A video stoking fears of the COVID-19 vaccines in the Black community is being promoted online. But the film repeats misrepresentations about vaccines, generally, and exploits historical cases of unethical medical conduct to suggest without evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe.
Several vaccine falsehoods and misrepresentations have been strung together in a video aimed at discouraging Black people from getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
The hourlong video, called “Medical Racism: The New Apartheid,” is hosted by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccination organization, Children’s Health Defense. It includes mostly rehashed claims about vaccine safety framed to exploit distrust of the medical establishment in Black communities.
The video, which was made available on March 11, doesn’t offer any evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are harmful. Instead, it relies on innuendo — citing historical examples of ethical failures in medicine, misrepresenting various scientific studies, and suggesting that the medical establishment can’t be trusted.
For example, Kennedy — who is a lawyer, not a doctor — ends the video by discouraging viewers from following the advice of public health officials, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Don’t listen to me, don’t listen to Tony Fauci, and don’t listen to your doctor,” Kennedy says before advising viewers to review the package inserts for vaccines and question whether the ingredients are safe. (See SciCheck’s articles on each vaccine: “A Guide to Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 Vaccine,” “A Guide to Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine” and “A Guide to Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 Vaccine.”)
This is similar to the approach taken in another disinformation video we recently wrote about. In both cases, the videos acknowledge that Black people in the U.S. are suffering higher rates of illness and death from COVID-19, while simultaneously casting doubt on the vaccines that could curb the virus.
Referring to Kennedy, Dr. Richard Allen Williams, founder and president of the nonprofit Minority Health Institute, told us in a phone interview: “It seems what he does is take old information and make a … leap to the present time and say what happened then is what is applicable to what is going on now.”
But historical examples of unethical medical conduct are very different from the authorized COVID-19 vaccines.
All three available vaccines in the U.S. went through clinical trials with tens of thousands of participants before the Food and Drug Administration granted them each an emergency use authorization. About 10% of participants in those trials were Black for two of the vaccines and about 17% were Black for the third. The trials were overseen by independent data and safety monitoring boards, and the results were reviewed by the FDA and an outside panel of experts. These tested, authorized vaccines are now available to the general population.
Still, disinformation about the vaccines persists.
For example, Williams — also a clinical professor of medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine — noted that when baseball legend and civil rights activist Henry “Hank” Aaron died of natural causes on Jan. 22, more than two weeks after he received a COVID-19 vaccine, Kennedy “seemed to make an association between Hank’s death and his previous vaccination.” We wrote about the misleading comments made by Kennedy and his group at the time.
“That’s an example of the dangerous thing he does,” Williams said, referring to the “harmful effects of influencing people to not take the vaccine.”
We’ll address a few misleading claims used to promote the video and aimed at undermining vaccines.
Rehashed Claim About CDC Study, Autism
The video misrepresents a 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that did not find an association between autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccines.
The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at the age of children living in the Atlanta area when they received their first MMR vaccine and whether there was a correlation between the timing of the vaccine and a diagnosis of autism. If vaccines were contributing to autism, then one might expect to see more autism cases in kids who received the vaccine earlier, as we wrote about a similar claim.
The study did not find that vaccines were causing autism.
But Kennedy’s organization falsely claims that the “study discovered that African-American boys who receive the MMR vaccine ‘on-time’ by the age of 3 are 3.36 times more likely to be diagnosed with severe autism as Black boys who waited until they were older.”
That’s not what the study found. That’s what a purported reanalysis of the data claimed to find a decade later.
Brian Hooker — who has a degree in chemical engineering, not medicine, and has contributed articles to the Children’s Health Defense website — wrote the reanalysis for the journal Translational Neurodegeneration. But the paper was retracted just over a month after it was published.
Also, Hooker had filed a claim under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program alleging that his son’s autism was caused by vaccines. The lawsuit was pending at the time Hooker published the paper, but was later dismissed in a 58-page opinion in which the judge said, “[T]his case is not a close call.” The judge found no connection between vaccines and the boy’s disorder.
The paper was retracted because “there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author” and there were also “concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis.”
Prior to publishing his paper, Hooker had spoken to Dr. William Thompson, one of the researchers on the original CDC study. Thompson had shared his concerns about the study’s process, but later explained that he did not know Hooker had been recording their conversations and had no control over how Hooker used the recordings.
Thompson still works at the CDC, and when we reached him by phone, he referred us to his lawyer, Rick Morgan. Neither would speak to us on the record, but Morgan provided us with Thompson’s 2014 statement. It said, in part: “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.”
So, the claim in the video uses a discredited paper to misrepresent the findings of a CDC study.
Misrepresented Mayo Clinic Study
In another distortion of scientific research, the video twists the meaning of a preliminary 2014 study that found some Somali Americans developed twice the antibody response to rubella after getting the vaccine compared with Caucasians.
The Children’s Health Defense material, however, claims that the study, which was done by Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic, “means that African-American children are being ‘overdosed’ with today’s current vaccine concentration.”
But that’s not at all what the study found, Poland told us in a phone interview.
He explained that this claim is based on a hypothesis generating study, which means that researchers look at a small sample, make observations and speculate about what those observations could mean. Then they do a larger study.
In this case, Poland said, “We haven’t done the larger study.”
In 2014, Poland and a team of researchers at the Mayo Clinic looked at 1,100 healthy children and young adults in Rochester, Minnesota, and more than 1,000 participants from the U.S. Naval Health Research Center in San Diego as the control group, as well as a group of recent immigrants to Rochester from Somalia.
As we said, the Somali Americans developed twice the antibodies to rubella after getting the vaccine as their white counterparts.
Since they haven’t done the larger study, researchers don’t know why there is a difference or what it might mean. It could mean that white children are being underdosed, Poland said, explaining that without further study it’s unclear.
What is clear is that the claim from the Children’s Health Defense is wrong. “We do not have a study that shows African Americans need half the dose. We do not have a study that shows African American children are being overdosed,” Poland said.
He described the claim as being “like a good conspiracy theory — it contains a grain of truth with a lot of speculations around it.”
The grain of truth is that researchers found higher levels of antibodies in Somali immigrants, but the rest is conjecture. The higher levels may not have anything to do with the vaccine, Poland said. For example, the study subjects could have been exposed to rubella in refugee camps before arriving in the U.S., so the antibodies from the vaccine would have added to what was already in their systems.
So, again, this claim is a misrepresentation of a preliminary study.
Understanding Flawed Measles Vaccines Trial
The video also revisits a controversial clinical trial from 30 years ago. Several years after the study concluded, the CDC acknowledged it had failed to notify parents that one of the vaccines used in the study was experimental, and of the specific risks involved.
“The Tuskegee experiment that took place from 1932 to 1972 — the CDC promised us that an experiment like this would never happen again, but yet in 1989 there was a Los Angeles Times article that came out that revealed the startling truth: that the CDC admitted that they experimented on 1,500 Black and Latino boys in Los Angeles — without the parents knowing that this was an experimental test,” Tony Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam, says in the video.
That’s referring to a clinical trial for measles vaccines that the CDC conducted in Los Angeles on babies up to a year old between 1990 and 1991 — amid a measles epidemic that began in 1989.
The CDC acknowledged in a 1996 Los Angeles Times story that the families involved in the Los Angeles trial were not informed that one of the vaccines used in the trial was experimental. The majority of the children were African American and Latino, the newspaper reported.
The study involved about 1,500 children, who received either high or standard doses of the Edmonston-Zagreb, or EZ, vaccine or standard doses of the Moraten vaccine, according to testimony to Congress in May 1997 by then-CDC Director Dr. David Satcher. The Moraten vaccine was already licensed for use in the U.S. during the trial. But while other countries widely used standard doses of the EZ vaccine at the time, it was new to the U.S., and the high-dose version was experimental.
The CDC stopped the trial in October 1991 after separate studies in Senegal and Haiti suggested baby girls vaccinated with the higher potency version were at increased risk of dying in the two to three years following vaccination.
Satcher, who was not director when the trial took place, said in his prepared remarks that the EZ vaccines that were used in the trial were approved for investigation by the Food and Drug Administration but that the consent form for families was “deficient.”
He said a subsequent review by the Office for Protection from Research Risks (now the Office for Human Research Protections in the Department of Health and Human Services) determined the study was “scientifically and ethically justified,” but the consent form failed to identify “the EZ vaccine as experimental” and failed to provide an “adequate description of the foreseeable risks of the experimental EZ vaccine.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, “the form did not say that E-Z was experimental or unlicensed. But a brochure that accompanied the form said: ‘This vaccine has been shown to be effective in younger children. Over 200 million children around the world have received this vaccine, but Los Angeles County is the first place in the United States where it is being offered.’”
Satcher said in a follow-up effort with families, “parents were informed of the reason for the follow-up study, including the fact that some studies had found lower survival in those children who received high potency vaccine.”
The CDC didn’t find any ill effects associated with the high potency EZ vaccine in its study. It did not identify any children who took part in the Los Angeles study and received the high potency EZ vaccine who “suffered a significant health problem that can be associated with the vaccine,” Satcher said.
One child died about a year after receiving a standard-dose EZ vaccine, according to Satcher, and “experts reviewed the death certificate, the circumstances surrounding the death, and the autopsy report and all agreed with the conclusion that the death was in all likelihood unrelated to the vaccine.”
Williams, of the Minority Health Institute, told us that the mistakes made were legitimate issues that shouldn’t be forgotten. But the effort to compare that situation to the COVID-19 vaccine was “a matter of apples and oranges,” he said.
“It’s not logical to take the results of what happened in an entirely different context and apply it to our current situation,” added Williams, a past president of the National Medical Association, which is the largest and oldest association of Black physicians.
Williams said that he believes the issues with the measles vaccines trial weren’t given sufficient attention at the time. But, he said, that doesn’t substantiate suggestions that the same thing is happening now.
“It needs to be understood, there was a mistake made,” Williams said, in order to make sure “those kinds of mistakes are not being made” again. “In fact, there are all sorts of preventive measures” to ensure that kind of mistake doesn’t occur, he added.
Satcher outlined some changes that were made following the trial during his 1997 testimony, including institutional review changes and the creation of a checklist of elements that are to be included on consent forms.
Revisiting the Impact of Vitamin D
The video also revisits the topic of vitamin D and COVID-19. It presents a clip of Fauci speaking in an Instagram interview, telling the actress Jennifer Garner: “If you are deficient in vitamin D that does have an impact on your susceptibility to infection — so I would not mind recommending, and I do it myself, taking vitamin D supplements.”
Fauci was speaking (at about 31:30) about infections in general, however — not the novel coronavirus specifically, as the video may imply.
“My question is, why isn’t this being discussed, or why isn’t the CDC or the World Health Organization jumping on this as a potential solution to do more research around it?” Dr. Charles Penick, a family medicine physician, asks in the video.
It’s worth noting that there are many studies under way looking into the relationship between vitamin D and COVID-19.
As we’ve explained before, while vitamin D might be helpful in terms of COVID-19, there isn’t enough scientific evidence yet to know whether it can treat or prevent the disease. That said, health experts do advise getting enough vitamin D as part of a healthy lifestyle, regardless. Most of a person’s vitamin D is made in the skin by exposure to sunlight.
One study published in October in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, which evaluated the vitamin D levels of 216 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, found that the hospitalized patients had lower levels of vitamin D compared with a group in the general population — although it didn’t identify a relationship between lower vitamin D levels and more severe disease among those patients.
While suggestive, the study doesn’t prove that vitamin D was a factor in whether those patients fell ill or that taking vitamin D supplements would have helped, as it was not a randomized controlled trial.
Two other recent studies — which have not yet been peer-reviewed — appear to cast doubt on the effectiveness of vitamin D in preventing COVID-19.
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