How the Anti-Vaccine Community Is Responding to Covid-19
In early March, Melissa Floyd, a self-described health freedom educator who co-hosts “The Vaccine Conversation” podcast, was forced to abruptly change plans. She and her co-host were supposed to pack up for a live multi-city tour. But the public health crisis borne from Covid-19 delayed the start of their tour for months.
Floyd and her co-host, Bob Sears, a California-based pediatrician who advocates a delayed vaccine schedule and skipping some vaccines, addressed the cancellation in a podcast episode, noting that they don’t have any personal fear of the virus. Our government agencies, Floyd said, “are talking about washing your hands, but why aren’t they talking about things you can do to boost your immune system like vitamin D? Why aren’t they talking about reducing sugar? Why aren’t they talking about eating fruits and vegetables and staying away from processed foods?
“I’ve not heard any footage,” Floyd continued, “that talks about how to make your body strong — it’s just wash your hands, use a mask and hopefully that vaccine will come out sooner rather than later.” (Floyd did not respond to an interview request from Undark.)
Views like Floyd’s and Sears’ are influential — “The Vaccine Conversation” podcast has reportedly been downloaded nearly 400,000 times in 92 countries — and have been making gains in recent years, which has likely contributed to disease outbreaks like measles and whooping cough. The beliefs and messaging vary: Health and medical freedom advocates tend to oppose any mandated medical intervention, while vaccine skeptics question the need for medical immunizations. Those who are anti-vaccine may oppose them entirely. Approaches to the Covid-19 public health crisis also vary, but so far, while some in the community are rethinking their views, many of the responses from major influencers continue to wear down a familiar path of conspiratorial thinking and government mistrust, says Dorit Reiss, a law professor at the University of California Hastings who studies the anti-vaccination movement.
Experts say the trend doesn’t show much promise for changing entrenched skeptics’ minds about vaccines, even in the face of a global pandemic that has already cost more than 138,000 lives. On March 31, the White House coronavirus task force projected that 100,000 to 240,000 may die in the United States alone — and that’s with efforts to curb the virus’s spread. Public health officials agree that a vaccine is the only endgame that would allow people to resume all normal activities without periods of restricted movement or gatherings.
“I’m seeing a very similar pattern that I see when outbreaks of measles happen,” says Karen Ernst, executive director of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that advocates for vaccines. “That there is a certain amount of denial, blame, and conspiratorial thinking.” Anti-vaccine sentiment also ties into identity as much as belief. “These are people who make this part of their self-identity: I’m a mother, I have a natural lifestyle, I refuse vaccines. It’s important to deny things in order for that identity to be protected.”
But now that the world is remembering the horrors of viral disease — more than 1.9 million people have been infected worldwide — public health experts see an opportunity to convince people who are on the fence about the benefits of vaccination. “It’s a moment of opportunity” for vaccine support, says Reiss, adding that there may be a strong desire for a vaccine when it does arrive.
To be anti-vaccine in today’s world, says Reiss, you have to subscribe to some conspiracy theories, because there is so much data on the other side. That’s not to say anything about peoples’ intelligence, she adds. “You can be very intelligent and very grounded and still believe in conspiracy theories.”
The first way that those who are against or hesistant about vaccination are responding to the newest health crisis is by denying that it even exists or by saying it’s not that bad and people are not actually dying, says Reiss. For example, last month Del Bigtree — producer of the documentary “Vaxxed” and host of the popular online show “The Highwire” — told his audience that China’s numbers didn’t add up.
“It’s not as deadly as we’ve been told,” he said, adding later in the show: “This is really only a tragic situation for a small group of people that are immune-suppressed or elderly.” Similarly, on March 28, Sears posted on Facebook: “Elderly are vulnerable and need protection AND Covid is harmless to almost everyone else.”
Both statements are incorrect — there are numerous reports of young, healthy people in intensive care and on ventilators. But it’s a common tactic, says Reiss. “They focus on death, and they ignore hospitalization, and they’re going to say: look, it’s not going to kill you, you shouldn’t get the vaccine,” she says. “They do that with other diseases as well.” A recent Washington Post analysis found that hundreds of people under the age of 50 have also died from the coronavirus.
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Other popular anti-vaccine Covid-19 theories suggest technology is to blame. Keri Hilson, an American singer with 4.2 million Twitter followers, posted now-deleted tweets attempting to link the coronavirus to 5G mobile networks. “People have been trying to warn us about 5G for YEARS,” she wrote, adding that 5G launched in China in November of 2019, and then people started dying. Joshua Coleman, an anti-vaccine activist who claims a vaccine injury caused his son to need a wheelchair, claimed on Facebook that coronavirus is in fact caused by 5G. In the United Kingdom, authorities say the conspiracy theory has led to the damage of dozens of wireless towers and other telecommunications equipment.
Meanwhile, Larry Cook, an anti-vaccine influencer who runs the popular Facebook page “Stop Mandatory Vaccination,” has claimed — without evidence — on his personal page that lockdowns and social distancing are a way to make it easier for the government to track people and require them to be tested for the virus. That way, he has said, the government would mandate vaccinations for everyone. “This lockdown and ‘social distancing’ is psychological and economic warfare against us so we will accept mandatory vaccination,” he wrote on April 12.
(Cook did not respond to an interview request from Undark.)
Still other anti-vaccine advocates focus on ongoing efforts to create and test a Covid-19 vaccine. The Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. that links conditions like autism and diabetes to vaccines, pesticides, and other exposures, said the rush to find a vaccine — instead of focusing on treatments — is a looming problem that is driven by profit. A blog post on the group’s website claims: “For the moment, our government is prioritizing vaccine development (with the enticing promise of lucrative patents) over existing therapeutics (such as vitamin C and already-FDA-approved drugs) that do not offer comparable financial windfalls.” The post goes on to claim, without citing evidence, that “fast-tracked vaccines are a sweetheart deal for both biopharma and government.”
Of course, even with Covid-19 treatments — which have not yet been rigorously studied — many health experts agree that life is never going to be normal without a vaccine, including former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb and White House infectious disease adviser Anthony Fauci.
And another common thread in anti-vaccine groups focuses on the belief that natural immunity — the kind you get from actually having a disease — is better than immunity from a vaccine. The logic, they argue, is that if natural disease is a healthy and normal process, people should just go ahead and get infected with a disease, which will eventually give them immunity and protect more people. “It’s an inferior immunity that vaccines provide, which is why we’ve seen second, third, fourth, fifth doses of vaccines, why everyone has to get a flu shot every single year,” Bigtree said on his March 26 show.
And another common thread in anti-vaccine groups focuses on the belief that natural immunity — the kind you get from actually having a disease — is better than immunity from a vaccine.
In an interview, Bigtree elaborated, saying he’s not anti-vaccine for the right people. “I would never have a problem with any product if it was designed for the people that need it,” he said. “I do not agree with the principle that perfectly healthy people need to take a product to protect a very small percentage of sick people.”
He added that he would probably not get the vaccine when it becomes available, and that he is willing to take certain calculated risks with his own family.
And it’s not just anti-vaccine groups promoting the idea that people should get sick. The Federalist, an American conservative online magazine, published a story on March 25 advocating a voluntary infection approach for Covid-19.
While it’s true that, in most cases, natural immunity can last longer than vaccine-induced immunity, public health experts say the risks of the former outweigh the risks of the latter for every recommended vaccine. Natural immunity, Ernst says, “protects people after a whole bunch of people get sick, and that’s not good.” Reiss adds that none of these denials or conspiracy theories are new — they’re classic beats in the anti-vaccination world: “They’ve been circulating around, but they’re just applying old beliefs to new contexts.” The new context matters, though — Covid-19 is a public health crisis on a level that hasn’t been seen in 100 years.
Despite the common anti-vaccination themes that are cropping up in the Covid-19 pandemic, there are some signs of change. According to the experts Undark interviewed, the current crisis could usher in an era of increased interest in vaccines — or at least in taking responsibility for the health of others. That would be a welcome trend for public health advocates. In 2019, a global survey from The Wellcome Group of people in more than 140 countries found 79 percent of respondents think vaccines are safe and effective. Still, those living in Western Europe reported the lowest confidence in vaccines, which potentially endangers herd immunity.
Catherine Flores Martin, executive director for the California Immunization Coalition, says she is seeing a shift in people reacting to anti-vaccine posts on social media. And she thinks people are going to be a lot less forgiving of anti-vaccination beliefs in the future. “There will still be the believers, but I think other people are going to be a lot less tolerant of it now that people have seen how disease can impact their life. We have their attention.”
Flores Martin also sees a shift in the way people talk about their personal and societal responsibilities: “It’s not just about social responsibility or environmental responsibility, but public health responsibility.”
Despite the common anti-vaccination themes that are cropping up in the Covid-19 pandemic, there are some signs of change.
Ernst worries about a different downstream effect of the current crisis: With social distancing guidelines in place, fewer parents may bring babies under two years old to receive routine vaccinations. “That’s related because at the downward slide of this pandemic, we don’t want to deal with measles outbreaks everywhere, or mumps on college campuses,” she says. “We don’t want meningitis at high schools. We don’t want to follow one crisis with a whole bunch of other preventable crises.”
The vaccine-skeptic communities haven’t ignored that possibility, either. On the “Your Baby, Your Way” Facebook page, a group that advocates a vaccine schedule that omits or delays routine vaccines, a post from March 27 extolled the virtues of skipping doctor’s visits.
“People in America are staying home because of Coronavirus,” the post read. “Even the most conventional parents are skipping some well-baby checks. You know what that means, right?! The less often you take a baby to ‘routine’ doctors’ appointments, the more likely you are to keep breastfeeding, avoid Tylenol, avoid antibiotics, and delay vaccines.”
“Here’s to hoping every parent of a newborn, two-month-old, four-month-old, and six-month-old decides to SKIP the well-baby visits that are making so many of our babies sick,” the post concluded.
Jennifer Margulis, who authored the “Your Baby, Your Way” book and is one of nine moderators the corresponding Facebook page, which has more than 40,000 followers, said that the page’s followers are worried about coronavirus — but they are equally concerned that the vaccines in development are being rushed to market without safety testing.
“Experts are saying that it will [be] very difficult to develop a safe vaccine against a respiratory illness like Covid-19,” she told Undark in an email. “An effective vaccine against SARS was never successfully implemented.” (A SARS vaccine was developed in the early 2000s, but never brought to market as public health measures curbed the disease before it was ready.) Margulis also pointed to a dengue vaccine rolled out in the Philippines that has been shown to pose a risk of severe illness in people who have not been previously infected. Public health officials have since implemented restrictions and issued additional caution on the use of the vaccine.
William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University sees a relevant historical lesson. During the run-up to the Iraq War, the government touted a smallpox vaccine. Smallpox had been eradicated globally in 1980, but Saddam Hussein had allegedly retained a small supply and military leaders warned that he may use it against Americans. The vaccine never would be licensed today, Schaffner says, because it was linked to so many adverse events. “But the anti-vax movement was totally silent when that vaccine came out,” he adds. “The reason they were silent was evident — they were smart. Politically, it would be damaging to them if they had gone against something that the President of the U.S. was in favor of, so they just kept quiet.”
“I suspect that if coronavirus continues to be a public health problem and if we get a vaccine, and if the leadership of this country defines it as a public health problem, and the nation’s focus is on getting as many people vaccinated as possible, my prediction is they will keep themselves very quiet about that. They will not come out against it,” he adds. “They are very media-savvy.”
Except that natural immunity IS better than immunity from a vaccine. Vaccine immunity wears off. Sometimes after 2 years, sometimes after 10, sometimes after 20-30. The overwhelming majority of adults on this planet are walking around effectively unvaccinated because their vaccines have worn off. Not to mention that adults today received far fewer vaccines than today’s children. Do you suggest all adults get caught up on the current childhood schedule? This article is hogwash.
Big Pharma has been proven to be the most corrupt industry that the world has ever known with unimaginable influence enough to have new born babies be given vaccine for sexually transmitted diseases that alone tells the storyNow they have the power and influence to stop all trials for a safe and effective cheap treatment for the virus so they can sell a vaccine and I should trust or believe themBill Gates doesn’t get to be a trillion sire act my expense
Let me die! I dont want your vaccines.
No harm no fowl
If others are protected by the vaccine I can accept putting myself at risk. Leave me alone!
The notion that “natural immunity” is “superior” to immunity acquired through vaccination ignores the central benefit of vaccination: Immunity from vaccination prevents illness. That is the POINT of vaccination. That is the beauty of vaccination.
The vaccine denialist position begs the question as to the seriousness of COVID-19. Their notion of the superiority of immunity from SARS
-CoV-2 assumes that it is no big deal.
So let me get this straight, the beauty and POINT of vaccination is that every vaccination prevents the disease- that’s what you are saying right? If I get the MMR, I no longer have to worry about getting measles, mumps, or rubella right? Well damn, that is news to me. So you are saying that all I have to do is get the shots and believe they they will keep me safe, and they will?
One of many many reports that tell the same story for every single “outbreak” you can come up with. But hey, belief is what keeps us coming back for those vaccines isn’t it. I mean, if you didn’t believe they work you wouldn’t risk the possible side effects right? Oops, sorry I didn’t mean to bring that up. Don’t want you to crack that cognitive dissonance all at once. Let’s just stick to the “marketing propaganda” of “vaccine preventable.” So is one article enough for you, or do you need to see published scientific reviews of outbreaks?
Are you getting it Daniel? If you can be so wrong about the POINT and beauty, what do other information are you dismissing out of hand because if your beliefs?
Katharine Gammon casts aspersions on Melissa Floyd’s comments about strengthening the immune system are dangerous because of her influence. She lumps her and Dr. Sears into the “conspiracy theorist” bucket and says that these people are most likely the cause of recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough. Ms. Gammon cannot back up this statement with any facts as it is nothing but Vaccine propaganda.
In addition to being factually incorrect, she insinuates that people who choose not to vaccinate are “anti-science”. Speaking for myself and many others like me, the opposite is true. In fact, most of us never questioned vaccines until someone we know was injured. Usually it is their own child. It was only then did we start asking questions. We exhaustively research the facts. This includes the history of diseases and vaccines, the chemical composition of vaccines, reading scientific studies and reviews, and evaluating the data offered by professionals that have no financial ties to the vaccine industry. On the other hand, the people who do choose to vaccinate, typically do no research and listen to the opinion of a doctor who stands to gain greatly financially if they get a high percentage of their patients to vaccinate. Who would you say is more “anti-science”?
There are many truths about vaccines I could drop, but these truths only make the true believers dig in their heels. I have learned a long time ago that you cannot argue with beliefs.
You state: “most of us never questioned vaccines until someone we know was injured. Usually it is their own child” If you tallied the number of injured and dead children that were proven to have their outcomes related to being vaccinated, would it even come CLOSE to those that vaccine saved? Refusing to take a small percentage risk on vaccination but willing to put your children at a higher percentage of risk to preventable disease is indulging your own prejudice. Unfortunately the cost is paid by those who depend on you and have no say in the matter.
The child of Geneva Montoya.
The Child of David & Collet Stephan.
If you truly wish to risk yourselves, blatantly or moderately, then I Suppose it’s your right. However convincing the paranoid, the gullible, and the ignorant to shore up support in numbers that you can’t do in researched facts is deplorable.
Of course you can’t possibly prove your first statement with verifiable facts but you do list 2 children who what – Died from a disease that has a vaccine? So it must be true then, right? Thank you for proving my point. And you call me ignorant? The irony is so thick I can slice it with a knife. Maybe next time you can read my entire post before spouting your unproven beliefs and then try to counter my points with verifiable facts. You know why you won’t do that? Because you can’t.
BTW, I’ll Be waiting for those “researched facts” that support your claims and make me deplorable. Memes don’t count.
Stop trolling ur getting too worked up about this
I’m trying to understand your position on what safety standard vaccines need to meet. I don’t believe anyone (at least not any credible scientific expert) has ever said that vaccines are 100% safe and/or 100% effective. Nor is any drug, any medical procedure, the food we eat (any food, conventional, gmo, or organic), etc., etc.. Simply citing that there can be, and are, adverse outcomes is not a justification for being anti-vaccine. We can never prevent rare events, and not all people will seroconvert. It’s risk-benefit and it’s your choice not to accept a risk. But, to try to force others to embrace your views on the risk, by yelling conspiracy, or touting that your evaluation is somehow pure, or some other sentiment, is far from scholarly or noble.
Thanks for listing all those leaders in the vaccine hesitant movement. You have given me more people to follow. I’m sure giving them press will also help them gain more followers as well, so Thank You.
There is something interesting that happens when we divide along lines of Medical verses… healthy or anything else. We divide the universe into 2 realms. In one realm in which we are fodder, at the mercy of the elements. In the other we are empowered beings. I live an empowered life. I encourage that in all beings.
I would rather take charge of my health and be proactive and do what is necessary to make my being strong. To make my immune system glow. I think if I am living in ecstasy, my body is less likely to die from Corona. This is why I dont want a vaccine force on me. I trust nature. I trust evolution, which I believe to be “intelligent”. I dont trust someone else with my health. I will regard them, but I do not trust. That trust comes from within. 2% being the normal, 25% of CEOs and politicians are psychopaths, (this is real, look it up). I dont want these people in charge and making decisions about my health.
1 If you are healthy, you will less likely die from Corona
2 If do some form of meditation and or prayer, you will less likely die from Corona
3 If you exercise, less likely
4 If you do yoga or stretch, less likely
5 If you eat fresh fruits non-starchy vegetables, less likely
6 If you don’t eat sugar, if you don’t smoke, if you don’t drink …
7 If you have a experienced body therapist work on your spine or an acupuncturist clean you up, you will also be less likely to die from Corona
Let us know when you start glowing.
I’m not anti-vax, rather very cautious. I’ve seen the number of required vaccinations for babies and children multipy expotentially since I had my kids. This does not seem wise to me. Waiting longer/spacing are intelligent responses . I had a shingle vaccination because the risk was worth it to me. Regarding covid – I am not willing to be a guinea pig. Even a mild version of the virus as a result of the vaccine would worsen a condition I have. I might get the vaccine after it’s been out for a while and if most people don’t get even a mild case. IMO, both rabid anti-vaxxers and rabid pro-vaxxers are wrong. And now people like myself who are opposed to GMOs (I’ve been researching and writing about them since rBGH was first being used in the UVM test dairy herd back in the 1980s), are lumped into the tin hat group. Why, I have no clue. Maybe profit interests? Bill Gates is a keen supporter of GMOs as a solution to feed the world, just as corporations were keen supporters of the so-called Green Revolution (that was just a response to using war-time chemical weapons in peace time so companies could continue to profit). There are reasons people don’t trust the government. And they are good ones. I believe it is up to each of us to decide what we will allow to be injected into our bodies and into our children’s bodies. I think most people will make the correct decision when they have, and trust, good information that looks at BOTH the pros AND the cons.
“A Decade of Vaccines” Gates Foundation Press Release from 2010…
Global Health Leaders Launch Decade of Vaccines Collaboration—Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Global Vaccine Action Plan to guide discovery, development and delivery of lifesaving vaccines
VIDEO: Eugenist Bill Gates, in his own words… “Things are going well, like CHILDHOOD DEATH.”
He said “Like reducing childhood death”
You are blatantly lying.
How is he a eugenicist?
The Gates Foundation website literally lists microchip technology for birth control.
Why did you lead with the admonition to eat more fruits and vegetables as if it’s some crazy idea that only people labeled “anti-vaxxers” are promoting? Any good nutritionist or dietitian, even the FDA recommends eating this way because the human body NEEDS the vitamins and minerals in those foods to function optimally. Not eating enough can lead to deficiencies that make us more susceptible to diseases. And the FDA also recommends limiting sugar—plenty of studies explain why. Just because you don’t agree with someone on one issue, it doesn’t mean everything they say is without merit. Hopefully the people who read this article are smart enough to know the difference.
I certainly don’t trust the government, but neither am I credulous (see above). And it’s not just me. Last year, in 2019, a Pew poll found that only seventeen percent of Americans state they can trust the government “just about always” or “most of the time,” being three percent and fourteen percent, respectively. Eighty-three percent of Americans are not anti-vaccine, and to conflate government mistrust with it, thereby smearing what can be fairly termed as almost all Americans, is partisanship parading as scientific objectivity.
You are making a logical fallacy.
Just because anti-vaxxers don’t trust the government doesn’t mean that others who do not trust the government are attached in any other way to anti-vaxxers.