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Home » Debunking RFK Jr and Hooker’s book “Vax-Unvax” – Part 10, COVID vaccine

Debunking RFK Jr and Hooker’s book “Vax-Unvax” – Part 10, COVID vaccine


This article is part 10, the COVID vaccine, of a series of debunkings of a new book, “Vax-Unvax: Let the Science Speak” written by Frank Han, M.D., an academic board-certified pediatrician/ pediatric cardiologist. He splits his time between cardiac imaging (Nuclear, CT, MRI, and echocardiography), inpatient cardiology, and outpatient cardiology. He primarily cares for cardiology patients of all ages with congenital heart disease and is dedicated to educating pediatric residents and medical students.

While completing his pediatric residency at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, Dr. Han became aware of and interested in the incursion of pseudoscience into his chosen profession and saw it explode during the COVID pandemic. He has since focused on spreading the joy of science literacy and teaching patients how to take charge of their health while navigating the tricky online world of medical information. Dr. Han has no conflicts of interest to disclose and no ties to the pharmaceutical industry. He can be found on Twitter as @Han_francis. The comments expressed by Dr. Han are his own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of OSF Medical Center, or the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

As I did in Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9 of this series, I will emphasize one chapter of the book “Vax-Unvax: Let the Science Speak,” by Robert F Kennedy Jr and Brian Hooker — this chapter is focused on the COVID vaccine.

In Chapter 10/11, Robert F Kennedy Jr and Brian Hooker attempt to create more distrust about the COVID vaccines. However, I show you that, in 2024, there is enough excellent information about vaccines that we should not feel the need to lie about COVID vaccine side effects to describe them honestly and accurately (while simultaneously expressing empathy and concern for people who have experienced sincere vaccine side effects). An example of sincere empathy for COVID vaccine side effects comes from the published work of Dr Akiko Iwasaki. 

Vax Unvax covid vaccine on red surface
Photo by Maksim Goncharenok on Pexels.com

Allegation: Bell’s Palsy is higher after COVID vaccines

In the first study, about Bell’s Palsy, the authors of the book try to misrepresent the key study findings by saying people who took Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID vaccines had a 1.84X and 1.54X higher risk of Bell’s palsy compared to the unvaccinated. This is a failure of basic English reading comprehension – the study authors explicitly state that the comparison group was people with other vaccines. You don’t have to be provax or antivax, to object to incorrectly reading words.

In addition, the authors included a specific eye movement known as “Bell’s Phenomenon”, which is a normal eye movement. While it doesn’t look like this was done maliciously, this would significantly skew the results. We now have an estimated rate of Bell’s palsy for COVID vaccines as a reference.

As is typical for the book authors, they never compare the side effects they are discussing versus the risk of that same side effect from the actual infection. Fortunately, that study has been done, and COVID infection has a greater risk of Bell’s palsy than its vaccination, studied across a large >130,000 population. We even have the largest study on the planet, covering 99 million people in many countries, that concluded that the relationship of COVID vaccines to Bell’s Palsy is so small as to be mostly statistically insignificant.

Expressing the term statistically insignificant does not automatically mean physicians are gaslighting their patients. On the contrary, patients with Bell’s palsy still deserve the care of a neurologist to see if any medications can be given to speed up the healing process. 

Allegation: Vax-Unvax says higher risk of myocarditis

This allegation is partially correct but should be worded more specifically – the highest risk group for myocarditis after COVID vaccines is in young men and older teens. The book’s authors fail to mention that every health agency in the world is aware of this link, has supported extensive research, and warns users about it.

In addition, every health agency also has strategies to reduce this risk. In addition, other research groups are trying to figure out why the COVID vaccine generates myocarditis. When the book authors try to say that myocarditis has a 50% survival after 5 years – this is citation falsification.

The source of this claim indicated that there was this low survival rate only in a very specific kind of severe myocarditis. This ignores the fact that most COVID vaccine myocarditis is mild (yes, myocarditis has different severities despite what the most popular conservative news outlets want you to hear). It is accurate to say that COVID vaccine boosters are linked to a higher risk of myocarditis, but it is generally smaller than the second dose.

woman holding heart cut out covid vaccine vax unvax
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Allegation: blood clots are linked to COVID viral vector vaccines 

This allegation is generally correct but the book’s authors fail to acknowledge that this side effect was quickly noticed by scientists, and was carefully researched. All national health agencies are aware of the clotting side effects of the COVID viral vector vaccines (from JNJ-Janssen and AstraZeneca) — they actively warn end-users about it. All countries using this vaccine (primarily England and the US) were warned, and as a result, this vaccine took a back seat to the COVID mRNA platform vaccine which is not associated with clots. 

Allegation – you’ll get shingles if you take COVID vaccines

It is not a malicious act to warn people about COVID vaccine side effects, but it becomes malicious when the book authors had an entire chapter’s worth of space to put the findings into context, but instead chose not to.

The first thing to do is to criticize the book’s authors’ impaired understanding of the English language – it is factually incorrect to say the COVID vaccine causes shingles, as two different viruses cause COVID and shingles. The correct statement is that sometimes the COVID vaccine increases the risk of developing shingles (especially in those without the shingles vaccine booster).

Shingles is a reactivation of the Varicella zoster virus which most people typically catch in childhood, when the disease is called chickenpox. The virus usually would be eliminated by the immune system, but in most cases, the virus would then hide in the nerve cells forever.

In some people, the virus would reactivate, leading to a painful rash called shingles (which is sometimes life or vision-threatening). One of the primary goals of childhood vaccination is to sharply decrease the risk of adult shingles.

The primary risk factors for the reactivation of shingles are stress (of various kinds) and immunosuppression. While not all the molecular steps have been worked out, it can be hypothesized that in certain genetically predisposed people, COVID vaccination stresses the immune system enough to allow the varicella zoster virus to reactivate.

The largest study that makes this side effect a reasonable one to consider is the one from the Berlin University group. However, they also remind the reader that the absolute risk is extremely small (a concept that antivaxxers only like to bring up when it suits them). The risk has also been observed with a few other vaccines, a fact that is lost on the book authors.

This other study also honestly assesses its confounders, which were partially done in a JAMA study that finds no significant risk of herpes zoster in a large > 2 million population.  The risk also appears to be adversely affected by not getting your Zoster booster beforehand. 

Allegation – Vax-Unvax says COVID vaccine linked to tinnitus

Large population-level studies do not find a link between hearing loss or tinnitus and COVID vaccines when confounding factors are taken into account (such as a prior condition predisposing to hearing loss). It is plausible that one person has an odd unknown genetic variant that made that person susceptible to hearing loss or nerve damage, but someone who cared about vaccine side effects would sit down and think about why that particular person’s genetics generated that susceptibility, not write a book that manufactures even more fear. 

Allegation – Vax-Unvax claims that clots are linked to mRNA COVID vaccine

This statement is based on a bad analysis of this article. The book’s authors completely miss the second half of the abstract, which one can only assume was edited out because they didn’t want to state anything against their narrative. The second half explicitly states that only the pulmonary embolus signal stands after more careful analysis for more confounding variables. Also, all organizations that have studied mRNA vaccines for their relationship to clots, find that mRNA vaccines do not systematically cause clots. 

Allegation – COVID vaccine linked to serious adverse events 

I have to give credit where credit is due – the book authors were marginally more honest by saying this study by Fraiman and Doshi was only marginally statistically significant. They should have said that the result was not statistically significant, because the confidence interval included 1.

The multiple mistakes included in their analysis have been critiqued elsewhere. The article summarizes that the authors used every possible method they could think of to inflate vaccine risk and downplay COVID risk, including implying that stopping COVID vaccine trials when a few severe cases accumulated, meant that COVID wasn’t that bad.

The correct interpretation of that cause of events is that it is unethical to allow patients to continue to accumulate the risk of severe COVID during a pandemic when an effective vaccine was available (this is not subject to debate unlike what medical conservatives would have you think). The study authors fail at basic English and scientific English reading comprehension. 

Allegation – Vax-Unvax claims that COVID vaccine adverse events in pregnancy are common

This is false information, and the book authors arrived at this conclusion by looking for the scariest studies and not putting them into context. The best way to get a survey of what the literature shows is to seek out a meta-analysis, which mathematically combines several studies to look at an overall effect. Such a study was done, looking at more than 17 million women across many studies, and it found that vaccination was not associated with an increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes. Instead, the vaccines showed a decreased risk of infection and hospitalization. 

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