How the Oxford trial pause challenges anti-vaccine conspiracies

Recently the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trial was paused due to a possible case of transverse myelitis in one of the subjects. Today (Saturday UK time) it was announced that the trial would resume following advice from from safety experts.

Confirmation Update: Transverse myelitis has not been diagnosed in the subject [1], [2], [3], [4].

The news of the pause had the anti-vaccine lobby reacting with as much composure as dozing picnickers who have awoken to find they are laying atop a large nest of very active fire ants.

There is the urge to proclaim we told you so. Yet this includes the realisation that forfeiture of key pegs in anti-vaccine conspiracy is required. What has followed as we see below appears to be confusion, the inability to comprehend events, fabrication of fallacy and bogus reinforcement of elements of the Big Pharma conspiracy.

It’s important not to underestimate how disturbing genuine challenges to an individuals world view can be. In the case of the Oxford trial announcement, the anti-vaccine conspiratorial view of the world is threatened by a distressing reality. For the dedicated anti-vaxxer this leads to uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. In fact anti-vaccine conspiracies must exist in the first place to resolve the cognitive dissonance that arises when scientific evidence and epidemiology overwhelmingly refute the myth of dangerous vaccines and manufactured claims of vaccine injury and death.

In this case there are three main challenges to current anti-vaccine beliefs.

  1. The MSM (mainstream media) presented a transparent account of the Oxford trial pause.
  2. The pause in the trial itself shows that the safety aspect of Phase III clinical trials is working well.
  3. Cursory reading of the situation confirms the efficacy component of Phase III clinical trials and the use of a placebo.

The anti-vaccine lobby contend that mainstream media are biased against the “truth” of vaccine horror because what is reported is not anti-vaccine. If the mistake of giving anti-vaccine identities air-time to push unsubstantiated disinformation is made, criticism swiftly follows. Yet primarily it is the industry requirement to fact check that keeps anti-vaccination views from being presented unchallenged.

It’s more likely that their antics make tabloid or news segments because they are dishonest and at times vindictive. This attracts regular criticism of the Australian Vaccination-risks Network. A scheme by anti-vaxxer Kyia Clayton to interview AVN president Aneeta Hafemeister on ABC Hobart was met with outrage. It was justly criticised on Media Watch which yet again led to Meryl Dorey urging members to bombard the ABC and ACMA with complaints.

Rather than rise to the occasion and present evidence that meets the standard of scientific consensus the AVN has instead accused the media of being part of the larger conspiracy. Attacking mainstream media and articles that are based on vaccine fact is a substantial activity for Australian anti-vaxxers.

A constant claim of anti-vaxxers is that vaccines are never tested adequately for safety. This is partly due to the erroneous belief that vaccines are so full of dangerous chemicals and biological matter that they cannot possibly be safe. Ergo, any genuine monitoring for adverse reactions in large samples would reveal that a high percentage present with such reactions. As this is not the case their only conclusion is the biased testing conspiracy.

Another claim is that vaccines are never tested for efficacy. They don’t work and we have all been deceived. Herd immunity is a fake concept. Vaccines were introduced after improved sanitation and hygiene eliminated most disease and thus deserve no credit. This claim is made with the help of deceitfully crafted graphs plotting mortality, not morbidity, in such small numbers it appears that vaccines had no impact. The two claims specific to Phase III clinical trials are often made together.

This was clear when the AVN responded to an August 2019 SMH article by Liam Mannix, Anti-vaxxers live in an online bubble this scientist wants to burst. Their response is a strange collection of “propositions” the author angrily contends must exist, whilst citing pseudoscience and articles relating to medication, not vaccines.

The AVN piece included this under “Proposition 4”;

…there have never been double-blind, placebo-controlled prospective studies done on either the safety or efficacy of vaccines, not even when a new vaccine is introduced.

Oh my. This persists despite accessible evidence to the contrary and available WHO recommendations. More so, in line with all anti-vaxxers the AVN argue their definition of a placebo (such as saline) is what should be used in vaccine trials. In fact it is used in many trials but the AVN choose to ignore this. This may include shifting the goal posts. Virology Down Under discuss this no true Scotsman anti-vax fallacy related to placebos.

In some vaccine trials a saline placebo is not ethically suitable and the placebo used is not inert. With respect to the urgency COVID-19 presents this article argues that placebos aren’t needed for vaccine challenge trials. In the Oxford trial a non-saline placebo functions as a more effective control as Dr. Norman Swan explains below. The AVN have always objected to Gardasil studies which used AAHS (the amorphous aluminium hydroxyphosphate sulphate adjuvant) as a placebo.

Without citing any reference the AVN offer their definition of a vaccine trial placebo;

By definition, a placebo must be a totally inert substance which will never provoke a response.

In a recent Coronacast episodeThe Oxford vaccine’s troubles. Why it’s not doomed (yet) Norman Swan talked about efficacy and safety in this vaccine trial. Whilst the USA are using a saline placebo, the other participant countries are not. Swan explains;

A few weeks ago, phase 2, phase 3 studies, that’s dose finding and whether or not the vaccine works in large numbers of people and whether it safe, started in Brazil, South Africa and the UK, and they were aiming to recruit 17,000 people. There was also a phase 3 study just beginning in the United States in about 80 sites, trying to recruit about 30,000-odd people. The aim is to have a trial of about 50,000 people.

And interestingly it’s a placebo-controlled trial but the placebo is not saline. It is in the United States, but in Brazil, South Africa and the UK it’s actually not a dummy drug, it’s not saline, it’s a meningococcal vaccine, and they are doing that so that people don’t recognise whether or not they’ve had a placebo. It’s very important in a placebo-controlled trial that you don’t know that you are in the placebo arm. And if you get a shot in your arm and nothing happens and it’s pretty mild you think, well, maybe I’m in the placebo group.

The presenters talk about the seriousness of transverse myelitis and Norman Swan offers this context;

However, there was a study not so long ago which looked at 64 million vaccine doses and really found very little evidence, if any, that transverse myelitis is caused by immunisation. Out of 64 million doses they found seven cases or eight cases that may be associated with it. And they look really widely. They didn’t just look at the week after you’ve had the immunisation or the month after, they looked at almost any time after you’ve had the immunisation, and they conclude that transverse myelitis, unless in very rare circumstances, is not caused by a vaccine. […]

So what they’ve got to find out with this person is are they in the placebo arm, are they in the active arm, is it really transverse myelitis, what are the antibodies that have actually been shown? Are there any other symptoms? And did the person actually get infected with real COVID-19 after the trial had started…

I recommend reading the transcript or listening to this episode of Coronacast. Tegan Taylor and Swan talk more on Phase III trials and discuss the specifics of the Oxford vaccine. It’s an adenovirus carrying genetic material into cells to instruct the cells to produce fragments of COVID-19 virus. It is these fragments that induce an immune response. With respect to the use of placebos in vaccine trials a July 27th episode examines the ethics associated with the fact that subjects in the placebo arm of Phase III trials are not receiving a vaccine.

By the time the Oxford podcast was published on Thursday the AVN was already suggesting on Facebook that there may be more adverse reactions hidden from the public.

AVN Facebook post

Dubious message on AVN Facebook

“It does raise questions”? The problem with the above post is the apparent interpretation by an AVN Facebook administrator that one of the “close friend daughters” who took part in the Oxford trial “is in the Royal” [London Hospital], “diagnosed with Transverse Mylytis” (sic). There is an unverified claim that, “they have asked to keep this quite (sic) as they don’t want the public to know”. The AVN admit the information may not be true.

Yet is this really evidence of a covert case of transverse myelitis? Perhaps Karen McNab is referring to a) her friend’s daughter and also b) the “volunteer” mentioned in the WhatsApp message. The trial subject who had the presumed adverse reaction is a woman who is in hospital.

Of course my interpretation could be wrong. There is however no clear statement that one of the friend’s daughters has transverse myelitis.

Some AVN members were justifiably suspicious.

AVN FB members question source

Rixta Francis, a long term AVN member prone to simply inventing disinformation published her predictably outrageous fallacy of the Oxford trial. This is an excellent example of an immediate, and  feverish attempt to slap at the fire ants of cognitive dissonance. Fellow members are supportive.

Facebook: Rixta Francis misleads over Oxford COVID vaccine trial
Self published author of The Fiction of Science Rixta is prone to reinterpret reality in the manner above. To appreciate this we need to explore her approach more fully. In an interesting example of how things come round in circles Francis is infamous for her abuse of the memory and parents of baby Riley Hughes, who featured in the SMH article I mentioned above.

Riley died from pertussis in March 2015 before he was old enough to be vaccinated. Feeling a need to educate parents about immunisation Catherine Hughes began the Light For Riley campaign. She now runs the Immunisation Foundation of Australia. Ten months after the death of Riley, Francis falsely claimed Catherine was a member of Stop the AVN, suggested Riley and his pertussis had never existed or that the parents killed infant Riley themselves.

The post below suggests the Oxford adverse reaction has been staged. It includes dismissal of genuine media intention, dismissal of safety and dismissal of efficacy helped by quoting Australia’s CSIRO. Again this is textbook management and minimisation of cognitive dissonance.

AVN Facebook post

Other comments in the thread follow a similar theme and manage to reveal quite ridiculous thought processes. The reason people placed themselves at such risk is because they were offered “a small fortune… it all comes down to money”. Vaccines always cause “horrific injuries”. We “can’t cure cancer but we can make a vaccine in six months for a disease we don’t understand?”.

It will be interesting, but not surprising, to see how this group reacts to the news that the trial has resumed.


Further reading:

Oxford Vaccine Group

Oxford vaccine trial – University of Oxford

How Vaccine hesitancy could undermine Australia’s COVID response – The Guardian, September 12th 2020

Fact Check: Mastercard partnership on vaccination records is unrelated to finances – USA Today, September 9th 2020

Halting the Oxford vaccine trial doesn’t mean it’s not safe – The Conversation, September 9th 2020

Vaccine testing and approval process – CDC

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One thought on “How the Oxford trial pause challenges anti-vaccine conspiracies

  1. Pingback: Vaxxed III: the aim of the Vaxxed II bus tour | Losing In The Lucky Country

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