In a recent post I suggested that distrust in the government’s handling of covid and in the safety and efficacy of vaccines is mainly the result of a deliberate messaging campaign by conservative media, libertarian propaganda organizations, and Republican politicians to gain political or ideological advantage by fostering distrust. To illustrate this, I want to examine an essay by Jeffrey Tucker, the founder of the newly created Brownstone Institute, which is dedicated to spreading hard-right libertarian takes on covid policy.
In a previous post, I pointed out that Tucker seemed to be encouraging vaccine hesitancy. In the essay I will focus on today, Tucker is ostensibly telling his readers what to make of the recent resignations of two top vaccine experts from FDA, apparently in reaction to White House pressure to approve vaccine booster shots. But the real purpose of the article seems to be to make people angry at and distrustful of government, to foster doubts about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and to play up the value of natural immunity. Getting people angry at government is an all-purpose libertarian goal. Casting doubt on vaccines undercuts the case for vaccine mandates. And cheerleading for natural immunity has been a critical part of the libertarian attack on lockdowns. (The strategy of promoting infection among the relatively healthy was popularized in the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, which Tucker helped to organize. I hope to write more about the Great Barrington Declaration soon.) Let’s take a closer look at Tucker’s argument (my bolds).
How significant is it that the two top FDA officials responsible for vaccine research resigned last week and this week signed a letter in The Lancet that strongly warns against vaccine boosters? This is a remarkable sign that the project of government-managed virus mitigation is in the final stages before falling apart.
The booster has already been promoted by top lockdown advocates Neil Ferguson of Imperial College and Anthony Fauci of NIH, even in the face of rising public incredulity toward their “expert” advice. For these two FDA officials to go on record with grave doubts – and their perspective is certainly backed by the unimpressive booster experience in Israel – introduces a major break in the narrative that the experts in charge deserve our trust and deference.
Tucker is deliberately working to undermine trust in government. He openly challenges the notion that “experts” (in scare quotes) “deserve our trust and deference”. He also works to undermine confidence in vaccines. He claims that the booster experience in Israel is “unimpressive”. To substantiate this, he links to a graph of reported cases. But this data just shows the aggregate case load is increasing, it tells us nothing about the effect of Israel’s booster program. The link is just for decoration. In fact, the Israeli booster program appears to have been very effective at reducing infection, as you can see by looking at this data that was part of the material reviewed by the FDA advisory committee on boosters that met last week. Moving on . . .
The vaccine push has been particularly divisive, with President Biden actively encouraging “anger” at those who don’t get the jab, even as he refuses to acknowledge the existence of infection-induced immunities. In several cities, people who refuse vaccines are being denied active participation in civic life, and a populist movement is rising up that scapegoats the refuseniks as the only reason that the virus continues to be a problem.
As I noted previously, Biden’s support for mandatory vaccination does not rest on a denial of natural immunity.
The vaccine was the biggest gamble of all simply because the program was so expensive, so personal, and so wildly oversold. Even those of us who opposed every other mandate had hopes that the vaccines would finally end the public panic and provide governments a way to back out of all the other strategies that had failed.
The government has spent almost nothing on vaccine development. Operation Warp Speed cost $18 billion, a tiny amount in the context of overall covid spending, and the benefits of faster vaccine development have exceeded the costs by orders of magnitude. A leading team of economic researchers has argued that we should have spent more to accelerate vaccine development. Almost certainly this is still true.
Most people believed that the vaccine would work like many others before them to block infection and spread. In this, people were merely believing what the head of the CDC said. “Our data from the C.D.C. today suggests that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick,” Rochelle Walinsky told Rachel Maddow. “And that it’s not just in the clinical trials, it’s also in real-world data.”
“You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations,”President Biden said, reflecting what was the common view in the summer of 2021.
That of course turned out not to be the case. The vaccines appear to have been helpful in mitigating against some severe outcomes but it did not achieve victory over the virus. Israel’s surge in infections in August was among the fully vaccinated. The same happened in the UK and Scotland, and that precise result began to hit the US in September. Indeed, we all have vaccinated friends who caught the virus and were sick for days. Meanwhile, team natural immunity has received a huge boost from a large study in Israel that demonstrated that recovered Covid cases gain far more protection than is conferred by the vaccine.
This is misleading. First, the vaccines so far have been very effective at preventing severe disease and death. Second, vaccines are effective at preventing infection, and thus reduce the spread of covid. See the FDA material linked above. Third, while it is true that Israel’s surge in cases was among the vaccinated, this is only because older people are much more vulnerable to covid, and they are highly vaccinated. This does not tell us anything about the effectiveness of the vaccine, other than that it is less than 100% effective. If 100% of the population were vaccinated, then all cases would be among the vaccinated, even if the vaccine is highly effective. This is all well-known (it is related to Simpson’s paradox, see here and here for careful explanation with Israeli covid data). Is Tucker really unaware of this, or is he just choosing to ignore it?
Fauci and company are pushing boosters because they know what is coming. Essentially we are going the way of Israel: most everyone is vaccinated but the virus itself is not being controlled. More and more among those hospitalized and dying are vaccinated. This same trend is coming to the US. The boosters are a means by which government can save face, or so many believe.
The trouble now is that the top scientists at the FDA disagree. Further, they think that the push for boosters is courting problems. They think the current regime of one or two shots is working as well as one can expect. Nothing is gained on net from a booster, they say. There just isn’t enough evidence to take the risk of another booster, and another and another.
Note that Tucker attributes nefarious motives to government officials – apparently his credentials as a libertarian pundit include certification as a mind reader. (As an aside, the motives he attributes to “Fauci and company” are absurd. How can they save face by administering boosters that do not work?) He again uses words that may leave readers with the impression that vaccination is not safe and effective. In fact, the data are clear that boosters are valuable for older people, a fact reflected in the recent FDA approval of booster shots for those age 65 and up.
Tucker goes on to warn about the dangers of vaccine side effects. He cites approvingly a shoddy and highly misleading study that suggests vaccination is unsafe for young men:
Bringing up such side effects is essentially a taboo topic. That this was written by two top FDA officials is nothing short of remarkable, especially because it comes at a time when the Biden administration is going all in on vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, studies are showing that for teenage boys, the vaccine poses a greater risk to them than Covid itself. “For boys 16-17 without medical comorbidities, the rate of CAE is currently 2.1 to 3.5 times higher than their 120-day COVID-19 hospitalization risk, and 1.5 to 2.5 times higher at times of high weekly COVID-19 hospitalization.”
You can read about data problems with the cited study here and here. Even more problematic, in my view, is the “risk analysis” in the study, which compares rates of myocarditis to the rate of covid hospitalization over only a 120 day period. This is deeply misleading because outcomes for patients hospitalized with myocarditis appear to be much less serious than outcomes for patients hospitalized with covid, and vaccines protect against covid for more than 120 days. The question of vaccine safety is in fact serious for healthy young people, who have a very small risk of dying or getting critically ill from covid, but citing this deeply flawed study in such an uncritical way while suggesting that discussion of side effects is taboo seems more like an effort to encourage vaccine hesitancy than to foster public understanding of risks.
The war on the war on covid is a libertarian operation, and the main weapon libertarians bring to the fight is rhetoric that deliberately fosters anger at the government and undermines trust in public officials and even in vaccines.