Tara C. Smith Coronavirus vaccine and quarantine protesters in America form an unholy COVID-19 alliance

These groups have converged to spread the same dangerous and self-defeating message.
Image: Protest calling for the reopening of California
A demonstrator dressed in a syringe costume gestures towards a passing vehicle during a protest calling for the reopening of California outside the California Capital building in Sacramento, on May 7, 2020.Stephen Lam / Reuters
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By Tara C. Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University

While the majority of Americans seem to accept scientific information about the deadly coronavirus and are wary of reopening the country before we can be sure it’s safe, one segment of the population is driving the opposite narrative. This group is small but vocal, and represents a predictable if threatening merging of forces. At recent protests, we’ve seen the intersection of those who doubt the statistics and science behind COVID-19, primarily funded by right-wing groups, shouting alongside the distinctive red, white and black bold-lettered signs that have become the hallmark of anti-vaccine protesters.

This group is small but vocal, and represents a predictable if threatening merging of forces.

These groups have converged to spread the same dangerous and self-defeating message: The virus isn’t a big deal, scientists and the government are lying to you, and you can be a patriot by ignoring fear of the virus and going about your business. Ironically of course, this pandemic highlights exactly why we need vaccines.

This unholy, unscientific alliance of right-wingers, COVID-19 truthers and anti-vaxxers became very clear recently following the viral spread of an anti-COVID-19 propaganda movie called “Plandemic,” featuring disgraced scientist-turned-anti-vaxxer Judy Mikovits. Like anti-vaccine leader Andrew Wakefield, Mikovits pivoted from a legitimate science career to promoting antivaccine propaganda following a retraction of her most notable paper, which appeared in 2009 in the journal Science and suggested that a mouse retrovirus, XMRV, was the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Unfortunately, other groups could not replicate Mikovits’s findings, and ultimately even her own lab could not do so when they tried to repeat the research using blinded samples.

In the meantime, Mikovits’s scientific career was already unraveling. A graduate student found an instance where Mikovits had falsified an image used in the XMRV paper. This finding, along with evidence of contamination in the original samples, led to a full retraction of the XMRV paper by Science. Since then, Mikovits has published two books, spinning her career downfall from something of her own doing into a case of martyrdom and mistreatment by “elites” — including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Though she claims in “Plandemic” that “she’s not anti-vaccine” (a common trope of anti-vaxxers), she has filmed interviews wearing a hat for the movie “Vaxxed II” (produced by Andrew Wakefield) and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a noted anti-vaccine activist who has compared vaccines to the Holocaust, promoted her newest book and also wrote its foreword.

In fact, most of the arguments the coronavirus deniers use are very similar to those anti-vaxxers have been pushing for decades. They suggest that scientists and scientific institutions are hopelessly corrupt, that these institutions and individuals are lying to you and only folks like Mikovits are willing to risk it all to tell you "the truth": that the government and specifically public health institutions should have no influence over how ordinary Americans live their lives and protect themselves and their communities from disease, and that natural immunity to infection is preferable to vaccines (even though with COVID-19, we are only beginning to learn about immunity and have no idea how long it will last, and how vaccine-induced immunity will compare to that).

Worse, anti-vaccine leaders are already spreading fear about a coronavirus vaccine that does not yet exist; at best, a vaccine is likely a year or more away from release, and they can’t possibly know anything about outcomes of human clinical trials on safety and efficacy at this time. Yet the protesters and amateur health experts are still saying it is dangerous.

While the narrative from many “reopeners” has focused on the economic damage created by lockdowns and closing of restaurants, beauty salons and other service industries, economists have pointed out that even if all of these opened tomorrow, the financial picture will not soon be healed because the virus is still out there, and many people will not yet feel safe participating in public events.

This means those who are most eager to “return to normal” are also those who seem to be least likely to take the steps that would make this possible. Instead of listening to public health experts who have emphasized a program of “test, trace, isolate” to identify new cases, anti-vaccine leaders are instead threatening to track the individuals who have signed up to assist in contact tracing efforts.

Instead of advocating mask-wearing, which may help reduce viral transmission, in “Plandemic” Mikovits claimed that wearing masks “literally activates your own virus,” and that “you’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions.” These claims are nonsensical, but have already made the rounds in anti-vaccine circles, convincing individuals that masks are more dangerous than the virus.

Troublingly, almost 20 percent of Americans currently say they’d be the last to get the vaccine if it was available, or wouldn’t get it at all.

Instead of advocating mask-wearing, in “Plandemic” Mikovits claimed that wearing masks “literally activates your own virus."

We just finished a year in which measles cases were higher than they were at any point in the past quarter century. While exposure to vaccine-preventable diseases may be relatively low right now because of distancing measures, the last few months have also seen a decline in children seeing physicians for wellness checks and routine vaccinations, putting children at an increased risk upon reopening. And despite suggestions from President Donald Trump that the virus will go away without a vaccine, we need to be prepared to deal with this epidemic for years rather than months.

Luckily, this is an area where everyone can pitch in to help. If you have friends and family who are hesitant about vaccines, gently discussing with them why you think they are important may help to sway their opinion. If you want to understand why “Plandemic” is such a successful piece of propaganda that even friends and relatives you consider to be “reasonable” are sharing the video, this article will help you see the techniques used by filmmakers to influence individuals, and spot them elsewhere. And if you want a good debunking article to share with those friends, educate yourself. (This article goes through the claims piece by piece.)

To successfully fight back against this virus and others, we need to be led by science, not anti-science opportunists. For those of you who are new to the myriad ways that the anti-vaccine movement can harm public health, we welcome you to join us.