One week ago, I was in a wistful mood as I idly flipped channels looking for some background television as I contemplated the end of the holidays and my impending return to work the next day and entry into the gloomiest part of the year, when I came across a shocking and disturbing scene. Actually, at first the scene was not so much shocking as puzzling. It was an NFL football game, and the action was stopped due to what appeared to be a player injury, something that is not uncommon at all. What was uncommon and caught my eye was the number of players milling around on the field, seemingly every member of both teams, which signaled to me that this injury was not your run-of-the-mill sprain. Rather, it suggested that the injury was very, very serious. And so it was, as quickly became apparent. CPR was being administered to a player on the field, as the announcers, shocked into uncharacteristic reticence, intermittently commented on what was happening on the field using hushed and horrified voices. I soon learned that the player was Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who had gotten up after a tackle but then collapsed. As the CPR on Hamlin continued for what seemed like an interminable amount of time, I had two thoughts. The first was shock: Was Hamlin dead? Had he died on the field? No one knew at the time whether Hamlin had died or suffered irreversible brain damage from lack of blood flow, and over the next several days it was not clear whether he would recover, as he spent several days on the ventilator.

Fortunately, Damar Hamlin was not dead and did ultimately survive apparently neurologically intact, with recent reports indicating that he has been weaned from the ventilator and is now talking to family and teammates.

I bet you can guess what my second thought was. I was half-tempted to leave a lot of space after this paragraph to give readers a chance to guess, but instead I’ll just tell you my second thought: Have antivaxxers started blaming Hamlin’s cardiac arrest on vaccines yet?

Ghoulishly and disgustingly, it turns out that they had. Damar Hamlin collapsed at about 8:55 PM ET. He underwent CPR for nine minutes, as well as defibrillation with an automated external defibrillator (AED), and was down for 19 minutes before being taken off the field to an ambulance, which left for University of Cincinnati Hospitals at 9:25 PM.

So let’s take a look at Twitter from that evening:

Note the timestamp: 9:12 PM.

It turns out that Dr. Drew Pinsky (a.k.a. “Dr. Drew”) was even faster off the mark, at 9:08 PM:

I’ll give Dr. Drew credit. He was clever. He didn’t directly blame vaccines for Damar Hamlin’s collapse. However, the above Tweet was definitely an antivax dog whistle, as Dr. Drew is clearly very much aware of the “died suddenly” antivax narrative that seeks to falsely blame any sudden cardiac arrest and/or death in a young person as being due to COVID-19 vaccines. Also notice how “dropped suddenly” resembled “died suddenly”. I would guess that this was no accident, and a number of doctors noticed that right away and took Dr. Drew to task:

Within an hour, bigger names in the disinformation social media world were weighing in similarly, for example Charlie Kirk at 9:52 PM:

At the time, I noted two things. First, I hate how dealing with the tsunami of antivaccine messaging over the last two years has led me to the point where, when I see news of young person collapsing and possibly dying unexpectedly, one of my first thoughts is to wonder whether antivaxxers have started to blame vaccines yet. (Invariably, they have.) Second, to antivaxxers, it’s always about the vaccines. It’s always been about the vaccines. It always will be about the vaccines.

As the week rolled on, it also became apparent to me that antivaxxers had been waiting for something like Damar Hamlin’s collapse. While it’s true that they had been claiming that COVID-19 vaccines have been responsible for a wave of thousands, if not millions, of people who “died suddenly” due to clots, to the point where they had even produced an antivaccine conspiracy movie disguised as a documentary, Died Suddenly, it turns out that there are specific “flavors”—variants, if you will—of the “died suddenly narrative.” One of these has been built up over the last 14 months, if not longer, so that when Damar Hamlin collapsed a week ago, a rare event, they were ready to pounce.

Even though I’ve written about this case twice on my not-so-super-secret other blog, I thought that it would be worthwhile to describe how this narrative came about and who produced it. Some of what I write will be familiar to those who also follow my other blog, but what I seek to do here is to put the antivax disinformation that arose from Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest into some perspective and emphasize two things. First, the narrative of young people “dying suddenly” (because of vaccines) is nothing new, and these sorts of narratives date back to long before the pandemic. Second, this particular “variant” of the “died suddenly” narrative was created in 2021 and had been nurtured carefully by an anonymous astroturf website associated with a now well-known publisher known for spreading antivaccine disinformation. My goal is to explain how the old “died suddenly” narrative gave birth to the new COVID-19 version, how the specific variant about young athletes “dying suddenly” because of vaccines was created and built up throughout 2022, and how the antivax narrative about Damar Hamlin—shall we say?—evolved in ways specific to COVID-19 antivax claims in order to sound more plausible as doctors pushed back by pointing out that the most likely explanation for Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was a phenomenon called commotio cordis.

So let’s start with commotio cordis.

Commotio cordis: Cardiac arrest due to a blow to the chest

The first thought that came to mind among emergency room doctors, and trauma surgeons on social media was that the most likely cause of Hamlin’s collapse was commotio cordis. This is a phenomenon when a blow to the chest can result in disruption of the heart rhythm, ventricular fibrillation, and cardiac arrest. It’s not common, but it is a described phenomenon. As is the case with any cardiac arrest, survival is inversely proportional to how quickly effective CPR and electrical cardioversion are administered, and because commotio cordis happens outside of the hospital, like other cardiac arrests in the community, it has a high mortality rate. A 2012 review article noted:

Approximately 10 to 20 cases are added to the Commotio Cordis Registry yearly.3,4 Until the late 1990s, commotio cordis was only rarely reported. It is thought that this increase in the number of cases is not due to an increase in incidence but rather to a greater awareness based on the 1995 New England Journal of Medicine report on commotio cordis.2 Many more cases of commotio cordis are now recognized as such. Indeed, what was thought to be a uniquely North American phenomenon is increasingly being reported in countries outside the United States.5

Commotio cordis primarily affects young individuals, generally in adolescence. In the Registry, the mean age is 15 years4; there have been very few commotio cordis victims over the age of 20 years. It traditionally has been thought that the stiffening of the chest wall contributes to this decrease in incidence in older individuals; however, this decreased incidence in those over 20 years of age is likely also influenced by the reduced ball-related sports participation by older individuals. Victims are overwhelmingly male. A partial explanation for the overwhelming predominance of males is that they populate the majority of sports in which commotio occurs, but it appears unlikely that the 95% predilection for males reflects a 95% incidence of chest wall impact in sports and activities of daily living. I suspect that there may also be some gender-related biological susceptibility to chest wall impact induced sudden cardiac death. Indeed, other arrhythmic conditions demonstrate a gender predilection for arrhythmia, including females with long-QT syndrome6,7 and males with Brugada syndrome.8 Genetic differences in ion channels between the sexes or biological modification of these channels by sex hormones may be involved in the male susceptibility to commotio cordis.

One common misconception about commotio cordis is that it requires a blow hard enough to damage the heart muscle and cause a cardiac contusion, something that I used to see not infrequently in victims of vehicular trauma back in the 1990s when I still did trauma surgery. Timing is likely more important, as commotio cordis is much more likely to happen if the blow lands at a specific point in the cardiac electrical cycle, as shown in this helpful graphic from Wikipedia:

Electrocardiograph: the portion of normal sinus rhythm during which commotio cordis is a risk if a severe chest impact occurs within the narrow risk window. (From Wikipedia.)

Although there are other possible diagnoses, such as hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (HOCM), these are much less likely given the history of a blow to the chest. Also, as some noted:

As I have discussed here and elsewhere in the context of antivaxxers claiming that we are seeing a wave of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS), we routinely require sports physicals on children and adolescents before letting them participate in school sports in order to screen them for conditions known to be associated with SADS. Just imagine how much more in-depth the medical evaluation is of NFL football players and elite athletes before they are signed. That aside, the main point here is that Damar Hamlin’s tragic collapse, given what was witnessed and what we know, was so incredibly unlikely to be due to COVID-19 vaccines as to make the probability near homeopathic, but antivaxxers immediately put vaccine injury at the very top of their delusional “differential diagnosis,” to the point where to them it’s nearly the only possibility, other than to consider far more likely possibilities just long enough to dismiss them and point the finger at vaccines again. We can say with a very high degree of confidence just based on what we know now that vaccines did not cause Damar Hamlin to try to “die suddenly,” but in the bizarro world of antivaxxers it is taken as an article of faith that it was vaccines that caused Hamlin’s cardiac arrest.

How the antivax narrative about Damar Hamlin evolved

As more and more reporting soon suggested that it was probably the blow to the chest that had had resulted in Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, the antivax narrative…changed. Basically, antivaxxers started claiming that commotio cordis is incredibly rare and never been reported in the NFL before; so it couldn’t possibly have been the cause of Damar Hamlin’s collapse. Unsurprisingly, within two hours after Hamlin’s arrest, the pandemic’s wrongest man Alex Berenson was at the forefront of pushing this narrative based on a cherry picked article:

The “spin is already starting”? “But to see people ALREADY trying to spin this”? Truly, projection is all these people can do, and Berenson was trying to “spin this” to be about vaccines beginning almost immediately after Hamnlin’s collapse. I also note that Berenson quoted the same passage from the 2012 review article that I did above, but spun it very differently.

It didn’t take me long as I did more reading to discover that commotio cordis is actually, if anything, very much underdiagnosed:

Although commotio cordis usually involves impact from a baseball, it has also been reported during hockey, softball, lacrosse, karate, and other sports activities in which a relatively hard and compact projectile or bodily contact caused impact to the person’s precordium. While only 216 instances have been reported to the US Commotio Cordis Registry (as of 2012), [4, 5] this is probably a considerable underestimation of its true incidence since this entity still goes unrecognized in many instances and continues to be underreported.

And, in case you didn’t get it the first time:

Approximately 15-25 commotio cordis deaths are added to the US Commotio Cordis Registry every year. [14] The actual incidence is, in all likelihood, considerably greater because of lack of recognition and underreporting.

Another antivax talking point that started to appear was that Damar Hamlin, at age 24, is too old to have been a victim of commotio cordis, which most commonly affects teenaged boys. Nope. Just because Damar Hamlin is 24 years old does not mean that he couldn’t have been the victim of commotio cordis:

Although reported in a wide range of ages (6 wk to 50 y), commotio cordis occurs most frequently in male children aged 10-18 years, with a mean age of 15 ± 9 years. Data from the US Commotio Cordis Registry show that 26% are younger than 10 years and 75% are younger than 18 years. [5]

So basically Hamlin’s age is at the upper range of the mean age plus (I presume) standard error, suggesting that it wouldn’t be rare compared to the total incidence of commotio cordis for it to happen to a 24-year-old.

Then the antivax narrative…evolved again, this time thanks to Dr. Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Malone and Dr. Peter “COVID-19 vaccines are depopulation” McCullough, amplified by Steve Kirsch. Let’s start with Malone:

Actually, no, you cannot “safely assume that those known preconditions were not present,” as the article I just cited above describes:

Autopsy of those with fatal commotio cordis typically shows normal cardiac morphology. Small oval or circular abrasions or bruises are often noted over the precordium, primarily over the left ventricle. In general, there’s no evidence of rib fractures, hemothorax, hemopericardium, external myocardial contusion; no congenital or acquired structural entities known to predispose young people and athletes to sudden death; no evidence for aortic rupture or traumatic injury; and no evidence of either damage or thrombosis of the coronary arteries.

So, no. NFL physicians very well might not have found anything that would predispose Damar Hamlin to commotio cordis because there probably wasn’t anything to find. Unsurprisingly, throughout yesterday and last night, the antivax narrative continued to…evolve…further.

Enter Dr. Peter McCullough, whom Steve Kirsch quoted in an update to a Substack that published at 7:54 PM PT, which if you do the math works out to be a little less than two hours after Damar Hamlin’s collapse on national TV, indicating that truly the antivax blogopshere (or Substackosphere, if you will) was all over this tragedy immediately:

I watched the play live both as a fan and a cardiologist and I saw blunt neck and chest trauma, a brief recovery after the tackle and then a classic cardiac arrest. I have communicated to one of the most experienced trainers in the world and we agree that it was a cardiac arrest in the setting of a big surge of adrenalin. If Damar Hamlin indeed took one of the COVID-19 vaccines, then subclinical vaccine-induced myocarditis must be considered in the differential diagnosis.

Also, according to Kirsch:

Note that McCullough originally speculated that the injury that Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was due to commotio cordis (a phenomenon in which a sudden blunt impact to the chest causes sudden death in the absence of cardiac damage). The time delay from the hit until he collapsed is expected in commotio cordis.

Basically, McCullough started out by suggesting the most likely diagnosis from an actual science-based perspective, namely commotio cordis, but then apparently realized that it would be much better from an antivax perspective to start finding a way to blame vaccines:

Peter believes that the ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation could have been set up by the vaccine if he took it.

“If he took it”. It should be emphasized here that the NFL never actually imposed a vaccine mandate on its players, although for the 2021 season it did impose policies that dictated that any game canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak would, if it couldn’t be rescheduled during the regular season, be forfeited by the team that had the outbreak and, even more “incentive” not to have preventable outbreaks, no one on the team would be paid for the forfeited game, as well as be “responsible for all additional expenses incurred by the opposing team and will also be required to pay any shortfall between actual and expected payment to the VTS poo”. The league later reported that 95% of its players and personnel have been vaccinated.

NFL policies aside, Dr. McCullough’s narrative combined the fear mongering about the small risk of myocarditis in young men due to COVID-19 vaccines with the whole false “died suddenly” conspiracy narrative, but cleverly made it a “just asking questions” sort of wild speculation, rather than outright saying that this is what happened. He didn’t have to say it outright. He knew that his JAQing off would, when it hit antivax social media, be transformed into assertions rather than speculation, particularly after the appearance in antivax Substacks of links to a case series of two (!) rugby players who died after a blow to the chest, one of whom had a distant history of viral myocarditis and the other of whom had evidence on autopsy of fibrosis of the heart consistent with a previous bout myocarditis, leading the authors to conclude:

Myocarditis may increase the risk of life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias caused by blunt impact to the chest, particularly in contact sports. Screening and prevention measures should be considered to reduce this risk.

In the world of antivaccine misinformation, “might” quickly became “does”, and the fact that the only reference cited involved what could only just barely be called a case series given that there were only two cases in it, much less that a case series doesn’t demonstrate causation, was not mentioned. There’s just one problem, and I will cite a recent article on commotio cordis to explain:

Histologic findings are almost always normal. There’s typically no evidence of acute or chronic myocardial infarction, infection, or inflammation, nor evidence of active or healed myocarditis or arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy. Hemorrhage has been reported in the anterior left ventricular wall and in the A-V node and specialized conduction system, but the significance of these findings is uncertain.

In other words, nearly all commotio cordis happens without any evidence of heart inflammation, acute or chronic, which is, of course, entirely consistent with the currently postulated mechanism of a blow to the chest at the “wrong” time in the cardiac electrical cycle disrupting the rhythm of the heart and leading to ventricular fibrillation. It’s therefore not surprising that on autopsy histologic findings in the hearts of the young athletes who die of commotio cordis are almost always stone cold normal. Basically, antivaxxers cherry picked a two patient case series that speculates that a history of myocarditis might predispose athletes to commotio cordis and use it to speculate that it must have been vaccine-induced myocarditis that predisposed Damar Hamlin to suffering the same. Even more cleverly and conveniently, you can still accept medical findings that myocarditis associated with COVID-19 vaccines is uncommon and nearly always mild and self-limited and find McCullough’s narrative that “vaccine-induced” myocarditis predisposes to commotio cordis persuasive.

Amusingly, antivaxxers couldn’t even get their narratives straight. For example, another antivax cardiologist named Dr. Sanjay Verma claimed that it was nearly impossible to cause commotio cordis with a shoulder pad hit to the chest, which appeared to be the precipitating event, because shoulder pads are designed to absorb precisely such a shock:

We don’t have to be equivocal and say it probably wasn’t Commotio Cordis. I can say with 100% scientific and clinical confidence that such a scenario (right shoulder pad hitting left precordium as I saw on multiple replays) is virtually impossible and cannot be deduced conclusively the night of the incident. This has never before occurred in 103 years of NFL.

So is Dr. Verma saying that Dr. McCullough doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he claims that the vaccine could have predisposed Damar Hamlin to commotio cordis? Crank fight! Also notice the extreme confidence Dr. Verma exhibits, saying not just that commotio cordis is unlikely but saying with “100% scientific and clinical confidence” that it’s “virtually impossible”. Such extreme confidence in one’s own pronouncements is a sign of quackery and pseudoscience; true experts almost never talk that way. Even if commotio cordis is every bit as rare as Berenson, Verma, and hordes of other antivaxxers are trying to portray it, that wouldn’t mean that Damar Hamlin didn’t suffer from it. Given the thousands of hits to which NFL players are subject each and every year (and have been subject to for many decades), eventually one would expect that even a rare tragic event like this would become close to inevitable. The law of large numbers applies, in which, when the numbers are large enough, eventually even rare events occur.

It also didn’t take long, when it was still uncertain whether Damar Hamlin would live or, if he did live, would suffer permanent brain damage due to low blood flow after his cardiac arrest, to start weaving conspiracy theories, with a commenter on Steve Kirsch’s Substack ranting:

On the negative front: There is ZERO chance the NFL lets the family have an autopsy performed for possible link to vaccine. If it showed a link and that information became public, the league would probably shut down the rest of the year at least since every player would be considered a ticking time bomb. Players Association will go nuts. I’d say they pay off his family to prevent posthumous analysis if that’s where this ends up.

It got even worse than even this, with Dr. Paul Alexander posting on his Substack on January 4 an article with a headline reading MURDER charge Pfizer & Moderna & Fauci (FDA, CDC, NIH) makers of mRNA/DNA gene injection (vaccine), indict them, killing a black man on live television DAMAR HAMLIN, while lying about commotio cordis and claiming, “What you need for murder charge to stick is below in my substacks; he ‘died’ on the field, they are lying about commotio cordis, they killed him with this deadly gene vaccine they made Chauvin 2.0.” You can read the whole thing if you’re interested and even peruse his Substack for a lot more of the same, but you get the idea. Antivaxxers were combining false (or at the very least wildly speculative and unverifiable) claims that the vaccine had given Damar Hamlin myocarditis, which had predisposed him to commotio cordis, and that now “They” were “covering up” a racist “murder” akin to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chavin. Nor was Dr. Alexander the only one making this vile comparison. So was Toby Rogers, who wrote:

What Pfizer did to Damar Hamlin is the same thing that Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd — 9 minutes without breath.

But there will be no statement from the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Democratic Party, nor the NFL Player’s Association about the shots that stopped Damar Hamlin’s heart. Such a possibility does not even cross their minds. It’s unthinkable.

The internal mental colonization is so great that most Americans will reach for any excuse, no matter how preposterous, to exonerate the shots.

Pfizer literally killed a Black man (stopped his heart for 9 minutes) on live TV and then told all Americans to shut up if they know what’s good for them.

But how did we get here?

How did we get here?

How we got here: Before the pandemic

A lot of people were surprised by how fast and ghoulish antivaxxers were after Damar Hamlin collapsed, even as they hypocritically accused vaccine advocates of politicizing his near-death. As I related above, antivaxxers were openly (and quite prominently) speculating about and blaming COVID-19 vaccines as the cause of his cardiac arrest while CPR was still being administered on the field. Within a day or two, antivaxxers were all over the media, both social and traditional, spreading their narrative and blaming vaccines as the cause of other athletes having cardiac arrests and dying.

Those of us who have been countering antivaccine misinformation and disinformation since long before the pandemic were not at all surprised, and, going forward, when something like this happens again—which it will—neither should you be surprised. Let me relate some history to show that the “died suddenly” antivax narrative is most definitely not new. Then I will describe how the rise of specific version of this myth that arose shortly after COVID-19 vaccines received emergency use approval (EUA), after which I will show how the “variant” of this version of this myth involving the “sudden deaths” of athletes was not random. Rather, it was a carefully planted story that had been nurtured since at least November 2021, with antivaccine doctors like Dr. Peter McCullough lending an air of seeming academic credibility. As you will see, Damar Hamlin’s collapse happened at a particularly unfortunate time, as the narrative about athletes supposedly having “died suddenly” due to vaccines had received a fresh shot in the arm right before Christmas.

False claims that vaccines kill have been a staple of antivax conspiracy narratives going back as long as I can remember. The most recent prepandemic version of this narrative was a claim that arose nearly immediately after HPV vaccines such as Gardasil and Cervarix were approved in 2006 for girls aged 9-26 to protect against cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV) types 16 and 18 and genital warts caused by HPV types 6 and 11. Later versions of these vaccines covered more HPV types, with Gardasil 9 now covering—you guessed it—nine HPV types, and indications were broadened to include females 9 through 45 years of age for the prevention of cervical, vulvar, vaginal, anal, oropharyngeal and other head and neck cancers caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) and males 9 through 45 years of age for the prevention of anal, oropharyngeal and other head and neck cancers caused by HPV.

The first time I wrote about the specific claim that Gardasil is killing girls and young women was eight years ago, when The Toronto Star published a particularly execrable news report that suggested that the death of a 14-year-old girl named Annabelle Morin might have been due to Gardasil, even noting:

…many of the girls say the vaccine was pushed on them by school officials, nurses or doctors who understated the risks, sometimes claiming zero significant side effects despite the existence of a list of rare but serious vaccine-related reactions published by the drug’s maker.

The Star has found the girls’ concerns are not isolated, that in Canada important safety information about the vaccine has not been communicated to many young patients and their parents.

I discussed in great detail why Morin’s tragic story was not evidence of causation (and didn’t even really strongly suggest possible causation). I also mentioned how antivaxxers had been blaming Morin’s sudden death in 2008 on Gardasil for at least three years when The Star article was published, her mother having encountered fear mongering about Gardasil on Joseph Mercola’s website, leading her to sue Merck over her death. Nor was Morin the only sudden death exploited by antivaxxers. For example, the death of 18-year-old Jasmine Renata, who was found dead in her bed six months after her last dose of the three-shot series of Gardasil in 2009, was exploited by antivaxxers, who convinced her mother that Gardasil, not any genetic conduction defect predisposing to SADS (sound familiar?), had killed her. Three years later, antivax scientist Christopher Shaw, who was known for also claiming that Gardasil causes premature ovarian insufficiency, testified at a New Zealand inquest that Gardasil had killed her, claiming to have found aluminum in her brain tissue that had been taken at autopsy, while another antivax pathologist, Dr. Sing Han Lee—think of him as a precursor to COVID-19 era antivax pathologist Dr. Ryan Cole—testified that there was foreign DNA from the HPV strain used in the vaccine in Rentata’s blood—bound to aluminum of course—and that that must have caused her death.

Again, does any of this sound familiar?

In 2018, the antivax group—more specifically the anti-Gardasil group—SANEVAX had made a series of YouTube videos entitled Sacrificial Virgins, which blamed Gardasil for the death of 19-year-old Jasmin Soriat, a German woman who in 2017 died in her sleep three weeks after receiving her second dose of Gardasil.

I could go on and on, but the point is simple. The narrative that vaccines are killing young people long predates the pandemic. Indeed, the “sacrificial virgins” narrative was preceded by another narrative blaming vaccines for death, specifically the false claim that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), a Vaccine Court ruling notwithstanding. (This particular Vaccine Court ruling was ultimately struck down.)

That doesn’t even count other antivaccine tactics that we see in the Damar Hamlin case, such as blaming vaccines for deaths that were clearly due to something else. The Alan Yurko case from two decades ago comes to mind, in which antivaxxers blamed vaccines for shaken baby syndrome. Let’s just say that the “Free Yurko” movement was a particularly disgusting and despicable example of this phenomenon, every bit as bad as Paul Alexander ranting that pharma and the government “murdered” a Black man on live television. Of course, before the pandemic, antivaxxers loved to compare vaccine mandates to the Holocaust and Nazi war crimes (with themselves as persecuted Jews)—planned, of course, as in “plandemic“!—and claim that vaccines are a plan to depopulate the earth; so their willingness to “go there” should be no surprise. These sorts of conspiracy theories are no different, other than intensity and specific elements related to COVID-19, from the same basic antivax conspiracies from years past.

How we got here since the pandemic

I’ve already discussed how antivaxxers have developed a narrative claiming that an epidemic of young, presumably healthy people having “died suddenly” arose beginning soon after governments all over the world undertook mass vaccination campaigns against COVID-19. Indeed, as I predicted, they weaponized reports of death after COVID-19 vaccination made to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database, starting almost immediately. By summer 2021, the narrative had evolved to become an updated version of the hoary old antivax chestnut portraying vaccines as a “depopulation agenda“. Not coincidentally, one of the antivaxxers promoting the claim that vaccines are causing “depopulation” during the summer of 2021 was disgraced cardiologist Dr. Peter McCullough, whom I quoted earlier. This was the first thread woven into the narrative prepared ahead of time that was ready and waiting for Damar Hamlin (or someone like him) to suffer.

The second thread arose at around the same time, based on the detection of two safety signals for COVID-19 vaccines. The first safety signal was the association of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines with a rare kind of blood clot in the brain, which was likely the origin of the antivax buzzword “clot shot”. The risk was small, and getting vaccinated was still far safer than getting COVID-19, but the antivax narrative was predictably full of fear mongering. Part of this thread were antivax doctors and embalmers claiming that they were finding clots of unprecedented numbers and sizes in the recently deceased, which led to the antivax conspiracy movie Died Suddenly, which famously confused obvious postmortem clots with clots that had formed during life. (Seriously people, pathologists have long known how to distinguish the two.)

The second safety signal was the detection of an elevated risk of myocarditis after mRNA vaccines in young people, particularly teenaged males and young men, a risk that, according to the most recent evidence (discussed by Steve Novella in November), is real but very small. As we’ve written before, the risk was low and nearly all cases were mild and self-limited, but thus was born the narrative that vaccines could lead to heart attacks and sudden cardiac death, an unproven (and almost certainly false claim) promoted by Dr. Peter McCullough and, more recently, Dr. Aseem Malhotra, who famously now blames the vaccines for his 70-year-old father’s sudden death of a heart attack.

Together these threads were woven into the “died suddenly” narrative, in which COVID-19 vaccines are supposedly causing a tsunami of sudden cardiac deaths in young people due to myocarditis and clots. That might have been enough by itself to lay the groundwork for antivaxxers to be ready to pounce and blame Damar Hamlin’s commotio cordis on vaccines, but it turns out that there are…variants…of the “died suddenly” narrative. One of these is the conspiracy theory that 80 Canadian doctors died mysteriously and suddenly, deaths that antivaxxers blamed on the vaccine. (There is no evidence for this.) The second variant is specific to athletes, namely the conspiracy theories that an unprecedented number of athletes have “dropped suddenly” of cardiac arrests with many of them dying. Not coincidentally, Dr. McCullough has been flogging this conspiracy theory for months, which is perhaps why he was so quick to speak to Steve Kirsch the night of Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest.

When I first Tweeted about this, it didn’t take long for antivaxxers to start responding with links like this one, which claims to be of a “database” of athletes who suffered cardiac arrest and/or sudden deaths, and Tweets like this:

It’s a claim that was amplified to his massive audience by Tucker Carlson:

I soon noticed that many of the Tweets and social media posts featured this graph:

Good Sciencing deaths

Was Damar Hamlin the latest athlete to die of COVID-19 vaccination? Of course not.

As you can see, this graph comes from a website called Real Science (GoodSciencing.com), whose tagline is “Science needs open discussion anything else is totalitarian”. (I normally say that grammar flames are weak, but I’ll make an exception here to point out the run-on sentence, mainly because it pains me to read it.) A quick perusal of the site shows that, contrary to its name, the website and blog is full of COVID-19 misinformation about vaccines, ivermectin, and masks, as well as science denial about climate change. The specific post featuring the graph above was “1652 Athlete Cardiac Arrests, Serious Issues, 1114 of Them Dead, Since COVID Injection“. (Note that the anonymous bloggers behind this website have already added more than 50 new “cases” to their number, which had been 1,598 at the time of Hamlin’s collapse and had grown to 1,616 by the time I read it a couple of days later.)

First, I should mention that it’s blog post from anonymous authors, who describe themselves thusly:

We are a small team of investigators, news editors, journalists, and truth seekers, now backed up by others, who are discovering pieces of information that we can investigate. It doesn’t really matter who we are. What really matters is that we care carrying on an investigation and we’re presenting the evidence we’ve found, almost all of it documented in mainstream media publications.

We’re doing this anonymously because we’ve seen people viciously attacked and threatened for doing things like this, so we’re not going to open ourselves or any of our contacts to that. Also, please note, we’re not being paid and we’re not making any money from this – it is costing us time, effort, and money. We’re doing it because there is a concerted effort to block all of this information, but as some smart people used to say, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Sunlight would indeed be the best disinfectant if that sunlight were shone on the identities of the “investigators” behind this blog and website. Ultimately it was, as I will discuss in a moment, but first let me note that I immediately suspected that there’s a good reason why they are hiding their identities. More likely than being afraid of professional consequences is the possibility that they are part of an astroturf organization and have no relevant credentials, training, or experience to carry out the analysis they claim to be carrying out. (That much is obvious just from their “analysis”.) More likely, they are political operatives and propaganda specialists, rather than physicians, scientists, public health people, or any relevant specialty.

Archive.org led me to the very earliest version of this post on the Wayback Machine, dated November 9, 2021. It was listed as an “update,” implying that there was at least one earlier version of the post that was never archived or existed under a different URL. However much earlier than November 9, 2021 this article was posted, at that time there were only 77 athletes listed, with the title of the post being “77 Athletes Suffer Cardiac Arrest, 28 Die, After COVID Shot”.

Here’s one interesting thing. This website was cited by Dr. Pierre Kory last summer to claim that athletes were dying en masse from COVID-19 vaccines, as deconstructed by Dr. Susan Oliver:

Dr. Oliver also cited a study showing that, according to the FIFA Sudden Death Registry, 617 players with sudden cardiac events were reported from 67 countries from 2014-2018, with 142 of them surviving their arrests. This was only for soccer players (or football to the rest of the world), not all athletes.

Here’s another interesting thing. In her January 6th 2023 tweet cited above, Gemma O’Doherty mentions a “peer-reviewed study”. You won’t be too surprised to learn that “peer-reviewed” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, as is “study”, but what’s interesting is that it is a letter to the editor of the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology by Panagis Polykretis and Peter McCullough titled “Rational harm-benefit assessments by age group are required for continued COVID-19 vaccination“. OK, so that in and of itself is not that interesting. What is interesting is that McCullough cited the blog post on Goodsciencing.com as his source for claiming 1,598 deaths among young athletes in 2021 and 2022. In their letter, Polykretis and McCullough compare these “1,598 deaths” to a 2006 study that found 1,101 reports of sudden cardiac death in athletes over a 38-year period, which is where the oft-cited (by antivaxxers) average of 29 cardiac arrests per year comes from.

This was a classic example of antivaxxers comparing apples to oranges. First, the 2006 study used very stringent inclusion criteria to identify cases of cardiac events and cardiac death among athletes younger than 35 years. Then, as Dr. Eric Burnett noted:

As I perused the blog post for the first time, like Dr. Burnett I immediately noticed a lot of questionable entries. Many of these athletes were indeed older than 35 years (some a lot older). For example, just a brief scroll down the list showed that the antivax blog had included:

  • Mike Leach, a 61-year-old football coach who suffered a heart attack in his home (as if 61 year olds never suffered heart attacks in their homes before the vaccine).
  • Antonis Mandalos, a 60-year-old Olympiakos Volos Football (soccer, for my US readers) player for 18 years and then coach, who collapsed due to a cardiac arrest.
  • Tommy Kloza, the 65-year-old “popular owner of a long-standing gym in Rhode Island”, who “died “suddenly” and “unexpectedly” in the gym car park. (I note that the use of the term “car park” strongly suggests that the anonymous antivaxxers who wrote the article are British or Australian, as in the US we would say “parking lot”.)

I could go on and on and on, but given that others have trod the same ground I’ll restrain myself except for three examples. One was a 19-year-old who had gone on a swim on his own in Thousand Island Lake in California, trying to reach one of the islands. He didn’t make it. Again, it’s as if before the vaccines no one had ever overestimated his swimming ability before and died trying to swim too far in a very cold lake. Another was a bodybuilder who “died after ‘sudden recent decline,’ possibly dialysis related”. (If you’re on dialysis, you are not “healthy”.) The third was a 27-year-old sprinter who died of suicide, a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. In fact, this list contains are athletes and former athletes who died of suicide, car crashes, drownings, cancer, and even falling off of a cliff! Many were older than 25, some a lot older and quite a few having no longer been athletes for decades and many not even dying on the field of play.

And they’re still adding to the list!

An unfortunate coincidence leads to a tsunami of astroturfed disinformation

Thus far, I’ve demonstrated that antivaxxers had been “priming the pump”, so to speak, with a pre-existing false narrative about a supposedly unprecedented wave of cardiac arrests and deaths among young, healthy athletes, blaming this wave of death and destruction on COVID-19 vaccines, even though in the vast majority of cases the vaccination status of the deceased wasn’t even known. Moreover, in an unfortunate bit of timing Dr. McCullough had published his letter to the editor recently, leading to an uptick in antivax fear mongering about athletes supposedly suffering cardiac arrests and “dying suddenly”. All antivaxxers needed was a high profile case to seize on, and when Damar Hamlin collapsed they wasted no time doing just that, even though it was pretty obvious that it was almost certainly commotio cordis that had caused his collapse.

But who started this narrative? We can’t be sure that Goodsciencing.com was the origin of this narrative, but it is arguably by far the most prominent source and has been slowly adding to its list at least since November 2021. Fortunately, the people behind what is almost certainly an astroturf anonymous website appear now to have been identified. Maarten Schenk at Lead Stories cleverly used Gravatar hashtags to identify very likely conclusively those behind the Goodsciencing.com website. You can read the investigation for the details of how this was done if you like but the CliffsNotes version follows. Basically two of the Gravatar MD5 hashtags were resolved to email addresses, which were then found in the contact information published on websites associated with NewsBlaze – a right-wing “alternative news site” owned by Alan Gray.

Schenk’s evidence that Gray is behind Goodsciencing.com includes these observations:

  • Alan Gray is the CEO and editor-in-chief of NewsBlaze.
  • The “admin” user on goodsciencing.com uses an email address from a NewsBlaze-owned domain name.
  • The same email address is used on accounts for several other websites connected to Alan Gray and to NewsBlaze.
  • “Alan Gray” on Telegram and NewsBlaze Australia on Twitter were among the earliest to promote the site.
  • NewsBlaze was communicating with a known anti-vaccine activist on Twitter only weeks before goodsciencing.com went live.

I would also point out that the blog’s use of “car park” instead of “parking lot” strongly suggests that those behind it are British or Australian, which is consistent with Alan Gray being behind Goodsciencing.com. Of note, Media Bias/Fact Check rates NewsBlaze as a “questionable source” based on its “extreme right bias, promotion of propaganda and conspiracy theories as well as the use of poor sources”. If you want a taste of the sorts of things Alan Gray publishes about COVID-19, I came across this article claiming that no vaccine for COVID-19 is needed because there is a “simple cure” (an asthma medication). Anyone who’s paid attention to COVID-19 and antivaccine misinformation and disinformation knows that NewsBlaze is a major Australian source.

Unfortunately, Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was the inciting event for a perfect storm of antivax disinformation, timed perfectly. It happened on national TV during a Monday night NFL football game on the last night of a long holiday season, when a lot of people were off work and watching. It also happened not long after Dr. McCullough had become merely the most recent antivaxxer to have resurrected the conspiracy theory claiming that there had been a huge increase in the number of young athletes dying suddenly since early 2021 when, not at all coincidentally, the mass vaccination against COVID-19 really got underway, his letter to the editor having conveniently (for antivaxxers) been accepted on December 17, 2022, a week before the holiday season. The bottom line is that Damar Hamlin collapsed on January 2, but antivaxxers had been priming the “athletes dying suddenly” conspiracy pump for at least a year before he ever set foot on the field that fateful evening. They were ready, and they took full advantage, starting even before doctors and medics had finished resuscitating him.

If you want to know why one of my first thoughts when Damar Hamlin collapsed was whether antivaxxers had started blaming vaccines yet, now you know. This is what we have to deal with, and I still hate it that this is now how I think when I see a potential tragedy—or actual tragedy—unfold.

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Posted by David Gorski

Dr. Gorski's full information can be found here, along with information for patients. David H. Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS is a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute specializing in breast cancer surgery, where he also serves as the American College of Surgeons Committee on Cancer Liaison Physician as well as an Associate Professor of Surgery and member of the faculty of the Graduate Program in Cancer Biology at Wayne State University. If you are a potential patient and found this page through a Google search, please check out Dr. Gorski's biographical information, disclaimers regarding his writings, and notice to patients here.