Some media outlets pay too much attention to readership statistics; most pay at least some. And paying attention we were a week or so ago when a Bulletin story from September began driving thousands of views per day, even more traffic than when we first published it. Naturally, we debated: Should we produce more coverage on this apparently hot topic, self-spreading vaccines? And who was this interested audience anyway? The answer, as it turns out, was disappointing.
Anti-vaxxers were reading the story.
Self-spreading or self-disseminating vaccines are genetically engineered benign viruses that, instead of spreading disease, can spread the immunity conferred by a vaccine. As wild animals such as bats move in their environment, they could be employed to spread a vaccine that prevents them from getting sick with, say, Ebola. Sounds like a great way to stop emerging infectious diseases in their tracks, before they make the leap from animals to humans. But is it? Regular Bulletin readers will know that whether the issue is geoengineering or brain-computer interfaces or new nuclear weapons or some other emerging technology, we regularly ask this very question.
And that’s what we did in the case of self-spreading vaccines.
“While it may turn out to be technically feasible to fight emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19, AIDS, Ebola, and Zika with self-spreading viruses, and while the benefits may be significant, how does one weigh those benefits against what may be even greater risks?” Kings College London biosecurity expert Filippa Lentzos and Max Planck Institute researcher Guy Reeves asked.
The pair wrote an even-handed exploration of the risks that this new technology might pose, including whether the technology could be used for bioweapon development.
It’s reasonable question to raise. After all, South Africa’s Apartheid-era regime sought to develop an anti-fertility vaccine to “administer to unwitting Black South African women,” indicating that not all vaccine research is benevolent. And furthermore, self-spreading vaccine research has roots in efforts to control animal pest populations.
Lentzos and Reeves wrote a compelling piece on a topic worthy of public debate. Thousands of people read it when the Bulletin published it last fall. But a few weeks ago, people started reading it again. This time, however, they were clicking through from websites trafficking in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. The pair’s article was being used as a datapoint in grossly misleading screeds about the COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, what many readers of Natural News, one of the sites linking to the Bulletin article, saw was not an exploration of self-spreading vaccines, but the Bulletin name and Lentzos and Reeves’ headline tucked into a flagrant lie about COVID-19 vaccines that use messenger RNA to induce immunity.
“What is now becoming obvious is that today’s vaccines were deliberately designed to function as self-replicating vaccines, to spread the spike protein bioweapons to those who refuse to be vaccinated. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote last year, “’Scientists are working on vaccines that spread like a disease. What could possibly go wrong?’” a false post on Natural News reads.
Natural News sent at least 2,000 readers to the Bulletin in the last few weeks. Other sites that posted the same conspiratorial article include Redoubt News, State of the Nation, and Planet Today. (I am purposely not linking to the articles, because they are egregiously misleading.)
The false assertion that the COVID-19 vaccines can negatively affect non-vaccinated people gained steam when a Miami private school issued a letter late last month telling teachers that they need to “physically distance” from students if they get vaccinated. Centner Academy co-founder Leila Centner wrote, “Even among our own population, we have at least three women with menstrual cycles impacted after having spent time with a vaccinated person.”
In the bizarro world created by the anti-vaccine movement, believers have apparently co-opted the language of COVID-19 precaution and flipped it on its head. “Maybe it’s feasible to distance from vaccinated friends or associates but what about when you need to have a medical procedure done?” one commenter on the Natural News piece asked.
While the claims of Centner or the concerns of Natural News readers fly in the face of the scientific understanding of vaccines and pandemics, the anti-vaxx movement has long relied on scientists and doctors to lend credibility to arguments that otherwise might seem ludicrous.
The UK physicians Andrew Wakefield, a researcher who in 1998 published a since-retracted article in The Lancet linking a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella to autism, and John Wilson, who in the 1970s set off a misguided furor against the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, have been critical in fomenting anti-vaccination views. And, of course, one of the most notorious COVID-19 conspiracy theorists is Judy Mikovits, a molecular biologist who once worked at the National Cancer Institute.
She starred in the documentary “Plandemic,” in which she laid out what The New York Times described as an “unsubstantiated secret plot” by Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and now a key advisor to President Joe Biden, to conceal research showing how vaccines weaken the immune system, thereby making them susceptible to diseases like COVID-19.
Likewise, Mike Adams, who runs Natural News, which linked to the Bulletin article in a piece with a 25-word headline that begins with the words “EXTERMINATION machine unmasked,” fashions himself as having a science background and started an environmental testing laboratory, Consumer Wellness Center Labs. The lab’s website has pictures of Adams near lab equipment and a video interview of him in a white lab coat.
Like the lab coat, the Bulletin name arguably lends Adams some undeserved credibility.
While Adams’ touts his health science credentials, his site Natural News was labeled as one of the chief purveyors of “fake health news” according to an NBC News investigation in 2019. According to the analysis, misinformation on the topic of cancer, for instance, “dominated overall news.” An April article on Natural News titled “Cancer industry not looking for a cure; they’re too busy making money” was the “most engaged-with article about cancer” that year.
“Re-purposing scholarship like this adds to the blurring of evidence-based scientific knowledge and fictitious narratives, further complicating people’s abilities to separate truth from fiction,” Lentzos wrote in an email responding to my questions about the Natural News use of her Bulletin article.
Before Natural News’s Facebook page was banned in June 2019, it had 3 million followers, according to Ars Technica. Despite the ban, the site continued to publish on Facebook by posting content in different affiliated groups, according to NBC News. The Natural News website appears to be attracting tens of thousands of readers, too. The article linking to the Bulletin has been viewed 94,000 times according to Natural News’s stats.
Though the Bulletin’s content was misused, without our knowledge, to further an utterly false conspiracy theory about highly effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines, our content also regularly helps counter internet mis- and disinformation. When Reuter’s fact-checked a specious argument about self-spreading COVID-19 vaccines on Facebook, its reporter turned to a reputable source: the Bulletin.
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