As the number of global infections from the coronavirus passes 4.3 million and the death toll approaches 300,000, dozens of drug companies and nonprofits are searching for a vaccine. Most officials agree access to a safe and effective treatment is the only way to end the pandemic, restore public confidence and restart the economy.
Yet the virus and the search for a vaccine are being used as a rallying cry by activists who claim, contrary to the evidence, that vaccines are unsafe, that they can cause autism, and that the likes of Bill Gates, co-founder of the Gates Foundation, are part of a global, self-serving partnership to hype the dangers of the disease and gain financially from finding a vaccine.
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Last month, activists held an online “Health Freedom Summit” at which Wakefield and other prominent figures in the anti-vaccine world spoke, denouncing vaccines and suggesting people were exaggerating the danger represented by Covid-19.
The summit was organised by Alana Newman and Stephanie Lind, who said they brought together 30 activists, writers and medical professionals.
According to The Washington Post, Wakefield told those watching: “One of the main tenets of the marketing of mandatory vaccination has been fear. And never have we seen fear exploited in the way that we do now with the coronavirus infection.”
He added: “We are seeing a destruction of the economy, a destruction of people and families, and unprecedented violations of health freedom. And it’s all based upon a fallacy.”
Newman, who has three children, told The Independent that if a vaccine for the coronavirus was found, she would not take it herself or give it to her children. If they became infected, she said she would be rather take therapeutics, which she claimed included a high dose of vitamin C, and the controversial anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which Donald Trump has touted as a treatment, despite his own experts saying there is little evidence it works.
“We’re not in this for money. We’re trying to keep our kids healthy,” said Newman, who lives in Louisiana.
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“If they don’t want it, you can’t force them to take it. It’s medical rape. It’s not cool to force people to inject something into their bodies or the bodies of their children against their will. You’re going to get a war if you try to do that.”
Asked if she was talking about peaceful protests or actual violence, she said: “Americans are prepared to fight physically for things that they feel are important.”
The campaign against vaccines is nothing new, yet it has gained more traction since Trump was elected to office. During a Republican Party primary debate in 2015, the then candidate raised doubts about the safety of vaccines, saying: “You take this little, beautiful baby and you pump – I mean it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child.”
After he was elected, Trump met with four high profile anti-vaccine campaigners at his estate in Florida, inducing Wakefield. For a period, it appeared Trump was set to announce a commission into vaccine safety, which was to be chaired by another anti-vaccine activist, Robert F Kennedy.
Wakefield is known in the UK as the paediatrician who in 1998 used a press conference called to publicise a paper published in The Lancet, to claim researchers had found a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, given to children to guard against measles, mumps, and rubella.
The claims caused a firestorm. Trust in the vaccine and its subsequent use plunged. Yet other experts were unable to match the results. The Lancet later retracted the paper and Wakefield was subsequently found guilty by the British General Medical Council (GMC) of three dozen charges, including dishonesty and abuse of children, and struck off the medical register.
Twenty years on, Wakefield has remade himself in the US, where he lives in Texas, and continues to press his debunked claims. He does so despite overwhelming evidence and the publication of more than 18 peer-reviewed papers that found no link.
The Centres for Disease Control (CDC), the US’s pre-eminent health body, says vaccines are safe and that only a small number of children, such as those known to have a weakened immune system, should not get the MMR jab.
Wakefield has been linked to several outbreaks of measles in the US, including one in 2018 among the Somali-American population of Minneapolis, to whom he spoke and showed his film Vaxxed, which claims to expose a case of fraud at the CDC.
Other activists are also using the pandemic as a chance to push their anti-vaccine message. Ty and Charlene Bollinger, from Oregon, have made a series of films in which they claim vaccines are dangerous.
In episode nine of The Truth About Vaccines, they claim Gates, 64, the former Microsoft CEO and co-founder of the Gates Foundation, is set to gain financially by the discovery of a vaccine. They also suggest the public is being misled about the true death toll from the virus.
The couple did not immediately respond to enquiries. Wakefield also did not respond to questions. In a 2018 interview he told The Independent: “I was discredited in the eyes of those who wanted to see me discredited. In other words, those who had an interest in maintaining the status quo.”
Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, said in a statement, he was concerned about “conspiracy theories being spread online and the damage they could cause to public health”.
“At a time like this, when the world is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis, it’s distressing that there are people spreading misinformation when we should all be looking for ways to collaborate and save lives,” he said. “Right now, one of the best things we can do to stop the spread of Covid-19 is spread the facts.”
Washington state has emerged as one of the front lines in the debate about vaccines. Until last year, parents could claim one of three exemptions to demand their child not be given the MMR vaccine and still attend state schools.
Yet amid an outbreak of measles in Clark County on the southwest border with Oregon, state legislators passed a law stopping a parent citing personal or philosophical reasons for their child to be exempt. Medical exemptions are still permitted.
State legislator Monica Stonier, one of the sponsors of the bill and whose district includes the Washington state city of Vancouver, which was struck by the measles outbreak, said it was frustrating that people were seeking to undermine efforts to try and combat the pandemic.
“They talk about health freedom. I don’t have any problems with that except when it undermines the freedom of others,” she said. “People feel the government should not be telling them what they should be doing to stay healthy, and certainly not mandating a vaccine. However, in the absence of herd immunity in a global pandemic, the broader community, which include [people] that have compromised immune systems, its freedoms are highly imposed upon. For some reason that is lost in the conversation.”
This content was originally published here.