Remember those halcyon days over a year ago, back before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and became the number one medical topic in the world for months on end? Back in those days, antivaxxers, although still a threat to public health, weren’t the existential threat that they are today, given their ability to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the vaccines that are one of the major weapons that will eventually bring about the end of the pandemic. Back then, they spread fear mainly about the measles vaccine and HPV vaccines, while falsely claiming that vaccines have rendered our children the “sickest generation” and have been responsible for the obesity epidemic. (Well, that and trying to frighten people out of vaccinating in the middle of a deadly measles epidemic.) Back in those days, I once took the very eminent former director of the Nordic Cochrane Collaborative, Prof. Peter Gøtzsche, to task for having agreed to speak at a conference organized by Physicians for Informed Consent (PIC), a virulently antivaccine physicians group. True, he did ultimately back out, but only after a social media firestorm that took him to task for having agreed to appear on the same bill with antivax leaders Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (RFK Jr.) and Mary Holland, along with a veritable rogues’ gallery of mid-level antivax activists.
Since the pandemic, I haven’t really paid much attention to Prof. Gøtzsche’s activities, and he really hasn’t given me much reason to; that is, until now. I recently became aware that Prof. Gøtzsche is unhappy. What is he unhappy about? Apparently antivaxxers quoted him extensively to support their antivaccine views and COVID-19 pseudoscience in a letter to Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro. Gøtzsche made his displeasure known on Twitter:
Poor, poor, pitiful Prof. Gøtzsche! How on earth could this have happened? Actually, what happened? I’ll explain briefly. Apparently a group called United Health Professionals wrote an open letter to the leaders of 30 countries. A quick perusal of the UHP Facebook page and Twitter feed reveals that the group is a pretty standard bunch of COVID-19 cranks, with its page being dominated by antimask and anti-“lockdown” propaganda and disinformation, along with—of course!—antivaccine propaganda.
For example, here they urge people not to use masks and to refuse to be tested for COVID-19:
Here they refer to lockdowns as “crimes against humanity”:
And here they are denying the number of deaths that COVID-19 has caused:
Quoting Didier Raoult? The grifter who early in the pandemic was most responsible for the evidence-free promotion (and promotion based on awful “evidence”) of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, a drug that quite expectedly turned out not to work? That’s who is being quoted? The man known for being a crank and for bullying his underlings and attacking critics?
You get the idea. Then there’s the fear mongering about COVID-19 vaccines:
So, a couple of weeks ago, these cranks apparently sent an “open letter” to the governments of 30 nations:
This letter demands nine actions of these governments, and I quote:
- Lift all restrictions.
- Open up economy, schools, universities, air transport and hospital units.
- Exclude your experts and advisers who have links or conflicts of interest with pharmaceutical companies.
- Require an international and independent investigation and that those responsible for this scam be tried.
- No longer blindly follow the recommendations of the WHO and require that it be totally reformed.
- Use the recognized measures for the management of epidemics.
- Make the media aware of their responsibilities.
- Remove the requirement for tests.
- Stop the vaccination campaigns and refuse the scam of the pseudo-health passport which is in reality a politico-commercial project.
The wag in me can’t help but point out the similarity between #4 and antivaxxer Kent Heckenlively’s demand that provaccine doctors, politicians, and health officials be tried in a Reign of Terror-like purge; that is, unless they “surrender” to antivaxxers. As for the rest, I can’t help but also note that #1 and #2 are becoming closer to potentially possible, thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, while #8 would make the goal in #1 far more difficult. #3 might be a problem, but does not change the science showing that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and that restrictions imposed by public health authorities (and are actually part of an evidence-based implementation of #6) do work, but at a price. Seriously, these anti-“lockdown” activists seem to think that public health officials, governments, and the medical profession aren’t aware of the potential prices of “lockdowns” and don’t try to balance potential harm of such interventions in terms of economic damage and other health issues compared to the overwhelming imperative from tens of millions of cases and millions of deaths due to COVID-19 in a short period of time. Finally, #9 conflates antivaxxer claims that COVID-19 vaccines are not safe and effective with a different concern entirely, how proof of vaccination against COVID-19 might be used politically. The latter is not an unreasonable concern. The form is unreasonable, given the safety record of the vaccine after nearly a hundred million doses administered in just the US alone.
Before I look at Prof. Gøtzsche’s response to UHP, let’s look at how UHP used some of Prof. Gøtzsche’s own words to promote its message:
Remove the following illegal, non-scientific and non-sanitary measures : lockdown, mandatory face masks for healthy subjects, social distancing of one or two meters. These crazy and stupid measures are heresies invented in 2020 that do not exist in medicine or public health and they are not based on any scientific evidence.
This is not how we manage an outbreak :
– « The world went mad » with coronavirus lockdowns which « fly in the face of what is known about handling virus pandemics » (Dr Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, June 24, 2020).
– « The infection fatality rate seems to be about the same as for influenza, but we have never introduced these drastic measures before, when we had influenza pandemics. And we cannot live with them for years to come » (Prof. Peter Gøtzsche, December 1, 2020).
– « The decision of lockdown as the decision of wearing masks…are not based on scientific data…» (Prof. Didier Raoult, June 24, 2020).
– « The natural history of the virus [the coronavirus] is not influenced by social measures [lockdown, face masks, closure of restaurants, curfew, etc.]…The lockdown did not trigger the decrease in cases…As for the closure of restaurants which had very strict health protocols in place…of course, I have no way of defending it…it has not influenced the epidemic at all…The lockdown has not changed anything…» (Prof. Philippe Parola, December 3, 2020).
– « There is no scientific evidence to support the disastrous two-metre rule. Poor quality research is being used to justify a policy with enormous consequences for us all » (Professors Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson, June 19, 2020).
– « Grotesque, absurd and very dangerous measures…a horrible impact on the world economy…self- destruction and collective suicide… » (Prof. Sucharit Bhakdi, March 2020. He also sent, at the time, a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel).
In addition, these tyrannical measures violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its articles: 3, 5, 9, 12, 13, 17, 18, 20, 26, 27, 28, 30 and the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child in its articles : 28, 29, 32, 37.
– « When the state knows best and violates human rights, we are on a dangerous course. The pandemic has led to the violation of basic human rights…There has not been the slightest ethical analysis of whether this was justified. It is not» (Prof. Peter Gøtzsche, December 4, 2020).
Wait, what? Prof. Gøtzsche was repeating as late as December the scientifically incorrect statement often used as propaganda by antimaskers and COVID-19 cranks that the infection fatality rate of COVID-19 is about the same as for influenza? And using it the same way COVID-19 cranks do, to rail against restrictions imposed by governments and public health authorities to slow down the spread of the virus? He even published his claim in a BMJ Rapid Response, the favored medium of cranks and antivaxxers who like to use such “letters to the editor” to make it seem as though their claims have been published in the BMJ, citing, John Ioannidis, of all people! (He’s someone I used to admire, but whose own science the pandemic has revealed to be just as bad as the science he criticized, and in many of the same ways.) What is he complaining about?
Actually, Prof. Gøtzsche didn’t complain about the passage above. He simply copied it into his response, without complaining about the use of his quotes and even linked to his BMJ Rapid Response, which vastly underestimated the infection-fatality rate of COVID-19 and ignored how deadly the disease is to those over 50, and particularly over 65. I can only assume he is still standing by them. And he wonders why COVID-19 cranks and antivaxxers love him?
Let’s see what did get Gøtzsche sufficiently riled to add his own comments in the text of the letter. Under #4:
The famous international slogan:
“Stay home, save lives” was a pure lie. On the contrary, quarantine has not only killed many people, it has also destroyed physical and mental health, the economy, education and other aspects of life. For example, quarantine in the USA killed thousands of Alzheimer’s patients who also died far from their families. In the UK: the quarantine killed 21,000 people.
The effects of the quarantine «were absolutely harmful. They did not save the lives they had announced that they could save … It is a weapon of mass destruction and we see its health … social … economic effects … that form the real second wave ” (Prof. Jean-François Toussaint, September 24, 2020).
Arresting your people is a crime against humanity that not even the Nazis committed!
Gøtzsche: This is blatantly false. The Nazis arrested and murdered their own people, e.g. 200,000 people with disabilities.
It’s nice that Prof. Gøtzsche finally got upset enough by an overblown analogy of the sort beloved by antivaxxers and COVID-19 cranks to react to it and refute it, given that he himself likes to use them himself, such as when he referred to big pharma as even “worse than the mafia.”
I laughed out loud, though, at this:
«This country is making a dramatic mistake … What are we going to suggest? Will everyone be locked up for a lifetime because there are viruses out there?! You’re all crazy, you’re crazy! … We are setting fire to the planet ” (Prof. Didier Raoult, 27 October 2020).
“It is a great delusion, but it is instrumentalized by large pharmaceutical industries and also by politicians … It is an organized fear for political and economic reasons” (Prof. Christian Perronne, 31 August 2020).
“It is just a global coup to make big profits, rescue the banks and, meanwhile, ruin the middle classes in the name of an epidemic … made destructive by libertarian measures, allegedly sanitary” (Dr. Nicole Delépine, December 18, 2020).
Gøtzsche: Conspiracy theories are not helpful.
“We have medical evidence that this is a scam” (Dr Heiko Schöning, July 2020).
Gøtzsche: What exactly is claimed to be a scam? The two million deaths so far are real.
Seriously? The eminent Prof. Gøtzsche certainly isn’t above invoking conspiracy theories himself in his speeches and books, or at least blurring the line between real conspiracies of big pharma to promote its drugs and unfalsifiable conspiracy theories. Basically, from my perspective Gøtzsche is someone who started out as a mostly reasonable, if vociferous, critic of big pharma but then devolved into a bit of a crank. His entire attack on the Nordic Cochrane review of the HPV vaccine even bordered on leaning into antivaccine tropes about placebo controls. It was widely agreed at the time that Gøtzsche and colleagues (including Tom Jefferson, whom we’ve criticized before) had vastly overplayed its hand and massively overstated problems with the review. The end result of the kerfuffle was that Gøtzsche was removed from the board of directors of the Cochrane Collaboration, with some leaving with him. From my perspective, basically, Gøtzsche has become a bit of a crank and conspiracy theorist on some issues, including psychiatry, the HPV vaccine, and, arguably, mammographic screening. Heck, in his book on vaccines he even seems to buy into at least a couple of antivaccine tropes:
The book focuses on measles, influenza and HPV but discusses also childhood vaccination programmes and whether mandatory vaccination can be justified. Raising critical questions to vaccines is essential because there are still many unresolved issues. For example, we know virtually nothing about what happens when we use many vaccines and what the long-term effects are on the immune system.
That sure does sound like the “too many too soon” antivaccine trope, along with the antivaccine false claim that vaccines cause widespread autoimmune disease. And, of course, according to Prof. Gøtzsche, big pharma is in a conspiracy with governments and the medical profession to cover up the evidence of these “harms.” I suppose I should be grateful that he accepts that the deaths and horror caused by COVID-19 thus far are “real,” but come on!
And Gøtzsche is still virulently against “lockdowns,” as we see in his response to #7:
The media should, for example, stop talking about the coronavirus.
Gøtzsche: This could be interpreted as censorship, which we should avoid at all costs. The media have not lived up to their responsibilities, as they have mainly been mouthpieces for our governments, and they virtually never comment on the opportunity costs, the many lives lost due to our lockdowns and the huge damage to our national economies.
I don’t know what planet Prof. Gøtzsche is living on, but commenting on the harms of “lockdowns,” real (the severe economic consequences) and imagined (the “many lives lost”) dominates the pervasive right-wing media, led by Fox News, OAN, NewsMax, and the many news media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch. You can’t escape it. I haven’t been able to escape it for a year, as the propaganda against public health interventions and “lockdowns” began very soon after the pandemic hit, never mind that, outside of authoritarian regimes, nothing resembling a true “lockdown” has ever been implemented. Maybe things are different in the Netherlands, but in much of the world there is a relentless disinformation campaign falsely claiming that “lockdowns” cause far more deaths than COVID-19. When Donald Trump was still President, he even promoted such disinformation himself.
What really seems to have bothered the eminent Prof. Gøtzsche the most is the antivaccine disinformation in the “open letter.” That’s good! But he is either incredibly naïve or totally disingenuous to express such alarm now, given his history with vaccines, particularly the HPV vaccine. In any case, this rapid-fire bit is as good a place to start as any:
“We don’t need it [the vaccine] at all … All of this has to do with purely commercial objectives” (Prof. Christian Perronne, 16 June 2020).
Gøtzsche: This statement is appallingly false. We desperately needed good vaccines, and they seem to have lowered hospital admissions and deaths dramatically already.
«It is an old marketing principle of pharmaceutical companies: if they want to sell their product well, the consumer must be afraid and see it as their rescue. So, we created a psychosis for consumers to collapse and rush into the vaccine in question.” (Prof. Peter Schönhöfer).
Gøtzsche: Two million deaths and dramatic effects of the vaccines can hardly be called a psychosis.
«As a doctor, I have no hesitation in anticipating government decisions; we must not only refuse these vaccines [against COVID-19], but also denounce and condemn the purely commercial approach and the abject cynicism that guided its production.» (Dr. Pierre Cave, 7 August 2020).
Gøtzsche: Having come this far in the document, I have had enough of all the totally false “anti-vaxxer” statements. I hope people will read my vaccine book, which has a chapter on COVID-19 that I updated in January 2021 for the US print version that comes out on 1 June. The updated chapter is already out in the German translation.
Yes! I wondered when it was coming, a plug for his book! I also can’t help but remind you of how much Prof. Gøtzsche gives credence to the “too many too soon” antivaccine trope and the false claim that we do not know the longterm effects of “so many” vaccines on the immune system. Also, it’s clear from the reviews that in the book Prof. Gøtzsche gives credence to what he considers the more “reasonable” concerns promoted by antivaxxers while attacking the straw man that “vaccine advocates” are as rigid and fundamentalist as “antivaxxers,” portraying us as, in essence, mindless drones of big pharma:
Gøtzsche’s book therefore raises many serious concerns about the validity of a handful of widely used vaccines. Nevertheless, he is absolutely clear that science is not on the side of the fundamentalists who reject all vaccines, as in any given country “It is vastly better to get all the recommended vaccines than to refuse all of them.” Still Gøtzsche correctly asserts that “we can do much better than to simply accept everything that is recommended,” which unfortunately is often the default position of the fundamentalists on the other side of the vaccine debate, people Gøtzsche refers to as “vaccine advocates.” Although he adds that this descriptor may be “too kind for those of them who are similarly unreasonable as the vaccine deniers when they say we should accept all vaccines without asking questions.” So, contrary to holding either fundamentalist positions, Gøtzsche emphasizes the role of dissent and public debate in informing public health measures. But, as he argues, for such dissent to be effective it should be informed by the best available evidence on a case-by-case basis, and this is exactly the position from which Gøtzsche’s book approaches the question of vaccines.
No, it is not the “default position” of vaccine advocates to “accept everything that is recommended.” That is a straw man. If you don’t believe me, just look at the reaction of many provaccine advocates, myself included, to Operation Warp Speed, the US government’s effort to speed the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, when it was announced. We were alarmed at the name and the promotion and very concerned that there was a push to get vaccines approved fast, whether they had been adequately tested for efficacy and safety or not. Look at how alarmed I was when a colleague suggested that it would be safe to bypass the phase 3 clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines and just start using them. Given how much the previous administration tried to politicize the CDC and FDA, I even at one point asked whether we could trust these agencies any more. Guess what, though? We followed the evidence. When COVID-19 vaccines were shown through science to be safe and effective, we embraced them. After close to 100 million doses administered in the US alone without any alarming safety signals, we’re even more confident that these are very safe and effective vaccines. Science, Prof. Gøtzsche! We pay attention to it.
As for “many serious concerns about the validity of a handful of widely used vaccines,” primarily he’s clearly referring to the HPV vaccine, Gøtzsche’s criticisms of which have already been revealed to be based on ideology and truly awful science, and the influenza vaccine, a favorite target of methodolatrists like Gøtzsche’s fellow Cochrane member, Tom Jefferson, whose critiques of the influenza vaccine have been dubious. Indeed, this review describes how Gotzsche’s vaccine book includes the false claim that influenza deaths are “vastly overcounted.” I had to laugh when the fawning reviewer referred to Gøtzsche as the “objective scientist.” He is anything but.
Then there’s this:
Nevertheless, at this point in time, despite the sizable vote that the popularist far-right obtain in Denmark, public trust in vaccines appears to remain reasonably high with polls showing that only 4% of the population agree with the statement that “vaccines are not effective”. So while Gøtzsche can say that he has “never heard about any anti-vaxxer movement” in Denmark, you couldn’t rule out that one might be in the process of developing.
That’s right. Gøtzsche appears to have seriously argued that because only 4% of the population truly believe that vaccines don’t work, that must mean that there isn’t an antivaxxer movement and that it isn’t a major problem.
Here’s one last hilarious example I can’t resist:
If people accept the COVID-19 vaccine, it will be: «A mistake because we run the risk of having absolutely unpredictable effects: for example, cancers … We are playing the total sorcerer’s apprentice … Man should not be a guinea pig, children should not be a guinea pig, it is absolutely unethical. There should be no deaths from vaccines ”(Prof. Luc Montagnier, Virologist and Nobel Prize in Medicine, December 17, 2020).
Gøtzsche: It is tragic that Montagnier is so far-off reality in relation to COVID-19. He got the Nobel Prize for discovering the virus that causes AIDS. I have written about this in my book about mammography screening: “John Crewdson from the Chicago Tribune had already contacted me in November 2000 and asked to have a meeting, which became several meetings. Crewdson won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on US immigration injustices and has a reputation for a Columbo style of information gathering where he feigns confusion and keeps asking questions.1 He also worked on a case where the evidence strongly suggested that the American Robert Gallo had stolen the credit for the detection of the AIDS virus from the Frenchman Luc Montagnier, who sent specimens of his discovery to Gallo; an affair that was settled at presidential level to save faces.2 Crewdson reported that Gallo’s laboratory was not forthcoming, and that doors closed and the lights went out once the NIH figured out what Crewdson was doing.”
I’ve often referred to Luc Montagnier as a cautionary example of the “Nobel Disease,” in which a Nobel laureate becomes a total crank or quack later in life. In recent years, Montagnier has not only embraced The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy), but also a wide variety of autism quackery as well, including (of course) the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism, as well as pseudoscience claiming “DNA teleportation.” He’s even spoken at the autism quackfest known as AutismOne and appeared in Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda “documentary” VAXXED, after having started a pseudoscientific and unethical clinical trial of long term antibiotics to treat autism. Basically, Luc Montagnier has gone full antivax, having appeared with Henri Joyeux to promote the idea that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome. It is utterly unsurprising that, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he’s embraced conspiracy theories such as the claim that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was “engineered” in a Wuhan laboratory.
I would suggest to Prof. Gøtzsche that there’s a lesson for him there, that Luc Montagnier should serve as a warning to him regarding the direction he is moving in.
In the meantime, as I was proofreading this early this morning, I saw this followup Tweet by the eminent Professor:
I’d like to think that maybe there’s hope for Prof. Gøtzsche yet, given that antivaccine disinformation in which he was prominently quoted spurred him not only to counter it, but to finally admit that there is such a thing as antivaxxers and the antivaccine movement. However, I have a hard time doing that, given his continued rhetoric about other, non-vaccine, mitigation efforts against COVID-19, his continued demonization of pro-vaccine advocates as, in essence, propagandists and drones of big pharma, every bit as mindless in his estimation as antivaxxers.
Luc Montagnier is indeed an excellent cautionary example that Prof. Gøtzsche should heed before it’s too late and he, too, has gone so far beyond being a harsh but not entirely unreasonable critic of pharma into the realm of conspiracy theorist and pseudoscience promoter that it is too late for him to come back. I thought at one time that maybe his brush with PIC and almost having stood on the same stage as RFK Jr. might have been that wakeup call, but it clearly was not. I can’t help but hope that this brush with COVID-19 cranks and antivaxxers might now be the wakeup call he needs, but fear that now, as a couple of years ago, it will not. It is likely that he will continue to be a useful idiot for antivaxxers and COVID-19 deniers.