As the coronavirus swells to a global pandemic with more than 69,000 cases (and counting) in the U.S. alone, anti-vaxxers seem conspicuously quiet. If any group has experience dealing with outbreaks in the Western world, it’s them. Because ever since the anti-vaccine movement was reignited by a repeatedly debunked 1998 study linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, they’ve put measles back on the map, despite it being declared as eliminated in 2000. And over the course of a series of measles outbreaks, anti-vaxxers have proven to be anything but shy, throwing measles parties in the face of sick kids everywhere from New York to Minneapolis to Disneyland.
So in reaction to coronavirus, what are all the anti-vaxxers doing besides self-quarantine?
As President Trump downplays the severity of COVID-19 and the CDC hedges on its safety standards for personal protective equipment, it’s not so much that anti-vaxxers are silent; rather, there’s so much misinformation about the coronavirus that their bullshit just sorta blends in. The biggest difference is that now anti-vaxxers aren’t attacking the MMR vaccine, but others like the flu shot, under the pretense that they increase a person’s risk of contracting coronavirus.
“I think the over-vaccinations of people and their children is really coming home to roost,” Erik Levi, a functional nutritional therapy practitioner, tells me. Levi, like many people who oppose vaccines, argues that he’s not “anti-vax,” but that vaccines aren’t thoroughly tested enough to be administered at such rates (something the CDC and other experts deny). “The MMR vaccine gets the most press for its complications and ties to autism, but I’m referring to other vaccines such as the DTaP, Hep A/B and influenza,” Levi says.
As mentioned, one false claim that’s being extrapolated from legitimate research is that the flu shot raises the risk of coronavirus by 36 percent. The study, however, was limited to Department of Defense personnel, a small and specific cross-section of people, and the numbers weren’t meant to apply to the general public. Many other studies haven’t been able to find the same link.
Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of epidemiology and public health at Ball State University, confirms that the 36 percent claim is a wildly inaccurate interpretation of the peer-reviewed study. “This is a narrative by some vested interests where the number is correct, but interpretation is skewed,” he explains. “There is just association and assumption, and no definitive results that could suggest risk.”
In fact, the founder of the Vaccine Evaluation Center, David Scheifele, who is also emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, adds that the flu shot can have potentially protective effects against the coronavirus. “Flu shots have no effect on general immunity but minimize the risk of coronavirus infection occurring while one’s lungs are still damaged by flu virus.”
Of course, there have been anti-vaxxers who are worried about coronavirus vaccines and treatments that don’t exist yet — namely the potential for them to be mandated. Or as an anti-vaccine activist and self-described “earth change analyst” puts it, governments enforcing “medical martial law.” Writing in a Facebook post at the end of February, he continued, “Of course, they will enforce another vaccination. It’s a double-sided agenda. Cull the nations and form more control. However, the ‘order out of chaos’ card will be in full effect due to this virus.”
The thing is, any possible COVID-19 treatment won’t be available for at least a year. And the reason for this delay is due to the safeguards to protect people from negative effects and injury associated with under-studied vaccines — the very thing anti-vaxxers deny are in place. “There’s definitely potential for a vaccine, but testing cannot be rushed for a new class of viruses because we don’t know enough about immunity to coronaviruses,” Scheifele explains, noting that past clinical trials found that some potential SARS vaccines left immunized animals with severe pneumonia on top of the virus. “That may not apply to the current virus or newer vaccines but careful trials are needed, likely taking about a year to complete.”
In lieu of a vaccine on the table, other anti-vaxxers like Lawrence, a 35-year-old freelance journalist (or as he prefers “vaccine safety advocate”) in Vancouver, fear that the government will race to other untested solutions, which could have dangerous effects. “The main concern is panic and rushing new treatments,” he tells me. That fear isn’t entirely unfounded after Trump claimed that they were doing exactly that with an anti-malaria drug, a claim the FDA denied and the U.S. Surgeon General pushed back on. This was after, too, the drug had been linked with deadly overdoses, a fate an Arizona man recently suffered in an attempt to self-medicate.
The anti-vaxxers also seem to have fallen victim to another (widely disproven) conspiracy theory — that coronavirus and a potential vaccine could be a biological weapon from China used to promote communism. “From Day One anyone seen dealing with the virus [in China] was in full protective gear, not just a face mask,” says Vicki, a 36-year-old aromatherapist who opposes vaccination. “This is China’s weapon of mass destruction. If the U.S. falls for a vaccine and it goes untested — as do all other vaccines — we’re all doomed. Because China’s vaccine could be a more concentrated form of this.”
In fairness, not every anti-vaxxer is as alarmist. Case in point: Johnathan Farley, a mathematician who believes vaccine safety is understudied, considers a potential treatment less of a concern because the coronavirus disproportionately affects older people. Thus, a vaccine would only have to be given to a small amount of the population. “I don’t think the government will have to force people to take a novel coronavirus vaccine,” he tells me. “The vaccine needs to be given to enough people to stop the spread of the virus. It need not be given to everyone in order to do that. Because of that, I think the people who normally oppose vaccines will be more open to this.”
That said, Farley admits he’s reluctant about coronavirus testing, because it would put him at risk for being exposed, if he didn’t have it already. “Wherever you have to take the test, there will be people who are infected, so the risk is that by being near them, you’ll get infected, too,” he explains. (FWIW: Many people outside of the anti-vaccine community also feel this way, even if it makes it that much harder for public health officials to know how many people are really sick — if they had enough tests in the first place, that is.)
Still, Farley supports most of the CDC’s coronavirus recommendations and believes self-quarantining is a sensible thing to do. (Plus, isolation, social distancing and handwashing seem natural compared to anything that would benefit Big Pharma.) The same goes for Levi. “I’m taking this COVID-19 virus very seriously and am self-quarantining because the experts from all the infectious disease agencies say that this is the most effective way to save people and lower the rates of infections,” Levi says, noting that a healthy diet, exercise and drinking hot water have also helped. (Holistic remedies have always been popular in anti-vaxx circles, such as high doses of vitamin C to reduce the risks of vaccine injury.)
Lawrence believes in self-quarantining strategies as well, but feels like they should be optional for the young and healthy. “When everyone is quarantined, there are a lot of non-specific issues,” Lawrence says. “A crashing economy can have devastating stress on poor communities and the potential to make everything worse.”
Moreover, he continues, “The COVID-19 hysteria is driven by media operating on scary mathematical risk analysis. This is insane and spreads fear. Keep the economy intact and this will all blow over by summer just like SARS with limited infection and mortality risk.”
His perspective is the same thing that kept coronavirus-deniers proudly dining out until they were forced to stop, but it also reflects the Western privilege that’s always driven the anti-vaxx movement. Most people in the U.S. and U.K. don’t have to be confronted by what a world without vaccines actually looks like, even after 140,000 people died of the measles worldwide in 2018, most of them under the age of 5. In other words, anti-vaxxers have the luxury of minimizing entirely avoidable illnesses as immunity-building inevitabilities when that’s categorically untrue.
“Our major problem is the narrow view of vaccines from developed countries,” Khubchandani says, noting that the World Health Organization lists vaccine hesitancy as among the biggest threats to global health. “Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease — it currently prevents two to three million deaths a year, and a further one-and-a-half million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.”
In terms of coronavirus, for now at least, anti-vaxxers don’t threaten to keep people from getting a shot that doesn’t yet exist. But the chaos surrounding COVID-19 may make the anti-vaccine movement seem normal by comparison and their conspiracy theories all-too-believable. And in a world that’s systematically breaking down, that’s just as dangerous.