In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill Gates has pledged millions of dollars in funding for potential vaccines. An effective immunization for the novel coronavirus would not only save thousands of lives, it would also allow workers to return to their jobs, thereby restoring the world economy to its full potential. Developing a safe and effective vaccine in a limited time frame is fraught with scientific difficulties. Unfortunately, there may also be serious social obstacles to the successful deployment of a vaccine. Conspiracy theorists and anti-vax activists are already sowing the seeds of disinformation in an attempt to persuade the public that Bill Gates supports vaccinations for nefarious reasons.
Perhaps most prominent among the group of activists working to undermine global immunization programs is Robert Kennedy, Jr. With a track record of philanthropic work and world-class name recognition, Kennedy has become the de facto leader of the anti-vax movement. Once a staple on news stories that take a critical look at vaccinations, Kennedy’s star has faded somewhat as the scientific consensus on the safety of immunizations has strengthened over the last decade. Today, Kennedy publishes his work on conspiracy-focused sites alongside articles that support the 9/11 truth movement.
In his piece “Gates’ Globalist Vaccine Agenda: A Win-Win for Pharma and Mandatory Vaccination,” Kennedy lays out layers of misinformation and falsehoods. As is typical of many conspiracy theorists, he sprinkles in some legitimate sources, although these are usually misrepresented in some fashion. For example, Kennedy claims that “70% of global polio cases were vaccine strain.” This statistic sounds frightening, but when you read the Economist article that Kennedy provides as a citation, a different perspective emerges.
In 2018, there were 98 cases of vaccine-caused polio versus 29 cases of wild polio. As The Economist makes clear, the vaccine-derived cases of polio arise from the way vaccines are administered in under-immunized populations. A weakened live virus is used in these areas since immunized individuals can become carriers of wild polio, spreading the disease to vulnerable individuals in their community. While the live virus used in vaccines is too weak to cause disease, if the vaccine strain is allowed to circulate, it can mutate and gain strength. The WHO explains that such scenarios happen when vaccination programs are “poorly conducted.”
Kennedy mentions nothing about the worldwide success of the polio vaccine, which has reduced the incidence of polio by 99% since 2000.
Kennedy’s distortions turn into plain old lies when he relays the story of a Gates Foundation funded vaccine study conducted in India:
the Gates Foundation funded tests of experimental HPV vaccines, developed by Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) and Merck, on 23,000 young girls in remote Indian provinces. […] Seven died.
The clear implication here is that “experimental” vaccines killed seven young women in India. But Kennedy is lying. First, the vaccines had been approved a year earlier and were not “experimental.” Second, as Science magazine reported, none of the deaths were conclusively linked to the vaccination program:
Five were evidently unrelated to the vaccine: One girl drowned in a quarry; another died from a snake bite; two committed suicide by ingesting pesticides; and one died from complications of malaria. The causes of death for the other two girls were less certain: one possibly from pyrexia, or high fever, and a second from a suspected cerebral hemorrhage. Government investigators concluded that pyrexia was “very unlikely” to be related to the vaccine, and likewise they considered a link between stroke and the vaccine as “unlikely.”
Even if we give Kennedy the benefit of the doubt with respect to the “unlikely” cases, it’s simply dishonest to imply that deaths from malaria and drowning are related to adverse effects from a vaccine.
Kennedy’s short piece continues to offer rapid-fire examples of Bill Gates nefarious intent. In fact, this is another common tactic of conspiracy theorists — to bombard the reader with dubious stories to imply an overwhelming amount of evidence. This tactic has the added benefit of making it difficult to correct the record, since debunking and explanation of inaccurate examples takes up an enormous amount of time.
Kennedy’s lies and misinformation have already cost lives. In 2018, two Samoan infants died after nurses incorrectly prepared their inoculations. But a tragic case of negligence was made even worse by Kennedy and others in the anti-vax movement. Social media activists seized on the deaths, incorrectly blaming the vaccinations. Kennedy and others lobbied the Samoan government to question MMR vaccines. Unfortunately, the misinformation campaign succeeded and immunizations were halted.
Sadly, the results were exactly what scientists and doctors feared. Thus far there have been 83 deaths among more than 5,000 cases of measles in Samoa. Robert Kennedy, Jr. and the anti-vax movement have blood on their hands.
The world is dealing with a dangerous pandemic. Good information is vital in conducting an effective response to the threat of COVID-19. Unfortunately, paranoid conspiracies about Bill Gates and the World Health Organization threaten public confidence in a vaccine even before it has been developed. Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s lies have led directly to deaths before. The first time it happened in a tiny island nation, but next time the damage could be global.