Before she was banned from Twitter, the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf warned of
A new tech to deliver vaccines w nanopatticles that let you travel back in time.
While reasonable people reject time-travel, I’ve previously discussed contrarian doctors whose desperation to undermine unwanted COVID policies led them to agree with Ms. Wolf’s core premise. Most notably, Dr. Marty Makary accused the CDC of lowering their developmental milestones for young children due to masks, even though their new guidelines were based on a “broad literature search…conducted in March 2019”. Only time-traveling masks could justify his belief.
COVID vaccines and time-travel
The most recent example of a doctor embracing time-travel occurred courtesy of Dr. Vinay Prasad. Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Prasad mocked those of us who sought to counter anti-vaccine myths, likening our efforts to dunking of a 7-foot hoop. Despite his ignorance of the topic and disdain for those with such knowledge, Dr. Prasad has since anointed himself the Chief Defender of Routine Childhood Vaccination and claims to know more about the subject than pediatricians and vaccine-experts.
In his new role, Dr. Prasad believes that vaccine experts who voted unanimously to authorize COVID vaccines for young children and pediatricians who want to protect babies against the virus are endangering routine childhood vaccines. Unlike them, he feels the best way to encourage routine vaccines is to trash the COVID vaccine. Dr. Prasad’s commentary on the recent case of polio in Rockland County New York encapsulated his absurd position. Praising himself for his supposed clairvoyance, he said:
A singular focus on COVID and pushing covid shots in kids, who mostly had covid (based on weak evidence/ w low yield <5% parents <5 has resulted in neglect for routine childhood immunization, which is disastrous. Many of us saw this coming.
While Dr. Prasad is eager to blame pediatricians for the return of polio, he presented no evidence that their efforts to prevent babies from dying of COVID dissuaded routine childhood vaccination. This is because his belief is justified only if COVID vaccines can travel in space and time.
Anyone with basic knowledge of the current polio outbreak and the anti-vaccine movement knows why this is so. The current polio case occurred in an unvaccinated Orthodox Jewish 20-year-old man who contracted the virus outside the US. Had he been vaccinated on schedule, he would have received his last polio vaccine 15 years ago. At least Ms. Wolf has the courage to offer nanopatticles as an explanatory mechanism for how COVID vaccines could be blamed.
Unfortunately, this may not be the last polio case as wastewater samples show the outbreak is more widespread. While this may seem to lend credence Dr. Prasad’s hypothesis, the Orthodox community in Rockland Country has long been skeptical of vaccines, and prior to the pandemic, it was targeted by anti-vaccine activists. According to news reports from 2019:
Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and other prominent anti-vaccine advocates unleashed fear and toxic misinformation last night at a well-attended symposium in New York’s Rockland County. The area is currently grappling with one of the largest and longest-standing measles outbreaks in the country, mainly in its tight-knit, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Dr. Wakefield and his ilk found a receptive audience in Rockland County, where low-vaccination rates triggered a measles outbreak that sickened several hundred children in 2018 and 2019. It came as no surprise to vaccine advocates that this is where polio found a vulnerable victim. Those of us who “saw this coming” before the pandemic, such as Dr. David Gorski, worked to bring attention to the problem and refute anti-vaccine nonsense. The Chief Defender of Routine Childhood Vaccination felt we were wasting our time.
Everything old is new again
Of course, vaccine advocates know that all of the arguments against COVID vaccines are simply recycled anti-vaccine talking points. As Dr. Gorski said, “everything old is new again“. He said that:
Proponents of science-based medicine have been warning us for decades about the sort of misinformation that’s now swamping us.
He’s right. In 2019, I connected with Dr. Blima Marcus, an Orthodox nurse practitioner and staunch vaccine-advocate who has faced threats and abuse for her important work. In response to the measles outbreak in 2019, she founded an organization called Engaging in Medical Education with Sensitivity, which published a 144-page informational booklet called Parents Informed and Educated, a response to anti-vaccine literature in her community.
In 2019, under the auspices of her organization, I attended a vaccine information session for the Orthodox community where I heard the same myths about the routine childhood vaccines that I now hear about the COVID vaccine. Some attendees thought all vaccines had “weak evidence” and objected there were no long-term studies of the entire vaccine schedule. Some claimed that vaccine-preventable diseases were harmless, and therefore vaccines were unnecessary. Some were convinced vaccine side effects were worse than the diseases they prevented and that “natural immunity” was preferable. This is exactly what contrarian doctors now say about pediatric COVID and the vaccine against it.
Unlike Dr. Prasad, Dr. Marcus understands the cause of anti-vaccine sentiment in her community. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t have much respect for his hypothesis. She told me,
Stating that public health guidance during COVID sewed [sic] enough mistrust to cause an infectious disease outbreak is ridiculous conjecture and completely negates the dozens of outbreaks that preceded COVID. Measles outbreaks in the US occurred in 2011, 2014, and 2018-2019. Mumps outbreaks occurred in 2006, 2009-2010, and annually from 2014 through 2020. There are still tens of thousands of cases of pertussis annually, often linked to unvaccinated counties and clusters.
Only time-travel can implicate COVID vaccines for many years of low vaccine rates in some Orthodox Jewish communities and similarly isolated groups (Amish, Somali-Americans, fundamentalist churches). Given Dr. Prasad’s interest in vaccines is both recent and shallow, I’d be very surprised if he knows any of this history.
COVID vaccines and action at a distance
Beyond this, polio has also been found in wastewater in London. As the UK initially refused to vaccinate children against COVID, a fact Dr. Prasad celebrated, this would imply that America’s “singular focus on COVID and pushing covid shots in kids” led to vaccine refusal 3,400 miles away. It’s also true that the pandemic disrupted routine vaccination programs, the same way it disrupted sports, concerts, and everything else. According to news reports:
In a new report published Friday, the World Health Organization and UNICEF said their figures show 25 million children last year failed to get vaccinated against diptheria [sic], tetanus and pertussis, a marker for childhood immunization coverage, continuing a downward trend that began in 2019.
Not only can pediatric COVID vaccines time-travel, apparently they also have action at a distance, decreasing pediatric vaccination rates across the globe. Of course, vaccine-refusal was a problem around the world prior to the pandemic, such that the World Health Organization considered it a top 10 threat to global health in 2019.
Fortunately the pandemic’s effect on routine childhood immunization has been modest thus far in the US. According to the CDC:
For the 2020–21 school year, coverage was approximately 94% for all required vaccines, approximately one percentage point lower than the previous school year. The exemption rate remained low at 2.2%.
While this is good news, we are at a precarious movement. The pandemic has given anti-vaxxers a platform and legitimacy they lacked previously. As Dr. Gorski wrote:
Since the pandemic has fueled the metastasis of antivax misinformation and conspiracy theories back onto childhood vaccines, the possibility of school vaccine mandates being repealed in some states looks terrifyingly possible.
I agree with Dr. Prasad’s newfound concern that the return of vaccine-preventable diseases is a frightening prospect, which is why I’ve been involved in this space for a decade. We all agree that one person crippled by polio is one person too many. However, I disagree with Dr. Prasad that it is acceptable to brush off over 100,000 pediatric COVID hospitalizations and 1,500 deaths simply because elderly people are at more risk. I don’t want any children to suffer or die from any virus for lack of a vaccine. The Chief Defender of Routine Childhood Vaccination feels I’m “off my rocker” for this reason.
Everything old is new again, except one thing
Though Dr. Gorski says that everything old is new again, one thing has changed. This pandemic, anti-vaxxers have been aided by highly-credentialed contrarian doctors who plagiarize their talking points. Arguments that would have marked a doctor as a “quack” – to quote Dr. Prasad – prior to the pandemic, now emanate from professors at prestigious medical schools. Their writing is often indistinguishable from uber-cranks like RFK Jr. (test yourself here), and it’s no surprise his website has favorably featured the musings of Drs. Prasad and Makary.
Unlike RFK Jr., these doctors have yet to realize that constantly casting unwarranted doubt on COVID vaccines probably isn’t the best way to encourage routine vaccination. For example, Dr. Prasad isn’t helping anything when he parrots standard anti-vaccine balderdash by saying:
Observational data has been used to support vaccines, but is plagued by confounding. That is because parents who vaccinate their kids are different from those who don’t. The same studies could show that driving a baby home from hospital in a Mercedes is better than a Ford.
Actual vaccine-advocates, like Dr. Marcus, know the best way to encourage vaccination is to be honest and straightforward about the risks/benefits of vaccines and the real dangers of the infections they prevent. This includes COVID. Despite their feigned concern over routine childhood vaccines, contrarian doctors, ignorant of the anti-vaccine movement and sheltered from the consequences of their words, are impeding this vital effort when they minimize pediatric COVID and disparage COVID vaccines by accusing them traveling in space and time.