After Bill Gates criticized the Trump administration’s decision to withhold funding to the World Health Organization, right-wing social media personality and America Firster Candace Owens accused Gates of being a “vaccine-criminal.” In a Facebook post on April 15th that has since generated 38,000 reactions and over 6,000 comments—as well as being shared more than 22,000 times—she elaborated:
FACT: Bill and Melinda Gates, along with their partners at the World Health Organization have been unethically experimenting with non-FDA approved vaccines on African and Indian tribes for YEARS… As this information is getting out, Snopes has bent over backwards to try to say that it is technically false. It is not and it is easily researchable and verifiable. I suggest every single person take the time today to educate themselves and read this academic review on the long efforts Bill Gates and the World Health Organization have the taken, under the guise of “philanthropy”, to develop and mandate worldwide vaccines.
In another tweet published the same day, Owens stated:
Experimenting on and incidentally paralyzing and infertilizing poor colored children in Africa and India is as dangerous as it sounds.
You and @WHO got around FDA vaccine regulations by traveling to third world countries and offering “philanthropy”.
You are both absolute scum. https://t.co/d5QHopDa6k
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) April 15, 2020
Owens believes that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which allocated $4.3 billion to global health, development, and education programs in 2018 alone) works in the world’s most impoverished places to avoid FDA regulations and get rich on global vaccination drives. “Want to be super clear—I am not against vaccinations,” she added minutes later. “I am against human guinea pigs of African tribal children for vaccinations, which means I am necessarily against @BillGates and I am thoroughly celebrating the defunding of @WHO.”
The only evidence I’ve seen her produce for any of this is a 2017 paper she linked to from her Facebook post and Twitter feed, written by Sharmeen Ahmed for a journal published by the Golden Gate University School of Law. Ahmed claims that Gates Foundation-sponsored programs “resulted in numerous deaths and injuries” from which Owens has concluded that the Gates Foundation “used African & Indian tribal children to experiment w/non-FDA approved drug vaccines.” Ahmed’s paper focuses on three Gates-supported vaccination programs in India and Africa to combat HPV, malaria, and meningitis. Let’s examine each of these in turn.
Between 2006 and 2011, PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) conducted a series of demonstration projects in Peru, Uganda, Vietnam, and India to “provide evidence for decision-making about public-sector introduction of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines.” Ahmed primarily discusses the program in India because it “drew investigation by the national government.” HPV can lead to cervical cancer—a disease that kills 60,000 Indian women every year, and which hundreds of millions more are at risk of developing. HPV vaccines were already widely used in private clinics across India, but the study was designed to assess the effectiveness of including the vaccines in the country’s public immunization program.
This program was funded by the Gates Foundation. After around 24,000 Indian girls between the ages of 10 and 14 in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat received HPV vaccines (Gardasil, produced by Merck, and Cervarix, produced by GlaxoSmithKline), local newspapers began reporting that several girls had died. This prompted a public outcry, which led to the suspension of the project in April 2010. A subsequent report commissioned by the government found no link between the deaths and the vaccinations, which isn’t a surprise—these vaccines are used in more than 100 countries, and the WHO reports that 200 million doses were safely administered in the first decade after they were approved.
Contrary to Owens’ assertion that the Gates Foundation was “experimenting” on Indian girls with “non-FDA-approved vaccines,” both of the vaccines in question—Gardasil and Cervarix—have, in fact, received FDA approval. Both were already available in India, and had been approved by the European Medicines Agency and other major regulatory agencies around the world. Dozens of countries include HPV vaccines in their national immunization programs, including the United States and the UK. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that the vaccines “went through years of extensive safety testing before they were licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration” and affirms that they provide “safe, effective, and long-lasting protection against cancers caused by HPV.”
The idea that two of the most common and effective HPV vaccines in the world are “infertilizing poor colored children in Africa and India” is as absurd as it sounds—the CDC reports that there’s “no evidence to suggest that the HPV vaccine causes fertility problems.” (Owens also posted a tweet suggesting that tetanus vaccinations lead to infertility, a conspiracy theory that the WHO has had to address over and over again for years. Despite the dangerous misinformation that often spreads about it, tetanus vaccination has been an overwhelming success—the number of annual deaths from tetanus collapsed from almost 315,000 in 1990 to just over 38,000 in 2017.)
Ahmed’s paper relies heavily on a 2013 report issued by the Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare. But this report is rife with problems, the most serious of which is the assertion that the “safety and well being of subjects were completely jeopardized” by the distribution of vaccines that have never been plausibly linked to a single death, and which are fully supported by public health agencies around the world. Because two of the seven deaths were declared suicides (resulting from the ingestion of pesticides), the committee even suggests that the vaccines could lead to “suicidal ideation,” an entirely speculative claim unsupported by any evidence. Despite the fact that PATH didn’t receive any funding from Merck, GSK, or any other drug company, the committee’s report repeatedly asserts that the program was a “promotional activity for the benefit of [a] manufacturing company” which would “generate windfall profit for the manufacturer(s).” No evidence is offered in support of these claims either.
Ahmed uncritically repeats the committee’s unfounded argument about profit motive: “The HPV vaccine project essentially facilitated low-cost clinical trials and assisted in creating new markets for a drug that underperformed in the U.S.” No documentary evidence is provided to support this allegation, nor is any attempt made to substantiate the implied connection between PATH and pharmaceutical profits. While the committee’s report raises legitimate questions about how consent was obtained (claims that school headmasters were empowered to provide consent instead of parents, for instance, are worthy of investigation), its arguments about the dangers posed by the vaccines contradict years of clinical and observational research.
Ahmed also attacks the Gates-sponsored PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative. The study in question included more than 15,000 children across seven African countries. Children in two age groups—six to 12 weeks and five to 17 months, respectively—were given “either RTS,S/AS01 or a non-malaria comparator vaccine” to evaluate “vaccine efficacy against severe malaria in both age categories.” The results were clear: RTS,S was successful at reducing the risk of developing clinical and severe malaria. According to the WHO, “RTS,S is the first, and to date, the only vaccine that has demonstrated it can significantly reduce malaria, and life-threatening severe malaria, in young African children.” The WHO is now in the process of implementing a large-scale pilot program to vaccinate 360,000 children per year in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi.
Here’s how Ahmed summarizes the negative effects of RTS,S outlined in the PATH study: “The trials resulted in 151 deaths and caused serious adverse effects, including paralysis and seizure in 1048 of 5949 children aged 5–17 months.” This is a flagrant misrepresentation of the study’s findings. The trials did not “result in” 151 deaths—that number refers to the total number of deaths that occurred for any reason in the period after the vaccine was administered; between 18 and 24 months for children in the older category and nine to 17 months for younger children. In fact, 10 of the children died from malaria—an abnormally low number. “We attribute the very low malaria-specific mortality in this trial,” the researchers wrote, “to the high level of access to high-quality care provided at study facilities.”
Ahmed makes it sound as if the vaccine program itself was responsible for 151 deaths, which is the opposite of the truth—the program likely saved lives. Ahmed makes the same mistake with the number of “adverse events” experienced by the children. While it’s true that 1,048 of the older children suffered adverse events, only 10 of them experienced events related to the vaccine itself. Febrile seizures (which aren’t unique to RTS,S) occurred at a rate of one per 1,000 (.1 percent): “All cases were associated with a history of fever, and all children recovered from the acute event.” As for the claim that children were “paralyzed” by the vaccine—nothing of the sort appears in the study.
Ahmed only devotes two paragraphs to the MenAfriVac campaign, which was supported by a 10-year, $70 million grant from the Gates Foundation. Her paper mentions “reports of informed consent violations,” which Ahmed admits were “unsubstantiated,” and “reports of adverse health effects in Burkina Faso,” which were “deemed by medical researchers as normal and did not warrant safety concerns.” What Ahmed doesn’t mention is that the MenAfriVac program was one of the most successful African health initiatives in decades—between 2010 and late 2019, 315 million people received the vaccine in what’s known as Africa’s “meningitis belt,” and cases of meningitis A have dropped precipitously. According to the WHO, the vaccine is “expected to eliminate meningococcal A epidemics from this region of Africa,” which used to regularly kill thousands of people during outbreaks. Without MenAfriVac, hundreds of millions of Africans would be vulnerable to a disease that can kill within hours and leave survivors paralyzed, blind, and intellectually disabled. The vaccine costs 40 cents per dose.
Recall that Ahmed mentioned unsubstantiated “reports of informed consent violations” in the MenAfriVac campaign. These “reports” originated on a site called Vactruth.com, which (at the time of this writing) displayed front-page stories like “Vaccine Induced Autism and the Fallout: Now What?,” “Baby Foreskin Is Being Used To Make Vaccines,” and “Fertility-Regulating Vaccines Being Tested in India.” Ahmed closed the section on the Gates Foundation’s work in Africa by observing that, while “claims of human rights abuses resulting from these trials across Africa may be unsupported,” it’s worth emphasizing the “ease through which potential abuse(s) can happen, if they did not already.” This is profoundly irresponsible scholarship, which substitutes innuendo from anti-vaccine conspiracy sites for facts and fundamentally misrepresents data to perpetuate a narrative.
Owens describes Ahmed’s paper as an “academic review that everyone should read,” and she has repeatedly recommended it to her millions of followers. She believes the paper demonstrates that Bill Gates—whose work has saved millions of lives, led the way in nearly eradicating polio, and made significant strides toward the elimination of other deadly diseases such as malaria and meningitis—is a “vaccine-criminal” who is using people as “human guinea pigs,” sterilizing and paralyzing children, and exploiting global health crises to force vaccines on his “victims.” Owens says Ahmed’s paper exposes the “long efforts Bill Gates and the World Health Organization have the [sic] taken, under the guise of ‘philanthropy,’ to develop and mandate worldwide vaccines.”
In her Facebook post last Wednesday, Owens wrote:
Ever wonder why a man that builds computers, both predicted the pandemic two months before it happened, is suddenly featured on the news every day instilling fear into hearts of Americans, and is now demanding that nothing be reopened until vaccines are mandated? I cannot reasonably speculate as to why, but I can say the [sic] it is important that EVERY AMERICAN INFORMS THEMSELVES about this [sic] international dealings and insistence on developing a Vaccine ID chip for all humans.
If Owens spent more time educating herself instead of skimming shoddy articles and building ludicrous conspiracy theories around them, she might figure out why the most influential philanthropist in history—who has been warning us about the inevitability of a devastating pandemic for years—is getting a little airtime at the moment.
Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Bulwark, Editor & Publisher, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, Splice Today, Forbes, and the Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjj89.
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