“You know, I don’t think I’m going to get the COVID shot”.
That was a sentence spoken to me just recently by a close friend of mine, and as one can imagine, I was rather taken aback by the utterance. The individual to whom I was speaking was university educated and stayed fairly well informed on current issues. They certainly did not fit into my image of the type of Canadian who would still be holding out on getting “The shot”.
I may be a bit more sensitive to this topic than some. After all, the professional lives of those of us who work in public education has become a veritable COVID-coaster of uncertainty and sudden pivots (Gods how I hate that word). But after I gathered my jaw up from where it had dropped on my kitchen table, I began a heartfelt and honest conversation with my friend. What was it, I wondered, that had convinced him, and a fair number of seemingly rational Canadians, (many with school aged children) to conclude that getting the COVID 19 shot was not only unnecessary, but downright dangerous?
What followed was about a three week journey into some pretty dark rabbit holes as I tried to wrap my head around what was suddenly for me a very real case of vaccine hesitancy.
My quest began with a cursory look into some of the more well-heeled travellers on the COVID-19 denial circuit, (which took me quite far off the beaten Google path). The first of these self purported truth purveyors was American Dr. David Martin, an entrepreneur and former assistant professor out of Virginia.
Martin has become somewhat infamous for a video posted on social media a few months back which made some fairly compelling (if not necessarily convincing) arguments that the pandemic was started by big pharma in cahoots with the National Institute of Health and the Centre for Disease Control. The video was released as the second installment of a quasi-documentary entitled Plandemic which emerged in early May of 2020. In the 90 minute video, Martin makes a wide variety of claims to back his theory that the CDC had the patent on the virus as early as 2003 so they could hold the proprietary rights and construct what Martin calls “the industrial complex” of the coronavirus, ultimately for profit. He spoke about protein strands, gene manipulation, and ended off with a long diatribe on how “We the people” were sacrificing our individual freedom to the yoke of mask wearing and shut-downs.
As enticing as it may have been for me to write him off at that point as just another radical Libertarian, I decided to dig a bit deeper. Martin does have a Ph.D, it turns out, but as far as I can ascertain, that is as credentialed as he gets. His company, M-CAM International, (which appears to have its home office in a hotel) doesn’t seem to actually sell anything. It deals with patents, something called the IQ100 index for stocks, and helps companies determine their value by including “intangible assets”. However, when trying to figure out what all this meant I rather felt as if I was in the episode of Friends where Chandler tries to explain his job. Under the “team” tab on the site, there is a glowing biography of Martin himself, but conspicuously absent is mention of anyone else working at the company.
What was also conspicuously absent was any evidence of a qualification even remotely associated with vaccines.
Even with this lack of credentialing, Martin is often the first point of contact for individuals looking for support of the anti-vax argument. Despite being soundly debunked the video was deemed to be so potentially harmful that it was taken down from several main stream social media platforms, a move which only served to fuel the “They are hiding the truth!” crowd.
The next individual to whose views I was introduced was a gentleman by the name of Dr. Mike Yeadon from out of the UK. Yeadon was once a vice president at Pfizer who had, at the outset of the pandemic, been very much in the pro-vaccine camp. He was also fairly renowned in the field of allergy and respiratory research. Yeadon’s view on the vaccine changed rather radically as the pandemic progressed. He went from celebrating the announcement of vaccine trials to starting an online petition calling for a halt to those same trials because the vaccine could cause infertility in women.
Yeadon offered no evidence that this claim was true (nor is there any that I could find), but he quickly became a bit of an anti-vax icon. Considering his credentials with Pfizer, one can certainly understand why. The condemnation of his comments as “false, dangerous and deeply irresponsible” by recognized health authorities has done little to lessen enthusiasm for them. That seems particularly odd considering so many of his claims have proven to be inaccurate. As an example, in May of 2020 he tweeted “There isn’t going to be a second wave” just months before the second wave swept through the UK. (For a more in-depth look into Yeadon, check out this piece from Reuters.)
Not to be outdone, Canada also has its very own anti-vax icon in the form of one Dr. Bryam Bridle. Bridle is an Associate Professor of Immunology at the University of Guelph’s Veterinary College who has been making the talk show rounds to express his theory that there is not yet enough evidence to suggest that the benefits outweigh the risks when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccination. Again, quite a bit of credibility is being given to Dr. Bridle by the anti-vax crowd, but like both Yeadon and Martin, Bridle’s claims have been widely discredited. Bridle’s main concern seems to be centered around the idea that the vaccine creates protein spikes in the body that are toxic. However, according to multiple sources, this is simply not the case. From a June 11th article by the Associated Press:
“All the vaccines that received emergency use authorization in the U.S. do not contain live COVID-19 virus. Nor do they contain actual spike protein from the virus, which is what allows the virus to easily infect the human cell and replicate. The vaccines work by teaching the immune system to identify and fight off the spike protein in the body. “
There were more bits and pieces out there than I could possibly sift through, including a rather inflammatory interview with guitarist Eric Clapton. But as I navigated this quagmire of half-truths and innuendo, I began to find myself in awe of the effort that has gone into the campaign. Every time I presented an argument that debunked one of these anti-vax voices, my friend pointed to another at-least-reliable-sounding source to bolster his view. The revelations about Astra-Zeneca and the investigation into the Wuhan lab certainly haven’t done much to win him over, nor have the more recent calls by the federal Conservatives to investigate ties between that same lab and a lab in Winnipeg.
As vaccination numbers have increased on one side, the conviction of those in the vaccine hesitancy camp has increased on the other. Efforts by major social media platforms to quell these voices have led to cries of censorship and have only served to push the ideas to the much romanticized fringes. The concern those of us who tend to believe the CDC, the NIH, the WHO, Health Canada etc have is that these ideas are not simply going to go away. Much like COVID-19, they are spread from person to person across great distances, and, considering the potential threat posed by the new Delta variants, could easily be just as deadly.
What, however, can be done?
Luckily enough (and as is often the case) someone is way ahead of me on that. In the next part of this series I will be introducing you to a group called ScienceUpFirst, a Canadian organization that exists solely to help folks like me bring vaccine hesitant Canadians like my buddy back from the brink.