They say there are no atheists in foxholes. But are there any anti-vaxxers during a pandemic?
For decades, vaccine skeptics and their celebrity apprentices, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Robert De Niro, Jim Carrey, Jessica Biel, Fran Drescher, and others, have argued against the vaccination of children. In recent weeks, tennis star Novak Djokovic said his opposition to vaccines could prevent his return to the sport if being vaccinated against the coronavirus were required. Then there was rapper M.I.A., who tweeted, “If I have to choose the vaccine or a chip, I’m gonna choose death.” Donald Trump has also spread anti-vax talking points, falsely linking autism to “the shots,” as he said. (He’s since changed his position.) And as recently as January, in a high-water mark for the movement, anti-vaxxers succeeded in forcing the New Jersey state government to kill a bill that would have made vaccines for students just about mandatory.
Yet, in a world where the medical establishment has said there may be no “return to normal,” or anything even remotely like it, until a vaccine to defeat and contain the coronavirus is discovered—and then used by the global population—are any prominent anti-vaxxers starting to change their positions?
Against the Brain
“Nobody has ever presented me with evidence that I’m wrong,” said Kennedy during an April phone call from Los Angeles, where he has been quarantining with seven of his children. For years, he has traveled the country—including New Jersey—using his name and stature to try to undermine legislation seeking to limit state vaccination exemptions, while spreading skepticism online.
His outspokenness has paid off (depending on how you look at it). Last year, the U.S. saw measles infections rise to 1,282 cases—a level not reached since 1992, when, after decades of vigilance, the disease was essentially eradicated.
Kennedy claims that he would consider taking a vaccine for this coronavirus if he himself can deem it safe. And how will he do that? “I want to see what the studies say.” Yet he’s still happy to sow doubt. In addition to boosting the debunked, viral “Plandemic” conspiracy video, which social-media sites have struggled to remove, in the past few weeks Kennedy and his organization, Children’s Health Defense, have made allegations about Big Pharma profiteering and the supposed megalomaniacal intentions of Bill Gates’s coronavirus-vaccine research, saying that, with the development, both are plotting “unique and frightening dangers.”
Kennedy’s skepticism—and that of other vaccine deniers—concerns public-health officials. If a significant portion of the population believes a vaccine for the coronavirus is a conspiracy, and they refuse to take it, that would hinder a country’s ability to achieve herd immunity—which experts say would take at least 70 percent of people having immunity—and minimize the death toll. In a recent survey by ABC News and Ipsos, a quarter of American adults said they were unlikely to get vaccinated even “if a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine developed.” A separate poll of Europeans by the Vaccine Confidence Project and ORB International showed a smaller but still sizable number of people saying they would refuse a coronavirus vaccine. Those figures could swell. A paper published on May 13 that modeled the nature of pro- and anti-vaccine Facebook groups during the 2019 measles outbreak predicted that, without proper countermeasures, anti-vaccine views on the site “will dominate in a decade.” And, an April study of coronavirus misinformation online wrote that “the anti-vax community looks better positioned to attract fresh support going forward than the pro-vax community.”
“Nobody has ever presented me with evidence that I’m wrong,” said R.F.K. Jr.
A couple of hours after I spoke with Kennedy, I called Del Bigtree, perhaps the next-most-prominent vaccine skeptic. The two have worked on films together in concert with Andrew Wakefield, author of the 1998 study that claimed a connection between autism and vaccines that has since been refuted by numerous studies. Bigtree is another frequent rally speaker and leads the Informed Consent Action Network, which has received significant funding from the foundation of New York City hedge-fund manager Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, who The Washington Post reported in 2019 was the group’s president. Bigtree is well known for his argument that it’s your “right” to risk getting infected by the diseases of your choice. Last year, as Brooklyn saw an outbreak of measles that almost exclusively infected children, Bigtree told reporters at an anti-vaccine rally in the borough, “They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles.”
Bigtree told me he doubts that lockdowns have prevented deaths and thinks America should have spent the past couple of months protecting vulnerable populations while letting everyone else get the disease in order to develop herd immunity.
And if a vaccine were discovered?, I asked.
“I would only personally take a vaccine for something that I believe I was actually at risk for,” he said.
But Bigtree doesn’t think the coronavirus is that “something”: “Science has already proved that [for] virtually everybody in my age category and health category and [that of] my children, this is a common cold.” The day we spoke, Bigtree turned 50—technically entering him into the age range that, according to the C.D.C., has the second-highest rate of coronavirus hospitalization behind people 65 and older. It was a strange moment: Should he have been any more concerned that day than the one before? Just a few days prior, the United States had become the nation with the most confirmed deaths from the disease, a position it continues to hold.
Nate Hopper is a writer living in New York City