President Biden on Anti-Vaccine Misinformation: “They’re killing people.”

President Biden was asked on his thoughts about anti-vaccine misinformation as it relates to the COVID-19 vaccine, and he had a short-but-stern response: “They’re killing people.” As the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus — the virus that causes COVID-19 — has become the predominant strain of the virus in the United States, the epidemiological shift of the disease has meant that the vast majority of those sick, hospitalized, and dying are those who are not vaccinated. In the month of June, Maryland health officials reported that all deaths from complications of COVID-19 in the state (130 deaths) were unvaccinated individuals. That is a trend that has been observed in the whole of the United States in the last few months.

From an ethical perspective, it is now highly unethical to steer someone away from vaccination if they qualify for a vaccine because being unvaccinated places them at the highest risk of infection, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. Nevertheless, the “Disinformation Dozen,” as the Center for Countering Digital Hate calls the twelve most influential people on social media who are spreading anti-vaccine misinformation, continue to have an exaggerated influence on people. As a result, the Biden Administration seems to be using the bully pulpit to coax social media companies to limit those who spread anti-vaccine misinformation.

On July 15, 2021, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a surgeon general advisory on anti-vaccine misinformation. From National Public Radio:

“On Thursday, Dr. Vivek Murthy released the first surgeon general’s advisory of his time serving in the Biden administration, describing the “urgent threat” posed by the rise of false information around COVID-19 — one that continues to put “lives at risk” and prolong the pandemic.

Murthy says Americans must do their part to fight misinformation.

COVID has really brought into sharp focus the full extent of damage that health misinformation is doing,” Murthy told NPR in an exclusive interview ahead of the advisory’s release. Surgeon general’s advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that demand immediate attention.

In some cases, he says, the simplest way to stop the spread is to not share something questionable you read online: “If you’re not sure, not sharing is often the prudent thing to do.””

The U.S. Surgeon General Is Calling COVID-19 Misinformation An ‘Urgent Threat’, National Public Radio, July 15, 2021

In the video above, the White House Press Secretary mentions a singing guest. This is because Olivia Rodrigo, a young and up-and-coming artist, was at the White House the previous day. She was there at the invitation of President Biden to help with efforts in reaching out to the younger age groups (i.e. teenagers) to get vaccinated.

Anti-vaccine misinformation is as old as vaccines themselves. (Perhaps even older, since inoculation faced plenty of attacks when it was used to prevent smallpox outbreaks.) In 1802, a caricature titled “The cow-pock,-or-The wonderful effects of the new inoculation!” was published by The Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society. The caricature showed Edward Jenner and his assistants giving the smallpox vaccine, and the recipients turning into animals (cows) and/or having animals protruding from their bodies because of the vaccine.

A scene in a vaccine institution; poor patients crowd in through a doorway on the left; in the room are those whose treatment has had dire consequences. A comely and frightened young woman sits in an armchair in the centre, the doctor (Jenner, a good portrait, see BMSat 9925) holds her right arm and gashes it with his knife, while a deformed and ragged boy holds up a bucket of 'Vaccine Pock hot from ye Cow'. A charity-schoolboy's oval badge on his sleeve is inscribed 'St Pancras'; from his coat pocket projects a pamphlet: 'Benefits of the Vaccine Process'. From the patients miniature cows sprout or leap. A pregnant woman (right) stands in profile to the right, a cow issues from her mouth, another from below her ragged petticoat. A man dressed as a butcher registers despair at the horns which sprout from his forehead. A labourer with a pitchfork sees a cow bursting from a swelling on his arm while another breaks through his breeches; cows struggle through huge swellings on nose, ear, and cheek. Another patient has only reached the stage of large carbuncles on forehead and chin.
The doctor's medicine-chest and a close-stool stand on the left. On the chest are bottles, a syringe, &c, and a tub of 'Opening Mixture'. This a haughty assistant ladles contemptuously into the mouths of the patients as they crowd into the room. On the wall is a picture: a crowd of kneeling worshippers pay homage to the statue of the golden calf. The scene combines fantasy and realism.

If those themes in the caricature seem familiar to you, it’s because they are. Anti-vaccine elders such as Andrew Wakefield have claimed that the mRNA vaccines are “actually genetic engineering.” (The mRNA vaccines are not genetic engineering as they do not affect the human genome [DNA] in any way.) His claims have been echoed by anti-vaccine influencers who claim that the vaccines will lead to mutations, cancer, and infertility. As you can see, the claim about mutations is now almost 220 years old.

Whether or not the Biden Administration is successful in getting social media companies to limit the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation on their platforms, those anti-vaccine claims are likely to survive and continue to be spread in some other form, perhaps even person-to-person. The novel coronavirus took a few months to spread worldwide, so it is highly likely that a lie about vaccines — if big enough and given enough credence by celebrities and former physicians — can spread worldwide without social media’s interference. It can spread just by a simple whisper said in the right way by the wrong person.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen