Speaking in the measured, authoritative tones of an expert, Andrew Wakefield delivered his considered judgment on the coronavirus pandemic.
It was, said the disgraced British former doctor, one big hoax: a cynical plot by pharmaceutical giants — aided by governments, scientists and the media — to force the world to be unnecessarily and dangerously vaccinated.
People must fight it — even, he suggested, to the death.
‘It is a very, very alarming time,’ he told a recent online ‘Health Freedom Summit’.
Immune to the facts: Andrew Wakefield, with his girlfriend, businesswoman Elle Macpherson
For Wakefield, it’s not just an alarming time but also a heartening one. A poll found nearly a third of British people are either unsure or definitely wouldn’t take a vaccine for coronavirus.
The survey was conducted for the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which also found that almost 60 million people in the UK and U.S. subscribe to anti-vaxxer content on social media.
For the so-called anti-vaxxers — for whom Wakefield remains a hero — a world forced to communicate largely on the internet is a world particularly vulnerable to their scientific lies and twisted conspiracy theories.
Sue Pilkington, head of standards for the Society of Homeopaths, re-posted on social media several tirades by anti-vaxxers, including one that described vaccines as ‘poison’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock says he is meeting Facebook PR chief Sir Nick Clegg this week to increase pressure on the social media giant to crack down on anti-vaccination propaganda that is ‘putting lives at risk’.
Anthony Fauci, the chief U.S. coronavirus expert, has warned that the anti-vaccine movement deserves much of the responsibility for America’s abysmal Covid-19 record, and polls showing a third of the population would refuse to be vaccinated. The anti-vaxxers could thwart any hope of the U.S. developing herd immunity, he fears.
An anti-vaccination campaigner
In one survey in America, 44 per cent of Republican voters and 19 per cent of Democrats said they believed the absurd theory that Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, who has spent almost $8 billion fighting infectious diseases, would use Covid-19 jabs to implant microchips in people to track their movements and collect data to further his own power.
These are terrifyingly gullible times — the perfect environment for Wakefield, who is still shamelessly preaching the same dangerous anti-vaccine message a decade after it was discredited by British medical authorities.
During a ‘health freedom’ summit in May, Wakefield, the boyfriend of supermodel Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson, looked cool and relaxed in a black yoga T-shirt as he chatted by video link to an adoring blonde interviewer.
‘One of the main tenets of mandatory vaccination has been fear, and never have we seen fear exploited in the way we do now with the coronavirus infection,’ he said.
Citing what he called ‘unambiguous’ evidence that the coronavirus is no more deadly than seasonal flu, and claiming that the pathogen’s death toll had been greatly exaggerated, Wakefield said the crisis had led to ‘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’.
Describing vaccines as ‘intrinsically unsafe’, this valiant truth-teller called on free-thinking people to refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19 if and when a jab becomes available.
‘We have to stand and fight,’ the 63-year-old intoned. ‘As Nelson Mandela said at his trial, there are ideals worth dying for . . . I don’t want to get too dramatic, but better to die as a free man than live as a slave . . . We have to fight to preserve [our] freedom because it will be surely stripped from us in a very short space of time if we don’t.’
Stirring words, yet they come from a man whose views on vaccines — indeed, on anything to do with medical science — should make him the very last person on the planet that anyone should listen to.
‘Dr’ Wakefield, as his American followers inaccurately call him, is of course the gastroenterologist who once worked at a top London teaching hospital and was struck off in the aftermath of his sensational claims some years ago that the three-in-one measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was causing an epidemic of autism in children.
His research was revealed to be fraudulent while, in a breach of ethics, he had concealed payments from solicitors who wanted to bring cases against vaccine manufacturers.
Dr. Joseph Varon, top with JV on shield, leads a team as they tried without success to save the life of a patient inside the Coronavirus Unit at United Memorial Medical Center, Monday, July 6
He was stripped of his licence by Britain’s General Medical Council in 2010, meaning he could no longer call himself a doctor, and fled to the U.S., where he found a more receptive audience among a population rich in conspiracy theorists who instinctively mistrust whatever government tells them.
Convincing his disciples that he was the victim of a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry, medical establishment and media, Wakefield now neatly argues that the same shadowy cabal are lying to the public about coronavirus.
Having terrified one generation of parents — leading, some believe, to a spike in measles among children and a number of deaths in countries where a minority have promoted his claims — Wakefield is spreading fear and misinformation again.
And the anti-vaxxers are proving alarmingly successful, say experts who fear these science-deniers could seriously undermine efforts to tackle coronavirus effectively.
A new report by America’s George Washington University says anti-vaxxers are adept at manipulating social media, often infiltrating networks. This enables their views to drown out more measured, evidence-based voices and dominate sites such as Facebook.
The researchers say they also found evidence of growing links between anti-vaxxer groups and far-Right extremists.
Mass vaccination programmes have been protecting people from infectious diseases such as smallpox and influenza for decades, saving untold lives. And some of the biggest successes have been against viruses similar to the coronavirus, such as polio, yellow fever and measles.
Doctors and scientists almost unanimously agree that a vaccine will be the most important tool in combating the current and any future pandemic.
Anti-vaxxers’ claims — that vaccines are harmful, ineffective and a fraud perpetrated by Big Pharma for financial gain and by shadowy ‘Establishment’ forces — have been repeatedly debunked. Critics also dismiss their hysteria about ‘compulsory’ vaccination as a red herring: this is illegal in Britain and has not been proposed in America.
Despite this, and the fact that more than 138,000 people have so far died in the U.S. from Covid-19, Wakefield and other anti-vaxxers are having an alarming impact in America.
Polls show that between a fifth and a third of Americans wouldn’t have a coronavirus vaccine if one became available.
Even before any vaccine is available, anti-vaxxers in America and Europe have been demonstrating alongside anti-lockdown protesters. Remarkably, this small but fanatical band now frame their cause as a human rights issue, preferring to be called ‘pro-choice’ rather than ‘anti-vaxx’.
A poll found nearly a third of British people are either unsure or definitely wouldn’t take a vaccine for coronavirus (File image)
The ‘UK Freedom Movement’ — a loose collective of anti-lockdown protesters, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists — have held dozens of illegal gatherings in British parks. Posters read: ‘We say no to the coronavirus bill, no to mandatory vaccines, no to the new normal and no to the unlawful lockdown.’
Rule-breaking picnics are one thing. In the U.S. however, some anti-vaxxers have brought guns to demonstrations, while a popular Facebook page run by diehard anti-vaxxer Larry Cook encourages its visitors to buy firearms.
Interviewed for a TV series misleadingly called The Truth About Vaccines, Wakefield claimed that vaccines ‘are going to kill us’ and urged supporters to protest ‘in numbers that are sufficient to terrify the politicians into doing the right thing’.
Activists have been happy to plant any unfounded rumour, for example that microbiologist Dr Elisa Granato died while taking part in a vaccine trial in Oxford. The 32-year-old is alive and well.
While not championing every bizarre conspiracy, Wakefield has been happy to pour petrol on the flames and take credit for the movement’s growth.
His arguments rely on a string of debunked claims. For instance, he cited a ‘very worrying’ Pentagon study claiming that having the flu jab substantially increased the chances of being infected by coronavirus. But he omitted to mention the coronaviruses concerned in that study were the ones that cause the common cold, not the one the world is now tackling.
‘The [drugs] industry is desperate to secure its markets and profits, and therefore is forcing the mandatory vaccination agenda,’ claimed Wakefield in his interview with the ‘Health Freedom Summit’.
Wakefield’s own ‘profits’ have been healthy, thanks to his vaccine scaremongering. The three-day teleconference at which he and other leading anti-vaxxers spoke cost £56 to attend, with an undisclosed percentage of the takings going towards his next anti-vaxx project, a film called 1986: The Act, which will cover American laws limiting the liability of vaccine manufacturers in injury claims.
Wakefield is handsome, charismatic and charming, and it’s no coincidence most of his supporters are women, often well-educated and well-heeled mothers. Several female benefactors have helped him generously since he moved from Britain to Texas.
These include Jane Johnson, of the Johnson & Johnson empire and a scion of the sixth-richest family in America. (How ironic that Johnson & Johnson is now working hard to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.)
For the past two years, Wakefield, who divorced his British wife and mother of his four children last year, has been in a relationship with the Australian Macpherson, who is estimated to be worth some £50 million. Her views on vaccines remain a mystery, although it’s hard to imagine her putting up with her beau’s pariah status if she wasn’t sympathetic to his cause. But there are plenty of other celebrities who have questioned vaccines.
These include actors Robert De Niro, Jim Carrey and Jessica Biel, and the activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr, nephew of the late American president, who caused outrage by comparing vaccination to the Holocaust. (He later apologised.)
Earlier this year, Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic said he was ‘opposed to vaccination’, while the British rapper M.I.A., real name Mathangi Arulpragasam, referred to the embedded microchip conspiracy, nonsensically opining: ‘If I have to choose the vaccine or chip I’m gonna choose death.’
The formerly mask-averse Donald Trump once supported the MMR-autism connection, but now insists the U.S. is working flat-out to find a coronavirus vaccine. Public health experts believe most people want to see a vaccine against Covid-19 as soon as possible. But the anti-vaxxers have influence, and scientists are anxious nothing goes awry as new vaccines are tested.
The rush to mass vaccinate children against polio in the 1950s had disastrous consequences in America, when several batches of the treatment proved defective, causing 40,000 cases of the disease, killing ten children and paralysing 200. A similar tragedy would play right into the hands of Wakefield and his deluded friends.
While credulous celebrities are not exactly thin on the ground, anti-vaxxers have been delighted to welcome a more valuable ally in their efforts — an immunologist at University College Dublin named Prof Dolores Cahill. She gave an hour-long interview to an Irish video blogger in which she echoed pretty much all of Wakefield’s claims.
Dismissing the ‘hysteria’ over the pandemic, Cahill claimed that if people boosted their immune system with vitamins C and D and zinc supplements, 99 per cent could experience ‘just normal flu symptoms’ from Covid-19 and then be immune to the virus.
Politicians and the media, she added, were using the bug as a ‘fear-mongering propaganda tool’ to ‘take away rights from people and to make them more sick and to force vaccinations on us’.
She further claimed that vaccines contain harmful ingredients such as aluminium or mercury, and instead touted the ‘miracle drug’ hydroxychloroquine — which President Trump says he’s been taking — as an effective treatment for Covid-19.
It’s unlikely those who watched the Cahill interview were bothered by the revelation that, as chairman of the Irish Freedom Party, she was hardly your impartial boffin.
Wakefield lends arguments to people exasperated by the lockdown seeking to justify their rebellion against it, said Tara Smith, an infectious disease expert at Kent State University in Ohio, who has researched the anti-vaccine movement.
She wasn’t remotely surprised that Wakefield has latched on to coronavirus.
‘That’s what he does now. He’s lost his medical licence, he doesn’t publish as a scientist so it’s what he’s left with,’ she added.
‘He has a huge following, it’s almost cult-like.
‘Despite everything he’s done, they adore him.’