COVID misinformation comes from the top, too
By Bret Stephens
Who are the most dangerous purveyors of COVID misinformation?
This spring, the Center for Countering Digital Hate published “The Disinformation Dozen” — a report on the 12 influencers it claimed were responsible for 65% of anti-vaccine falsehoods disseminated on Facebook and other social media platforms. Top of the list is Florida osteopath Joseph Mercola, the subject of a recent profile by my New York Times colleague Sheera Frenkel. Other disinformers include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental activist, and Rizza Islam, a Nation of Islam acolyte.
The misinformation Mercola, Kennedy and the others peddle is ugly stuff, a danger to the health of those who believe it as well as a public hazard to those they expose to their irresponsible choices. It’s also a reminder that today’s anti-vaxxers aren’t merely a right-wing phenomenon, much as some of the media have tried to paint it that way. Most figures on the list come from the woo-woo world of alternative medicine, not usually associated with rock-ribbed Republicanism.
But the story of charlatans peddling fake cures and political conspiracy theories isn’t the only part of the COVID misinformation saga. Distrust in public-health messaging is also sown when public-health messengers show themselves to be less than completely trustworthy.
The latest set-to in this drama was a July 20 screaming match between Dr. Anthony Fauci and Sen. Rand Paul. Paul, R-Ky., suggested that Fauci had lied to Congress in claiming that the National Institutes of Health had never funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Fauci took vehement exception, saying the research that the NIH had funded indirectly with a $600,000 grant wasn’t connected to the COVID virus and didn’t qualify as gain-of-function, a research technique in which a pathogen is made more transmissible.
Fauci is almost certainly right on the technical merits, and Paul didn’t help his case with his J’accuse antics.
But the larger truth — obscured until recently by fervent efforts (including by Fauci) to dismiss the lab-leak theory for the origins of the pandemic — is that the U.S. government’s scientific establishment did support gain-of-function research that deserved far more public debate than it got. Also incontrovertibly true is that beneficiaries of that funding engaged in deceptive tactics and outright mendacity to shield their research from public scrutiny while denouncing their critics as conspiracymongers.
“In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it,” Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban reported last month in an exposé of the government’s internal debates over the source of the pandemic.
If millions feel that some public-health experts are not as heroic or as honest as their media stenographers make them out to be, there’s a good reason for it.
What goes for questions about the origins of the pandemic goes also for questions about its handling. The CDC vastly overstated the risks of outdoor spread of the virus, which (at least until the emergence of the delta variant) appears to be closer to 0.1% than as high as 10%. Fauci lied — there’s no other word for it — about what he saw as the threshold figure for reaching herd immunity, based, as Donald McNeil reported in The Times in December, on “his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.”
An alarming CDC study found that Hispanic and Black children were at greater risk of being hospitalized for COVID, which contributed to the pressure to keep public schools closed to in-person teaching despite mounting evidence that schools weren’t viral hot zones.
The impact of this misinformation on everyday life has been immense. And while it may have the virtue of being offered with the best intentions or out of an abundance of caution, it has probably done more to undermine public confidence in establishment science than a Florida quack. The credibility of public-health experts depends on the understanding that the job of informing the public means offering the whole truth, uncertainties included, rather than offering Noble Lies in the service of whatever they think the public needs to hear.
These same experts could risk further diminishing their credibility if their assurances about vaccine efficacy prove overly fervent. A preliminary study from Israel suggests the Pfizer shot loses much of its ability to protect against infection after a few months, though it continues to protect against severe disease. That’s still a decisive argument for the vaccine, but a step down from previous promises. If we end up needing a third, fourth or fifth shot — and if serious conditions like myocarditis wind up linked to the vaccines — the erosion of public trust could turn into a landslide.
So, by all means, let’s continue to expose and denounce misinformation coming from the fever swamps of Alternative America. But it won’t do sufficient good until the guardians of public health hold themselves to a higher standard of truthfulness and accountability. Physician, heal thyself.