And so it begins…the real antivaccine disinformation war against COVID-19 vaccines.
We all knew it was coming. In fact, antivaxxers launched a pre-emptive disinformation war against COVID-19 vaccines at least as far back as May. Now that two RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, one by Pfizer/BioNTech and one by Moderna, are being considered for emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA (with the Pfizer vaccine having already been approved by UK regulatory authorities) and several other new vaccines following rapidly behind in their manufacturers’ quest for regulatory approval, unsurprisingly the disinformation war is heating up. Indeed, I recently mentioned how antivaxxers are spreading the myth based on a willfully ignorant lack of understanding of the totality of molecular biology developed over the last 60+ years that RNA vaccines will “permanently alter your DNA” (hint: they won’t). Having seen that hoary old antivaccine myth (that vaccines will “alter your DNA”) resurrected, repackaged,m and repurposed to direct against COVID-19 vaccines made me wonder: What other disinformation are antivaxxers spreading about COVID-19 vaccines?
Before I get to that, let me just say that, even though I’m as pro-vaccine as they come, the Trump administration did not exactly fill me with confidence with respect to whether it would make sure new COVID-19 vaccines were safe before approving them, either formally through the standard FDA process or through EUA. The name for the vaccine development effort, “Operation Warp Speed,” strongly implied that the administration was emphasizing speed far more than safety. Yes, I did express concern back in May that the name Operation Warp Speed did make me concerned that we were rushing COVID-19 vaccine development, although I pushed back in my inimitable not-so-Respectfully Insolent manner against claims that the development of COVID-19 vaccines was “turning provaccine advocates into antivaxxers.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s political interference in the workings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did lead me to ask whether we can trust these entities any more. That being admitted, now that the vaccines are here, what I’ve seen thus far has led me to be pretty confident that the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, at least, will be quite effective and very safe. Heck, the hospital chain of which my cancer center is a part sent an email asking people if they were willing to take the Pfizer vaccine and asking some prescreening questions. My answer to the question of whether I would take the vaccine when available? Yes!
Which brings me back to what antivaxxers are now saying about COVID-19 vaccines.
Naturally, when seeking to get a feeling for the zeitgeist among antivaxxers regarding this question, I turned to that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, Age of Autism (a.k.a. AoA), where I found a recent post casting doubt on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines by Dr. Richard Moskovitz, who is introduced as a “friend of AoA” (not a good way for a physician to be introduced). Dr. Moskovitz, it turns out, was featured eight years ago as a believer in homeopathy, an even worse look for a physician than being a “friend of AoA”, although definitely a look that makes his antivaccine proclivities not at all surprising.Indeed, he’s author of a book entitled Vaccines: A Reappraisal, which falsely claims that vaccines cause autoimmune disease, SIDS, neurological disorders like autism and ADHD.
Let’s see what disinformation Moskovitz is peddling in his article, COVID Vaccine: Yes or No? (Gee, I wonder what his answer to the question will be…) His introduction is not what I would call auspicious:
First of all, I doubt that any of the vaccines will work very well. Since the SARS in 2002, there have been many attempts to make a vaccine against coronaviruses, and they’ve all failed, for many of the same reason that the flu vaccine has failed, because the viruses are so mutable that, by the time you make the vaccine, the virus is already different. So they do a new flu vaccine every year, and they’re probably going to do that here, too, but they often don’t fit that well.
No, that’s not the reason why developing a vaccine against a coronavirus like COVID-19 has been so difficult. In fact, COVID-19 does not mutate nearly as fast as the influenza virus does. This is not new information, either. We’ve known this at least since April. Basically, SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has a proofreading mechanism that results in a low mutation rate compared to that of influenza.
Moskovitz is just plain wrong here. The real reasons why developing a coronavirus vaccine is so hard have little to do with the mutability of coronaviruses. In reality, part of the difficulty is that it’s inherently difficult to make vaccines against respiratory viruses, as explained here:
There are several reasons why our upper respiratory tract is a hard area to target a vaccine.
“It’s a separate immune system, if you like, which isn’t easily accessible by vaccine technology,” Professor Frazer told the Health Report.
Despite your upper respiratory tract feeling very much like it’s inside your body, it’s effectively considered an external surface for the purposes of immunisation.
“It’s a bit like trying to get a vaccine to kill a virus on the surface of your skin.”
It’s hard to produce a successful vaccine if the virus isn’t activating a strong immune response.
“One of the problems with corona vaccines in the past has been that when the immune response does cross over to where the virus-infected cells are it actually increases the pathology rather than reducing it,” Professor Frazer said.
“So that immunisation with SARS corona vaccine caused, in animals, inflammation in the lungs which wouldn’t otherwise have been there if the vaccine hadn’t been given.”
Fortunately, it turns out that producing effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 isn’t as difficult as experts had worried it might be back in the early days of the pandemic. The reports on the phase 3 clinical trials of RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines and others coming down the pipeline, along with the low incidence of adverse reactions, tells us that. As for why we never developed a vaccine for the original SARS in 2003, the answer is simple. The virus disappeared too quickly without one, and, along with the virus, the market for a SARS vaccine disappeared.
Moskovitz’s next reason why he thinks COVID-19 vaccines won’t work made me laugh out loud. No, it really did, because it’s really, really dumb. See what I mean:
Second, they are using a new technology that’s never been used on humans before, because they can produce a vaccine much faster, without having to culture the virus, by just splicing viral RNA into the genetic material of the cell, so it will respond without having to introduce the virus from the outside, so to speak. They claim it’s only the messenger RNA of the mitochondria, not the DNA of the nucleus, so it won’t find its way into the gene pool, and turn you and your descendants into GMO’s; but I’m less sure of that, and I seriously doubt they have any clear idea of the long-term consequences of monkeying around like that, or even that they’re interested or concerned about it.
Seriously, this guy is a physician? No, really, I’m asking. For one thing, what the heck does he even mean by “messenger RNA of the mitochondria”? The mitochondrial genome only encodes encodes 2 rRNAs (ribosomal RNA), 22 tRNAs (transfer RNAs), and mRNAs for 13 polypeptides of the oxidative phosphorylation (OxPhos) system. The RNA vaccines under consideration for approval do not use mitochondrial RNA. Then he claims that the RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines involve “splicing viral RNA into the genetic material of the cell,” which is simply ludicrous. There is no “splicing.” The mRNA is taken up whole by cells, thanks to the nanoparticle liposomes (lipid-based spheres, if you will) that contain the mRNA and fuse with the cell membrane, allowing the mRNA to enter the cell’s cytoplasm and be acted upon by the ribosomes, the protein complexes in the cytoplasm that translate mRNA into protein.
Then there’s Dr. Moskovitz’s appeal to disbelief. Just because he doesn’t think that an mRNA-based COVID-19 can’t “find its way into the gene pool and turn you and your descendents into GMOs” doesn’t mean that his concern has any scientific validity. He might as well simply say that he justs doesn’t accept the science of molecular biology that tells us that it is simply impossible for mRNA like that in the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines to “find its way into the gene pool and turn you and your descendents into GMOs.” No, really, I don’t have to cite papers for this, because it’s such basic information that it just takes Molecular Biology 101 to know that what Dr. Moskovitz is peddling is nonsense. No, scratch that. It’s BIOLOGY 101. No, really, to say such things about an RNA-based vaccine betrays an incredible ignorant of some very, very basic science, and to say such things about COVID-19 vaccines that could play a major role in bringing the disease, suffering, and death from the pandemic to an end, or at least in greatly decreasing it, is medical malpractice. Of course, Dr. Moskovitz does believe in homeopathy, making him a quack of the highest order in my not-so-humble opinion; so I suppose none of this should surprise anyone.
Nor should his falling back on old antivaccine tropes, either:
And third, if the end result is the same, if they accomplish basically what the old vaccines did, that would be reason enough to avoid them, because of their propensity to bring about chronic, autoimmune phenomena and eventually, in many people, overt autoimmune diseases, at the very least making worse the ones that are already there, which most of us have some form or trace of.
Translation: Even if the new COVID-19 vaccine work like existing vaccines, they’re still bad because…autoimmune diseases! Never mind that there is no good evidence that existing vaccines cause chronic autoimmune, the most fervent efforts of antivaxxers to claim otherwise notwithstanding.
Then, of course, Dr. Moskovitz believes you COVID-19 vaccines won’t be as good as his preferred quackery:
Of course, it’s also true that the COVID is dangerous in several important ways, being 1) easily transmitted by asymptomatic people, 2) highly mutable, as above, and 3) capable of life-threatening pathology and even long-term complications in susceptible people, especially the elderly and chronically ill. But the truth is that the disease has been around the US for 10 months, and widely dispersed for 8, so that with the proper precautions most healthy people shouldn’t be any less likely to remain healthy than they’ve been so far. In addition, there are good treatments available for it, even if not officially approved, or even mentioned — homeopathy, multivitamins, Chinese herbs — and even without treatment the actual death rate is about the same as a bad flu season. So it’s hard to see the need for a vaccine that’s marginally effective against a disease that the vast majority recover from anyway.
Translation: Pay no attention to the more than 1.5 million deaths and counting (including over 275K dead Americans and counting) due to COVID-19, plus the more than 100K Americans right now with COVID-19 severe enough to require hospitalization. Never mind that our healthcare system is straining under the massive load of disease and death due to this disease. Never mind the unknown number of people who recover from COVID-19 but suffer longterm debilitating sequelae. You don’t need COVID-19 vaccines. You can use quackery like homeopathy!
And, no, the actual death rate is far, far worse than a bad flu season. We’re not even ten months into the pandemic in the US, and we’re already closing in on 300K deaths due to COVID-19 (and are very likely to pass that mark before Christmas). How many lives does a typical flu season claim? A really bad flu season will claim around 60,000 lives, only one fifth as many, and most years it’s around half that. Basically (and unsurprisingly) Dr. Moskovitz is peddling eugenics, the “Great Barrington Declaration,” and antivaxxer Del Bigtree’s “don’t worry, be happy, let’s catch this cold” denial of the seriousness of the pandemic.
Dr. Moskovitz finishes with this flourish:
The main reason why most people will take it, regardless, is that they fear it will be their only ticket back to a semblance of normal life, a belief that various mandates and laws will surely reinforce, but is no more likely to be true than if they had simply continued taking precautions, while the long-term problems I mentioned are most often insidious, not likely to manifest for months or even years later, and dismissed by most doctors as unrelated coincidence or hereditary predisposition. So a lot of folks will go along with it, because keeping our kids out of school and being afraid to hug those we love is indeed intolerable; so who could blame them?
This bit about COVID-19 vaccines is basically a variant of the same claim that antivaxxers make about vaccines during any outbreak, namely that the government and medical profession (and big pharma, of course!) will use the pretext of an outbreak of a disease ot frighten or even force you to accept a vaccine, not caring about all the horrible things that antivaxxers think vaccines will cause, despite the evidence that they do not cause these problems.
So, let’s boil down Dr. Moskovitz’s objections to COVID-19 vaccines:
- They won’t work because SARS-CoV-2 is so mutable. (WRONG. As explained above.)
- The RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines will reprogram your DNA. (WRONG, and super ignorant of molecular biology, as explained above.)
- COVID-19 vaccines will cause chronic autoimmune diseases. (No, COVID-19 vaccines are no more likely to cause autoimmune diseases than existing vaccines, which do not cause such diseases, as explained above.)
- COVID-19 is not that serious for most people, and you can use quackery to prevent and treat it anyway. (It’s true that being elderly and having chronic health conditions increase your risk of severe disease from COVID-19, but the disease can still be dangerous to young people and it’s impossible to protect the vulnerable while the disease is spreading unchecked through the “healthy” population. Also, homeopathy and other quackery won’t treat the disease.)
While it’s true that there are reasons to be cautious with new vaccines such as the COVID-19 vaccines, you can see the main points of disinformation that antivaxxers are spreading. There’s also a new one that I recently discovered, but discussing that particular disinformation will require a separate post. In the meantime, I’d laugh at Dr. Moskovitz for his utter ignorance of biology and medicine, but I just can’t, because too many people will believe the line of nonsense he’s laying down.