Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy: A Book Review

There will be no going back to the old normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything. It has inspired fear and bravery, inflicted needless death on the world, and revealed the utter bankruptcy of most world leaders. But there is one thing that we must be clear on, which is that the high death toll that this crisis enacted upon the vulnerable should be blamed squarely upon the exploitative ideology and practices of capitalism – a pathological system that prioritizes profit-making over human health. Nevertheless, individual politicians must be held accountable too, and no doubt they will continue to deflect attention from their many mistakes by leaning on the authority of science. They will plead that their political choices were guided by experienced scientists and that the course of action they followed flowed objectively from the threat posed by a deadly virus: but such trite excuses will not stand up to scrutiny.

Science is not divorced from politics, and so the scientific knowledge that is currently being used to inform political choices cannot be considered in isolation from the profit-making nexus which forcibly contains scientific developments: a cage that must be overturned if the promotion of health for all is ever to become a reality. What is required is a science unencumbered by capitalist chains, a science that can serve the democratic needs of the vast majority of humanity — the global working-class. As one radical physician passionately asserted in the mid-nineteenth century: “It certainly does not detract from the dignity of science to come down off its pedestal and mingle with the people and from the people science gains new strength.” What we need is science for people not profit.

Yet in spite of all the political obstacles placed before them, scientists like other workers, do their best to serve the public good; and as in all other spheres of life, there have always been a handful among their ranks who are willing to speak truth to power. One such individual is the Danish physician and Cochrane Collaborative cofounder, Peter Gøtzsche — a researcher whose academic research is committed to promoting the type of evidence-based science that prioritizes the needs of people before corporations.

Like many critical researchers Gøtzsche goes about this work in a common-sensical way, undertaking critical reviews of existing clinical research to determine which medical interventions are backed by reliable evidence, or conversely, to reveal which treatments are pointless or sometimes even dangerous. These meta-studies, known as Cochrane reviews, are widely considered to provide a gold-standard for promoting good scientific practice. But at the same time, these studies often create much controversy, especially when they highlight ineffective and often expensive cure-alls that corporate elites have foisted upon the world – a good example being Tamiflu. Engaging in conflicts with the rich and powerful is not something that Gøtzsche shies from, something you might guess from the title of his 2013 book, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare – an important book in its own right.[1]

Gøtzsche however has recently published his latest and very timely book, Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy – an accessible text that represents another vital contribution to the reclamation of science from the powers that be. And with big pharma visibly salivating over the possibility of vaccinating billions of people against Covid-19, an examination of the politics of vaccines could not be more relevant. This is necessary because all too often the truth about the validity of many such medical interventions remain buried from sight. An issue which leads many people to correctly feel, as Gøtzsche explains, that “we cannot always trust official recommendations about vaccines, or the way authorities interpret the evidence.” It is however this issue of trust, or rather a lack of it, that acts as a major block on the challenge of developing effective medical responses to illnesses that continue to kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. And it is the inability of capitalist governments to engender the trust of those who elect them that leads to exactly the type of “vaccine hesitancy” that always has the potential to endanger us all.

vaccines

A question of trust?

Politicians and their big pharma friends have a lot to answer for, but the erosion of public trust in many medical treatments is further aggravated by the “pervasive misinformation” spread so assiduously by the corporate media. This is particularly true in the case of vaccines. That being said, in spite of a longstanding campaign having been waged against vaccinations by right-wing conspiracy theorists – often with the aid of the mainstream media – those people in society who are vaccine deniers (i.e., oppose all vaccines) still make-up just a small proportion of people. But this does not mean that vaccines should be exempt from criticism.

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.

The fact that huge and powerful private corporations exert so much power over governmental decisions goes a long towards explaining “why people can become sceptical towards vaccines in general, or at least ask questions about them,” Gøtzsche says. Afterall the primary goal of all corporations is to increase their profit margins, an incentive which all too often encourages big pharma to engage in criminal activities like “cheating with the clinical trials” and overstating the positive effects of their new drugs or vaccines. Making matters worse: “It is also clear that we cannot trust our drug regulators, which allow far too many dangerous drugs on to the market and are very slow to take them off again when the evidence for their lethal effects accumulates.” You could say that in many ways it is a miracle that public trust in vaccines remains as high as it does. But it is not something that we should take for granted.

Influenza vaccines on trial

Although this book review is not the place to scrutinize the evidence base for different vaccines – for this you will have to read Gøtzsche’s book — it is useful, especially in the context of the ongoing pandemic, to reflect upon the questionable utility of flu vaccines. This is because, despite their widespread use, Gøtzsche demonstrates that “It has never been shown in reliable research that flu shots reduce deaths.” This is certainly the considered scientific opinion of fellow Cochrane Collaborative contributor Tom Jefferson, a leading flu epidemiologist whose work Gøtzsche cites within his book.[2] But instead of a reasoned scientific discussion being initiated about this potential oversight, with the appropriate independent trials and research being undertaken to get to the root of the matter, the opposite has been the case. This has led to the destructive situation where the public “are bombarded with highly misleading information, not only about the effect, but also about the number of influenza deaths,” whose only purpose, in Gøtzsche’s opinion, appears to be “to scare people into getting vaccinated.” Rather than governments collating accurate records of influenza deaths it appears that current vaccine policy is being driven forward by wildly inaccurate estimates. If true, this is a serious problem.

To support the case that influenza mortality rates are massively overstated Gøtzsche referred specifically to an academic study which successfully counted actual flu deaths over seven flu seasons in three Canadian hospitals. The results of this unique study (which ideally should be replicated elsewhere) determined that influenza fatality rates were actually eight times lower than the numbers predicted by government estimates. The magnitude of error in the Canadian government’s overly gloomy predictions were subsequently confirmed when the “so-called flu pandemic hit in 2009”: this is because for “the first time, there was widespread lab testing, a national reporting system, and all eyes were on potential flu-related deaths.” Only 438 flu deaths were counted in 2009, in comparison to the government’s estimate of 8,000, again revealing the huge gap between reality and the dubious estimates that guide global flu vaccination policies.[3]

This widespread problem of governments over-estimating flu deaths explains why scientists like Gøtzsche and Jefferson continue to advocate for better quality research to be undertaken in this field. This is because you can’t determine how effective a flu vaccine is until you can quantify how many people it is actually helping. But there is more besides dodgy estimates that should concern us with flu vaccines, and Gøtzsche argues that inadequate research has been conducted into the safety and efficacy of such flu jabs. He points out that even reports provided on the web site of the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) – reports which are intended to encourage annual flu vaccinations — acknowledge some of these problems. These concerns even include evidence that some people have an increased chance of getting the flu if they regularly obtain flu vaccinations! A serious problem which leads the CDC says “merit[s] further investigation”. Nevertheless they still brush this issue aside and conclude that “based on the substantial burden of flu in the United States, and on the fact that most studies point to vaccination benefits, CDC recommends that yearly flu vaccination [for all age groups] remains the first and most important step in protecting against flu and its complications.” (“Vaccine effectiveness: how well do the flu vaccines work?”)

Here considering the large amount of time and money that the US government continues to spend on flu vaccinations maintaining some medical context on this intervention is crucial, as optimistic government estimates suggest that the flu vaccine averted 3,500 deaths in 2018-19. Contrast this probably highly inflated number with the US governments continuing unwillingness to enact and enforce meaningful air pollution regulations upon corporate polluters, a refusal to act that leads to an estimated 200,000 unnecessary deaths each year. Thus, at the same time as proving quite willing to spend millions of dollars on flu vaccines the US government promotes regressive policies that actively encourage polluting activities. Thereby incentivizing the creation of the type of pollution that predominantly kills the poorest people in society while exacting a disproportionately higher death toll upon black citizens.

Finally, it is important to recognize that not all health advisory bodies make the same all-encompassing recommendations regarding flu vaccines as does the CDC. Gøtzsche points out that the World Health Organization (WHO) – an organization largely funded by the US government, and whose operations are largely dictated to by the needs of big business – has a “far more modest” approach to flu vaccines. Current WHO advice is that flu vaccines should be strictly targeted at the most vulnerable, that is, the very young and the very old. This leads Gøtzsche to suggest that the US government’s recommendation that all age groups get the annual flu vaccination most probably “has a lot to do with the extreme degree of unrestrained capitalism that influences US healthcare.” This is likely true, but such kow-towing to the whims of vaccine producing corporations is not unique to the US. Indeed, conservative and social democratic politicians across the world (including those in Gøtzsche’s homeland of Denmark) continue to enact medical interventions that cater to the needs of big pharma while enacting broader social policies, like austerity, that simultaneously undermine the health of the majority of their citizens.

Force and fascism

In the early pages of his book Gøtzsche cites the British Conservative Party’s Health Minister, Matt Hancock, as providing an informative example of how elites happily demonize vaccine critics in order to force their alleged ‘cures’ upon the public. He quotes Hancock (from May 2019) as saying:

“Those people who campaign against vaccination are campaigning against science. The science is settled” … “Those who have promoted the anti-vaccination myth are morally reprehensible, deeply irresponsible and have blood on their hands.”

Later that year Hancock spoke of the strong possibility of introducing “compulsory vaccinations” for children – an authoritarian move which scientifically-minded health experts advise would be counterproductive, as coercion tends to erode trust and might even intensify resistance to all vaccines. It is of course true that for many vaccines, like the famous MMR vaccination, governments should do whatever they can to encourage mass compliance to successfully protect everyone from what are truly terrible diseases. But capitalist politicians who represent different class interests from their constituents have rarely felt obliged to take decisions that are based upon winning the trust of the working-class. Hence the default position of such politicians is to impose top-down ‘solutions.’

Accusing vaccine critics of having “blood on their hands” only leads to the stifling of the very democratic processes that enable us to hold our decision-makers to account.[4] Yet the UK Conservative government cares little for democratic norms, and after spending the last decade starving our hospitals of both finances and staff – last December they announced they were considering making flu shots mandatory for all front-line health workers. This threat represented another massive infringement upon workplace rights – nothing new for the Tories. And as Gøtzsche correctly points out, such acts of compulsion have already been successfully opposed by the British trade union movement in the past and would no doubt be resisted again. Such successes however are by no means guaranteed and rely upon an organized workforce being willing to stand united against their bosses. Hence Gøtzsche cites another case that occurred in America in 2017, when “a senior faculty member at New York University School of Medicine, who did not even do clinical work, had her faculty appointment terminated because she did not get an influenza vaccination.” “It is no wonder,” Gøtzsche comments, “that some people speak about health fascism when the doing-gooders seem to have no limits to their violations of basic human rights.”[5]

Unfortunately, the political groups that most regularly harness accusations of so-called “health fascism” are precisely those organizations that maintain the closest political ties to fascist ideologies. It is therefore no coincidence that it is the same forces on the far-right who have been the most persistent critics of socialized healthcare and government vaccination schedules (but especially mandatory ones), both of which they see as another example of the state trying to meddle with their individual liberty. A good example of how this works in practice recently occurred in Italy when in mid-2017 the government, led by the Democratic Party, decided it was necessary to make it mandatory for all children to have ten vaccinations. In response the far-right used their vocal opposition to such ill-advised compulsion to falsely present themselves as the true defenders of democratic values. Building upon the already deep public distrust of the criminally pro-capitalist political parties, Italy’s two far-right parties were thereby able to weaponize the issue of vaccinations, exemplifying the type of populist politics which helped them come to assume state power the following year.[6]

In the US context it is the far-right who have similarly capitalized on the existence of widespread distrust of corrupt capitalist politicians who the far-right accuse of acting like Nazis doctors testing dangerous drugs (in their minds vaccines) upon the masses. And it is to this libertarian “health freedom” movement — which is deeply imbued with an irrational opposition to vaccines — that Donald Trump, himself a vaccine-sceptic, partly owes his electoral success. Although here we should acknowledge that the greatest reason for Trump’s electoral success is the dire politics of the Democrats.

By recognizing that not all vaccines are equal, Gøtzsche’s book is all the more convincing in dethroning the irrational arguments of the anti-vaccination movement. And importantly, Gøtzsche does not blame ordinary people for turning to such non-solutions in attempting to understand the world around them. Gøtzsche himself having provided reams of evidence in both his latest book and within his earlier ones that lay-out why so many people distrust the capitalist healthcare establishment. Evidence of systematic corruption and wrongdoing which taken in its entirety clearly show that the future advance of medicine and public healthcare cannot be entrusted by those fixating upon profits. Nevertheless, ever the objective scientist, Gøtzsche holds back from drawing any overtly political conclusions. And so, flowing from his unwillingness to call for the end of capitalism, Gøtzsche finds himself hemmed in and forced into making the following contradictory conclusion:

“I have argued why I am against mandatory vaccinations. But I must admit that the threat to other people, not least people’s own children who cannot make decisions about vaccines for themselves, might become so large that I would favour mandatory vaccinations of some kind. Hopefully without using force, which I find repugnant, but in other ways.”

This conclusion is reached in spite of the fact that Gøtzsche readily acknowledges that the use of compulsion is self-defeating and that such mandates give wind to cries of “health fascism.” This is a problem that Gøtzsche needs to address. As, without posing a true socialist alternative to capitalism — that is forcefully pushing proposing the need for creating a socialist society that is built around generating the trust of ordinary people — it is likely that the far-right will be the ones who will benefit politically from the introduction of state compulsion in health matters. This point is far from academic, and at one point Gøtzsche recounts how one of the few Danish politicians to side with his (arguably correct) criticisms of the problems of the HPV vaccine was “Liselott Blixt, chair of the Health Committee in Parliament”. He doesn’t mention her political background, but this is relevant because despite Blixt’s welcome reversal on the question of the scientific validity of the HPV vaccine she is certainly no progressive: far from it she is a member of the far-right Danish People’s Party. 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”.[7] 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.

Responding to pandemics

A discussion that sheds light upon the troubling vaccine controversies that ebb and flow across the world has never been more necessary. A pandemic is causing worldwide chaos, and big pharma have been tasked with developing a global vaccine. Thus, the final chapter of Gøtzsche’s book (added as an update in mid-May) endeavours to take up some of the problems associated with responses to the pandemic.

In keeping with the controversies raised in the rest of his book, one of the most significant criticisms that Gøtzsche levels at most governments around the world is their failure to respond to the coronavirus crisis using scientific best practice. For example, despite having decades to prepare for a looming pandemic, governments around the world refused to invest in making even the most basic preparations, like for instance the stockpiling of PPE. To this day governments are still also failing to undertake the type of scientific research that would enable them to get a proper handle on the virus. “What I missed the most in the early months of the pandemic,” writes Gøtzsche, “were that the authorities did not heed sufficiently the knowledge we already had, and that researchers did not embark on experiments that could tell us what works, what doesn’t and what is harmful.” He also remains sceptical that the evidence collected on the science of the new coronavirus should have led authorities to the decision to implement “draconian” lockdowns.

The issue of lockdown or not continues to remain a hot political topic to this day, and Gøtzsche was one of the first scientists to publicly challenge the introduction of lockdowns. He first made his concerns publicly known on March 8 in a “rapid response” that was published in the British Medical Journal. In this short comment piece he noted that globally only about 4,000 had died from the coronavirus which led him to argue that governments were acting like “victims of mass panic” rather than promoters of evidence-based healthcare. He later added to these criticisms in a brief blog post (“Corona: an epidemic of mass panic,” March 21) wherein he restated  the same ideas while explaining that the best analyses that he had seen so far was John Ioannidis’ article from March 17, which was titled “A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data.”[8] For those who don’t known, Ioannidis is a well-respected statistician and medical epidemiologist based at Stanford University, who had recently joined Gøtzsche as an advisor to his newly launched Institute for Scientific Freedom.

Like Gøtzsche, Ioannidis was concerned that government actions were not being adequately informed by scientific evidence. Ioannidis explained that governments were missing the “most valuable piece of information” that could inform decision-making which “would be to know the current prevalence of the infection in a random sample of a population and to repeat this exercise at regular time intervals to estimate the incidence of new infections.” A good point which few governments bothered reflecting upon. Subsequently Gøtzsche would publish a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that was titled “The coronavirus pandemic: can we handle such epidemics better?” It was this article, which has been available for all to read online since May 14, that served as the closing chapter of Gøtzsche’s book. Again, Gøtzsche raises many important points questioning the logic of draconian lockdowns. But perhaps his most relevant conclusion is that when the pandemic starts spreading again in a second wave:

“Scientists will need to be involved right from the start so that we may gather important evidence, e.g. by repeated and widespread testing of random samples of the population and by performing randomised trials. Not only have few of the current measures been evidence-based, we have also not had enlightened public discussions. The politicians have ensured that it will be very difficult to analyse afterwards if the measures did more good than harm. This is not how healthcare should be.”

As part of this healthy debate, scientists and politicians will need to respond in a less hysterical fashion when dissenting voices like those of Gøtzsche and Ioannidis are aired in public. Just because scientists raise concerns about the evidence-base for decisions, whether these relate to vaccine safety or pandemic responses, does not mean they should be blamed for any political resistance that develops in response to the government actions they criticize. Rather a more democratic response would involve engaging with critics and where possible offering up the necessary evidence to publicly debunk their analyses. Only such actions can strengthen public trust in any government plans to limit the pandemics eventual death toll. Yet we are where we are, and we cannot expect such democratic responses to emerge from the capitalist groupthink displayed by the vast majority of the world’s politicians, and nor will such actions be supported by the corporate-controlled mainstream media.

Political threats

What makes the current pandemic situation so tragic is that when scientists have the strength to speak truth to power, it has been far-right opportunists who have been able to co-opt such criticisms to bolster their own anti-government conspiracies.[9] Like a virus this cynical political manoeuvring has proved highly adaptive. So, when the Social Democrats in Sweden became one of the few countries that refused to implement a harsh lockdown — overseeing a herd immunity strategy – the government found that even then they were not immune from vigorous attacks from the far-right.[10] Likewise, the unfolding events in the United States highlight the flexible nature of populist opportunism. So even though it was President Trump who initiated America’s lockdown he is still tried to strike a pose as one of its leading opponents. Trump has thus ranted against the government bureaucrats, liberal scientists and the “fake news” outlets who, in his mind, collectively conspired together to force him to implement the lockdown. In this way we can see how a variety of anti-democratic actors (including the President) have capitalized on the highly limited debate around the science in favour of the lockdown. Such actors can then oppose lockdowns (with some success) by suggesting that the entire pandemic is nothing more than a nefarious fiction hatched in the minds of megalomaniacal ‘liberal’ globalists like Bill Gates. Gøtzsche warns of this issue in his book when he writes: “There is no doubt that stifling scientific inquiry is far more dangerous than publishing freely…” This is because by artificially limiting any public debate the government must promote an approach which relies upon “cherry-picking data, which is exactly what the vaccine deniers do.” And this is exactly what the pandemic deniers are doing right now.

Unfortunately, the assimilation of dissenting scientific research by the far-right is made all the easier by the manner in which too many honest scientists like Professor Ioannidis continue to pose as objective researchers who are completely detached from politics.[11] Ioannidis refers to himself simply as a “data-driven technocrat.” So it was that as soon as Ioannidis and his colleagues released a scientific study which could be used to undermine the science of the lockdown they predictably became the darlings of Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. Here on such hostile terrain Ioannidis’ honest enthusiasm to answer questions about his research made him an easy target for conniving interviewers and their carefully phrased and ideologically loaded questions. This in turn led to (ill-informed) accusations that all critics of the science of the lockdown were dupes of the far-right. This charge is ironic given that much of the so-called mainstream media have spent decades promoting talking points that pandered to the far-right, whether they were promoting the myth that climate chaos is not a thing, arguing that smoking might not cause cancer, that American citizens don’t want a free public healthcare system, or that socialists were the devil incarnate.

Resisting barbarism

In conclusion, while legitimate questions still need to be openly discussed about when draconian lockdowns are scientifically justified, it is apparent that the worlds basic healthcare systems, which had been eroded by decades of corporate profiteering, were in no fit state to function effectively during any pandemic. It is this deliberate neglect of our globes crumbling and sometimes barely existent health infrastructure that has quite rightly diminished public trust in capitalist governments worldwide and is now enabling right-wing populists to gain in electoral strength. These consequences were entirely foreseeable; and so, moving forward we should be clear that the working-class should no longer be made to endure capitalisms growing crises. In the first wave of this pandemic the poorest in society have already paid with their lives because of the unwillingness of our leaders to prioritize human needs over the needs of rapacious corporations. So, now the only rational way forward is for ordinary people to take direct control of their lives and join in the international fight for a socialist future.

So, what will this entail? Firstly, this will involve us recognizing that our health systems need a massive investment of finances and human resources – an expansion which must be coordinated under the democratic control of health workers, patients and trade unions. We cannot trust capitalist politicians or members of the billionaire-class to mismanage our health any longer. The necessary money for implementing such sweeping improvements already exists in abundance: this cash will be liberated from the vast surplus profits that are produced by the working-class every day — wealth which under normal circumstances is siphoned away from us by the billionaire-class.

Scientific research must now be unleashed from the stifling dictates that have been imposed on it by corporate profiteering. And the huge multinational corporations that dominate drug production must be nationalized and managed by ordinary workers, to meet the needs of the working-class. Only then, can any semblance of trust be rebuilt in all the scientific and medical innovations that must now be harnessed to improve all our lives. As part of this democratic transition all the leach-like health profiteers will need to be extracted from our health services. This will then enable us to establish the type of first-class global healthcare systems that can ensure that the majority of the world’s population are no longer forced to settle for less than the best that science can offer.

None of this will be easy, but these urgent tasks are necessary if we are to deal with the threat posed by Covid-19, the devastating heath consequences caused by the imposition of global lockdowns (which will be felt in the coming months), and other future pandemics. “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.” These words may have been first put down on paper in 1892 but they remain relevant today. So, let’s move forward together through this pandemic by vowing that we will never return to barbarism again, and pledge to fight together against our class enemies to make a socialist alternative a living reality.

Michael Barker is a socialist writing under lockdown in Leicester, UK.

NOTES

[1] Tragically the exploitation of humanity that is endemic to both capitalism and big pharma continues unabated, and in recent years the situation has only grown worse, which partly explains the need for Gøtzsche’s 2019 book Death of a Whistleblower and Cochrane’s Moral Collapse. In this text Gøtzsche outlined the corporate take-over and potential demise of the Cochrane Collaborative as an organization whose founding intent was to keep a watchful eye on scientific research.

[2] Jefferson is currently working with the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (at Oxford University). The early implications of Jefferson’s work on influenza were discussed by the Financial Times in November 2007; while an article carried in the British Medical Journal (January 27, 2020) indicates that he is currently “suing the drug company Roche in the US, claiming that it defrauded federal and state governments by falsely claiming that its antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) could be a powerful tool in mitigating a flu pandemic.” For a very useful interview undertaken with Jefferson on July 17, see “Oxford epidemiologists: suppression strategy is not viable.”

 

[3] In the US the overblown estimates for flu fatalities peaked at an unusually high 61,000 estimated deaths in the year 2017-18, which dropped to 34,157 the following year. While another related estimate for the same years is averted deaths owing to the flu shot, which for the year 2017-18 was 5,700, while in 2018-19 was 3,500. But here it is important to remember that an unknown proportion of the estimated flu deaths are likely to be related to other “less famous viruses” for which vaccines don’t even exist.

[4] Gøtzsche writes: “Unfortunately, vaccine deniers are so powerful in the United States that it has led to self-censorship for truth-seeking scientists. A New York Times reporter wrote: ‘When I tried to report on unexpected or controversial aspects of vaccine efficacy or safety, scientists often didn’t want to talk with me. When I did get them on the phone, a worrying theme emerged: Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects. Those who break these unwritten rules are criticized. The goal is to protect the public — to ensure that more people embrace vaccines — but in the long-term, the approach will backfire. Our arsenal of vaccines is exceptional, but it could always be better. Progress requires scientific candor and a willingness to ask inconvenient questions.’”

[5] After making this point Gøtzsche then moves on to discuss the time when compulsory flu vaccinations were introduced for pre-schoolers in New York. He notes that the initially successful legal case that was mounted against the mandate (which was passed in the final days of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor for the Democrats) was later “overturned by the highest court.”

[6] David Broder, “The deadly symptoms of Italy’s anti-vaccination movement,” New Statesman, February 22, 2019.

[7] Jonathan Kennedy, “Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: An analysis of national-level data,” European Journal of Public Health, 29(3), June 2019.

[8] The main evidence popularized in Ioannidis’ first article revolved around scientific research undertaken on the COVID-19 mortality rates observed on the cruise ship the Diamond Princess. Here despite the wide spread of the virus Ioannidis wrote that the case fatality rate was just 1%. (In later weeks more people died placing the final case fatality rate at 2% — which was still low considering that the high proportion of elderly people on the cruise ship.)

In subsequent weeks Ioannidis would go on to co-author a research paper (with 16 other academics) based upon anti-body tests undertaken within the population of Santa Clara County, California; a preliminary version of this paper was then published online on April 17 making the case that the fatality rate for coronavirus was likely much lower than previously estimated (between 0.12% and 0.2%). As the New York Times (May 14) reported: “Within hours, the paper had been leveraged by conservative commentators and activists on social media, forged into ammunition to support the protests against lockdowns and other social mitigation efforts meant to contain the coronavirus and minimize deaths.” The limitations of this single study were correctly and quickly exposed by the scientific community, with an early summary of such criticisms (published on April 22) being presented by BuzzFeed News’ science writer Stephanie Lee; and while the Santa Clara County study had many limitations, soon something resembling a witch-hunt was launched against the study’s multiple authors, with Lee writing another particularly damaging article that alleged financial misconduct (published on May 15).

Ioannidis responded (on May 9) to many of his critics concerns, and there followed a more useful interpretation of the controversy that was published on June 11 as “John Ioannidis and medical tribalism in the era of Covid-19.” As the article argues, the manner in which Ioannidis has been maligned is highly problematic, as “Ioannidis’ views on lockdowns, far from aligning with a Trumpian desire to benefit Wall Street, are consistent with his longstanding body of work, which has regularly pointed out how researchers often downplay or ignore the harms of medical interventions.” However, what is clear is that comparisons between the fatality rates of influenza (which are often vastly overstated, as discussed earlier) and the novel coronavirus only serve to confuse matters especially when undertaken “in an attempt to minimize the effects of the unfolding pandemic.”(These problems are discussed in this useful research paper, “Assessment of deaths from COVID-19 and from seasonal influenza,” May 14.)

More recently the tone of the pandemic debate in the scientific community has mellowed somewhat and on June 3 Ioannidis was able to put the case for opposing the lockdown in a short piece that was published in the British Medical Journal. Then on May 19 Ioannidis published an academic preprint of a new study he authored (which he updated on June 8) which provided a critical synthesis of existing seroprevalence studies undertaken across 14 countries (which highlighted that infection fatality rates (IFR) ranged between 0.02% to 0.78%). He concluded: “Estimates of infection fatality rates inferred from seroprevalence studies tend to be much lower than original speculations made in the early days of the pandemic.” Importantly he writes: “The median of 0.26% found in this analysis is very similar to the estimate recently adopted by CDC for planning purposes. The fact that IFR can vary substantially also based on case-mix and settings involved also creates additional ground for evidence-based, more precise management strategies. Decision-makers can use measures that will try to avert having the virus infect people and settings who are at high risk of severe outcomes. These measures may be possible to be far more precise and tailored to specific high-risk individuals and settings than blind lockdown of the entire society.” Just a few days after the publication of Ioannidis’ preliminary study he then co-authored another useful article on the web site of the International Institute of Forecasters that reviewed the reasons for forecasting failures during this pandemic; in this paper he made recommendations for how such errors might be avoided in the immediate future, see “Forecasting for COVID-19 has failed,” June 11. (The seroprevalence study was updated again on July 14.)

For the best overview of Ioannidis’ views on why lockdowns turned out to be necessary because of government incompetence see Saurabh Jha, “A conversation with John Ioannidis,” The Health Care Blog, July 9, 2020. As Ioannidis explained:

“By February, we missed the window for nipping the novel coronavirus in the bud. Had we acted earlier, with aggressive testing, tracing, and isolating, like the South Koreans, the Taiwanese and the Singaporeans did, the virus wouldn’t have spread as wildly as it did. The biggest lesson from this pandemic is that the costs of delaying controlling the infection can be substantial. Act decisively in haste or repent at leisure.

“Once we missed the boat, the lockdown was inevitable. I say “inevitable” grudgingly because I don’t think it should have reached that eventuality.”

[9] Owing to the longstanding and toxic relationship that exists between big pharma and capitalist profiteering, and the existence of toothless regulatory agencies (like the EPA and FDA), some vaguely left-leaning critics of capitalism have increasingly found themselves acting as bedfellows of far-right conspiracists. Historically speaking this is particularly the case when it comes to the false portrayal of government-promoted vaccinations as causing autism; but the same has become true regarding the questioning of the science that is guiding pandemic responses. Thus informed by legitimate criticisms of the WHO’s historic failures – which have largely been caused by its leading funders sabotaging its already limited autonomy – well-meaning journalists have ended up melding their criticisms of the dangerous pandemic response priorities caused by the profit motive with unfounded conspiracies that have been popularized by the far-right. A good example of this is provided by the 2016 documentary TrustWHO, which criticizes the corporate capture of the WHO and is otherwise generally quite useful except for one sentence in the films introduction which incorrectly suggests that vaccines cause autism (a subject that, incidentally, is not even explored by the documentary).

One non-conspiratorial critic featuring in TrustWHO is German Velasquez, a former senior WHO official who had already authored a trenchant criticism of his former employers role in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic (see “Reforming and restoring WHO to good health”). Another insider critic interviewed in the documentary is Wolfgang Wodarg, a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party, who believes that the current pandemic is an elite-driven conspiracy. His wrong-headed belief in a conspiracy was clearly been informed by his involvement into official investigations into the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 that had demonstrated how corporations had corrupted both the WHO and agenda-setting in global health matters (both true). Since then he has been correctly criticized for airing his conspiratorial views through far-right media outlets associated with the AfD.

In March, one of the co-producers of the TrustWHO documentary, Robert Cibis, carried out a now notorious pandemic interview with Wodarg (streamed on YouTube on March 13) which became a viral sensation. Thereafter Cibis carried out an interview with John Ioannidis (March 26) which YouTube eventually deleted, although a second interview conducted with Ioannidis on April 3 is still online. Presently Cibis is looking to bring a variety of critical voices together in a forthcoming documentary called Corona.film. As this new documentary project evolved it apparently attracted the interest of John Kirby, another film-maker who previously served as the Director for the excellent documentary The American Ruling Class (2005). Unfortunately Kirby’s apparent opposition to vaccines has led him to believe, like Wodarg, that the current pandemic is just a ruling-class conspiracy. And so in addition to undertaking a lengthy interview with Ioannidis on April 17 (as part of a series of interview entitled “Perspectives on the pandemic”) on June 9 Kirby interviewed a leading far-right anti-vaccination activist/nurse called Erin Marie Olszewski who used her interview to expound her belief that the pandemic is a hoax. (It is worth noting that Kirby’s series of contrarian interviews is promoted by the Journeyman Pictures — an independent film distributor based in the UK. This distributor was involved in the release of TrustWHO and all manner of left-leaning independent documentaries, but their tendency to trade in far-right conspiracies too is demonstrated by their 2015 decision to re-release Alex Jones’ infamous 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup.

[10] Richard Orange, “Mood darkens in Sweden as high death rate raises tough questions over lack of lockdown,” Daily Telegraph, June 8, 2020. As in other countries Sweden’s response to the pandemic failed to implement measures that could protect the most vulnerable populations from the coronavirus. This owed much to the fact that despite the positive press Sweden often receive in the liberal media outside their own country for being a rare haven for socialist ideas, over the past decades all mainstream political parties in Sweden have been attacking all the gains previously won by the organized working-class. Thus: “After decades of cuts and the privatisation of the welfare state in general, and social and elderly care in particular, preparedness to deal with a pandemic was dramatically reduced from the very outset.” It is the unwillingness of pro-capitalist leaders to fight for the needs of the working-class that helps explain the rise of the far-right in Sweden.

[11] Of course, you can’t stop right-wing propaganda outfits picking scientists that support their own favoured talking-points, as it is no different from the way in which all capitalist media networks, whether liberal or conservative, continually misreport on scientific breakthroughs to serve their own pro-capitalist political agendas. However, the end result of all this misreporting has been the creation of a public discourse that renders science and its democratic potential largely incomprehensible to ordinary people. This is not good for anyone except the capitalist profiteers who happily turn a profit from all this confusion by selling us their latest medical remedies without needing to properly demonstrate that they have provided adequate evidence to support their products often outlandish claims.

1 thought on “Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy: A Book Review”

  1. On a broader — yet critical note– regarding Peter Gotzsche’s work, what’s essential to see is that Gotzsche has not just exposed the corrupt pharma industry but orthodox medicine in general with their various non-drug interventions and treatments.

    For example, Gotzsche has been an extremely prolific opponent of mammography. Besides the book “The Mammogram Myth” by Rolf Hefti, Gotzsche’s book “Mammography Screening: Truth, Lies and Controversy” are the only two really extensive, independent works on the deep fraud of mammography.

    As such Gotzsche really exposes the business of conventional allopathic medicine and its government cronies as highly criminal.

    Like

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