It only took a moment but it drew a lot of attention.
Woody Harrelson recently hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time. Five appearances is supposed to be memorable as lucky celebrities receive an “honorary jacket”. Yet Woody’s gig will be remembered for him donning the cloak of conspiracy theory (see what I did there), during his opening monologue. After some surprisingly ordinary pot-smoker jokes Woody told viewers about a film script he had read as he smoked a joint leaning against a tree in Central Park. The same joint we’d just met in a prior joke.
So, the movie goes like this: the biggest drug cartels in the world get together and buy up all the media and all the politicians and force all the people in the world to stay locked in their homes.
And people can only come out if they take the cartel’s drugs and keep taking them over and over.
I threw the script away. I mean, who’s going to believe that crazy idea?
I reckon like most people and virtually all Aussies, I was drawn to the SNL footage by the reaction it generated. I expected that Woody had hijacked the bulk of his monologue to chuckle through Ye Olde grab bag of COVID conspiracy smirk. Yet it was a tiresome old line: Big Pharma Control of government and media, purportedly being the real cause of COVID lockdowns, with an ultimate of profit. It fell rather flat on the audience.
Condemnation was swift. “Woody sprouts COVID conspiracy”, read Forbes. Vanity Fair told us he “really blew it”. People suggested he “sparks controversy supporting the COVID conspiracy theory”. SBS noted he “pushes conspiracy theories”. A quick Google search yields much more of the same. It’s pretty clear that rehashing COVID-19 fakery is not a way to win respect.
Yet as one might predict, the COVID conspiracy mob loved it. Avi Yemini tweeted “Woody Harrelson sums up the Covid scam perfectly”. His followers eagerly agreed, each chipping in some meaningless confirmation. One offered, “Now you know who was happy to sell you out for their own enrichment”, as if the pharma cartel conspiracy was a novel idea. The clip hit YouTube as supporters backed Woody for “telling the truth”, or dropping a “truth bomb”. Commenters adored him. Yet what really stood out is that COVID conspiracy theorists crave affirmation.
Tireless anti-vaccine profiteer Meryl Dorey, took time off from her High Court mischief to write a post on Substack praising the embarrassing wobble. Woody Harrelson makes heads explode by telling the truth about COVID policies, her piece was headed. Meryl had also noticed the critical headlines and sagely observed, Truth is not the media’s friend. She went on to list a number of headlines variously dismissive of Harrelson’s “anti-vaccine” and “COVID-19 conspiracy theories” deemed “antivax nonsense”. Then as if to again confirm she rarely has a grasp of topics she claims to be expert in, Dorey writes:
Notably, the Youtube (sic) video on SNL’s own site had comments turned off but shows that there are over 27,000 likes and only 1 dislike. One has to wonder if producers are paying attention?
Actually one has to wonder if Meryl has been paying attention, because it’s been almost 16 months since YouTube removed public display of dislike counts. Making things worse, Meryl then referred to a video of Harrelson recently ranting to Bill Maher on Maher’s Club Random about Big Pharma profits, hydroxychloroquine and the unfortunate development when, “ivermectin got made into a horse tranquilliser”. Meryl hoped more “high-profile individuals” will follow his lead, because it might just make “complicity theorists” think. An absolute failure to read the room, as it were.
Cute terms like “complicity theorists” and the utterly boring repetition of thoroughly debunked claims seeking to cast doubt about the COVID-19 pandemic, the success of vaccination and the role of pharmaceutical companies are passé. Long gone are the days of potential recruitment to the cause of COVID conspiracy. All that’s left are the various misfits and cookers who cling to the idea that democracy is under threat, paedophiles are hiding children beneath the streets and our very status as free human beings needs to be fought for. Regrettably, there are those who continue to amplify absurd themes for their own profit.
The world is moving on from the initial, uncertain years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The frightening, dystopian world that conspiracy theorists insisted we were heading for never eventuated. All that’s left for them is to keep referring to past events in the hope of maintaining relevance. Harrelson’s SNL effort confirms this rather nicely.
It is quite apt that Woody Harrelson was trying to get laughs because one thing is quite clear: the continued obsession with COVID-19 conspiracies is nothing but a bad joke.
As 2022 got under way Australians were getting used to the idea of a third COVID-19 vaccination and the possibility that the year just might unfold without lockdowns. An endangered economy needed attention. Some began to talk of a “post-COVID” way of living.
Anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists however, were having nothing to do with a post-COVID anything. The pandemic and its consequent lockdowns had given them a reason to refine their identity and fool themselves into assuming a new sense of purpose. They were the self-appointed keepers of freedom. Indeed they had convinced themselves they were freedom fighters, perhaps based on a propensity for conflict at anti-lockdown protests during 2021.
Yet, with the probability 2022 would have scant regard for their well rehearsed narrative, they were faced with a new conflict: the impending likelihood of increasing irrelevance. This gave the (by then) heartily amused and bemused population Down Under the spectacle of the Convoy To Canberra. Inspired by the Canadian anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine mandate Freedom Convoy, the gathering of a reported 10,000 protestors in Canberra  was reported by anti-vaxxers on the Australian Vaccination-risks Network Vaxxed bus to be one million, and shortly after 1.8 million in strength.
The Canberra gathering was also populated by religious fundamentalists, sovereign-citizens, self-appointed indigenous activists and those drawn to the United Australia Party. Rather than organise into a coherent group and work toward realistic goals, the event became a shambles where infighting, conspiracy theory ranting, exploitation and violence was the norm. In January, GoFundMe froze A$160,000 in funds raised for the event due to obscurity over how it would be spent, requesting the organiser identify themselves. In February GoFundMe refunded A$179,000 to donors, citing violation of terms of service. Social media accounts organising this and other events, were reported to be based in Bangladesh, India and Canada. Australians had donated almost A$50,000 to the Canadian Freedom Convoy.
Other cookers remained in unhygienic camps in Canberra, regularly posting videos of their unhealthy plight. They warned the vaccinated of impending doom thanks to circulating COVID vaccine ingredients, and even promised boosters would cause a positive test result for HIV/AIDS. In early March the AVN filed their case against Brendan Murphy and the TGA with the Federal Court of Australia. They of course wanted money. Shortly after, sensible Australians were unmoved to learn that the AVN Vaxxed bus had been seriously damaged in the NSW floods. It was a write off. They of course wanted money. Around the same time dual Bent Spoon winner Pete Evans, joined a social media conga line of cookers citing this study, to claim “mRNA could alter human DNA”, even quoting from the paper whilst adding his own caps lock to warn that it “may potentially mediate GENOTOXIC SIDE EFFECTS”. But er, no.
The floods revealed some of the conduct of cooker and anti-vaxxer Dave Oneegs, and his intentions in founding the group Aussie Helping Hands (AHH). Crikey reported in mid March that questions were being asked relating to legitimacy. Following obvious deception, false advertising and exploitation of distribution centres, the Office of Fair Trading QLD, the Department of Fair Trading NSW and NSW Police began investigations. $330,000 had been raised and Oneegs bank account was frozen. The same applied to one Dorothy “Dotti” Janssen. In a video, Oneegs alludes to a conspiracy, labelling his plight “a precedent [to] the social credit system which is coming if Australians don’t wake up”. The Northern Rivers Times published an in depth piece on 19 May (Ed. 97, p.6) looking at the players behind AHH including Hayley Birtles-Eades. It is a damning assessment of AHH. Vaxatious Litigant (@ExposingNV) posted an interesting Twitter thread on the matter yesterday, as Oneegs is due in court next month.
The suave George Christensen was impossible to miss when he animated the zombie antivax myth that relies on the base rate fallacy: highly vaccinated populations have increased cases in those vaccinated. George went as far as claiming a conspiracy between “power elites and the media” was in play. I’ve looked at that fallacy here before and fact checkers have patiently explained time and again just why it is a non-event. However this graphic, tweeted by @MarcRummy, is one of the best I’ve seen that quickly and clearly reveals the fallacy. Of course, reporting of fatalities never stopped as George had claimed. Rather, they were never there. Also never there, were the serious adverse reactions to the Pfizer mRNA vaccine that led Craig Kelly to tweet:
The Pfizer report was also used by Senator Gerard Rennick to spook Australians with respect to vaccine safety. The problem with their approach goes deeper than Kelly’s unfortunate citation of Children’s Health Defense. Just like VAERS and the UK Yellow Card reporting system the Pfizer document relies on passive reporting. Causally speaking the data are unverified. However, again like VAERS and the UK Yellow Card system, the reports will be taken seriously and followed up if events occur more frequently than before the vaccine was distributed. As if on cue to reinforce this point came the absurd claims of Japanese Encephalitis actually being a side effect of the Pfizer vaccine (see p.32 for original).
In late March the AVN and fellow plaintiff Mr. Mark Neugebauer were found in the Federal Court of Australia to lack legal standing necessary to bring their case against the Department of Health to cease COVID-19 vaccination of Australians. Neither satisfied the requirement of being a “person aggrieved”. Delightfully, Justice Perry found that Meryl Dorey’s evidence contending the AVN “is the peak vaccine organisation in Australia”, is “recognised as a leader” by other similar groups and “is a leading source of information in respect of vaccination”, could be accepted only as a belief held by Dorey. Now is not the time to dig into Dorey’s “evidence”. Suffice it to say this wasn’t just a neat legal description from Justice Perry as to why she would not accept Dorey’s evidence as legal evidence. Perry rightfully considered section 136 of the Evidence Act as requested by the respondent. As one might expect the Act is clear in that a) one cannot simply use opinion or belief as evidence, particularly when b) it is prejudicial and/or misleading.
Nasty tricks continued to target the notion of being vaccinated. A version of this video doctored with captions contended that the QLD CHO was discussing fatalities from myocarditis brought on by vaccination against COVID-19. Yet seen in full context the discussion between himself and a reporter is about deaths at home from COVID-19. One of the lowest COVID conspiracy tricks pulled by Australian politicians related to Malcolm Roberts presenting so-called results from an event titled “Covid Under Question”. His speech to the Senate accused government bodies of hiding deaths and injuries caused by the COVID vaccine rollout. Roberts claimed a “cross-party inquiry” had produced the results. In fact it was a gathering of predictable COVID conspiracy identities. RMIT Fact Check reported:
Notably, it was not a parliamentary inquiry, despite being attended by six state and federal parliamentarians from One Nation, the United Australia Party and the Coalition, including George Christensen, Craig Kelly, Senator Alex Antic and Senator Gerard Rennick.
Among those giving evidence was Dr Peter McCullogh, who has wildly claimed that the pandemic was planned, that COVID-19 infection confers “permanent immunity” and that a Queensland vaccine trial “turned everybody in the trial HIV positive”.
It also featured at least one member of the World Council for Health, a group whose claims about vaccine harms have been debunked by AAP Fact Check, with one expert describing their evidence as a “garbled mixture of misinformation”.
There was of course a federal election campaign underway. Clive Palmer’s National Press Club address was so dishonest he earned his own Fact Check cheatsheet. This included that very tired misrepresentation of TGA data on COVID-19 vaccination that he and Craig Kelly had begun in 2021. The pandemic had squeezed out a veritable host of overly ambitious parties and candidates working toward their dream of political dominion. It would take Tom Tanuki to so neatly sum up this bevy of Cooked Candidates and Shit Minor Parties. Around election time in Australia, 2022 got the pox. Or rather, monkeypox. All those freshly primed and pumped anti-vaxxers must have been delirious. Well, more delirious than usual, as they swiftly adjusted their narrative to accomodate a cut and paste for monkeypox. We had VAIDS, which although non-existent apparently meant “vaccine-acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”. Interestingly one suggestion was that the COVID-19 vaccine was a tool of the global elite in their quest for world dominion. Not long after Malcolm Roberts tweeted this nonsense about WHO Health Regulations.
Not only is there no evidence anything was “quietly pulled”, the WHO has no influence on domestic health policy. Public health emergencies of international concern would see the WHO develop and recommend health initiatives. About this time the AVN returned to the Federal Court to hear that it was liable for costs sustained by the Department of Health in the earlier case. The AVN had argued their action was “public interest litigation” and as such costs should be waived. This was rejected. Costs further included those incurred in the dispute of costs and also any costs arising from their application to join with Mr. Neugebauer. The AVN had already received generous donations, with most via GiveSendGo. Rather than settle they continued to make ludicrous claims to members, purporting to have “evidence from some of the most esteemed medical and scientific experts in the world”. They filed to appeal. By now, thanks to insurance and donations, the group also had the ghastly Vaxxed bus back on the road, exploiting vulnerable Australians to peddle the myth of large scale vaccine injuries.
One day after the TGA provisionally approved the Moderna vaccine for children aged six months to five years antivaxxers blamed it for the death of a toddler at a QLD childcare centre. Despite the fact there is significant time between approval and availability, misleading social media posts falsely described the toddler as “fully jabbed”. In fact the importance of COVID-19 vaccination for all ages was brought home days later when toddler Ruby Edwards died after contracting the disease. It triggered Acute Hemorrhagic Leukoencephalitis following inflammation in her brain and spinal cord.
As COVID-19 reinfections gradually increased the anti-vax lobby happily explained the cause via mere temporal correlation. It was the devastation of immune systems caused by COVID-19 vaccines they claimed. This was debunked at the time and a recent study from Denmark confirms effectiveness of vaccination against reinfection with COVID-19, albeit less so with respect to the Omicron variant. Then came the social media claim that a fertility specialist at Brisbane’s Mater hospital had “collected data showing 74% miscarriage post inject (sic)”. Even worse “In an attempt to silence him he was fired last Friday!!”. However the doctor hadn’t worked there for nine months and hospital records gave no indication of such an increase. A spokeswoman for Mater Health responded to queries:
Mater has not observed any change in the rate of miscarriage over the last five years or specifically since the introduction of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Victorian CHO Brett Sutton was accused of admitting COVID-19 vaccination was ineffective, following comparison of two video outtakes. It was a popular trick amongst conspiracy theorists and relied upon comparing health reports specific to different Omicron variants. The dominant strain in Victoria in April was BA.2. By August it was BA.4 and BA.5. Sutton had observed the vaccines were less effective at preventing infection with the latter strains. August also brought the appeal hearing for AVN v Secretary Dept. of Health. Three judges dismissed the appeal as incompetent and ordered the AVN to pay costs. One might suspect that the AVN would get the message. No. On 31 October AVN advised of their intention to pursue further action. Just before Christmas Meryl Dorey announced a refined “babies case” would be filed with the High Court of Australia. They of course want more money and this case has its own GiveSendGo page.
The cooker community continued to fascinate throughout the year. One bemusing feature was the badgering of New Zealand and Australian Governors General by supporters of rabid paedophile conspiracy theorist Karen Brewer. Standing at the G.G. residence gate, and reading from a script they would bellow through a bullhorn that all federal and state parliaments must be dissolved, as they have “lost confidence in the government”. New elections must be held and “all the documents Senator Heffernan produced for royal commission” must be released “unredacted” immediately. This refers to Heffernan’s 2015 speech, which cookers use to help justify the conspiracy theory that the elite run an international paedophile ring. Despite its absurdity this belief is common amongst the “cooker community”. Just to complicate things other cookers, such as retired QANTAS pilot Graham Hood reject it outright, adding to the angst and infighting. For a sample of cooker infighting I heartily recommend this video.
The year trundled into the latter months with a distinct feeling that those intent on spreading COVID-19 misinformation as a means to profit, had in many cases succeeded but had spent the year waning in popularity. Still, this meant many thousands of Australians – and millions of others around the world – remained in echo chambers of misinformation. Monkeypox was now caused by AstraZeneca of course, because it contained a chimpanzee adenovirus. A bogus claim that Robert F. Kennedy had won a US Supreme Court case against pharmaceutical lobbyists, and in doing so confirmed mRNA vaccines cause irreparable damage was denied by Kennedy himself. Australian deaths in 2022 slightly increased, bringing more claims the cause was COVID-19 vaccination. “SHAME. DISGUSTING. CRIMINAL.”, tweeted the almost forgotten Craig Kelly. Meryl Dorey drew a debunking from AAP Fact Check for this very lie. Yet in October the TGA had still reported a pandemic total of only 14 deaths linked to COVID-19 vaccination. Thirteen followed one dose of AstraZeneca. Those figures are unchanged as of today.
Fortunately 5G is unable to manipulate our DNA via graphene oxide injected with COVID-19 vaccines. Nor is graphene oxide destroying our immune systems. It is not a component of the vaccines, or masks, or PCR tests and thus, thankfully won’t be controlled by “electromagnetic 5G sensors”. More to the point such a concept is utter rubbish. One had to feel a little sorry for fact-checkers dutifully refuting this piffle. Social media accounts spreading disinformation had continued to close. Meryl Dorey’s AVN Facebook page, widely known for disinformation, was finally unpublished and her Twitter account, @nocompulsoryvac followed soon after. Monica Smit spent the year fumbling to recreate her prior influence. Time was spent fighting charges brought against her in 2021, reinventing herself and refuting vaccine requirements. Incitement charges were dropped in July and Smit now claims she intends to sue Victoria police. Some good news was that Avi Yemini was denied a Victorian parliamentary press pass and people still mock him.
Malcolm Roberts has continued to work hard all year to ensure his position as an outspoken authority on COVID-19 is the same as his position as an authority on climate change. One tweet which cited Natural News reminded me of the awfully deceptive film Died Suddenly. This was released in an attempt to spread the myth that vast numbers are dropping dead because of the COVID-19 vaccine. A collection of out of context clips and headlines uploaded by rabid conspiracy theorist Stew Peters, it pushes the depopulation theory and has been thoroughly debunked. It relies on decontextualisation to lull the viewer to not consider alternative causes for the images of blood clots and collapsing people. On a sad note it has contributed to the trolling of those who have lost a loved one to sudden death, regardless of the cause.
On the topic of consequences however, Australians were shocked when Nathaniel, Gareth and Stacey Train murdered two young police officers and a neighbour almost certainly as a result of their involvement with, and conduct as, online conspiracy theorists. Their lifestyle indicated they’d chosen to live isolated, and had internalised paranoid beliefs about government intentions. Gareth Train had contributed to different forums where conspiracy theories and sovereign citizen ideology thrive. The pandemic with its consequent restrictions and mandates likely exacerbated his thinking, but Train was no newbie. Click through the sample below:
Unsurprisingly there was sympathetic chatter amongst conspiracy theorists online, some of which occurred on (dodgy flood money guy) Dave Oneegs’ Telegram page. Dave has a long history of believing lockdowns signalled that Australia will be “taken over”. Elsewhere, articles have appeared questioning every reported aspect of the shooting. Why was a welfare check run on a missing person? Why send regular cops? Why not sit and wait it out? Why, why, etc, etc. In short this event is now a conspiracy theory for conspiracy theorists. Sympathisers wanted to identify with the Trains claiming, “he was definitely one of us” and that it was “time to rise up”. A tweeted reply to a well known activist was chilling in its ignorance. “Wearing that title with pride now, look what we can do. Smoked to (sic) 2 pigs. It’s too easy. while you snooze… normie”. If this event has taught us anything it can not only be how a small minority might act. We must accept how a much larger minority is prepared to think and converse and provoke. That is where the problem lives.
As Australia moves into the fourth year of this pandemic we can predict that the enemies of reason and those who profit from disinformation, will ensure plenty of losing in the lucky country. Only a few have been mentioned above. Yet living in this wealthy country at this time in civilisation’s history is still a case of winning the lottery. COVID-19 infections are presently surging and we’re yet to see what strains, if any, will arise from the situation in China. We’ve learnt much about coping with pandemic conditions. 2023 can’t do much more than demand we continue to put that knowledge into practice. Similarly we’ve learnt much more about evidence denial and those that rely on it. 2023 will be an opportunity to immunise against non-critical thinking and to further identify, refute and annoy those who seek to promote it.
At the end of June this year I posted on a dubious-looking legal fundraising campaign announced by the Australian Vaccination-risks Network. They were, apparently, proposing private action against Australia’s federal health minister, Greg Hunt, and injunctive relief against the federal government.
It was not surprising to learn they were claiming the COVID-19 vaccine rollout was an experiment and must be stopped. The full 18 June letter to Hunt and Mark Butler MP is here. They had given Greg Hunt seven days to respond, and in the post I included part of their demands:
If you do not respond or if your response once again does not address our concerns, we would feel that we have no option but to consider legal action against you yourself, Minister Hunt, in the form of a private prosecution and against the Government to seek injunctive relief to immediately stop this current experiment on the Australian population…
Hunt, of course, did not respond. Meryl Dorey announced on the eve of day seven that, absent his response, a page would be set up for donations and legal action would proceed. Or rather it would if “our solicitors and lawyers and barristers say we are going to proceed”. What followed was… well, nothing. Or rather, nothing from deep in the AVN bunker. One suspects that this is because other actors, planning legal action against COVID public health initiatives, were drawing significant funds from motivated donors.
The AVN is an anti-vaccine pressure group with a history of dubious legal fundraising schemes. Last year all roads led to funding their Vaxxed bus tour. This has long since ground to a halt, as Meryl Dorey struggles to reinvent herself, yet again, to sell the unsuspecting the same decades old packages of vaccine disinformation. Dorey attracts reasonable numbers to her Facebook videos but this isn’t an income stream. One suspects the AVN is keen for an injection (pun intended) of donor dollars.
Recent failed COVID legal challenges
In June 2020, COVID conspiracy lawyer Nathan Buckley’s popularity grew when he advised Victorians to ignore lockdown directives. Eleven long months before AVN thought to raise money for COVID related legal challenges, Buckley had already suggested up to $10 million would be needed for a High Court challenge against Australia’s lockdowns. He further used the AVN playbook to propose action against flu vaccine legislation and No Jab No Play laws in South Australia. At the end of July 2021 he was still attracting attention in mainstream media.
Nathan Buckley reportedly raised over $575,000 via crowdfunding, to challenge vaccine mandates and public health orders related to COVID-19. An October report suggested he had raised $700,000. Both lawsuits brought before the NSW Supreme Court, targetting NSW health minister Brad Hazzard were dismissed by Justice Robert Beech-Jones on Friday 15 October. Buckley’s bizarre social media posts attacking Justice Beech-Jones and misrepresenting his findings, contributed to his suspension from the NSW Law Society. For the AVN, this meant Buckley’s generous donors were potentially available.
The efforts of Tony Nikolic and Matthew Hopkins of AFL Solicitors have also attracted a great deal of attention and donor dollars. Nikolic targeted Brad Hazzard and Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant. At one point antivaxxers contributed by publishing misrepresentations of evidence given by Kristine Macartney, the director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. The NCIRS published a statement addressing each item in the falsified court transcript. AFL solicitors, who had brought one of the suits, were moved to reject those antivax claims on Telegram.
After these cases had all failed, AFL and G&B joined forces in an attempt to force Australia’s Prime Minister to apologise outside the Polish embassy for “deceiving” Australians. The chosen location for the apology was based on COVID conspiracy theorists belief that “Polish government officials” had protested outside the Australian embassy in Warsaw. In fact the protest was not by government officials but members of a far-right political party, with a history of spreading COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracies. In another case challenging the human rights of vaccine mandates, Marcus Clarke QC representing plaintiffs, unsuccessfully called on Justice Melinda Richards to excuse herself from the trial.
Serene Teffaha of Advocate Me, reportedly raised over $654,000 before her practising certificate was cancelled in April this year. Even after this, her efforts continued to divert funds for vague and futile legal efforts, away from the AVN. Finally, Maatouks Law Group raised close to $100,000 for a NSW class action. At the beginning of September, Cam Wilson’s article in Crikey listed the main players crowdsourcing funds for eventually hopeless legal gambles. He rightly noted it’s not illegal to test the authority of public health restrictions. The text of his article captures the absence of transparency available to donors regarding the quality and integrity of expenditure decisions. There are many other examples, and appeals are still being heard.
This organised, well funded action based upon disinformation and rampant conspiracy theories, stewing on encrypted social media, overly seasoned with offensive personal attacks on anyone who dare think differently, is common. That’s high praise indeed as to free democracy in Australia. A fact that does not resonate with Meryl Dorey’s 20 November opening line to the AVN’s latest legal fundraising blurb. On the pages of Christian fundraising site GiveSendGo [Archive], we read:
Australia is in a tailspin – descending almost inexorably into tyranny.
Orphaned donors an opportunity for the AVN
“Tyranny” has been a well worn word for COVID conspirators during the pandemic. The AVN has given “Medical Tyranny” and “fascism” ample airing, as Dorey urged followers to donate in support of the fight for freedom, and as a reason to attend illegal protests during lockdown. The AVN had frequently promoted the efforts of Buckley, Teffaha, Nikolic and Hopkins. Nikolic had cited AVN antivax material in a long letter to Brad Hazzard. The AVN has watched these fraught legal efforts with scrutiny. Is it cynical to suspect that as legal challenges fell to “fascist medical tyranny”, eyes in the AVN bunker also noticed increasing numbers of ‘orphan’ donors had lost their cause for donation?
The fundraising blurb continues:
We are not able to travel from State to State or overseas, work in our normal jobs – even when those jobs are part of our own business, go out to eat, drink, to the cinema, dance, sing, or do just about anything else without agreeing to take an experimental jab that has already killed hundreds of our countrymen and women and injured over 80,000.
It is obvious to anyone who has observed what’s been happening over the last 22 months that our governments – State and Federal – are determined to remove every right our parents and grandparents fought for in many wars over the last 100 years or so.
We at the Australian Vaccination-risks Network (AVN) have watched this with great dismay, as we know many of you have done as well. We have participated in protests, made submissions, written letters and for the most part, though these actions have put the government and their bureaucracy on notice, their course seems to have been set and unchanged through it all.
Court cases have arisen and been lost – and others are ongoing – we wish them all well. Though we have informed people of these cases and done everything we can to offer whatever assistance we can to the organisers, the AVN has not personally gotten behind any of them.
We recently met with a legal team that has rendered a legal advice that has been reviewed by two eminent Australian and English legal minds, (a former Justice and a current QC), that the case has merit and, if it wins (there is never a guarantee) .. of completely turning the current situation on its head!
The AVN claim to feel so strongly they have donated $20,000 into the “AVN Judicial Review Fund of our instructing solicitors Irish Bentley”. That might sound generous and is intended to motivate donors. Yet we must remember the AVN 2016 High Court challenge against “tyrannical ‘No Jab, No Pay’ federal legislation”. According to their own emails and website, this ultimately left them holding a minimum of $80,000 and possibly close to $110,000. These figures vary because their own published totals of raised funds and apparent legal expenditure both varied significantly. Was $160,000 raised or $152,000? Was expenditure around $70,000 or was it $50,000? This disparity remains online and has never been explained.
Money from this remaining kitty that the AVN might claim was spent on antivax pursuits, distills into two efforts. In February 2019 the AVN advised members they had donated $5,000 USD to ecologist James Lyons-Weiler, to help fund his crowdsourced “Vaxxed vs unvaxxed” study. Published in the International Journal of Research and Public Health, it was quickly demolished  by critics of the new and dubious methodology. The study was retracted in August this year. In March this year the AVN advised that £4,000 was apparently donated to Professor Christopher Exley of Keele University in the UK. This was to assist his work into linking aluminium to neurodegenerative diseases, including the long debunked “vaccine-autism” trope. That money supposedly vanished in the midst of controversy that saw Exley leave Keele University in August this year.
The fundraising blurb attempts to justify their position in defending all Australians, whether vaccinated or not. It’s about freedom and slavery, no less.
Now is the time for ALL freedom-loving people – those who have taken the jab and those who have not; those who are staring down unemployment and those who are still able to work; those who want to protect their children and grandchildren and those who simply believe that the government’s rights stop at our skin – to pull together as one.
Whether you are able to donate $5 or $5,000, we need you now! And if you have no money to give to this cause, we need you to share this with everyone you possibly can – both here in Australia and overseas.
What we do here and now can have wide-ranging and positive influences on the entire world. There are more of us who believe in freedom than there are those who want to enslave us.
Cleaning Up Their Act
What’s notably different about this fundraising attempt is that the AVN have provided terms and conditions. They actually name real solicitors and refer to a trust account. It’s now clear to those who read the terms that the AVN is not a charity. That last point is a hard learned lesson that previously cost them significant funds. The 2016 High Court challenge ceased abruptly and the reason, is something the AVN has tried to keep secret. After announcing $160,000 had been raised, and that double that was needed, the AVN suddenly went silent. Three and a half months later, on Christmas day, they quietly revealed by email that, “counsel has advised us not to proceed due to the poor chance of success and the high costs of a High Court challenge”.
That was not accurate. What had actually happened was the AVN (then ‘Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network’) were advised of an upcoming NSW Fair Trading investigation into the fundraiser. The Australian reported the facts two days after the AVN had formally ceased fundraising. An August 2018 letter from Fair Trading, eventually advised then-AVN president Tasha David of the outcome. Essentially, the High Court fundraiser had indeed broken the law, but the AVN would not be prosecuted.
The Inquiry has found AVsN’s representations as to the money solicited on its website, and received by it, include a charitable purpose in that it purports to be for the promotion of education and learning. A copy of s. 9 of the Act is attached. […]
On this occasion NSW Fair Trading does not intend to initiate legal proceedings. However, AVsN must immediately cease the conducting of unlawful fundraising. If AVsN fails to comply, a further investigation may be conducted. If a future investigation finds that AVsN is continuing to conduct fundraising unlawfully, Fair Trading will consider appropriate enforcement action.
NSW Fair Trading investigations are bound by the limits of the Charitable Fundraising Act 1991. In simple terms that means they can act if non charities, such as the AVN, appear to be raising funds for a charitable purpose. By stating now that they are not a charity, the AVN hope to avoid accusations of unlawful fundraising and the promised “enforcement action”. Naming their solicitors, as opposed to previously alluding to anonymous representation, is something they had to do. For almost two years now, proposed crowdsourced legal action against public health directives and COVID-19 vaccination, has had names and faces. The AVN pre-COVID claim of needing secrecy to avoid revealing their strategy to the government and “the pharmaceutical lobby”, will no longer work.
I suspect that now having actual solicitors whose professional reputation is involved, means that a trust account has been strongly recommended. Legally, as the AVN is not a charity, the Charitable Trusts Act 1993 does not apply. In 2016 donors were asked to identify payments with the initials “NJNP”. All routes of deposit led to a long standing Westpac “AVN Community Solutions” account. There simply was no dedicated bank account, and if donors did not initial cheques, money orders or PayPal donations, the AVN advised, the money would be assumed to be not for the High court challenge and used as they saw fit. It may not be essential to provide a dedicated account for funds raised, but it is sound practice and the AVN have learned not only from their own mistakes and critics, but quite likely from recent critics of Serene Teffaha.
The Terms and conditions are as follows:
The goal is $300,000. Total to date since 20 November, is $123,040. Two realities have emerged with respect to recent legal challenges of this nature. The chance of success is unlikely in the extreme. The chance of significant profit is high. Item 10 in the terms and conditions allows the AVN to spend donor monies on what they may deem related administrative costs. Item 11 states that only donors who contribute over $500 “may elect” to receive a pro rata return from surplus funds, if over $5,000 is left.
If at the completion or cessation (for whatever reason) of the proceedings (which may include appellate proceedings) there are monies exceeding AU$5,000 remaining in the AVN Judicial Review Fund (i.e. surplus funds), donors who have contributed an amount greater than $500 may elect to receive a pro rata return from the surplus funds (i.e. their total donation as a proportion of the total funds raised). Any funds remaining after such pro rata return will be paid to AVN.
Following a complaint to the ABC in the wake of a 12 August interview with the founder of Reignite Democracy Australia, Monica Smit, Audience and Consumer Affairs concluded that it was a “serious editorial misjudgement”.
They found that ABC Far North Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy, harm and offence. A correction has been published and, after the finding is reported to the ABC board, it will be published under upheld complaints.
A post here on 18 August, examined in depth a series of bogus claims made by Smit (pictured), and touched on the importance of editorial accuracy. On 13 August I’d submitted a complaint to the ABC summarising the most significant points made in that post.
As mentioned in the post under Editorial Standards?, after the interview, presenter Adam Stephens did clearly outline his reasons for having Smit on. He thought it is interesting people hold such views and that, as evidenced by RDA pamphlet drops, some residents around Cairns had been swayed by Smit.
He also added:
Whether you wanted to hear from Monica or not there are people that are listening to her message, and sometimes it’s… I think worthwhile in actually learning about the motivations of some of these groups in our community, and some of the people that feel strongly enough to actually join groups like this and distribute their information.
This sounds reasonable, but the problem is that Smit is a skilled manipulator. She is well versed in faux justifications for anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-lockdown claims. The RDA site leaves no doubt that they present harmful and divisive claims backed up by legal loopholes and the misrepresentation of studies. At the time, Smit had already incited a number of illegal protests. It was clear she had no regard for community safety. It is a factor that ABC management should have proactively made clear to programme producers across the country.
In an ideal world, disinformation would be refuted on the spot. In reality, because Smit (and others like her) cover such a range of topics, and use obscure details, this is impossible. The answer is to never provide air time. A decade ago, anti-vaccination activist Meryl Dorey was given ABC air time to discuss an immunisation incentive. She used both opportunities to spread disinformation. Complaints were upheld and Dorey hasn’t been on the ABC since. Let’s hope a similar fate awaits Smit.
ABC Far North: On 12 August, ABC Local Radio Far North Drive interviewed a member of anti-lockdown and COVID-19 conspiracy group Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). The program failed to explain that the interviewee had no medical or pandemic expertise; and that the group is anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and encourages illegal lockdown protests. This context was material to the audience’s understanding of the issues to hand. During the interview it was stated that mask wearing is dangerous; this is inaccurate. The interviewee made repeated erroneous claims about important public health matters which were not adequately contextualised or corrected by the presenter. The program failed to take the opportunity after the interview to directly correct and debunk the claims made.
ABC’s editorial standards are covered in the Code of Practice. Ultimately, Audience and Consumer Affairs found that the interview breached the ABC standards for accuracy 2.1 and 2.2, and for harm and offence 7.1 and 7.6. The full email response from Audience and Consumer Affairs is below (with permission of ABC).
Dear Mr Gallagher
Thank you for your email regarding the 12 August edition of ABC Far North’s Drive with Adam Stephen, which featured an interview with Monica Smit of Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). I apologise for the delay in responding.
Your complaint has been considered by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of content making areas within the ABC. Our role is to review and, where appropriate, investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards, which are explained in our Code of Practice. We have carefully considered your complaint, sought information from ABC Regional management and assessed the content against the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy and harm and offence.
Drive has explained that local Cairns businesses had received flyers from RDA, and that they broadcast an interview with a business owner who expressed his frustration with the “irresponsible” behaviour of this group which would “put everyone else in danger”. Following this, the editorial decision was made to interview Monica Smit from RDA.
Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that within the context presented, this interview was a serious editorial misjudgement. Our findings are set out below against the relevant editorial standards.
2.1 Make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context.
2.2 Do not present factual content in a way that will materially mislead the audience. In some cases, this may require appropriate labels or other explanatory information.
As you explain, at no point was it made clear that Monica Smit and RDA have no medical or pandemic expertise, nor are they advised by medical experts. It was not made clear that their flyer and website provides no reputable or evidence-based information. Further, it was not explained that RDA is an anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination activist group which attends, supports and encourages illegal lockdown protests and other activities. This context was material to the audience’s understanding of the issues to hand and in particular to the credibility of the claims made by Monica Smit.
As you point out, Monica Smit made numerous inaccurate and unsupported statements in this interview which were not corrected or adequately challenged by the presenter. The claims made by Monica Smit regarding mask wearing and lockdowns were both alarming and erroneous. The interviewee was allowed to make repeated inaccurate claims about important public health matters which were not adequately contextualised or corrected. Further, the program failed to take the opportunity after the interview to directly correct and debunk the claims made.
Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy 2.1 and 2.2.
Harm and offence
7.1 Content that is likely to cause harm or offence must be justified by the editorial context.
7.6 Where there is editorial justification for content which may lead to dangerous imitation or exacerbate serious threats to individual or public health, safety or welfare, take appropriate steps to mitigate those risks, particularly by taking care with how content is expressed or presented.
Audience and Consumer Affairs observe that reliance by listeners on the information provided by Monica Smit during this interview about public health orders was likely to cause harm. This includes the inaccurate information about mask wearing, lock downs and comments made by the interviewee on how to breach / avoid health orders.
The likely harm was not justified by the editorial context. Issues around groups like RDA are newsworthy to a degree, usually because of the threat or harm they present to the wider community and their illegal activities. An interview with a fringe activist with no medical expertise talking about public health matters requires very solid context and rigorous debunking; that did not happen on this occasion.
The material propagated by Monica Smit in this interview put RDA followers and the people around them at risk, and the editorial context did not justify the likely harm. The program did not take adequate care with how this content was expressed or presented, particularly in relation to accuracy.
Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for harm and offence7.1 and 7.6.
ABC Regional apologise for this serious lapse in editorial standards. This matter has been discussed with the program team and a correction published here. In keeping with Audience and Consumer Affairs’ usual processes, this finding will be reported to the ABC Board and a summary published here.
Thank you again for bringing your concerns to the attention of the ABC. Once again I apologise for the delay in responding. Should you be dissatisfied with this response, you may be able to pursue your complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (www.acma.gov.au).
Yours sincerely (redacted) Investigations Manager Audience and Consumer Affairs
Since the inception of VAERS, anti-vaccination activists have misused reports as a cornerstone in their campaign to misinform and mislead. Vaccination against COVID-19 has led to that misuse exploding.
What is VAERS?
VAERS is the U.S. based Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It is an early warning system that collates reports of suspected adverse events following immunisation. A full explanation is here. Reports may be submitted by anyone who has received a vaccine authorised in the United States. Doctors, health workers, family members and associates can also submit reports. It is an open passive reporting system that allows reports from anyone who is aware of an adverse event they perceive as related to a vaccine.
It follows that the reports are just that; reports. Reports that contain no information about causality or indeed accuracy. This is not to say they are inaccurate. Rather that their true meaning, and indeed impact, can only be borne out in the context of further evaluation. Evaluation will assess any pattern of events, related health problems, any identifiable mechanism of causality and the time frame between vaccination and adverse event. Suspect vaccines would be suspended and emergency investigations employed to assess the scale and seriousness of adverse reaction(s). If the adverse event is confirmed to be more significant than in pre-licencing trials, the vaccine is removed from market.
Research and peer reviewed publication would follow, describing these findings. This information is of enormous benefit to the design, manufacture and trial of future vaccines. What stands out immediately is that determining adverse events due to vaccination requires significant input seperate from VAERS. The most important and irrefutable element about VAERS reports is that they do not represent cause and effect.
When evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established. […]
VAERS collects data on any adverse event following vaccination, be it coincidental or truly caused by a vaccine. The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event.
Under VAERS Data Limitations:
Reports vary in quality and completeness. They often lack details and sometimes can have information that contains errors. […]
No proof that the event was caused by the vaccine is required in order for VAERS to accept the report. VAERS accepts all reports without judging whether the event was caused by the vaccine.
The above is a small selection from the guide. Yet it is enough to inform readers seeking definitive information on adverse events linked to vaccines, that it will not be found there. Exploiting the reports to provide an accurate picture of potential or existing problems takes resources. Resources that individuals don’t have. Consider the case of RotaShield. This rotavirus vaccine was taken off the U.S. market in 1999 because of an association between the vaccine and intussusception. The U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunisation Practices (ACIP) voted for its removal after an in depth review of available data. RotaShield was available for just months.
Paul Offit is well schooled in how VAERS is misused. He is also a firm supporter of civilian reporting because, as intended, unanticipated side effects can be caught this way. He has referred to VAERS as a “hypothesis-generating mechanism”, and observed about RotaShield:
There were a number of VAERS reports that patients within a week developed an intestinal blockage. A study was done and it was shown to be a causal association. VAERS was the tipoff. There’s value in it.
The suspected association between RRV-TV and intussusception based on a review of VAERS data led CDC, in conjunction with state and local health departments, to implement a case-control study [in 19 U.S. states among 429 infants and 1,763 matched controls] and case-series analysis and a retrospective cohort study [among 463,277 children].
So yes. If it’s confirmation of adverse events due to vaccination one seeks, merely perusing VAERS isn’t enough. This doesn’t stop antivaxxers from abusing the VAERS database to create the illusion of wide scale “vaccine injury”. As we’ve seen time and again during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, screenshots and memes reach a large audience. Discredited Australian Instagram influencer and anti-vaccine advocate, Taylor Winterstein, has misused VAERS data to attack “mainstream mentality”. These tactics have the added advantage of side-stepping the guide to interpreting what is limited data on VAERS. The same approach is used by right wing cable news outlets. There are numerous techniques used to avoid the reality that there is only a temporal, and not a causal, relationship between vaccine and adverse reaction. Presenting government data carries a certain authority. Stripping it of context ensures it is inaccurate.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc: After this therefore because of this. This fallacy is the fuel driving the VAERS misinformation empire. Without it, outright claims cannot stand. Nor could the inference and extrapolation that comes from accepting widespread vaccine injury and death. The Vaxxed II bus in Australia is a typical example. It began last year, collecting dubious testimonials on “the vaccine-killed and injured”. Last month it began targeting the COVID-19 vaccine. Removing context from VAERS data ensures post hoc fallacy. This is exactly what the OpenVAERS project does. Launched in September 2019, it was initially run from archivist.net as confirmed on the Facebook page of The Archivist. In January 2021 the domain switched to openvaers.com and focused on COVID-19 vaccination data. Unsurprisingly OpenVAERS is a favourite of antivaxxers. Until recently, the index page offered:
The OpenVAERS Project allows browsing and searching of the reports without the need to compose an advanced search (more advanced searches can be done at medalerts.org or vaers.hhs.gov).
That’s what we find on the archived index page as at 1 August 2021. The next capture is 23 August 2021. At some time between these captures, OpenVAERS included a link to its own copy of the VAERS disclaimer both on the index page and its impactful VAERS COVID Vaccine Data page. The change on the vaccine data page was minor. Compare the 23 July and 20 August pages below. Keep in mind this is what readers see when they land on the data page. To appreciate the importance of context I’ve included a screenshot of the government VAERS data page.
Prior to this, users of OpenVAERS would have to navigate to the About page and follow the link to the VAERS About page. The change came just prior to the publication by Logically, a misinformation tracking group, of an article on 12 August which revealed the name and face behind the site. Logically had posed questions and a request for comment, which may have prompted the design change. Lizabeth Pearl Willner (below) better known as Liz Willner believes her daughter was injured by vaccination and began posting anti-vaccine content on social media in April 2019. She insists the site exists to provide easy access to official data.
There were significantly more visits to OpenVAERS (1.23 million) than to VAERS (796.63k) between February and July this year. Logically discovered that 30 percent of referrals to OpenVAERS are from the right wing, fake news site, Gateway Pundit. 10 percent are from conspiracy theorist Vernon Coleman (old man in a chair). These sites promote COVID conspiracies, pseudoscience and anti-vaccination rhetoric. Willner’s now deleted Facebook account and recently deactivated Twitter handle @1pissedoffmom1, amplified the reach and impact of OpenVAERS.
Until April 2021 OpenVAERS included a dedicated and searchable vaccine excipients table. The OpenVAERS blog now returns a 404 page. Indeed those behind OpenVAERS seem intent on having their deleted content also removed from archive.org. When running, the blog provided a one stop antivax shop for COVID-19 misinformation for “warrior moms, dads and grandparents”.
Call For Action posts contained alarming inaccuracies about the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. The posts linked to ready-made PDFs to be printed out and mailed to “friends, family, and elected officials”. The drill, as they called it, was “10 copies, 10 stamps, 10 envelopes, 10 chances to wake someone up”.
Unfortunately, coronavirus vaccines excel at producing iatrogenic injury. Since their rushed introduction in December, these shots have produced four times more fatalities than the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
A link to that particular post, along with the 9/11 reference was shared onThe Defender. That’s the “news and views” site of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense. The potential for harm by encouraging vaccine hesitancy in the midst of a pandemic is significant. Willner has ignored requests for comment from VICE News. The OpenVAERS blog also claims to be getting around “the criminal censorship of essential vaccine information on social media”.
Successful misuse of data this way relies upon the base rate fallacy. When vast sections of the population are involved, background mortality and morbidity become significant. Adverse events and deaths are reported in such numbers not because the vaccine is responsible, but because so many people are being vaccinated on any given day. Each person is given literature on how to report adverse reactions to VAERS. The V-Safe initiative includes regular text messages asking about any symptoms or changes to health. Attention given COVID-19 vaccination is unparalleled and this is reflected in data. Reports to VAERS (CSV VAERS Data accessed 3 September 2021) for all of 2020 totalled 63,544. To date, reports for 2021 ending 20 August, total 674,382. Not only are these reports unconfirmed but the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine is regularly affirmed.
Kolina Koltai is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public based at the University of Washington. She describes OpenVAERS as “misinformation 101” and stresses that such decontextualisation is common to misinformation. Koltai uses such examples in classes that she teaches. In responses to questions posed by Logically, Liz Willner accused them of misrepresenting both VAERS and OpenVAERS. She cited data collected between 1990 – 2010 to argue, misleadingly, that “83% of reports are health care workers and Pharma”. Despite all evidence pointing to her, she insists OpenVAERS is a team effort. This is reflected on the site.
We built openVAERS because we found the HHS site difficult to navigate and get information from. We wanted a way to browse reports. Once we had that we decided to make it public.
How generous. Who is behind OpenVAERS?
OpenVAERS is a project developed by a small team of people with vaccine injuries or have children with vaccine injuries. We do not accept donations or solicit fees. There is zero monetization of this site. It is purely created in order to help others browse the VAERS records and to identify the reported signals that may otherwise get missed.
Here Willner misuses the term “signals”, specifically in how they relate to establishing risk. According to the CDC underHow VAERS works:
Patterns of adverse events, or an unusually high number of adverse events reported after a particular vaccine, are called “signals.” If a signal is identified through VAERS, scientists may conduct further studies to find out if the signal represents an actual risk.
The design of OpenVAERS allows immediate access to VAERS reports. These, in conjunction with tabulated figures, can be easily screenshot and spread via social media. Misleading commentary on these platforms aims to encourage vaccine hesitancy. One claim is that COVID-19 vaccines cause serious cardiac events and heart attack. In addressing this topic the indefatigable Orac picks apart flawed manipulation of data from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Children’s Health Defense. Back in May the energetic David Gorski addressed the “vaccine holocaust” based on VAERS data that Mike Adams bravely announced. Examples abound. The one constant, and undoubtedly something to be factored into public education, is that misuse of unverified reports is a key driver of vaccine hesitancy.
Despite long standing problems, VAERS works. RotaShield is a case in point. Twenty years of research preceded its approval by the FDA. Four months after ACIP recommended a three dose schedule for all infants it was suspended to allow for a CDC investigation. There had been twelve reports to VAERS of intussusception. Dorit Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings and pro-vaccination activist, shares Paul Offit’s view that submitting reports to VAERS should be easy for members of the public. Reiss has suggested withholding reports that are “clearly not credible”.
One imagines this would include suicides, drownings, car accidents, homicides, and so on. To appreciate the less credible, or in this case incredible, consider the case of James Laidler M.D. He submitted a report to the effect that the influenza vaccine turned him into The Incredible Hulk. It was accepted. To reinforce this flaw Kevin Leitch of Left Brain Right Brain, submitted a report to VAERS that his daughter had turned into Wonder Woman following vaccination. This too was accepted. The ease of submitting dubious reports has been raised with antivaxxers. The unanimous reply is that submitting a false report to VAERS is a felony. This was also argued by Liz Willner when defending her conduct to Logically. The Hulk and Wonder Woman however, remain felony free.
It is clear though, that VAERS as it presently exists is of benefit to U.S. public health. Given that so much of the anti-vaccination response to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout was anticipated it is unfortunate that the abuse of VAERS was not proactively met. The outlay of resources to say, educate, or at least inform the public would not be prohibitive. The probable cost of managing the harm that exploitation of the system has, and will continue to cause is significant. Of course that’s an easy observation to make in hindsight. Nonetheless, any measures taken now to manage misinformation adversely effecting vaccine uptake would likely be justified.
The misuse of VAERS data is rarely complete without also misrepresenting the fact that adverse events following vaccination go largely unreported. In other words VAERS data represents underreporting. Given that the majority of events are minor, such as injection site soreness and redness or involve headaches, fever, aches, nausea, itching and so on, this is to be expected. For the anti-vaccination lobby the aim has always been to create the illusion of large scale death and serious injury, then compound this by claiming it represents only a small fraction of actual cases. Judy Wilyman favoured this tactic to smear successful HPV immunisation campaigns and indeed all vaccines. Liz Willner doesn’t disappoint.
VAERS is the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System put in place in 1990. It is a voluntary reporting system that has been estimated to account for only 1% (see the Lazarus Report) of vaccine injuries. OpenVAERS is built from the HHS data available for download at vaers.hhs.gov.
From the OpenVAERS blog post of 2 August 2021:
The 518,769 injury reports are just the tip of the iceberg as a government-funded study concluded that “fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are reported.”
This is more decontextualisation. It is unlikely visitors will read the report or indeed search for definitive reviews of the one percent finding. Also, as data are from a government authority, and underreporting is represented on government sites, an appeal to authority is in constant play. Antivaxxers have thus quite confidently used this two pronged approach for over a decade. Adapting to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine while obfuscating increased reporting of symptoms and the role of V-Link, has proven seamless for established lobbyists.
The figure of 1% comes from a report from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Inc., authored by Ross Lazarus. Data examined are from 1 December 2007 to 30 September 2010. These data include all possible adverse events. Prior evaluation of the reporting rates of various events confirms that minor events are rarely reported and more serious events routinely reported. A 2014 report on surveillance of adverse events following immunisation in NSW, Australia noted that:
Only 11% of the reported adverse events were categorised as serious
Reuters report the case of an antivaxxer reiterating falsely that only one percent of deaths and injuries following the COVID-19 vaccine are reported. The article includes this comment from a CDC spokesperson:
Mild events, like a rash, tend to be reported less frequently than severe events (like a seizure). We have data to show that serious adverse events that occur after vaccination are more likely to be reported than non-serious adverse events. Events such as a sore arm at the injection site might not get reported since they are expected and therefore people don’t feel the need to report them.
A December 1995 study of passive surveillance sensitivity in The American Journal of Public Health reported 72% for poliomyelitis after the oral polio vaccine and less than 1% for rash and thrombocytopenia after MMR. A 2020 study of VAERS sensitivity published in Vaccine noted in Background, a similar rate of 68% capture for poliomyelitis after oral polio vaccine and 47% capture of intussusception cases after rotavirus vaccine. The target objective of anaphylaxis and GBS following various vaccines revealed a range from 12% to 76%. As early as 2003 a study found that serious events are rare.
What antivaxxers won’t tell you
The evident paucity inherent in the misuse of VAERS data becomes apparent when examining another appeal to authority employed by antivaxxers. Namely the amount of money awarded to “victims of vaccine injury” via the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Total compensation paid out over the life of the VICP, since 1988, is in the area of $4.6 billion US. Members of the anti-vaccine lobby often cite various approximations of this figure to underscore their claim that vaccine damage occurs on a huge scale. In fact a simple analysis of VICP figures reveals the opposite to be true.
The report states that for every 1 million vaccine doses, “approximately 1 individual was compensated”. This is a familiar figure. The table below contains the monthly VICP statistics update report for 1 November 2021. It may be found on page three of the data and adjudication statistics report from Health Resources and Services Administration. It is headed Adjudication Categories, by Alleged Vaccine for Petitions Filed Since the Inclusion of Influenza as an Eligible Vaccine for Filings. NB: Influenza doses = 45% of total doses since 2006.
From 1 January 2006 to 31 December 2019 the number of vaccine doses distributed, as sourced from the CDC, totals 4,092,757,049. The total number of compensable cases is 6,086. Or 0.00015% of distributed doses. The Influenza vaccine accounts for 71.8% of compensable doses. Total settlements, including dismissed cases and non-compensable cases to date, have reached 8,551. Or 0.00021% of distributed doses. This represents a striking absence of vaccine injury. Unsurprisingly you will not hear these figures from the anti-vaccination lobby.
Since January 1988, 24,538 petitions have been filed [page 5]. 8,439 or 34% of petitions were compensated. More so, as the HRSA report states, “Being awarded compensation for a petition does not necessarily mean that the vaccine caused the alleged injury”.
Approximately 60 percent of all compensation awarded by the VICP comes as a result of a negotiated settlement between the parties in which HHS has not concluded, based upon review of the evidence, that the alleged vaccine(s) caused the alleged injury.
Before moving on it’s worth reflecting on the fact that both VAERS and the VICP exist thanks to the efforts of established anti-vaccine campaigners such as Barbara Loe Fisher. Their campaigning led to the creation of the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which is itself the subject of Andrew Wakefield’s most recent film claiming widespread vaccine injury. As we can plainly see not only are compensated cases exceedingly rare, but only 40% of those demonstrate a causal link to any vaccine. One expects it is not rash to expect that in time we will see similar figures pertaining to COVID-19 vaccines.
Antivax Winning Formula
Misrepresenting VAERS data is a simple winning formula for antivaxxers. It follows that it can be applied to any adverse event reporting system, particularly those employing passive surveillance. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is unprecedented and subject to significant scrutiny. Governments support the reporting of adverse events and deaths post COVID-19 vaccination. The winning formula thus ensures the anti-vaccination lobby has a significant advantage in spreading its message. Data from the U.K., the E.U. and Australia have also been misused this way. The exploitation of coincidental deaths following COVID-19 vaccination was met quickly and comprehensively by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. Not surprisingly this had no effect on those opposed to vaccination against COVID-19.
Analysis of application of the winning formula to other government reporting systems is beyond the scope of this post. However, Australians have made good use of the tactic both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Underreporting of adverse events was mentioned in a May 2019 press release from the Informed Medical Options Party. They promise a “more accurate” system if elected. More recently, misused data from the U.K. Yellow Card voluntary reporting system was retweeted by Australian senator Malcom Roberts. United Australia Party leader, Craig Kelly, randomly texts Australians with a link to screenshots of reports to the TGA Database of Adverse Event Notifications. In April 2021 Judy Wilyman cited conspiracy theory website accounts of unverified reports to smear COVID-19 vaccine. A flyer packed with false and unverified deaths and injuries from four different reporting systems was tweeted by Meryl Dorey in mid June 2021. Watch this space.
The U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a passive reporting system open to the public that has, since its inception, been exploited by the anti-vaccination lobby. The absence of any causal relationship between vaccine and report is ignored by antivaxxers. The introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine has accompanied unprecedented reporting due to increased vaccination with active encouragement of recipients to use the VAERS system. The rise in reports was to be expected. This clinical reality has been obfuscated by players in the anti-vaccination community who have skilfully used social media to present background mortality and morbidity as causally linked to COVID-19 vaccination.
The website OpenVAERS, dedicated to misrepresenting VAERS data has focused exclusively on COVID-19 vaccination since January 2021. An investigation by Logically found Lizabeth Pearl Willner from California is the force behind the site. A frenetic antivaxxer, Liz Willner attempted to dismiss her activity as provision of easy access to data. Since the investigation she has been actively removing her anti-vaccination footprint on social media whilst keeping the site active.
Payouts from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program to date total $4.6 billion. Often cited by antivaxxers as further evidence of widespread vaccine related harm, VICP settlements from 2006 – 2019 equate to 0.00015% of vaccine doses given in that period. The Influenza vaccine accounts for 71.6% of this total.
Misrepresenting VAERS data to convince others that vaccines cause significant harm has proven to be both durable and successful. Combined with the misleading claim that only one percent of all events are reported, the result has almost certainly been an as yet unknown increase in vaccine hesitancy. Familiarising the public with the manner in which such data are misused may alleviate some amount of vaccine hesitancy.