Health professionals across the country cautiously held their breath hoping that COVID would soon become a distant memory and the misinformation train had swerved off the track, never to return. But then we found ourselves in the midst of yet another surprising resurgence on both fronts.
The seven-day average of new cases hit its nadir at around 24,000 in the US in early April, and we’ve seen a slow but steady increase in this metric since then. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID Data Tracker. https://bit.ly/3MB40D9.) This increase is mainly fueled by the BA.2 sub-variant.
And it seemed like Joe Rogan and his controversial guests had moved on to hotter (and probably more profitable) topics than criticizing and fetishizing the conspiracy for every aspect of the pandemic response.
But now we find ourselves in the murky world of homegrown antivax epidemiologists and biostatisticians loudly declaring that they are finally vindicated and that the more than five billion people who have received at least one ‘jab’ are in deep trouble . (New York Times. May 18, 2022; https://nyti.ms/3LtJqTT.)
What exactly is going on here?
Conspiracy Theory Strategy
The FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on August 23, 2021. (FDA. https://bit.ly/3Nnpm76.) Four days later, Public Health and Medical Professionals for Transparency (PHMPT) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for literally all data and information about the Pfizer vaccine. . (https://phmpt.org; August 27, 2021; https://bit.ly/3yWxSWu.) The FDA agreed to release 329,000 pages of data, and PHMPT filed a lawsuit when the agency was found to be physically unable to do so in the requested time.
Ultimately, a Texas judge sided with PHMPT and ordered the FDA to release all documents regarding the Pfizer vaccine by this summer. The first 12,000 pages have been ordered for publication immediately, with an additional 55,000 pages each month starting March 1. Several massive data dumps have been made, the most recent of over 80,000 pages in early May.
Like sharks, every release of Pfizer vaccine data is immediately followed by a frenzy of misinformation and outrageous claims on social media platforms. The #PfizerDocuments hashtag has become a badge of moral courage for those who have refused the vaccine.
Many of these tagged viral posts come from a misinterpretation of real data, but some of these claims are based on completely false premises. Therein lies the rub with disinformation tactics. Like entropy in physics, the mess created by conspiracy theory and misinformation often occurs almost spontaneously, but debunking claims requires considerable research and intentional mental energy.
Figures like the self-proclaimed inventor of the DNA and RNAM vaccine, Robert Malone, MD, and the many others who have made their careers spreading COVID misinformation, prime platforms that allow them to spread a barrage of unchallenged claims to a large audience. They start fires and sow doubt and fear among the public, then leave the mess for more rational truth seekers to clean up. It’s not a level playing field and the damage is almost always irreparable.
The lure of conspiracy
Some of the most alarming claims circulating since the release of the Pfizer documents include that the FDA and Pfizer deliberately lied about the known risks to pregnant patients, that the vaccine’s true effectiveness was only 12% instead of the 95% originally reported, and that the vaccine is directly responsible for more than 1200 deaths. The basic underlying belief is that Pfizer and the FDA had malicious intent to hide this data from the public.
The first claim that the Pfizer vaccine is not safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding comes from a screenshot of a document purporting to be in published Pfizer data, but, in fact, comes from a now revised recommendation from a UK public health body. (Newswise. May 6, 2022; https://bit.ly/39GqaoT.)
The 12% efficiency claim circulating on Twitter links to a Substack article written by one person that really only serves to demonstrate the author’s confusion as to what the category of study titled ” suspected but unconfirmed cases. She used numbers found in this study group to mistakenly assign a vaccine efficacy of 12%.
The data used for this Substack post was actually pulled from a previously published open source document long before the PHMPT trial, further defusing claims that these documents are irrefutable evidence for the antivax community. (COVID Data Science. May 11, 2022; https://bit.ly/3aeFMjZ.)
The 1,223 deaths attributed to the Pfizer vaccine are, in fact, in the published papers, but were found in a dataset of all possible reported adverse reactions collected across the world. None of these side effects are verified or have been determined to be causal. It’s hard to know what to make of this data, but to state with certainty on your social media page that these are deaths caused by the Pfizer vaccine is clearly intellectually dishonest and does not reflect a genuine desire to understand the intent of these documents.
It is obvious that it is easy to demonstrate that each of these assertions is not rooted in reality. This should persuade everyone to be very skeptical of similar claims about the contents of these documents.
Unfortunately, there is something very captivating and perhaps even addictive about conspiracy theories for the human brain. People’s propensity to accept alternative explanations of world events increases dramatically in times of tragedy or uncertainty. Caring for patients experiencing tragedy in times of great uncertainty is fundamental to emergency medicine, and emergency physicians will need to continue to counteract such phenomena of wishful thinking and conspiracy theories. The COVID pandemic has only reminded us of this.
Dr. Jedickis a board-certified emergency physician who works in the Las Vegas emergency departments and as a clinical professor at the University of Utah. He also practices aviation medicine, previously serving as an active duty flight surgeon in the US Air Force with several fighter squadrons and now in the Utah Air National Guard. He is also an FAA Aviation Medical Examiner and previously completed a space medicine internship at NASA. Follow him on Twitter@RockyJedickMD. Read his previous columns onhttps://bit.ly/EMN-HumanFactors.