Vaccines and the Coronavirus Crank Crisis

Vaccines and the Coronavirus Crank Crisis

Christopher J. Snowdon
Christopher J. Snowdon

When I last wrote about the rise of the coronavirus cranks for Quillette on January 16th, there were 37,000 people in British hospitals with COVID-19, and 1,411 COVID-related deaths on that day alone. The story that self-described sceptics had been telling themselves since the summer was a smoking ruin. As far back as June 2020, they had been announcing that the virus had run its course, that herd immunity had been achieved, and that there would be no second wave. They then dismissed a resurgence of the infection rate in August and September as a “casedemic”—a fraudulent illusion built on a glut of false positives produced by unreliable over-testing.

The founder of the Lockdown Sceptics blog, Toby Young, claimed in June that the “virus has melted into thin air,” and predicted that “there will be no ‘second spike’—not now, and not in the autumn either.” In September, YouTube personality and low-carb entrepreneur Ivor Cummins declared that “the epidemic is over.” Asked what it would take to prove him wrong, he tweeted: “Simple. Excess mortality this winter is far higher than 2018 or 2015 same months—directly driven by Covid19. Period. Anything else, and I am correct.” At the end of November, Michael Yeadon, doyen of the deniers thanks to his credentials as a former Pfizer scientist, wrote that “the pandemic was over by June” and dismissed the case numbers as “an artefact of a deranged testing system.”

All of these endlessly circulated delusions lay in tatters by the end of December when more than 50,000 Britons were testing positive for the virus each day and a similar number were going undiagnosed, but the smiley community (so-called for their adoption of the yellow smiley face as a badge of their resistance to alleged fear-mongering about the virus) stubbornly held the line. Distrustful of doctors and death certificates, they would accept no evidence except excess deaths. Some of them would not even accept that measure and demanded to see figures for burial and cremations. A surprisingly large number knew funeral directors who told them that business had never been quieter. Very suspicious.

In fact, there had been excess mortality every week since October, but reporting delays over Christmas meant that it was not until January 19th that the Office for National Statistics was able to provide the first real glimpse of how high it would go. A day earlier, sceptics had eagerly circulated a Telegraph story entitled “Why the Second Covid Wave Is Nothing Like the First.” And indeed it wasn’t—it lasted longer and killed more people. There were more COVID-related deaths between December 2020 and February 2021 than there had been in the first 11 months of the pandemic. At its peak, there were nearly twice as many people in hospital with the virus than there had been in March 2020. In Britain, as in most European countries, excess mortality went through the roof.

Source: coronavirus.data.gov.uk

Source: Public Health England

Back in lockdown, Britain’s infection rate fell by two-thirds in January and the party seemed to be over for the lockdown sceptics. Two prominent enablers renowned for their misleading use of data, Clare Craig and Joel Smalley, deleted all their tweets. In February, Michael Yeadon left Twitter altogether after some unedifying tweets from the pre-pandemic era were unearthed. YouTube started taking down Ivor Cummins’s videos, including the notorious “Crucial Viral Update” of September 2020 that had done so much to popularise the casedemic hypothesis.

Falling case numbers in Sweden at the start of year offered smileys a crumb of comfort, but infections shot back up in February and the country was soon Europe’s COVID hotspot again (in an encouraging sign of what was to come, vaccines began to have a clear impact on mortality in Sweden’s third wave). In March, COVID ripped through Brazil and Uruguay, two countries sceptics had praised for resisting lockdown. A few weeks later, India demonstrated what a largely uncontrolled epidemic looks like when the country was ravaged by a new variant. Despite being a youthful nation in which only five percent of the population is over the age of 65, India has suffered an estimated four million excess deaths.

Faced with the annihilation of their beliefs, smileys developed a variety of coping strategies. One was to acknowledge that, while the UK had been through a rough patch, this was to be expected from a seasonal virus. Of course, the whole point was that they had not expected it and one only had to look at South Africa, which was enduring its worst outbreak yet, to see that COVID did not naturally disappear in the summer.

In any case, it was not summer in Britain. It was an unusually cold January and yet the infection rate was in free-fall. How could this be if lockdowns didn’t work? To answer this, sceptics advanced a series of frankly incomprehensible arguments about why seasonality has nothing to do with the climate, or even seasons, and that coronaviruses always fade away in the middle of winter, do your own research, etc. For those of us who hadn’t done our own research (that is, watched someone else’s YouTube video), this seasonality business was rather a puzzle. We wondered why case numbers were dropping in locked down Britain and Ireland, but a few miles away in France, which was not in lockdown, rates were rising. It was all very odd, but apparently Florida had lifted its restrictions months ago and had done fine, if you ignored the large outbreak in the winter and the resurgence in early spring, and this somehow proved that lockdowns don’t work.

By June, the seasonality trope had crashed into the mountain with all the other smiley aeroplanes. Only three months earlier, Ivor Cummins was declaring that the “winter resurgence” had “collapsed resoundingly in Europe,” but now COVID was back for a summer season. As the UK relaxed restrictions and took a more Floridian approach, infections began doubling every two weeks. Portugal, Cyprus, Malta, the Netherlands, and several other European countries soon followed. So did Florida, for that matter. The Sunshine State soon had the highest infection rate in America.

Source: Our World in Data/Johns Hopkins University

The fat lady had not just sung. She had sung, taken off her frock, had a smoke, and was in a cab home. But this produced no contrition or self-reflection from the sceptics. Instead, they just got crazier. Whether it’s using the Freedom of Information Act to find out how many cremations took place last year (a lot more than usual) or pestering authorities for details of PCR cycle thresholds, there is no barrel they won’t scrape. At the anti-lockdown protest in London on Saturday, David Icke accused “demons” of using “a fake virus, a fake test, and fake death certificates to give the illusion of a deadly disease that has never and does not exist.” The MC, a former nurse and current conspiracy theorist named Kate Shemirani, explained that “you cannot catch a virus—it was a lie manufactured by the Rockefellers.” Piers Corbyn—brother of the UK Labour Party’s last leader—emphasised the urgent need to “close the jab centres” and “take down 5G towers.” If those who attended were disappointed to find a rally against lockdowns and vaccine passports turn into a showpiece for anti-vaxxers and assorted lunatics, it was not obvious from their cheers.

Michael Yeadon now believes that COVID vaccines are being used by governments as “a serious attempt at mass depopulation.” He also appears to believe that taking the vaccine makes people magnetic. He is setting up a retreat in Tanzania called Liberty Places for “lockdown refugees” and is involved with Liberal Spring, a group that hopes to take over the Liberal Democrats. Liberal Spring’s logo is the pink flower—which has usurped the smiley-face as an indicator of online gullibility—and it calls on the Lib Dems to make 10 pledges, nine of which are related to COVID policy, such as holding “a public enquiry into the misattribution of COVID-19 deaths and data recording.” (The 10th, more sensibly, is to “avoid discussion about rejoining the EU.”)

The genuinely hilarious Naomi Wolf was suspended from Twitter in June for spreading bizarre anti-vax theories, including the idea that some COVID vaccines are a “software platform” which can “receive uploads” and that the technology exists for vaccines to make people travel back in time.

The foot soldiers of the movement—if that is not too flattering a term for those who simply parrot other people’s misunderstandings—continue to display an extraordinary degree of motivated ignorance. Not one of their predictions has come to pass: there was a second wave, there is a third wave, a new “scariant” did not emerge to prevent the reopening on July 19th, face masks are no longer mandatory, the lockdown did not go on forever, and vaccines did not become compulsory. The casedemic theory went down in magnesium flames and yet they repeat the same tropes from a year ago as if nothing has happened.

A summer surge does not fit their theory of seasonality and so it must be fake, just as the winter surge did not fit their theory of herd immunity and so must have been fake. When all the evidence flattens your beliefs, you can either abandon those beliefs or deny the evidence. If you choose the latter, the evidence must have been fabricated, and that requires a grand conspiracy. This is why cults become more extreme when their prophecies fail. The more moderate members lose interest, leaving behind a paranoid rump. And so, while the rest of the world plans a route out of the crisis and prepares to live with a virus defanged by a vaccinated population, smileys are still arguing about whether the virus even exists.

Out of desperation, they continue to question the reliability of diagnostic testing and claim that the PCR test has a non-trivial false positive rate. The Office for National Statistics has repeatedly explained that the false positive rate is less than 0.1 percent. Real world evidence unequivocally shows that it is almost zero, since that is what the total positive rate has been in Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and the Orkney Islands at various times over the last 12 months. The UK had a positivity rate of just 0.2 percent as recently as two months ago. The false positive rate cannot possibly be higher than the positivity rate, but this simple logic continues to elude the COVID-sceptical community.

On one level, this phenomenon looks like a crude form of attention-seeking ultra-contrarianism. The two interventions that have the biggest effect on reducing COVID’s death toll—lockdowns and vaccines—are the two interventions that the sceptics will go to the wall to deny. Meanwhile, they propose alternative solutions that are preposterous. Instead of using vaccines which have been tested in clinical trials and have demonstrated their safety and effectiveness beyond reasonable doubt in recent months, smileys endorse the use of ivermectin, a worming drug used on sheep. They claim that the truth about its efficacy in treating COVID has been covered up by Big Pharma, even though ivermectin is made by Big Pharma. The leading brand is Stromectol, produced by the pharmaceutical giant Merck whose scientists say there is “no scientific basis” for using it to treat COVID-19. Several studies have reached the opposite conclusion but evidence of fraud has emerged in the literature and one of the best known studies supporting its use to treat COVID-19 was retracted this month.

It’s been a bad month for COVID-sceptical science. A study claiming that the COVID vaccines cause two deaths for every three lives they save was eagerly promoted by the Lockdown Sceptics blog and DarkHorse podcast hosts Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying (from 49:12) when it was published on June 24th. The study’s findings were absurd on their face, so it was not especially surprising that its publication precipitated a wave of resignations from the journal’s editorial staff and board and the hasty publication of an “expression of concern” on June 28th. The paper was retracted entirely on July 2nd due to serious errors which led to “incorrect and distorted conclusions.” Two weeks later, a widely reported study (also promoted by Lockdown Sceptics) which claimed that face-masks were exposing children to dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide was also retracted. The lead author of both studies was Harald Walach, a German psychologist with a keen interest in homeopathy, crowned “Pseudo-Scientist of the Year” in 2012 by Austria’s Society for Critical Thinking.

There are questions to be asked about how these studies ever got published in ostensibly serious peer-reviewed journals, but it would be a mistake to think that cleaning up the scientific literature will bring the sceptics to their senses. Most of them seem to get their information from bite-size videos and screenshots. Some of these are so amateurish that they resemble the Nigerian e-mail scams which deliberately include spelling mistakes to filter out those people with the cognitive abilities to spot the hustle further down the line. The table below, for instance, has been widely circulated by the pink flower brigade in spite of the fact that the infection fatality rates are wrong by two orders of magnitude, and the table provides enough information for this to be easily deduced.

The graphic below not only compares the infection fatality rate of several nasty diseases with the overall fatality rate of COVID-19, but also manages to spell the word “death” incorrectly.

All the evidence needed to debunk these tropes can be found online within five seconds by anybody with an inquiring mind. The Coronavirus Dashboard has been running for over a year and is a one-stop shop for statistics on testing, case numbers, hospitalisations, deaths, and vaccinations. It only takes a couple of clicks to see that the UK was testing more people in March, when there were 5,000 cases reported per day, than in July when case numbers reached 50,000.

Source: coronavirus.data.gov.uk

The tiresome question of whether people are dying “with COVID” or “of COVID” can be answered by looking at any the ONS’s weekly mortality figures which tell us what proportion of death certificates listed the disease as the underlying or contributing cause. During the second wave, around 90 percent had COVID listed as the underlying—i.e., primary—cause, although this has fallen to around 80 percent as the vaccines prevent more COVID deaths.

The ONS also publishes the results of its infection survey every week. This dataset is like Kryptonite to the merchants of doubt because it involves a random but representative group of people being given a PCR test from which national prevalence is extrapolated. It cannot possibly be affected by changes in testing capacity because it tests the same number of people every time. The ONS has been running it since May 2020 and its findings closely align with the trends derived from community testing, which is to say there were three big waves of infection in spring 2020, in the autumn and winter, and this summer.

For those who claim that waves of infection are an illusion conjured up by the mass testing of asymptomatic individuals, we have the ZOE Symptom Tracker which, as its name suggests, relies on people reporting classic COVID symptoms via an app. This, too, produces results that are very similar to the ONS Infection Survey and the graphs on the dashboard.

The British state has not performed well during the pandemic, but agencies like the ONS and even Public Health England have excelled at collecting and publishing data. The rank and file of the COVID-sceptic movement appear to have read none of it, relying instead on bad-faith interpretations of evidence by social media grifters and inane slogans such as “the more you test, the more you find” and “virus gonna virus.” Many of the assertions that they regard as axiomatic are transparent lies. For example, they repeat the mantra that COVID-19 has a 99.8 percent or 99.9 percent survival rate as if it were the most basic fact, despite COVID-19 having already killed more than 0.2 percent of the population in many countries. They think the number of positive tests has risen this summer because we are testing more people whereas we are doing fewer tests than we were in March. They insist that people cannot transmit the virus unless they have symptoms whereas it seems likely that most infections are caught from presymptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.

These basic misunderstandings are the foundation of the belief that the UK is not undergoing a third wave. And if you believe the virus has gone away or that it never really existed, you might as well go the whole hog and deny that the vaccines work too. And with depressing inevitability, that is what many of them are now doing. Some have even claimed that the vaccines have caused cases to rise. This doesn’t fit with the theory that cases haven’t risen, but once you get to the stage of thinking that vaccines cause COVID, consistency is the least of your worries.

Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and novelist has published a series of short books entitled Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns ($5.99 each) and now runs a Substack entitled “Unreported Truths” ($6 a month). An early and particularly unscrupulous lockdown opponent, he now offers an endless source of inspiration and comfort to the “vaccine hesitant.” In response to evidence showing that vaccines have greatly weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations in the UK, he blithely asserted that England was experiencing “a casedemic caused by aggressive testing” before noting that the number of hospital admissions had risen sixfold. Hospitalisations, he said, “are rising very quickly AND ARE SEASONALLY MUCH HIGHER THAN LAST JULY.”

But there has been no rise in testing since March, and there were fewer hospitalisations last July because the country had just come out of a long lockdown and had a strain of the virus that was approximately half as transmissible as the Indian/Delta variant. In any event, how can a sharp rise in hospital admissions be caused by a casedemic which, by definition, involves people who either don’t have the virus or who are asymptomatic?

The key to understanding this gibberish is Berenson’s repeated reference to a “post-first dose spike” which he claims drove up hospitalisations—the notion that vaccines are somehow implicated in COVID infections and illness. The evidence for this, such as it is, is inferred from a rise in the infection rate in some countries when the vaccine was first rolled out. But this is easily explained by the rollout starting in early winter when many countries, including the UK, were not locked down. Once the UK locked down in January, cases fell. Lockdown sceptics counter that “correlation doesn’t equal causation,” but, dosed up on confirmation bias, are happy to accept a much weaker correlation between vaccine distribution and COVID cases as causative. Similarly, sceptics who claimed, contrary to doctors’ diagnoses, that the majority of coronavirus fatalities are “with COVID” rather than “of COVID” are happy to believe that any deaths that occur within days or even weeks of an individual taking a vaccine, as tens of millions of people have done this year, is a vaccine-related death. (Needless to say, experts do not agree.)

Fan mail

Not all the people who are against COVID vaccines are anti-vaxxers, but all anti-vaxxers are against COVID vaccines, and this is the moment they have been waiting for to make new converts. There are rich pickings to be had among the credulous and statistically illiterate members of the COVID-sceptic movement. There is a sense in which the smileys need continuing lockdowns and killer vaccines in order to make sense of the conspiracy. They mutter darkly about how we will only know whether the vaccines really work when we get to winter. The implication is that there will be a big wave of deaths, caused in part by the vaccines, which will force us back into lockdown. Those who denied there would be no second wave are now predicting a fourth wave and another lockdown—in a bizarre coronavirus version of the political horseshoe, the anti-vax smileys and the Zero-COVID fanatics suddenly find themselves in agreement that we are heading for disaster.

The irony is that we are now in the midst of something approaching an actual casedemic. With the link between infections and deaths severely weakened by mass vaccination, we are now in a position to withstand high case numbers without needing to resort to the draconian measures of the past. Deaths and hospitalisations are much lower than in previous waves and the infection rate has started to fall. It is the first time cases have dropped without heavy restrictions since the start of the pandemic. Wrong to the bitter end, sceptics have taken this as a vindication of their do-nothing strategy and are celebrating the decline of a summer surge they said could never happen.

Let the poor, confused souls have their moment. While the infection rate is falling at the time of writing, it will rise again. COVID-19 is here to stay. As Professor Francois Balloux of UCL has remarked, “the vast majority of the global population is expected to get infected by the virus, likely more than once over their lifetime.” Herd immunity is unlikely to come from vaccination. Existing COVID vaccines are simply not good enough at preventing transmission and infection. They are, however, very good at preventing severe disease and death. For the individual, that is good enough—so long as you’ve had your jabs.

Unlike some countries, the UK has not had a big problem with vaccine hesitancy. With over 70 percent of adults double-jabbed and 88 percent single-jabbed, we don’t need to worry too much about a few sceptical smileys and recalcitrant young people turning it down. Once we see the vaccines as being primarily about self-preservation rather than collective protection, it is difficult to make the case for vaccinating children (unless they want to be vaccinated) and the argument for vaccine passports under any circumstances is much weaker. But it leaves anti-vaxxers in an unusual and precarious position. They normally get a free ride on other people’s willingness to protect themselves. Society can tolerate a small number of people not vaccinating their children for measles, for example, because outbreaks cannot occur so long as the vast majority are inoculated.

But without herd immunity for SARS-CoV-2, the refuseniks are on their own. They are facing an endemic disease armed with nothing but worming tablets and excessive faith in their immune system. That is their choice and whilst we should deter gullible people from being pulled into their orbit, we should not coerce them. There is no free ride this time. They alone will face the consequences of their actions.

 

Christopher J. Snowdon is head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs and the author of Killjoys and Polemics. You can follow him on Twitter @cjsnowdon.

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