Few subjects get the mainstream media barking in unison as quickly as any criticism of vaccines. So when Robert Kennedy Jr. told reporters last month that President-elect Donald Trump had invited him to chair a federal commission to investigate vaccine safety and scientific integrity, the barking began immediately.
Forbes commentator Tara Haelle, who offers “straight talk on science, medicine and vaccines”, penned a five-point rebuttal of Kennedy’s oft-voiced allegations of a link between vaccines and autism. And she approvingly quoted Vanity Fair contributor Seth Mnookin’s tweet: “Appointing RFK Jr. to head vaccine safety panel is like appointing David Duke to head panel on race relations.”
People get suspicious these days when the mainstream media shrieks racism. And it certainly rings hollow in an attack on RFK Jr., son of RFK Sr., assassinated 1960s civil rights crusader Senator Bobby Kennedy. He’s got the family name and progressive bio the media usually loves.
While many in the commentariat feel betrayed by RFK Jr. on vaccines, others are wondering why on earth a Republican president accused of harbouring climate change deniers in his cabinet and planning an all-out industrial assault on the environment, would want to hire this Democrat environmentalist anti-development icon, a litigator as green as any Sierra Club tree-hugger? What could RFK Jr. possibly know about scientific integrity? And why on earth is he smearing vaccines – public health’s shiniest achievement?
Kennedy answers a lot of these questions in a lengthy interview he gave to a docu-series exposé called Vaccines Revealed. He says he is pro-vaccine and his six kids are vaccinated, but then explains that he was drawn into the fray as an environmental lawyer who had researched mercury poisoning in the environment. Whenever he spoke about that issue, he says, he was approached by mothers who would tell him that if he was serious about protecting children from mercury, he should look at vaccines.
One of those mothers was Sarah Bridges, whose healthy son Porter was taken for his four-month check-up in 1994, got the usual shots, and that night spiked a fever, had a grand mal seizure and was hospitalized. His hospital records read: “Brain injury from pertussis vaccine.”
Today Porter is a mentally retarded, autistic 23-year-old epileptic who wears diapers and a helmet. In 2001, after a seven-year legal battle, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program reluctantly awarded $2 million for his care.
RFK started to read the science. Public health and media, he told the filmmakers, “exonerates mercury from any involvement in autism or any of these other neurodevelopmental disorders that we are seeing now epidemic in American children.” But he looked at studies that told a very different story – “literally hundreds of studies showing that thimerosal [a mercury preservative in some vaccines] was very destructive to brain tissue and caused other human illness as well, and animal illnesses, cadaver damage… there was a very, very rich scientific literature that anybody could access on Pubmed.”
Specifically it was the body of literature linking mercury to autism that compelled him to start speaking out publicly. He’s been at it for 10 years. Alternately, he’s attacked as a “crackpot anti-vaxxer” who compares vaccine promoters to Nazis and the autism epidemic to a “holocaust,” or hailed as a hero because he slams the U.S. Centre for Disease Control as “a cesspool of corruption” and a lapdog of the pharmaceutical industry.
‘I can’t believe we did what we did’
It’s this last charge that will likely be the focus of Trump’s commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. The biggest simmering CDC scandal relates to about 40 telephone conversations in 2013 and 2014 between CDC top scientist William Thompson and Brian Hooker, a bioengineer professor at Simpson University and the father of an autistic child. Thompson contacted Hooker and leaked him hundreds of pages of data showing that he and other top researchers had colluded to obscure and then shred data (but Thompson kept copies) which showed a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. “Oh my God, I can’t believe we did what we did,” Thompson confessed to Hooker in one taped telephone chat.
The Thompson tapes are the basis of the 2016 documentary film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, who was stripped of his licence to practice medicine in the U.K. in the late 1990s amid allegations of fraudulent and unethical research related to vaccines and autism. Wakefield stands by the integrity of his work, however, and to the growing legion of skeptic parents the World Health Organisation calls “vaccine hesitators”, he is a symbol of how the system deals with dissent among doctors and scientists. The film has been pilloried in the media and ignored by the CDC who has refused to let Thompson testify in a vaccine lawsuit.
Still, the Trump-RFK commission will have other leads to investigate. A 2009 Department of Health and Human Services report found that 97 percent of committee members sitting on vaccine advisory panels had undisclosed ties to the $30 billion vaccine industry. And the fact that the CDC itself owns 56 vaccine patents suggests more than a little conflict of interest. It buys and sells more than $4 billion in vaccine stock every year.
Not just vaccines
The probe into the CDC’s “scientific integrity” might go beyond vaccines. This past summer, CDC senior executive Dr. Barbara Bowman abruptly departed the agency after she was accused of acting in the interests of the soda giant Coca-Cola. Apparently, someone at the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which is the voice of the formidable food and beverage lobby, had told Bowman “something must be done” to refute a World Health Organisation campaign blaming obesity and diabetes on sugar and soda pop. Emails indicated that Bowman assisted by offering connections to influencers within the powerful organizations headed by Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg.
In August, a group of CDC scientists calling themselves Scientists Preserving Integrity, Diligence and Ethics in Research (SPIDER) sent a letter to a US watchdog organisation called US Right to Know saying their “mission is being influenced and shaped by outside parties and rogue interests… and Congressional intent for our agency is being circumvented by some of our leaders.” Besides the Coca-Cola scandal and others, they complained that funds earmarked by Congress for domestic issues are being shifted to “global health”.
For Kennedy, though, the primary target is vaccines. “All the things that I do are bent on forcing this [vaccine] debate out into the open,” he said, “because once the science is in the open, the CDC’s position is so fragile, it’s an edifice of fraud, fraud stacked upon fraud, so high and so wobbly, that even a slight breeze of public scrutiny will topple it.”
Vaccine skeptics, marginalized as paranoid believers in junk science for decades, have been given a jolt of legitimacy by this startling turn of events. “The safety of combined vaccine ingredients and the effect of multiple vaccines administered at one time has never been studied,” said Sherri Tenpenny, a long-time leader in the movement. “I cannot think of a better person to chair a committee on Vaccine Safety and Scientific Integrity than Robert F. Kennedy, Jr….He is well versed in science and has the personal fortitude to stand up to political pressures that will come from the medical and pharmaceutical industries.”
Is Trump a vaccine skeptic, pro-pharma, or both?
Trump’s motives are less clear. His willingness to cross the partisan divide to RFK suggests it’s not political. Maybe it’s personal. “I’ve seen it,” he claimed in 2015, “a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine… a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
In any case, Big Pharma was “aghast” at Trump’s commission idea. But there was worse to come for them. His January press conference quip about drug companies “getting away with murder” saw their stocks drop $24.6 billion in 20 minutes. But he later sent other signals, to pharmaceutical company Bayer and GMO giant Monsanto, indicating he would smooth the regulatory waters for them.
To say the least, the new president is hard to predict. But it looks like the vaccine industry may be in for a bumpy ride.