd immunity depends on the transmission rate of the disease.  Measles is sufficiently infectious that herd immunity requires about 95% of the population to either be vaccinated against measles, or to have acquired immunity by previously having contracted measles.  Unfortunately, in several areas of the U.S., the number of people who are vaccinated against measles has dropped below this 95% level, and this is the reason that measles epidemics have occurred.  

The arguments by anti-vaxxers are of two general types.  We will review those here, with special emphasis on recent developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  1. Vaccination Is Unnecessary

The first general anti-vaxxer argument is that vaccination is unnecessary.  The argument takes various forms.  One is that vaccination doesn’t confer “permanent” immunity.  This is certainly true for some diseases.  For example, vaccination against influenza does not confer life-long immunity, for two reasons.  The first is that the antibodies against the flu that are produced by vaccination do not persist for a long period of time.  A second reason that flu vaccines need to be taken annually is because the viruses that produce the flu mutate and change rapidly.  A vaccine that provides immunity against one type of influenza virus may be only partially successful in producing immunity for a second type. 

However, there are certainly vaccines that provide life-long immunity for the vast majority of people who are vaccinated.  Smallpox is one of those diseases.  However, anti-vaxxers claim that people with “healthy” immune systems will be able to fight off infection.  We discussed immunologist Dr. Judy Mikovits in False Claim #9, and in an earlier blog post.  This spring she became world-famous as the main subject of a video called Plandemic.  Dr. Mikovits is also the co-author of a best-selling book titled Plague of Corruption.  In that book, she asserts that “her PhD thesis changed the paradigm of HIV/AIDS treatment and has saved millions.”  Enserink and Cohen reviewed Mikovits’ work in a paper in Science, where they concluded “Her PhD thesis had no discernible impact on the treatment of HIV/AIDS.”  Dr. Mikovits and co-author Kent Heckenlively also assert that “HIV does NOT CAUSE AIDS” (the caps are by Mikovits).  She claims that many people become infected with HIV, but the only people who develop full-blown AIDS are those with weakened immune systems.

Figure 10.1: A trailer for the video Plandemic starring Dr. Judy Mikovits (shown in this photo). 

In a similar vein, Dr. Alan Palmer, writing for the Children’s Health Defense network (a group affiliated with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaxxer network) describes how a “healthy” immune system functions.  “When working in harmony, the different players in the immune system are truly a formidable force to be reckoned with. They seek, identify and destroy the intruder. Rather than using a drug that often has risks of side effects to “kill” the infection, this approach fortifies and builds the body’s own defenses and mechanisms to fight the offending microbe and then clean up the mess and debris afterwards. This includes upregulating white blood cells and immune regulatory players like macrophages, natural killer cells (NK cells), neutrophils and monocytes.” 

So what, according to Palmer, is an example of a natural product that produces a healthy immune system, capable of fighting off almost any infectious agent (including the coronavirus)?  Well, among other things, lots of vitamin C.  And why don’t doctors prescribe these natural immune-system boosters, instead of “unnatural” medications?  Several reasons are provided for this, but one claim is that John D. Rockefeller bought up pharmaceutical companies when he learned that medicines could be created from coal tar (more profits for his oil companies).  Next, he endowed a number of medical schools, on the condition that they promote his medical products and shun cheaper natural solutions.  And today, it is claimed that Big Medicine and Big Pharma are in cahoots to manufacture and prescribe incredibly costly medicines that provide massive profits, but create even more illness than they prevent. 

In summary, the “healthy immune system” argument is that a person will not need vaccination, provided that they have taken naturally occurring products that boost one’s immune system.  The miraculous powers of the healthy immune system will enable the person to overcome nearly any disease.  The anti-vaxxers argue that those previously widespread diseases – like smallpox, polio and measles – that have been successfully wiped out or nearly so, with the apparent aid of vaccines, in fact succumbed to suddenly healthier immune systems resulting from improved diet, supplements and lifestyle.

2. Vaccination is Harmful

A second anti-vaxxer argument is that vaccination is actually harmful.  The most famous advocate of this is Andrew Wakefield.  We profiled Wakefield in our blog post on Vaccination.  He is a former British doctor who claimed to have discovered a link between the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine and the onset of several disorders, most notably autism. 

Figure 10.2: Andrew Wakefield, one of the most prominent anti-vaccination advocates, and producer of two “Vaxxed” films. 

Wakefield’s article caused a sensation.  The idea that vaccination could cause autism immediately sparked a number of larger controlled studies to see if this link could be validated.  Eventually, massive data sets have been compiled in several countries around the world, and absolutely no link to autism has ever been found.  Eventually Wakefield’s results came under greater scrutiny.  First, it was found that Wakefield had applied for a patent on a “single-jab measles vaccine” (his 1998 study implied that the use of a single vaccine to inoculate against three different diseases was the likely cause of the problem).  Furthermore, it was reported that some patients in that study were recruited by a lawyer who intended to sue the MMR vaccine manufacturers, and that Wakefield had been paid £400,000 by the lawyers responsible for the MMR lawsuit. 

Wakefield’s paper was retracted and his medical license was subsequently revoked; however, he has moved to the U.S. and has continued to allege a connection between vaccines and various illnesses, including autism.  He has produced two Vaxxed movies; both of these claim to show harmful effects of vaccines, including a link to autism.  Lately, Wakefield has even suggested that women not take their babies to pediatricians, on the grounds that a doctor will strongly recommend that their children get vaccinated.  Andrew Wakefield is a leader in several anti-vaccination groups across the U.S.  He is most active with groups of families with autistic children.  Wakefield and his colleagues strongly suggest that childhood vaccinations are the cause of their children’s autism.  Several of the other current or former physicians working with families of autistic children recommend highly controversial regimens, such as chelation therapy, for these children. 

One of the most notorious anti-vaxxers is Mike Adams, the proprietor of a Web site called Natural News.  Like Alex Jones of Infowars, Adams combines his political messages with sales of products designed to “cure” people of various ailments or help them to remain in perfect health.  Adams provides a combination of right-wing political theories with his own personal brand of holistic health advice.  And he has managed to convince many skeptical scientists that he offers the most egregious anti-scientific advice around. 

Figure 10.3: Mike Adams, proprietor of a series of Web sites associated with Natural News.  Adams, who calls himself The Health Ranger, is notorious for his anti-scientific advice.   

For example, “blogger David Gorski of ScienceBlogs, called Natural News ’one of the most wretched hives of scum and quackery on the Internet,’ and the most ’blatant purveyor of the worst kind of quackery and paranoid anti-physician and anti-medicine conspiracy theories anywhere on the Internet’, and a one-stop-shop for ’virtually every quackery known to humankind, all slathered with a heaping helping of unrelenting hostility to science-based medicine and science in general.’ … Steven Novella of NeuroLogica Blog called NaturalNews ’a crank alt med site that promotes every sort of medical nonsense imaginable.’ Novella continued: ’If it is unscientific, antiscientific, conspiracy-mongering, or downright silly, Mike Adams appears to be all for it – whatever sells the “natural” products he hawks on his site.’ … Brian Dunning listed it as #1 on his ’Top 10 Worst Anti-Science Websites’ list. … Robert T. Carroll at The Skeptic’s Dictionary said, ’Natural News is not a very good source for information. If you don’t trust me on this, … do a search for ’Natural News’ or ’Mike Adams’ … Hundreds of entries will be found and not one of them will have a good word to say about Mike Adams as a source.’”

Adams’ health advice is so anti-scientific and dangerous (for example, at one point he posted a homeopathic ‘cure’ for Ebola) that Google Search has now banned him from their list of sites, and he has been de-listed by both Facebook and YouTube.  But here is what Adams says about what he calls the “vaccine Holocaust”:

“The Holocaust of history saw the coordinated, government-run murder of six million Jews, capping off one of the most horrifying chapters of human history. Yet another holocaust is being repeated right now by the vaccine industry, also run by fascist government much like the Third Reich. Except this holocaust’s impact goes far beyond six million people; it involves the maiming, injury and deaths of hundreds of millions of people around the world, spanning at least three decades. Just like Adolf Hitler criminalized anyone criticizing his authoritarian regime, the vaccine deep state in America — led by the criminal CDC — has achieved the coordinated censorship of all criticism of vaccines across every tech platform of today: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter and others. All channels containing content or videos that dare point out the government-admitted statistics of children being killed by vaccines — quarterly stats are readily available via VAERS.HHS.gov — are systematically de-platformed and censored.” [Note the paradoxical claim that the data are “readily available,” but the information is “censored.”]

And in case you didn’t get Adams’ claim that vaccines are administered deliberately by governments to kill as many people as possible, he becomes even more specific in the following conspiratorial rant:

Defenders of the scientific status quo claim that science is ‘self correcting.’ But there can be no self correction when no voices of dissent are allowed to be heard. Vaccines have become a cult-like ‘faith’ matter across the scientific community, where total belief in vaccines is required at all times, or you will be fired from your job, stripped of your medical license, isolated from research funding, denounced by the medical establishment and censored by the tech giants. No dissent is allowed to be voiced, which means vaccines aren’t ‘scientific’ at all. They represent an absolutist, cult-like fanaticism that smacks of deep intellectual corruption, not rational thought. No one is allowed to criticize vaccines. No whistleblowers are covered in the media. No investigative findings can be shared on social media. The cover-up is now complete, and the vaccine industry answers to no one, but hopes to violate everyone. Mass death has now descended upon us, and it’s all being carried out in the name of ‘science.’ … If you line up to be injected, you will find yourself very likely dead before very long, and this is the whole point. Vaccines have become weaponized. They have become a kill switch vector for humanity … Remember, the globalists don’t want humans to be around, at least not most of us. They want to depopulate the planet by 90%.

You may argue (as many have) that Mike Adams is the most irresponsible anti-vaxxer around.  So is it unfair to use this “worst-case example” as a representative of anti-vaccination ‘reasoning’?  We believe that Adams is simply an extreme example of the type of arguments one finds on anti-vaccination sites.  They begin by assuming that the overall outcomes of vaccination are negative.  To do this, they must ignore the fantastic benefits of vaccination, in largely eradicating or greatly reducing common infectious diseases in the U.S. and around the world.  They must therefore discount the millions of people who have been aided by vaccination, and whose lives (particularly in Third-World countries) have become enriched due to this public-health initiative.  Next, they greatly magnify the number of cases of harm caused by vaccines.  Under normal circumstances, vaccines will cause harm to an extremely small percentage of the people vaccinated.  To be sure, there are a few cases where faulty vaccines have been produced (for a discussion of these, see our blog post on Vaccination). 

But if your information came from anti-vaxxer sites, you would be left with the impression that thousands, perhaps millions, of people have been harmed by vaccines.  As one example, groups influenced by Andrew Wakefield claim that many children became autistic as a side effect of the MMR vaccine.  Anti-vaccination groups also subscribe to a number of conspiracy theories.  Many believe, as Mike Adams alleges, that vaccination involves a conspiracy between the medical and pharmaceutical communities: they are said to recommend vaccination, which they know to be either useless or dangerous, in order to reap enormous profits.  Other theories allege that the leaders of the conspiracy are the Jews, through their control of the international financial system (or in particular, George Soros), or Bill Gates, because of his desire to control the world and increase his fortune. 

So Mike Adams is noxious, produces no evidence for his claims, and makes outrageous claims about vaccination, as well as every other science and health issue covered on his 50 Web sites.  However, consider him just a more extreme version of the general anti-vaccination purveyor.  Even his claim that there is a common theme between vaccination and the Holocaust is by no means unique to Adams.  Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a leading anti-vaxxer who insists that he is “not anti-vaccination,” has also painted a fanciful picture of children being injured by vaccines.  “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.” (By way of full disclosure, this blog site is run by two survivors of long lifetimes of vaccination. We are not members of a small minority of such survivors.)

In normal times, we would respond to a pandemic such as COVID-19 with a concerted effort to discover and develop a vaccine that would be effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  This effort will not necessarily succeed: for example, we currently have no FDA-approved vaccines for Ebola, HIV, or bubonic plague.   However, at present there are several promising candidates for a SARS-CoV-2 virus, including some which have advanced to stage III trials.  So we have some reason for optimism regarding a vaccine. 

The SARS-CoV-2 vaccine would be approved for treatment after a large number of trial patients were inoculated with the vaccine.  The medical community would take great pains to ensure that the vaccine be safe and effective.  Approval for use by the community would be granted only after great scrutiny.  The next step would be to vaccinate the public; front-line medical workers would be the first to receive the vaccine, after which the general population would be vaccinated.  The goal would be to ensure that herd immunity was reached.  In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it currently appears that herd immunity might be achieved once about 60% of the population has antibodies, either from vaccination or from having contracted the disease.  As was discussed in False Claim #4, herd immunity cannot be achieved if antibodies against the coronavirus are effective for only a short time, or if the virus mutates rapidly. 

We stated that “under normal circumstances,” once a vaccine was developed for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the population had achieved herd immunity, then either the disease would die out or else the population might require a new vaccination every year, as is the case for the various strains of flu.  Unfortunately, in the U.S. these are not “normal” times.   There are many reasons why Americans would be reluctant to be vaccinated, even if a vaccine is produced. 

  • Regardless of what vaccine is produced, the anti-vaccination lobby will argue that the vaccine is ineffective and/or dangerous.  Disinformation about vaccines is currently flooding the Web.  “Mainstream” sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are overrun with conspiracy-theory claims regarding vaccines.  Anti-vaxxer groups are already actively attempting to convince the public that a vaccine against this disease either will not work, or may produce more harm than good.  There will be tremendous pressure on people not to get vaccinated, even if a vaccine turns out to be  extremely effective and has almost no side effects.  Figure 10.4 shows that the percentage of Americans who would take a vaccine if it was available has steadily decreased over time.  The poll shown was taken at the end of July; however, this downward trend has continued.  
Figure 10.4. Percentage of Americans who would take a vaccine against COVID if it is available, as a function of date.
  • The Trump Administration is currently applying great pressure to produce and release a vaccine as soon as possible: this is evident from the name of the vaccine development program, Operation Warp Speed.  Donald Trump has made it clear that he wants to announce the existence of an effective vaccine before the November 3 federal election.  This greatly increases the risk that safety and scrutiny in vaccine development could be sacrificed, in order to produce a vaccine by a politically-motivated timetable. 
  • The anti-science attitudes of the Trump Administration have had major adverse consequences in the coronavirus pandemic.  For example, the reputation of the Centers for Disease Control has been badly damaged.  The first COVID test released by the CDC turned out to be faulty.  Next, the CDC produced health guidelines for re-opening K-12 schools; however, the guidelines apparently clashed with Trump’s desire that all schools be opened for in-person instruction in the fall, in order to improve his chances for re-election; so the guidelines were never released.  Furthermore, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield was largely sidelined during the public meetings of the Coronavirus Task Force.  Under normal circumstances one would have expected the CDC and its Director to be a major source of information regarding the pandemic, and to be leading the public response to this health issue. 
  • Likewise, the reputation of the Food and Drug Administration has suffered during this pandemic.  At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, the FDA refused to authorize a test for COVID from the World Health Organization to be deployed in the U.S.  This slowed down the initial testing program, and testing was further delayed when the first CDC test turned out to be faulty.  Next, FDA Director Stephen Hahn allowed the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to be prescribed for COVID-19 patients outside of clinical trials.  Many scientists felt that this authorization was made for political reasons (Donald Trump and several Fox News personalities had hyped it as a “miracle cure”) rather than for medical ones.  Hahn subsequently had to revoke the emergency authorization after the first statistically significant blinded trials showed that this medication was ineffective against COVID-19.  In addition, HCQ has some concerning side effects.
  • As discussed under False Claim #9, the FDA allowed the use of convalescent plasma for COVID-19 treatment.  Although it appears promising that plasma from people recovering from the virus might contain antibodies that would be useful for the recipient, large-scale studies of this treatment are not yet available.  When Donald Trump announced the use of convalescent plasma, he claimed that blood plasma from recovered donors decreased the mortality rate by 35%.  Both Stephen Hahn and Health & Human Services Director Alex Azar repeated this statistic; unfortunately, this was incorrect.  Hahn later Tweeted, “I have been criticized for remarks I made Sunday night about the benefits of convalescent plasma. The criticism is entirely justified.”  Even worse, Dr. Scott Wright, the leader of the study of 35,000 patients conducted by the Mayo Clinic, claimed that the numbers quoted did not come from his study. 
  • On August 31, Stephen Hahn announced that he might authorize emergency use of a coronavirus vaccine even if phase III trials are not complete.  If the vaccine turned out to be completely safe and effective, this step might help vaccinate the highest-priority citizens (e.g., front-line medical personnel); however, it also raises the possibility that it could backfire badly.  If the vaccine should prove to be either ineffective or unsafe, it would not only cause people not to accept a COVID vaccine, but it could set back the entire program of vaccination by decades. 
  • On Sept. 2, CDC Director Robert Redfield sent a letter to all states telling them to be prepared for emergency authorization of a coronavirus vaccine on Nov. 1.  The letter said, “CDC urgently requests your assistance in expediting applications for these distribution facilities and, if necessary, asks that you consider waiving requirements that would prevent these facilities from becoming fully operational by November 1, 2020.”  The timing of the move suggested to many people that the date might be the result of political considerations rather than scientific ones, although Redfield insisted that any waivers would not compromise the safety of a vaccine.  Dr. Paul Offit, one of the country’s top experts in vaccines and a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, stated “Being ready is reasonable. Cutting short phase III trials before you get the information you need isn’t.” And Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of Baylor University’s tropical medicine school, said “It gives the appearance of a stunt rather than an expression of public health concern.”  This move could dramatically increase the possibility that a vaccine would be pushed onto the market too soon, before all Phase III trials were sufficiently complete. 

The net result of this political interference with scientific advice has been a sharp polarization in the public, as well as widespread confusion over the best medical advice.  Televised meetings of the Coronavirus Task Force were bizarre, in that they frequently featured attempts to prevent Americans from receiving the best scientific advice about the disease, about the numbers of people who were contracting the disease, and about the seriousness of the pandemic.  At one point Trump insisted that for many people the coronavirus was “nothing more than the sniffles,” despite the fact that many people, even some asymptomatic carriers, found that they had suffered serious respiratory, heart or even brain damage. 

The existence of so much confusion and polarization makes people more susceptible to conspiracy theories and anti-scientific arguments.  Of all the false narratives we have reviewed in this post, the claim that a COVID vaccine will be ineffective has the greatest chance of coming true.  For example, many people suspect that earlier actions by FDA chief Stephen Hahn have been influenced by political considerations.  Hahn’s emergency authorization of hydroxychloroquine for use in treating COVID patients was one example where this action may have resulted from hyping of this drug by Donald Trump and Fox News personnel.  And Hahn’s latest gaffe, where he had to walk back his statement about the effectiveness of convalescent plasma, also may have been influenced by the White House. 

Many people will be skeptical of a potential emergency authorization by the CDC and/or the FDA of a vaccine that has not completed its final trials.  Certainly Hahn and Redfield would come under attack by the anti-vaccination lobby, as well as by other conspiracy theorists.  This could result in many people refusing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, which would limit its effectiveness. 

A USA Today/Suffolk poll, released on Sept. 4, showed that 43% of Americans surveyed said they would not take a vaccine when it was released until others had tried it.  An additional 23% of respondents said they would never take a vaccine against the coronavirus.  Of the remaining respondents, 27% said they would take a vaccine as soon as it was available, while 6% were uncertain of their response.  This is a significant increase in skepticism over earlier polls regarding the response to a potential vaccine, as shown in Fig. 10.4.  And it raises serious concerns, since approximately 60% of the public need to have antibodies against the disease for there to be any chance of stopping the spread of coronavirus by virtue of herd immunity. 

The USA Today/Suffolk poll revealed significant differences based on party affiliation.  Asked if they would eventually take a vaccine against the coronavirus, 86% of Democrats responded in the affirmative, as compared to 61% of Republicans.  And the poll also showed a significant split with respect to race.  While 31% of white respondents said they would take a vaccine immediately after its release, only 17% of Hispanic respondents and 15% of Black voters said they would take a vaccine right away.  David Salmon, a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said “If you have 330 million doses of vaccine and nobody wants it, it accomplishes nothing. You’ve got to use the vaccine. It’s just as important as how effective the vaccine is.”


The combination of blatantly anti-scientific statements from the Trump White House, the confusing and chaotic statements from Donald Trump, and the botched response to the pandemic has left many Americans either confused about the best action to take, or else scornful of the advice from medical personnel.  Sadly, one result of this debacle is that Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the most-respected epidemiologists in the world, is widely reviled by right-wing commentators because he frequently contradicts the President. 

In normal circumstances, the development of a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus should mark a turning-point in the fight against this health calamity.  Sadly, it now appears that because of the Administration’s chaotic response to the pandemic, attempts to contradict the best scientific advice, and political interference in scientific issues, the production of a vaccine may well be only one more chapter in an ongoing saga of failure and confusion.  Neither Donald Trump nor anyone else can bend natural phenomena to yield to their will. It takes responsible, rigorous science to manage and mitigate the impacts.

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