We at SBM are happy to announce that we will be hosting a virtual screening of Virulent: The Vaccine War a new documentary about vaccines, vaccine hesitancy, and the antivaccine movement. After this virtual screening, which will last from today to January 29, Steve Novella and I will be hosting a virtual Q&A, along with filmmakers director/producer Tjardus Greidanus and producer Laura Davis. We all also thought it appropriate to dedicate this screening to the late Dr. Hall, whom we lost unexpectedly last week. The details will follow at the end of this post, but first let me give a bit of background and tell you about the film.

Andrew Wakefield.

Better times, when antivaxxers sometimes actually faced consequences for their activities: Andrew Wakefield stands with his wife Carmel as he addresses the media in the grounds of the General Medical Council (GMC) in central London, on January 28, 2010 after losing his UK medical license.

Virulent: The Vaccine War

Ever since this blog was founded in 2008, one of the core forms of medical misinformation and quackery that we have discussed repeatedly—indeed, more times than I can easily determine, even as managing editor—has been the interface between vaccines and antivaccine misinformation. Indeed, one of my earliest posts on this blog, dated January 7, 2008, was Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis. One of the reasons, of course, is that those primarily harmed by antivaccine misinformation and disinformation have been children, before the COVID-19 pandemic at least. Indeed, in late 2019, as an outbreak of a previously unknown viral pneumonia was sweeping through Wuhan, China, a deadly measles outbreak had been ravaging Samoa for weeks, killing dozens of children. One reason that the Samoan measles outbreak made the news was because antivaxxers were making the situation so much worse by descending on the population to stoke as much additional vaccine hesitancy as they could among the population. While some antivaxxers tried to deny that measles can kill, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. himself even wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Samoa claiming that measles vaccine failure was responsible for all the carnage, not the measles, while complaining about news reports that blamed the outbreak on the antivaccine movement.

A little more than three months later, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and the world seemingly shut down. By January 2020, the cause of the mysterious viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China was identified as a novel SARS-like coronavirus. That coronavirus was ultimately named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease itself became known as COVID-19. There wasn’t a vaccine (yet), but it didn’t take long for the antivaccine movement that had been fear mongering about vaccines against measles and other childhood diseases for many years before to join forces with those who denied and minimized the seriousness of COVID-19, as well as anti-“lockdown” and antimask activists opposed to the public health interventions being implemented to mitigate the pandemic. By the time COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time and started rolling out in December 2020, the antivaccine movement was not only ready, but had gained powerful allies. To paraphrase Virulent, they had been practicing and training for just such a cataclysmic event.

Two years later, the antivaccine movement is more powerful than ever, having reached a level of mainstream influence that we at SBM would never have thought possible, even in 2019. Indeed, after the unexpected passing of Dr. Hall last week, antivaxxers swarmed on her social media, blaming her death on COVID-19 vaccines, as they have for so many over the last two years. That’s why we at SBM are happy to be holding a virtual screening of a new documentary on vaccines, vaccine hesitancy, and the antivaccine movement, Virulent: The Vaccine War.

Here is a trailer:

VIRULENT: THE VACCINE WAR teaser from Tjardus Greidanus on Vimeo.

And from the Virulent website:

Virulent: The Vaccine War examines the consequences of vaccine hesitancy and denial. It’s a war anti-vax activists have been fighting for more than a decade. And Covid-19 is what they practiced for—a national conversation about vaccine safety and mandates.

Described on the the event page, Virulent:

Explores the highly contentious, emotionally fraught firestorm surrounding vaccines, charting the collision between scientists and charlatans, truth and lies.

We put a human face on scientists and others in the trenches including:

  • Dr. Paul Offit, one of the world’s preeminent virologists and the project’s medical advisor
  • Dr. Peter Salk, polio inventor Dr. Jonas Salk’s public health expert son
  • Arthur Caplan, PhD, who founded NYU’s Division of Medical Ethics
  • Kevin Roose, the NY Times columnist who writes about how disinformation spreads online
  • Ethan Lindenberger, the student activist who had himself vaccinated against his parents’ wishes.

The film also shines a harsh spotlight on leaders of the anti-vaccine movement including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who disseminates bad science to Black Americans who hold the Kennedy name in high esteem.

Virulent: The Vaccine War is an invitation to think again, exposing the myths and laying bare the facts about vaccine science, its history and what it will take to eradicate the world’s most deadly diseases.

I’ve seen the movie, and it is very good indeed. It comes from a unique perspective in that the filmmakers—Producer Laura Davis, Executive Producer Mark Jonathan Harris, and Director Tjardus Greidanus—were working on a film on vaccine hesitancy when COVID-19 arrived and the world temporarily shut down. This forced the filmmakers to do a major refocusing, as the new antivaccine movement started using the very same tactics and tropes as the old. That’s why Steve and I thought that teaming with the filmmakers to host a virtual screening would be a great way to promote the message of SBM while publicizing a documentary that needs to be seen more widely.

The event

Harriet Hall (and friend) at TAM in 2011.

Here is a link to the event page. We are asking for a donation of $12.50. This is an “early bird” rate, as on Tuesday, January 24, the price will increase to $15. Your donation will support grassroots screenings like this one to build awareness and demonstrate to public TV & educational distributors that there is an audience for the film. It also helps the filmmakers achieve their goal of offering free screenings in low-income areas. Larger donations are tax deductible via the International Documentary Association.

Viewers will receive a link to take part in a virtual Q&A with the filmmakers director/producer Tjardus Greidanus and producer Laura Davis hosted by Steve and me at 7 PM Sunday, January 29, 2023. We hope to see many of you there.



Posted by David Gorski