Ron DeSantis Wants to Put the Whole System on Trial
Florida's vaccine injury detective agency gets to work. It's a sign of things to come, so let's get ahead of it.
While Donald Trump keeps trying to change the outcome of the 2020 election, Ron DeSantis is trying to overturn the results of the pandemic.
Late last year, the Florida governor announced that his administration would finally tackle the most pressing issue facing the state: Getting justice for those maimed by the COVID-19 vaccines.
He announced he would strike a grand jury to “investigate crimes and wrongdoing committed against Floridians related to the COVID-19 vaccine,” boost surveillance of “sudden deaths” perhaps caused by the vaccines, and establish a “Public Health Integrity Committee.”
In our current deranged news cycle, I can appreciate how headlines like Governor of Florida Vows to Investigate COVID Vaccine Side Effects can slip right off the frontpage. Indeed, four months on, and that bonkers announcement has been all but forgotten. We’ve moved on to ol’ pudding-fingers assault on social security. But it’s worth hitting reverse to focus on that announcement for a minute.
Here is the governor, presumptive co-frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2024 and possible next president of the United States, endorsing not just anti-vaccine misinformation but establishing a shadow public health apparatus that exists just to reject and undermine everything.
And, to boot, he did it from within Elliot Carver’s stealth doomsday ship.
This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, I want to talk about DeSantis’ shadow CDC and his quest for vaccine justice. DeSantis is just the first to launch his inquisition. He won’t be the last.
But this is a more complicated story than that. This is a tale about how a small coalition of skeptics went from scientific outcasts to heroic medical rebels. And how the revolutionaries are looking to launch their reign of terror.
It’s easy to rage against the critics, kooks, and quacks. But how we got here raises some uncomfortable questions about the medical consensus, the media, and how we dealt with the pandemic more broadly.
The unfortunate reality is: They have a point.
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You’ve got your doctors, I’ve got mine
In March, the Centres for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration sent a joint letter to Dr. Joseph Ladapo that, at least by the benchmark of missives from government agencies, is pretty catty.
Serious adverse events from COVID-19 vaccines are rare and are far outweighed by the benefits of these vaccines for every age group. […] Misleading people by overstating the risks, or emphasizing the risks without acknowledging the overwhelming benefits, unnecessarily causes vaccine hesitation and puts people at risk of death or serious illness. […] It is the job of public health officials around the country to protect the lives of the populations they serve, particularly the vulnerable. Fuelling vaccine hesitancy undermines this effort.
The most interesting thing about the letter is its recipient. Ladapo isn’t some crank off the street: He’s Florida’s surgeon general. Earlier this year he wrote a letter of his own, alleging that there are "troubling safety signals of adverse events surrounding this vaccine.” That’s what prompted the joint CDC-FDA slap-down. He pointed to an coalition of experts who have deep misgivings about the mRNA vaccines that have been going into arms for the past two years. “Their concerns are corroborated by the substantial increase in VAERS1 reports,” Ladapo wrote.
Ladapo does have a coalition of experts behind him: The Public Health Integrity Committee that DeSantis struck late last year. At the Committee’s first-ever meeting, held just three days after that letter from the CDC and FDA in March, Ladapo held it up as vindication.
Those U.S. health bodies, he said at the livestreamed meeting, would soon learn “how much of a favor they did me,” Ladapo said, arguing that the letter was rife with examples that “illustrate how far off the path of scientific integrity and truth they've they've gone.” Here’s Ladapo:
One, for example, was a statement that they made, that serious adverse events related to the COVID-19 vaccines — I think they use something like the term ‘extremely rare.’2 And, that's that's factually incorrect. We have members of this committee that are co-authors of a very nice analysis that was published in the journal Vaccine that found a rate as high as 1 in 550, for serious adverse events after mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. I'm not aware of any scientific bodies that would categorize that as being extremely rare.
Unless you run in very peculiar circles, you probably didn’t know of this spat at all. But millions and millions of Americans, and folks around the world, are following this closely. This confrontation is just the opening bout of the head-to-head match they’ve long been waiting for.
So let’s put aside all the actual science for a second, and approach this like feral wolfchildren — tabla rasa.
On one side is Florida’s top medical expert, flanked by academics and doctors: They say they have data that the mRNA vaccines aren’t safe. On the other is the government, which helped develop and approve the vaccines, saying those thousands of adverse reactions have nothing to do with the vaccines — and the’re sending out letters castigating anyone who dares question the established wisdom.
The tension between these two poles came up on a recent episode of web show The Highwire. Its host, Del Bigtree, is firmly and fervently in the skeptic camp. His guest, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, was a stand-in for the establishment. deGrasse Tyson was there to defend science, but repeatedly emphasized that he was not a medical professional, and deferred to them. Bigtree said: Aha! We have a list of medical professionals on our side. He put up a graphic with their names. Two, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya and Dr. Martin Kulldorff, are prominent figures on DeSantis’ shadow CDC.
After some crosstalk (which I’m liberally editing out of the following transcript) they get to the heart of the matter.
deGrasse Tyson: You need a consensus of medical professionals. Because the medical is so huge. I can find you an astrophysicist who is sure we've been visited by aliens. But that’s not the consensus!
Bigtree: The problem is the scientific method died here. And this is the point I want to make. It died a death, here, and I need you to help me save it. Because Dr. Peter McCullough is a leading cardiologist-
dG T: Titles don't matter here! They don’t matter! What matters is the consensus.
B: What should matter is that the consensus was not allowing them to the table. […] But I want science. And so we have Peter McCullough, world renowned heart doctor saying: I am seeing rising myocarditis because of this vaccine. We have the leading ICU doctor, the second most published critical care physician, Paul Marik. Dr. Robert Malone, inventor of the mRNA vaccine. All these people have been censored, they were shut down. They were kept from talking to the people in Washington. Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Dr. Sunetra Gupta, Dr. Martin Kulldorff, Oxford University Harvard School of Medicine, Stanford School of Medicine. They put together the Great Barrington Declaration, which was an approach which said: Let's protect that small group that we know needs to be protected and figure out a way the rest of us can establish our herd immunity around them. And the NIH, who's supposed to be objective on this — we now have internal emails — we know that this is what Francis Collins said about those people, before talking to them: “There needs to be a quick and devastating take down of its premises.” That was the approach to science: No other science can be allowed in here. You started this out by saying every challenge should come in, every way to say: ‘We don't agree with the hypothesis.’ Maybe these people say: ‘You don't need the vaccine,’ ‘there's another way through this,’ or ‘we should be tactical with the vaccine.’ All of these people were kept out of the conversation. You wanted me to sign on to a social contract where the scientific method wasn't being used.
dG T: Okay? That list of highly pedigreed medical professionals that you are citing. I'm not interested in medical pedigree. I'm interested in medical consensus. In scientific consensus. The moment someone says: Well, I'm from this highfalutin school, that's, like, okay, that means they're gonna say something that goes against the consensus. And they want to use that to help other people follow what it is they say. I'm just saying you need someone who represents a medical consensus here to have that conversation with.
B: We had a medical consensus around a product that we knew nothing about, and a medical consensus around a virus we knew exactly nothing about.
Keeping in mind that we are still feral wolfchildren: Bigtree makes some very compelling points. While deGrasse Tyson’s appeal to consensus is certainly reasonable, constant appeals to authority do come off as elitism.
It leaves us children of the forest wondering: Is the establishment out of touch?
What we know, what we don’t
Let’s leave our fursuits behind for a minute and just deal with some factual matters. Because, as we’re about to face the armies of the rebel scientific faction at our gates, it’s worth returning to why the consensus is the consensus.
COVID-19 is deadly across all age groups, and the vaccines save lives. Despite arguments that the coronavirus is no worse than a flu, hundreds of thousands of people under the age of 65 have died of the coronavirus. It is the eighth leading cause of death of under 19-year-olds in the United States. And we know that unvaccinated people are between three times more likely to die of COVID-19 (18-29 years old) and six times more likely (50-64.)
We have identified very, very, very few fatal adverse reaction to the mRNA vaccines. According to VAERS, there have been 15,226 cases reported of someone dying at some point after receiving the vaccine. Each of those cases is investigated to see if the vaccine could be responsible. (There were also 25 cases where a vaccinated person reported “death of a relative” as a possible adverse reaction.) A major Lancet study looked at that VAERS data and found “no unusual patterns in cause of death.” Neither Canada, nor the U.K., nor France have identified any deaths caused by the mRNA vaccines. Australia has identified a single death attributable to an mRNA vaccine booster. It is true that mRNA vaccines can cause fatal reactions, which is why the possibility has been studied at trial and on a population level, but the data we have proves that it is exceedingly rare. When the older, adenovirus-based vaccines did cause a small number of deaths, they were largely discontinued.
COVID-19 is worse than the vaccine in every way. The adverse reactions to the vaccines tend to be mild versions of effects of catching the virus itself. An English study reported the incident rate of blood clotting after the Astrazeneca vaccine was, at the high end, 1.47 per 100,000 people. For those who caught COVID-19, it was 6.40. When it comes to myocarditis, a study of 42 million people found “the risk…is substantially higher after SARS-CoV-2 infection in unvaccinated individuals than the increase in risk observed after a first dose.” A study in The Lancet, looking at more than 30 million people who had received the mRNA vaccines, found just 411 cases of myocarditis or pericarditis.
We can say all of these things with a high degree of confidence because we have aggressively studied and measured them across borders and disciplines. You may well be able to produce studies or analyses that differ in some way from the ones listed above. But, as deGrasse Tyson explains rather succinctly, they don’t really matter unless they can be replicated and confirmed at scale. This is how the scientific method works. Yes, individual scientists need to follow the steps to develop hypotheses, test them, replicate them, and to try and falsify them. But that process is not magical. Even if done perfectly, it does not produce absolute truths. We find truth at a system level, using a variety of techniques relying on a massive number of inputs and variables.
A consensus is a tantalizingly hard thing to reach, as evidenced by all the things on which we remain fundamentally unsure. We don’t know, for example, which pharmaceutical interventions were most effective. One extensive meta-analysis looked at that data and concluded lockdowns were essentially useless in reducing COVID-19 mortality. Another meta-analysis found lockdowns had the potential to be hugely useful, so long as the timing, design, and stringency worked out properly. There are a lot of studies inbetween the two that could be summed up with: Your guess is as good as our’s.
Even if we look at country-level results, we can make some general statements — lockdown-friendly Canada did better than the United States; Finland did better than herd immunity-seeking Sweden. But, like anything, there are plenty of counter-examples and outliers. Our greatest lesson may be that we simply need more public health research.
I spoke recently with one former public health official who, frustrated, admitted that governments and public-facing scientists “were communicating with a level of certainty that they didn’t have.” That’s because they talked to people based “on what they should do, not what the science is.” And so they rationalized “overstating the case to justify the precautions.” And this is from someone who repeatedly and consistently supported more restrictions, not fewer. It’s some refreshing honesty.
Declarations, memoranda, pandemonium
People noticed the gap between the science and the certainty.
The Great Barrington Declaration was published in October 2020. That title probably means very little to most people, but it is a hugely significant document for scores of people. The two men who conceived the document, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya, became mild mannered visionaries.
The Declaration essentially calls for an end to lockdowns, opting instead for a herd immunity approach that tries to keep older and immunocompromised people safe. In fairly moderate language, it makes suggestions like: “Nursing homes should use staff with acquired immunity and perform frequent testing of other staff and all visitors.” Everyone else should go back to life as normal, they argued.
The World Health Organization called it “unethical.” Anthony Fauci called the declaration “very dangerous.” A counter, the John Snow Memorandum (named for the father of modern epidemiology, not the Game of Thrones character) called the allure of naturally-acquired herd immunity a “dangerous fallacy.”
This basically marked the schism that would separate the two camps — the minority, the COVID skeptics; and the majority, the COVID cautious. Whether you signed up to join the Barrington crew or the John Snow gang became a lens through which to see the pandemic. The latter would point to the big, amorphous, consensus and the former would lob outliers, insisting that the establishment just wouldn’t listen.
Establishment figures and journalists began to point out the connections between the Great Barrington authors and the American Institute for Economic Research, a conservative thinktank. The rebels noted all the financial links between government agencies and scientists and big pharma.
We call this affective polarization. Groups turn inward, and define themselves by their cohort while they grow distrustful of other groups. Those backing the John Snow Memorandum didn’t just see the Great Barrington Declaration signatories as incompetent or wrong, but as malicious, tainted by dark money, and laboring under a secret agenda. Inversely, the skeptics saw the cautious as part of a corporate-government conspiracy to push vaccines and, potentially, kill millions.
What we see from affective polarization is that beliefs tend to harden within those communities. So, amongst the establishment, it became sacrilege to even question the efficacy of lockdowns, as it was seen as throwing a bone to the anti-vaxxers. For the skeptics, what began as a complicated approach to the vaccines turned to outright opposition — nowadays, saying a good word about the vaccines could get you labeled a heretic.
In the height of the pandemic, trying to untangle these disagreements was impossible. You can’t argue over directions on a map during a police chase. The cries of concern — the vaccines can cause adverse reactions, the virus is less deadly in the young, lockdowns cause harm — were baked into our response at every step of the way, even as they were tamped down, even censored, in the public discourse. Whether that was right or wrong, or whether those concerns were adequately weighted, felt academic at the time.
But, I would argue, now is the time we have that conversation.
We return, unfortunately, to Florida.
DeSantis, as we know from his pathetic crusade against trans people and abortion access, is obsessively trying to pander to a particularly hard-right faction inside the GOP.
And the Great Barrington Declaration camp is a weird little political constituency: But they are numerous, and they aren’t the MAGA crew you would expect.
One of their leading figures, Dr. Paul Alexander, was actually booted off the White House COVID-19 response team for too aggressively pushing a herd immunity strategy. He, and others, have attacked Trump’s Operation Warp Speed as emblematic of the big pharma rushjob that led to these supposedly-deadly vaccines hitting the streets.
Alexander, Kulldorff, Bhattacharya, and a host of others have mounted calls for some kind of legal process to adjudicate the decisions made during the pandemic. As Alexander explained, when speaking on an expert panel during the Ottawa trucker occupation last year: “I want you [public officials] to face the same pain and suffering that families faced.” Kulldorff and Bhattacharya have called for a COVID-19 “truth commission.” Some have already gotten started.
Last February, a German-based movement styling itself as a “grand jury” held weeks of hearings before voting, via a Telegram poll, to indict six defendants for crimes against humanity. Of the nearly 40,000 people who voted, 95% voted to indict. In Canada, a “National Citizen’s Inquiry” has been holding similar hearings, investigating whether public health officials could face criminal liability for promoting vaccines or supporting lockdowns — they have heard testimony from two elected Members of Parliament. (Dispatch #41) And, of course, we have DeSantis’ grand jury.
Fundamentally, these proposed tribunals are adversarial: The skeptics are the prosecution, the cautious are on trial. Some have taken that to its extreme ends, calling for “Nuremberg 2.0” — an allusion to the war crimes tribunal for Nazi officials.
Florida’s Public Health Integrity Committee also stems, not from a feeling of constructive conversation, but from a belief that the rotten establishment needs to be rooted out. As Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez said, during the hearings:
I think, through every part of the pandemic, you could see the failures on behalf of the scientific community. And some of it was perhaps willful ignorance. Some of it was — I think somebody mentioned — corruption, with regards to the way certain studies were done.
Try a little tenderness
Here is where the skeptics are right: It is high time for a COVID-19 truth commission.
The longer we wait to conduct those hearings, the more that the authors and supporters of the Great Barrington Declaration get to define its terms. Indeed, they’ve already begun.
But a real study, a real inquiry, will help us put to paper the nature of our consensus. With the crisis, largely, in our rear-view mirror3 now is exactly the time to figure out where our confidence intervals really sit. Did school closures really work? Do curfews do more good than lockdowns? Do travel bans really make a difference? How safe were the vaccines? Did the immunization plan work as intended? Some of these questions will be easier to answer than others.
The Great Barrington Declaration crew shouldn’t just be invited, but welcomed. As the scientific majority puts its work through rigor, so too should the skeptics.
Bhattacharya, for example, co-authored a Wall Street Journal editorial in March 2020 that concluded lockdowns would be unnecessary, and projected a “a 20,000- or 40,000-death epidemic.” To date, more than a million Americans have died. Kulldorff, for his part, spent 2020 advocating against mass testing and claiming lockdowns killed twice as many as the virus. Others on DeSantis’ commission have published statements and papers, put forward with a huge degree of confidence, claiming that kids are extremely unlikely to transmit COVID-19 to adults and that CT scans are the secret to diagnosing serious cases. Both claims aged poorly.
The more we can understand the tricky nature of certainty, I think, the more we can begin to understand how to legislate, regulate, and debate during this kind of crisis. The scientific consensus, we know, was right about the big things. But the critics aren’t wrong about everything. So let’s get into a room and tabulate the score. And it will also help us understand the divide between science and policy. To give you a personal example: I think the evidence supported limited lockdowns, but my own (admittedly libertarian-leaning) politics tells me that, after the spring of 2020, we should have been infinitely more hesitant to lock people in their homes. Others’ politics may lead them to different conclusions: So let’s talk about it.
There’s a little turn of phrase I love: Cross-cutting calm.
It comes out of a 2016 paper studying affective polarization. In it, researchers queried 1,100 Americans of various walks of life and gauged their emotion by presenting a series of statements that claimed particular political parties or policies would succeed or fail.
They found that the single greatest predictor of anger or enthusiasm at those statements was not the respondents' stated partisan or ideological inclination, but how rigidly they sorted themselves into social groups — evangelical, secular, Tea Party, Black4 — to the exclusion of others.
Those who belonged to multiple groups with little overlap were far-and-away the less likely to become angry upon reading statements that denigrated their preferred political party. That is, a Black Tea Party supporter got less angry at being told the Republicans would lose the midterms than even a political moderate. A fervently secular liberal, on the other hand, got quite angry after reading a blog claiming that gay marriage would be banned once more. If we accept (as we probably should) that our democracy benefits from passionate people who are slow to anger, this should be an instructive finding.
Holding identities that cross a political divide, even while you hold strong political opinions, appears to be a tonic for our toxic times.
“The key point of this finding is that those with cross-cutting identities are precisely the group of people who have been disappearing from American politics,” reads a rather depressing conclusion of the (now seven-year-old) report.
We need to have this debate over how we managed the pandemic. And we need to start by seeking out that cross-cutting calm.
The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System collects all instances of negative outcomes following vaccination. Those reports are crude, meaning they require further investigation to determine whether they were caused by the vaccines, or whether those events were coincidental.
They used the word “rare,” but not “extremely rare.”
Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are
The researchers acknowledge that using Black as the counter-weight to the Tea Party is a bit of a problematic choice, but they were looking for groups with little overlap. Only Black people could define themselves in this social group, obviously.