A day after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced an effort to investigate the alleged harms caused by coronavirus vaccines, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor, described the move as a futile exercise that would only undermine public confidence in efforts to boost and maintain protection against the circulating pathogen.
“We have a vaccine that is, unequivocally, highly effective, safe and has literally saved millions of lives.” That’s what Fauci said on TUSEN on Wednesday. “What’s the problem with vaccines?”
The problem is that vaccines have become part of America’s polarized politics. Since the advent of COVID-19 vaccines late in the Trump administration, skepticism toward established medical science has become something of a credo for many conservatives, as well as some on the far left. Political disagreements over lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccine requirements have hardened into antipathy towards the vaccines themselves.
Taking advantage of rare adverse side effects and declining effectiveness – the result of new variants and low uptake of boosters – vaccine critics have dismissed inoculation as ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Some have also embraced outlandish vaccine conspiracy theories as a form of government and corporate control.
During a pandemic-related hearing in the House, Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland progressive, proposed the grand jury one “Orwellian” development. “These actions are transparently designed to falsely suggest that vaccines against the coronavirus, not the coronavirus itself, are dangerous,” he said on Wednesday.
DeSantis, who is widely expected to pursue the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, played open to those concerns on Tuesday, announcing he would call on the Florida Supreme Court to compose a grand jury “to try crimes and misdeeds against Floridians related to the Covid19 vaccine.” He is also seeking “further surveillance of sudden deaths of individuals who have received the COVID-19 vaccine in Florida.”
Such deaths are rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose vaccine surveillance statistics indicate that 17,868 people — or 0.0027% of vaccine recipients — died after their injections. Those reports undoubtedly included thousands of deaths that occurred after vaccination, but had nothing to do with the vaccines themselves.
Vaccine skeptics have often used reports of alleged side effects — such as those in a vaccine database that need no confirmation — to exaggerate alleged dangers. And such critics invariably downplay the fact that vaccines are extraordinarily effective in halting severe and critical COVID-19 disease, which has killed more than 6.6 million people worldwide.
And with online disinformation and partisan politics exerting strong pressure on the American public, vaccine fears have been easily exploited, leading to low acceptance among Republicans. As a result, heavily Republican areas have higher death rates than Democratic ones.
In Florida, more than 83,000 people have died from COVID-19, with cases on the rise recently. DeSantis, who has criticized what he describes as “faucism” (the echoes of “fascism” are hard to miss), downplayed the severity of the pandemic from the start, though he is also credited with opening schools and other businesses well before the Democratic counterparts, some of whom remained cautiously huddled well into 2021.
Earlier this year, DeSantis clashed with former President Donald Trump for supporting vaccination and refusing to say whether he received a booster shot. Trump fired back by calling DeSantis “guts.”
DeSantis also regularly attacked Fauci personally. “Someone needs to grab that little elf and throw it over the Potomac,” he told Fauci earlier this year, who has been the face of the pandemic for both the Trump and Biden administrations. (He was eventually sidelined by the former in favor of pundits more in line with DeSantis’ views.)
In late 2021, DeSantis hired Dr. Joseph Ladapo as Surgeon General of Florida. Ladapo has no experience with infectious diseases and routinely attacks vaccination and masking. “With these new actions, we will shed light on the forces that have obscured truthful communication about the COVID-19 vaccines,” Ladapo said after Tuesday’s event.
The announcement by DeSantis comes days after new Twitter owner Elon Musk attacked Fauci on Twitter and called for prosecution. Musk, a supporter of DeSantis, has argued that prior to his ownership, Twitter executives withheld information about the coronavirus that presumably undermined public health messaging.
Last week he invited Dr. Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya – an outspoken critic of pandemic precautions – at Twitter headquarters. Bhattacharya, who has advised DeSantis in the past, will serve on the governor’s new public safety committee along with Dr. Harvard’s Martin Kulldorff (a co-author, with Bhattacharya, of the pro-reopening Great Barrington Declaration) and Bret Weinstein, a quasi-celebrity on the so-called Intellectual Dark Web with no professional experience in vaccinology.
“I’m not sure what they’re trying to do down there,” Fauci said in Wednesday’s TUSEN interview. Though he is about to retire after four decades of federal service, he will likely face calls to testify from House Republicans who continue to accuse him of misleading statements about masks, vaccines and the origins of the coronavirus .
As his retirement approaches, Fauci has become increasingly vocal and defiant about the challenges exposed by the country’s faltering response to the coronavirus, which has killed more than a million people in the US.
In a New York Times essay, Fauci lamented the role “disinformation and political ideology” have played in casting doubt on masks, vaccines and other measures.