The GOP has become the party of antivaxers, 2019 edition

So I’m reaching the end of my first week back, and so far my first two posts have been vaccine-related, first about some rather credulous reporting on Del Bigtree, antivaccine rising star and producer of that antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, and then about what’s been going on with measles outbreaks among the Orthodox Jewish community in my neck of the woods. I had hoped to finish this abbreviated week with fewer posts than pre-repair with something other than vaccines. However, I think there’s still one more thing left over from my down time after repairs that cries out for a touch of Insolence, Respectful and not-so-Respectful. Basically, it’s a theme that I’ve been developing over the last several years, dating back to the early stages of the primary season for the 2016 election, when Republican Senator Rand Paul and NJ Governor Chris Christie both pandered to antivaxers. At the time, which was four years ago, I asked: Is the Republican Party becoming the party of antivaxers? Last year, during the midterm elections, I answered that question with a resounding yes. The Republican Party has become the antivaccine party, noting that a GOP candidate for Congress in my district held an antivaccine crankfest about “vaccine choice” and that the GOP had multiple antivaccine candidates running for various offices, including governor of Oklahoma.

A lot of people reacted rather…poorly…to my assertion that the GOP has started pandering to antivaxers. Indeed, I’ve pointed out a number of times that, although antivaccine beliefs are present at roughly the same prevalence on the right and the left, today, in 2019, the loudest and most dangerous voices in the antivaccine movement are on the right, and the only party actively pandering to antivaxers is the Republican Party, a.k.a., the GOP. On multiple occasions since 2015, I’ve noted how antivaxers have been courting conservatives by wrapping their message and, in particular, their opposition to school vaccine mandates, in the language of “freedom” and “parental rights.” Unfortunately, that language can seduce even GOP politicians who are not antivaccine, and GOP politicians who are antivaccine, such as Sen. Rand Paul, go wild. (Remember Sen. Paul’s assertion that the “state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom” how “vaccine freedom candidates” primaried pro-vaccine Republicans last year?) While I was gone, there was still more evidence of this pandering, even in the midst of a measles outbreak, so much so that even the mainstream media is noticing, with Politico publishing an article by Arthur Allen entitled, Republicans reject Democratic attempts to tighten vaccine laws:

Most Republicans are rejecting Democrat-led state bills to tighten childhood immunization laws in the midst of the worst measles outbreak in two decades, alarming public health experts who fear the nation could become as divided over vaccines as it is over global warming.

Democrats in six states — Colorado, Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, New York and Maine — have authored or co-sponsored bills to make it harder for parents to avoid vaccinating their school-age children, and mostly faced GOP opposition. Meanwhile in West Virginia and Mississippi, states with some of the nation’s strictest vaccination laws, Republican lawmakers have introduced measures to expand vaccine exemptions, although it’s not yet clear how much traction they have.

Whenever I see someone get worked up over my observation that the most dangerous antivaccine voices are all on the right these days, I challenge them to name prominent, influential antivaxers on the left other than Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who, despite his environmental record, is basically a fringe figure among Democrats because of his having embraced antivaccine pseudoscience 15 years ago. Yes, I’ve come across the occasional Democrat supporting “vaccine freedom” bills, but overwhelmingly it is Republican politicians who oppose bills strengthening school vaccine mandates and propose bills to weaken those mandates. Indeed, in my very own state, my state Senator Patrick Colbeck and state Representative Jeff Noble cosponsored a bill that would have stripped the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services of the power to do what it is currently doing, requiring parents requesting religious and philosophical exemptions to school vaccine mandates to travel to their county health office for an educational program about vaccines. Indeed, their plan would have eliminated that program, and they sponsored such a bill not once, but twice, both sets of bills fortunately never making it out of committee. They also co-sponsored a dubious “informed consent” (actually, fear mongering misinformed consent) about “fetal cells” in vaccines. Fortunately, both legislators are now out of office. Sen. Colbeck was out because of term limits (although he did unsuccessfully run for the Republican nomination for Governor), and Rep. Noble was voted out resoundingly.

Now, here’s the thing. Most GOP legislators and politicians are not, strictly speaking, antivaccine themselves. However, they are susceptible to antivaccine pseudoscience because antivaxers appealing to “freedom” and “parental rights” to urge them to oppose school vaccine mandates. Some, like my former state senator, do hold a lot of antivaccine beliefs. Also of note, every “vaccine choice” (translation: antivaccine) political action committee I’ve examined is very much right wing and lobby and support GOP candidates; e.g., the PACS in Michigan and Texas.

Allen notes:

Democrats present bills tightening the loopholes as science-based and necessary to fight disease, while sometimes demeaning their foes as misguided or selfish “anti-vaxxers.“ Republicans portray themselves as equally enthusiastic about the life-saving virtues of vaccines, but many are loath to diminish the right of parental control over their children’s bodies, and yield that power to the government.

Of course there are vaccine skeptics on the left, too, Robert Kennedy Jr. being the most prominent example. But to date, their influence isn’t as strong in state legislatures.

Ugh. Before I move on, can I just say: Arthur, Arthur, Arthur. “Vaccine skeptics”? No, no, no, no, no! They are not vaccine “skeptics.” They are vaccine denialists or vaccine averse. Their “skepticism” is not rooted in science, but rather in pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. That’s just my pet peeve.

I can’t help but point out here, though, that, as “pro-vaccine” as these GOP claim to be, they’re quite often not so “pro-vaccine” that they recognize the pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and antivaccine misinformation being fed them by antivaxers to persuade them to oppose tightening school vaccine mandates and to support loosening them.

Antivaxers are gaining influence on right wing media, as well, as Allen notes:

In Texas, the Tea Party and related groups created an anti-vax PAC in 2015. It hasn’t yet gotten its chosen candidates elected, but the very existence of a vaccine-oriented political action committee shows the political salience is growing. Influential voices on the right, including Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones, have all raised suspicions about vaccines.

“There’s a credulity gap between the parties in regard to science that wasn’t there 25 years ago,” Berinsky said. And Trump could easily inflame the vaccine skepticism, should he weigh in. For a large share of the highly polarized U.S. population, “at the end of the day it’s not the arguments people are making, but who is making them,” Berinksy said.

Indeed there is a credulity gap. As Allen points out elsewhere in this article, there are Democrats (e.g., in New York) opposing tightening school vaccine mandates, but overall, Republicans are much more receptive to loosening such mandates as an issue of freedom. Indeed, I can’t help but go back to something that my former Representation Jeff Noble said at the antivaccine crankfest he attended last year. During the Q&A, he mentioned that the Republicans on the Health Policy Committee were the only ones “receptive to vaccine choice initiatives,”” while the Democrats would not even consider them and wanted to “shove vaccines down your throat (or arm).”

Elsewhere, in Texas, GOP politicians have shown their willingness to introduce bills based on pseudoscience and antivaccine misinformation. For instance, the right wing Tenth Amendment Center is touting Texas Senate Bill 2350 (SB2350). The bill, introduced by Sen. Bob Hall (R), is based on a number of antivaccine tropes. Here is its text:


relating to the prohibited administration of certain vaccinations.
SECTION 1. Subchapter A, Chapter 161, Health and Safety
Code, is amended by adding Section 161.0045 to read as follows:
PROHIBITED. A health care provider may administer a vaccine only

(1) the study relied on by the United States Food and Drug Administration for approval of the vaccine evaluated the safety of the vaccine against a control group that received:

(A) a placebo; or
(B) another vaccine or other substance approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration based on a study that evaluated the safety of that vaccine or substance against a control group that received a placebo for that study;

(2) the study relied on by the United States Food and Drug Administration for approval of the vaccine evaluated the safety of the vaccine for a sufficient time to identify potential autoimmune, neurological, or chronic health conditions that may arise on or after the first anniversary of the date the vaccine is administered;

(3) the vaccine has been evaluated for the vaccine’s potential to:
(A) cause cancer;
(B) mutate genes;
(C) affect fertility or cause infertility; and
(D) cause autism spectrum disorder;

(4) the department has posted on the department’s Internet website a disclosure of any known injuries or diseases caused by the vaccine and the rate at which the injuries or diseases have occurred; and

(5) the chemical, pharmacological, therapeutic, and adverse effects of the vaccine and the rate of injury of the vaccine when administered with other vaccines have been studied and verified.

SECTION 2. This Act takes effect September 1, 2019.

Section 1 is rather silly in that it presumes to tell the FDA what criteria it should use to approve the use of a new vaccine as safe and effective. Basically, new vaccines for diseases not previously covered by vaccines already are tested against placebo control. I suppose I should be grateful that Sen. Hall didn’t insist on only a saline placebo, thus parroting a common antivaccine lie that some vaccines have never been tested against placebo controls, as though it should be up to politicians and antivaxers, and not scientists, to determine what a valid placebo control should be. Also, new vaccines for disease with existing vaccines already are tested against the old vaccine. Section one is thus pointless.

Sections two and three are further full of nonsense. For example, we have a wealth of epidemiological data that vaccines are not connected to the diseases that antivaxers claim them to be connected to, including infertility and autism. Similarly, post-marketing surveillance has confirmed the safety of vaccines. We also know that existing vaccines don’t cause cancer, although this is a myth spread by antivaxers about the polio vaccine. We also know that vaccinations recommended during pregnancy are safe. Basically, SB 2350 is an utterly unnecessary law designed to pander to antivaxers and cause trouble based on antivaccine tropes, or, as the antivaxers at Age of Autism put it, “to reject the federal narrative.” Interestingly, the conservative website Tenth Amendment Center basically touts any law based on antivaccine pseudoscience or expanding non-medical exemptions as “rejecting the federal narrative,” stating that SB 2350, for instance, would “would bolster these requirements and make enforcement of any federal vaccine mandates more difficult.”

I’ve warned about the politicization of school vaccine mandates on numerous occasions before because, unfortunately, the alliance between antivaxers and right wing small government GOP politicians and conservative interest groups have politicized them in a way that they’ve never been politicized before. So I agree with Allen when he warns about it but am less thrilled with Brendan Nyhan’s statement quoted by Allen:

Experts differ on the gravity of the political polarization. Dan Salmon, a vaccinologist at Johns Hopkins’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, notes that the only vaccine bills that have passed in legislatures in recent years — notably a 2015 law eliminating philosophical exemptions in California — have tightened, rather than loosened restrictions.

“I don’t think this is a partisan issue,” Salmon insists.

But research by Neal Goldstein of Drexel University’s public health school suggests the issue of vaccine mandates has indeed entered a hyper-partisan landscape. As a result, he said, it may be wise to avoid legislation when possible to avoid opening more wounds.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said, “My concern is that tightening requirements through the political process risks politicizing an issue that we can’t allow to be politicized if we’re going to maintain public health.”

Here’s a hint. The issue of school vaccine mandates is already polarized. It would be much better for public health if it weren’t, but that ship has already sailed. It is polarized. What matters now is to protect existing mandates always and to expand them where politically possible.