On Friday, I wrote about how antivaccine icon Dr. Robert Sears (better known as Dr. Bob Sears or just “Dr. Bob”) had been disciplined by the Medical Board of California. In brief, he was placed on probation for three years, during which time his practice will be monitored and required to undergo retraining in areas where his knowledge and practice were deficient and take courses in ethics. He will not be allowed to supervise nurse practitioners. Basically, his medical license has been revoked, the revocation stayed for the three years of his probation, after which, if Dr. Bob completes all the remediation that the Board has required, the revocation can be stayed permanently. If, however, during his probation he screws up bad enough, the revocation of his license can be implemented immediately.
What he did wrong and why the Board sanctioned him can be found previous posts by yours truly here and here, Skeptical Raptor, and others. The CliffsNotes version is that there was a case where he handled the complaints of a child with severe headaches after having been hit in the head…poorly. He also granted a nonmedical exemption to school vaccine mandates to a child based on non-science-based reasons and failed to keep adequate records. Personally, I was surprised that what got him was mostly the case of the child with head trauma, given that he had started profiting by offering seminars on how to avoid vaccine mandates and providing bogus nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates beginning almost as soon as SB 277, the California law that eliminated nonmedical exemptions, was passed in 2015.
Over the weekend, there were…reactions.
First, I have to point out that one news story on Dr. Bob’s smackdown by the Board really irritated the crap out of me. First, there was this:
WTF, @latimes and @skarlamangla? @DrBobSears is NOT the "leading vaccine skeptic." He is NOT a skeptic. He is a vaccine denialist. He is an antivaxer. Do better with your headlines. https://t.co/uzoMKpVjdo
— David Gorski, MD, PhD (@gorskon) June 29, 2018
Yes, the LA Times screwed up. I don’t know who was responsible for the headline referring to Dr. Bob as a “leading vaccine skeptic,” but seeing that headline infuriated me. Dr. Bob is not a “vaccine skeptic.” He is a vaccine denialist. He is, if not an outright antivaxer, antivaccine-adjacent. He panders to antivaxers and has built his practice around catering to them. When SB 277 was under consideration and after it was passed, he went as far as going full Godwin over it. Let’s just put it this way. If Dr. Bob is not antivaccine, why does he consider a school vaccine mandate in which nonmedical (so-called “personal belief exemptions”) are no longer permitted the equivalent of totalitarianism on par with Nazi Germany? Why does he use Nazi analogies?
Apparently the online Twitter criticism of the headline got to someone at the LA Times, because the headline has been changed. It’s only marginally better, California doctor critical of vaccines is punished for exempting 2-year-old boy from all childhood immunizations. “Critical of vaccines”? A more accurate way to put it would be to characterize him as spreading misinformation about vaccines, aiding and abetting antivaxers, and doing his best to undermine SB 277 while profiting at the same time. The article even managed to quote antivaccine-adjacent pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon, longtime “friend” of the blog:
“It struck me as possibly the best decision that was going to come down … I don’t believe that the board really wants to get involved in this,” said Dr. Jay Gordon, a pediatrician in Santa Monica who supports Sears. “I think the law is pretty clear in this issue about medical exemptions — it’s in the hands of the doctor who knows the patient best.”
The doctor might “know the patient best” (although this is often debatable), but doctors like Dr. Bob and, yes, Dr. Jay, do not know (or choose to ignore or misinterpret) the science supporting vaccine safety and efficacy. Instead, they rely on “personal clinical experience,” full of confirmation bias, and use that to build lucrative practices catering to antivaccine parents.
As for Dr. Bob himself, he took to Facebook later on Friday, a few hours after the story broke:
Not surprisingly, the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism posted the full text of Dr. Bob’s response (for those of you who aren’t on Facebook). Not surprisingly, Dr. Bob sounds fairly unrepentant. First, he justifies accepting a settlement rather than fighting even though he thinks he’s “done nothing wrong”:
Why accept a settlement when I’ve done nothing wrong? The challenge with medical board cases is that even if I win on all aspects of a case, the medical board can still exercise its authority and put me on probation anyway. I win, or lose, a trial before a judge, then the medical board decides the punishment based on how they see the facts. Since it was likely that I’d get probation anyway, I accepted the offer.
This is nonsense. If Dr. Bob were to prevail at a legal hearing, the Board would have a hell of a time justifying the imposition any sort of sanctions, probation or other. One notes that this all also comes well over a year and a half after we first learned that the Board was bringing action against Sears. What was going on during that time? In any case, my guess is that Dr. Bob’s lawyer told him that he was probably going to lose and, rather than take the risk of losing his license, he took the deal and accepted probation.
Next up, Dr. Bob plays the conspiracy card:
All this for a court opinion letter? Medical boards are normally tasked with protecting patients against doctors who do things like sell drugs, see patients while intoxicated, commit insurance fraud, prescribe a wrong drug that ends up hurting a patient. However, this investigation probably came from higher up the chain of command. I picked a fight with a California Legislator, and he has been very vocal about openly working with the medical board to prosecute doctors who excuse patients from their vaccines, regardless of the merits of a case. I signed up for this.
That last sentence is clearly a shout out to his dedicated antivaccine followers. “Look at me,” he’s saying, “Look at what I’m doing for you! I’m going to the mat for you, and was willing to do that from the very beginning.” He’s also playing on the hatred antivaxers have for California State Senator Richard Pan, who led the charge for passing SB 277 and remains its staunchest defender. No surprise here. This is basically boilerplate that I’d expect from pretty much any doctor like Dr. Bob facing discipline for his behavior: Blame big pharma or higher forces. Personally, I doubt that Dr. Pan had much, if anything, to do with the Medical Board of California’s decision to pursue action against Dr. Sears, but it is true that he has spoken of introducing additional legislation to prevent the sort of profiteering through issuing dubious medical exemptions. That’s a good thing.
Later in the post, he lets drop that this is only the first complaint and that there are four more pending against him:
Is this fight over? No it is not. This was just case number one. The medical board is already lining up four more cases, and these will be about vaccine medical exemptions under the new vaccine law. It seems there is an attempt to keep me on probation for the rest of my medical career. But the one thing I’m going to do differently this time is that I’m going to be very open with all the proceedings. With case one, I was silent. Upon the recommendation of my lawyers I haven’t said a thing until now. But I’m tired of being quiet.
Dr. Bob should listen to his lawyers, who probably cringed painfully upon reading his Facebook post. Let’s just put it this way. It doesn’t help you to publicly accuse the Board of, in essence, a vendetta against you. I can see what he’s doing here, though. He’s borrowing a page out of the Stanislaw Burzynski playbook and trying to mobilize his followers against the Medical Board of California. That is not likely to end well because, unlike the case with Burzynski, whose patients had advanced and terminal cancer and weren’t a danger to anyone, antivaxers are putting others in danger by not vaccinating their children. In any case, this is just more of Dr. Bob playing to his antivaccine base. One wonders how long it will be before he sets up a legal defense fund, if he hasn’t already.
But what are these cases? Who are these children? Let’s just put it this way. None of them appear to have conditions for which a medical exemption to California’s vaccine mandate is in order. For instance:
So, case number two involves siblings who got vaccine medical exemptions from me because one of the children has a severe medical condition that research has shown can get worse with ongoing vaccination. The other child doesn’t have the condition, yet, but dad does. Exemption for reasons in a family’s medical history is an amendment guaranteed under SB277. We’ll see if the medical board agrees – probably about two years from now. These things take a long time.
Note how he doesn’t mention what the actual medical condition is. I’m hard-pressed to think of such a condition that “gets worse with vaccination” and is hereditary.
As for the rest:
Case number three is a child with a family member who had a severe permanent neurological injury after vaccines.
This is not an indication for a nonmedical exemption, even if the neurologic injury actually was caused by vaccines, which is very unlikely. Next:
Case number four is a teen who had a severe reaction to an infant vaccine, her own doctor told her to opt out of that vaccine after that, and I gave her an exemption from the teen booster dose. We’ll see if the board agrees.
I suspect that there is a lot more to the story here than what Dr. Bob relates. for one thing, the patient’s own doctor could easily have written a vaccine exemption letter. Why didn’t her doctor do that? Why did the parents take the patient to Dr. Bob instead to get an exemption letter? For another thing, if there’s one undisputed acceptable reason for a medical exemption to a given vaccine is a previous severe reaction to that same vaccine. Something definitely sounds fishy here.
Case number five involves siblings to whom I did not give vaccine exemptions to, but a parent somehow reported me to the medical board anyway. I don’t know why yet. Should be interesting.
I bet it will, because I bet there’s more to the story than what Sears is telling here.
Still, if you want to see where Sears is coming from, see his finale:
Now that case one is settled, I can go back to being loud and proud about my belief that every single patient should receive complete informed consent prior to vaccinations. This two-year period of silence has been tough. I will not rest until every single family has been given access to full, complete, objective, and un-doctored information that makes every parent fully aware of the risks they accept if they don’t vaccinate their child, and all the risks they take if they do vaccinate their child. Period. And I will fight against mandatory vaccination laws until they are no more. When every single person on this planet has access to informed consent, and can make a free choice, I will then be able to say my work is done.
What Sears really means is not “informed consent.” In reality it is what I’ve long referred to as “misinformed consent,” in which the dangers of vaccines are hugely exaggerated or, as in the case of autism, made up and not based in science, and the benefits of vaccines downplayed. The “free choice” that Sears claims he wants is really not so free.
Not surprisingly, along with Dr. Sears’ combination of self-pity and self-aggrandizement in service of ginning up conspiracy theories against him, antivaxers joined in. For instance, Ginger Taylor seems to think that the LA Times (which I just criticized for being too squishy on its language to describe antivaxers and too willing to interview the antivaccine-adjacent like Dr. Jay) is going to become even more biased (her pereception) against antivaxers. Why? Because Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong is taking over the LA Times. Why does that matter? Well, Soon-Shiong is planning on taking a cancer vaccine subsidiary of his public. Taylor, paranoid (and not too bright) antivaxer that she is, is a conspiracy theorist, and she thinks that the the fact that Soon-Shiong is developing a cancer vaccine and just took over the LA Times means that the LA Times is hopelessly biased.
So, Ginger being Ginger, she sent a flurry of emails to the LA Times, the first one after she learned that Soon-Shiong was taking over:
My faith in mainstream media “science journalism” ended in 2009 because of the LA Times, the abysmal and juvenile reporting they were publishing on very serious vaccine safety issues, and the appalling exchange I had with their science writers and editors on their “fake news.” It resulted in a, widely circulated, in-depth piece on the bad faith of the paper, and in science reporting in general. At the time I cautioned that the course the paper was on would only lead to the complete loss of public trust on these matters, and we have seen that come to fruition in this era.
It is my understanding that Dr. Soon-Shiong is in the vaccine industry himself, and unfortunately we have seen how that kind of conflict of interest in media ownership results in bias, so I am dubious that the LAT will make the changes needed to conduct earnest, objective reporting on these issues. However, if the California News Group is serious about developing integrity and demonstrating that they are independent from industry influence, then this is the place to start:
Chris Mooney, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Lori Kozlowski, Rosie Mestel, Thomas Maugh, David Gorski, Virginia Hughes, Science Journalists, The Dying of the LA Times and an Angry Autism Mom
To be honest, I was highly amused at this because what Soon-Shiong’s company is doing doesn’t sound much like vaccines to me:
Speaking at the Jefferies healthcare investment conference in New York last week, Soon-Shiong described the vaccine cocktail as a personalized immunotherapy combining experimental natural killer cells, dendritic cells and T cell therapy with viral and yeast-based vectors—and, of course, the protein-bound chemotherapy Abraxane, which has formed much of Soon-Shiong’s success, being the subject of a $2.9 billion acquisition deal with Celgene in 2010.
So what we have here is a combination of a bunch of different immunotherapies plus a chemotherapy drug. I was basically shaking my head wondering why it was being described as a “vaccine.” Be that as it may, it’s pharma, which makes it automatically suspect to Ginger.
In a later email:
Vaccine developer Patrick Shoon-Sheon bought the LA Times this month, with the promise that it should become a, ‘bastion of editorial integrity and independence.”
Yet your LAT article on Dr. Sears, that celebrates the chilling effect that the ruling will have on physicians writing medical exemptions, fails to disclose that the newspaper is own by a vaccine developer in the process of taking his vaccine products public.
I call on the paper to either disclose the serious conflict of interest on this and all vaccine related articles, or publicly withdraw the “integrity” claim.
There’s so much stupid here that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, what Soon-Shiong is doing is very different from making vaccines against childhood infectious diseases; it’s not even clear to me that he’s even really making a vaccine. Second, does anyone think that Soon-Shiong micromanages the editorial control of the newspaper to that extent? The ink’s barely dry on the sale documents, after all. Does Ginger really think that Soon-Shiong heard that Sears was disciplined by the medical board and leaned on editors to “celebrate” or that he even gave a rodent’s posterior at all? Or that the editors, knowing that Soon-Shiong had just taken over, bent over backwards to please their new overlord? If she does, she has no idea how newspapers work. I do, however, thank her for giving me a good chuckle over her cluelessness.
I also expect far more, both from Dr. Bob and his supporters, trying to paint him as a martyr and posit all sorts of dire conspiracies by big pharma, the government, and any other nefarious forces they can weave into the their conspiracy theories, to take Dr. Bob down.