Column: Does Ron DeSantis believe his dangerous BS about covid vaccines?

The latest government advice about the new proprietary COVID-19 vaccine wasn’t too surprising. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccines as safe and effective, and a day later the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the shots for all Americans over six months of age.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ staunchly anti-vax, anti-science response was less than surprising. The Republican, who is gunning for the GOP nomination for president, staged A Roundtable of Scientific Mountbanks Attack the vaccine on Wednesday.

They include his crackpot state surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, and Stanford professor Joy Bhattacharya, who is a member of a COVID-19 advisory committee assembled by DeSantis. Bhattacharya is also a proponent of an anti-social program of unnecessary anti-Covid policy that was impervious to the raw data that consistently showed it didn’t work.

There has been a vast experience with this vaccine, with more than 13 billion doses delivered. It is arguably one of the best-studied vaccines in history, with a remarkable safety record.

— Vaccine Authority Paul Offitt, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

During the event, Ladapo announced that the state’s health department would advise people under the age of 65 against getting the new vaccine.

DeSantis’ roundtable was held, naturally, on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, most notable today as the place where truth dies.

The roundtable, as one might predict, was a conglomeration of misinformation, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations that threatened public health in real time.

It raises the question of how many lives across the country will be saved if DeSantis’ presidential campaign completes its slide into irrelevance, ditching its search for the most politically expedient right-wing policy prescriptions.

The answer, conservatively, is several thousand. Florida has one of the worst Covid death rates in the nation, with more than 391 deaths per 100,000 population. If Florida’s rate had been applied to the entire US population instead of the national rate of 338.6 deaths per 100,000 people, about 1.3 million Americans would have died of the disease instead of the 1.1 million recorded.

(By the same token, if California had a lower death rate of 258 per 100,000 than the entire United States, the national death toll would be 267,500 fewer.)

In other words, the end of DeSantis’ lackadaisical, charisma-free performances on the campaign trail will be a boon to public health. What better proof of the saying “choices have consequences”?

Curiously, DeSantis’ attack on vaccines is a complete about-face from his initial response. On December 14, 2020, he stood at a lecture in Tampa and bragged about having on hand that day the first shipment of vaccines in his state. “I was privileged to be able to sign for the vaccine from FedEx,” he said.

Soon after, however, he must have concluded that his path to challenging Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination involved the far right. This included embracing the anti-vaccination movement in a bear hug.

That said, let’s take a look at the Roundtable, a one-stop shop for anti-vaccine tropes.

The event began as a flat-out attack on the CDC and FDA, aimed at undermining the credibility of the nation’s leading public health agencies.

This has long been a theme in the DeSantis world. By 2021 he was raising funds for a personal attack on Anthony Fauci, who was not affiliated with any organization but was the nation’s most respected authority on epidemiology and immunology. His campaign sold t-shirts with the slogan “Don’t Fauci My Florida”.

An online fundraising appeal made Fauci the subject of every paragraph. “I refuse to blindly follow Dr. Fauci … and allow him to rob Floridians of their God-given freedoms,” DeSantis declared. “I chose to lift Florida up, not follow Dr. Fauci’s lead and shut Florida down.”

Ladapo opened the roundtable by saying, “We continue to live in a world where the CDC and the FDA, at least when it comes to Covid, are just beating their own way in a direction that’s just inexplicable, in terms of data and thinking. Thinking about common sense.”

This is a man who has promoted nostrums that science has shown to be completely useless against COVID, such as the anti-parasitic ivermectin and the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

Ladapo turned the mic to Bhattacharya. He aired complaints from known anti-vaxxers that the new vaccine had not undergone randomized clinical trials. That’s a claim popularized by anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and it’s completely bogus.

As I have previously reported, randomized trials of every iteration of the current vaccine are unethical, unreasonable and unnecessary. The truth is that such trials are important when developing a completely novel product, as was the case when the mRNA vaccines against COVID most commonly used today were originally developed by Moderna and Pfizer.

“There has been a tremendous amount of experience with this vaccine, with more than 13 billion doses delivered,” said Paul Offitt, director of the vaccine authority at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee. “It’s arguably one of the best-studied vaccines in history, with an extraordinary safety record,” Offitt told me.

Demanding a randomized prospective trial for each iteration of this vaccine makes no more sense than doing it for annual updates of the flu vaccine, which doesn’t happen, Offit says.

Bhattacharya also indicated that the protection against COVID provided by previous vaccine versions is modest and “short-lived” based on antibody levels falling over the months after getting the shot. Of the new shot, he said, “We don’t know if it keeps you from being hospitalized, we don’t know if it keeps you from dying.”

Yet it is well understood that antibodies always fade in the months after the shot.

Is there any doubt that vaccines against covid-19 keep people healthy? These charts from the CDC show that vaccinated Americans were safer from infection and death than the unvaccinated throughout the pandemic.

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

In the case of Covid, Offitt told me, “The key immunological component responsible for protection against severe disease is memory T-cells, which recognize long-lived and parts of the virus that are normally conserved, from Wuhan-1 (the original recognized strain) to BA.2.86 (the rapidly spreading read strains against which the new vaccine is expected to be effective).”

To suggest that vaccines do not offer much protection against covid is absurd. Data has consistently shown that the rate of cases and deaths among the unvaccinated is higher than among the vaccinated, sometimes 14 times higher.

This brings us to what may be the most absurd and irresponsible claim circulated by Ladapo during the roundtable.

“Multiple studies” in the United States, the Middle East, Iceland and elsewhere, he said, “are now finding that after four to six months, that decline in effectiveness … is entering a negative territory,” which means there is a period of “increasing The risk of infection. This is obviously a huge discovery.”

It also seems completely mythical. Ladapo wasn’t very specific about whether he got the idea that the vaccine could increase susceptibility to Covid, a phenomenon known as “negative immunity” or “negative efficacy”. But it needs to be suppressed at the time of birth.

I asked the Ladapo health department to identify the studies he mentioned. The agency did not respond, but a vaccine advisory issued later Thursday listed 14 studies that support Ladapo’s claims and his warnings about the vaccine.

No one supported his claim about negative immunity. One of the findings, from Qatar Immunization, noted such a finding, but cautioned that it was almost certainly due to study design bias and “not true negative biological efficacy.” Overall, the study confirmed that mRNA vaccines “provide robust and durable protection against COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.”

For Iceland, the health department’s adviser listed a study from that country that found that reinfection rates from the Omicron variant of Covid had increased since vaccination, and that reinfection rates were slightly higher among Icelanders who had two shots. One. But it advised that the finding should be “interpreted with caution” because of the conditions in which the shots were administered and the complexity of assessing the Icelandic way of life.

The concept of “negative immunity” seems to have mostly originated from a 2022 article on a right-wing website that foolishly misinterpreted graphs in a scientific paper.

The author of that paper, Danyu Lin of the University of North Carolina, categorically rejected the explanation in interviews with Reuters and The Associated Press. “The statement that ‘the vaccine destroys any protection from a person’s natural immunity’ is baseless,” he told Reuters. “The evidence we have shows that natural immunity is enhanced by vaccination, rather than destroyed by vaccination as has been claimed,” he told the AP.

Yet this claim was quickly picked up by the right-wing and anti-vax community because it fed their conspiracy theories so well.

Ladapo and DeSantis, despite claiming to adhere to science and facts, are all too happy to peddle this claptrap. Have they come to believe their claims? Or are they trying to slip lies to the gullible public for their own malicious purposes?

We have a clue from the history of Ladapo’s blatant lies. We know from reporting last April in Politico that he personally altered a state-sponsored study of COVID vaccines to increase the risk to young people, which feeds his anti-vaccine mentality.

In March, the FDA and CDC warned Ladapo in an unusual, though not unique, joint letter that his claims about the alleged dangers of the COVID vaccine were “false, misleading, and may be harmful to the American public.” Misinformation like his disparaging vaccine safety has “caused unnecessary deaths, serious illnesses and hospitalizations.”

In short, he and his counsel in the Florida Statehouse are a threat to public health. Perhaps when DeSantis’ presidential campaign finally crashes and burns, he’ll give up on the Covid vaccine attack and return to his original position, when vaccines were first introduced in early 2020 and he was excited about getting an initial shipment to his state.

Until then, unfortunately, public health is sitting on a knife’s edge. DeSantis and Ladapo are the most prominent government officials to undermine important efforts to vaccinate more Americans. Blood on their hands as the toll continues to rise.

Leave a comment