The misleading claims of anti-vaccine Steve Kirsch — a review


This article about misleading claims from anti-vaccine activist Steve Kirsch was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about vaccination’s social and legal policies. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable diseases. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.

I have not previously discussed posts by Mr. Steve Kirsch, of the new generation of antivaccine activists, because they are not generally related to law or regulation, and they have been well debunked by those that are in the field, such are Dr. Jeffrey Morris, Dr. David Gorski, and others more suited to address his statistical errors. 

But his recent post, “Silenced healthcare workers speak out publicly for the first time,” is sufficiently jarring that I would like to address it. Mr. Kirsch’s claims have been getting increasingly more extreme, and this post is a good example of some of the problems with his views that you do not need an extensive background in statistics to address. (I do not link to anti-vaccine posts, but with the title and author they should be easy to find, should anyone wish to). 

Who is Steve Kirsch?

Steve Kirsch has a masters in electric engineering and computer science from MIT, and previously was an inventor (in computer science) and an entrepreneur with several successful companies under his belt, some of which made him wealthy.

Those who knew him before the COVID-19 pandemic described him as extremely smart (and occasionally manipulative). At the beginning of the pandemic, he came up with a promising idea of looking for treatment for COVID-19 in existing medications and created an institution to do so, contributing a million dollars and generating donations from other Silicon Valley wealthiest.

But at some point, he turned an anti-vaccine extremist, undermining his own previous effort (even though he, himself, is vaccinated and protected). He argues that COVID-19 vaccines cause extensive harm and deaths, though his claims are problematic. He has also increasingly been buying into older anti-vaccine claims, like the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism

What did the article do?

Steve Kirsch created a form for healthcare workers to post anonymous stories and opinions about vaccines and share the link on his substack. His new post summarizes what he learned from the stories.

I expect readers already see the problem. This approach is the poor cousin of misusing VAERS reports. What do I mean?

Mr. Kirsch and other anti-vaccine activists’ previous common strategy was to point to VAERS raw reports, treat them as if they’re verified, multiply them by a number they made up, and claim that’s the actual number of vaccine harms. That is a misuse of VAERS: VAERS raw reports cannot be taken at face value, because they are unverified and some are clearly in error, and while underreporting is an issue with VAERS, you cannot just make up the rates – you need to actually look at the data and figure out what the rate of underreporting is. As pointed out by Vince Ilannelli, studies show that the rates can vary and that serious events are reported more often than mild ones: 

Sensitivities ranged from 72% for poliomyelitis after the oral poliovirus vaccine to less than 1% for rash and thrombocytopenia after the MMR vaccine.

These survey responses are a poor cousin to misuse of VAERS for several reasons:

  • They’re unverified – there is no real way to make sure the person is using their real name, nor is there a way to verify the person is a healthcare provider, the form allows them to submit any name and any email, and there is no verification of the reports, either.
  • Worse, they are unverified reports from people who follow Steve Kirsch’s substack, from a biased population.
  • They are unverified reports from a group of people who not only lean anti-vaccine, but lean anti-vaccine enough that they are willing to work with someone as extreme as Kirsch, who had said that the vaccines (that prevent deaths and harms) are worse than the Holocaust.
  • Worse, if we do give credence to some of what the anonymous respondents say, these are self-admitted liars. According to point 11 in Mr. Kirsch’s article, these are people who told him that they falsified vaccine cards (it’s unclear if just for themselves or for others as well), lying to their employer about their vaccine status, and who tell him the vaccines are dangerous but also say they encourage their patients to take him. So we have a bunch of unverifiable anonymous responses from an unknown group of people who follow an anti-vaccine activist and tell him they lie. 

That is not a reliable source. 

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

What did Steve Kirsch write and how reliable is it? 

Even if we put aside the unreliability of the anonymous responses by themselves, what Mr. Steve Kirsch describes from them is riddled with claims that are unplausible – or directly incorrect – on their face.

Point 1

These people are afraid to come out publicly because they are afraid of loss of job or license. The article also says that this is the “first-time” healthcare workers speak up. I believe at least some of these people were, in fact, afraid of job loss or license – and in my view, some should probably lose jobs or licenses.

But there are some problems here. First, people can express their views anonymously, and we see people claiming they are anti-vaccine healthcare workers doing that all the time (so much for “first-time”).

Second, while healthcare facilities can, certainly, fire unvaccinated healthcare workers, that’s more likely to happen for being unvaccinated, not just for your views. Nor do I know of any case of a healthcare worker disciplined by a medical board only for expressing opinions.

Some faced discipline for selling fake cures like ivermectin, or for patient complaints. And while some may worry about the consequence of spreading anti-vaccine misinformation, it does not seem to prevent others from doing so: we know there are doctors spreading COVID-19 misinformation. 

So this is likely partly true – some anti-vaccine healthcare workers likely don’t spread misinformation, at least under their real name, for fear of consequences, but the fear is likely overstated, and the claim that the fear prevents healthcare workers from spreading anti-vaccine misinformation is also overstated.

Point 2

Unvaccinated workers feel they are mistreated – it is likely true for some, especially those who lost their job because they refused to vaccinate and protect themselves and others. I expect drunk drivers also feel mistreated when penalized. By itself, that’s not a statement about the rules. 

Point 3

“It is the vaccinated workers who are getting sick with COVID, but it is unvaccinated who are punished” with testing or job threats.

This is against the data, that shows that the unvaccinated have higher rates of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. To be clear: in the age of Omicron, the vaccinated can also get sick. But vaccines not working perfectly is not the same as vaccines not working at all. 

Point 4

Apparently – and unsurprisingly – the people willing to fill Mr. Kirsch’s survey think COVID-19 vaccines kill people. They said “death rates in elderly homes went up by a factor of 5 after the shots rolled out. Each time the shots are given, the deaths spike.” 

In reality, deaths in nursing homes declined by 66% after the vaccines were rolled out, as this analysis shows. However, in fall 2021, as the delta strain spread, they went up again – but remained below the pre-vaccine rates. Rates went up and down with the general population, but boosters were shown to decrease death rates dramatically.

Data from Israel supported the effect of boosters on decreasing deaths.

Note that the impression of anonymous survey responders is not data. Impressions are not a good substitute for actually looking at the numbers. 

Point 5

“Doctors are seeing rates of injury and death increase dramatically in all ages of people. The injuries are only happening to the vaccinated. There is no doubt that this is happening but many doctors have so much cognitive dissonance that they don’t see it.” 

First of all, this appears contradictory. If doctors are not seeing it, well, they’re not seeing it, in contrast to the first sentence. 

Second, again, the impressions of anonymous survey responders are not a good way to assess this, and certainly not a good way to assess causation. This needs data. The data does not support this. To give one example, there is no good support for higher deaths in the vaccinated. An October 2021 analysis showed higher rates of deaths overall among the unvaccinated. Although omicron saw higher infections and deaths among the vaccinated, the unvaccinated are still at higher risk.

At the bottom of this claim is, of course, a conspiracy theory – echoing Dr. Gorski’s point that conspiracy theories are a crucial component of science denial. The conspiracy theory is that there is a conspiracy to hide the data.

Think, however, what that would entail. At this point, Pfizer’s vaccine alone was used in 180 countries worldwide. The claim that all these countries would stay silent if there were large numbers of deaths is unrealistic. To accept Mr. Kirsch’s claim, you need to assume a global conspiracy of unusual proportions. Instead, we see studies from different countries – like Mexico, Hong Kong, and many more – investigate the vaccines and generally find them safe. The claim that these different teams are all missing something the anonymous survey taker found is unconvincing. 

Point 6 and Point 7

Both of these are similar – they have quotes from two self-identified nurses alleging they have never heard of cardio deaths in the young. The first described herself as a “nurse with 23 years of experience” and the other as being a nurse for “36 years” and working “in cardiology”. For the moment, let us assume this is true (we cannot verify). 

We do not know what the first nurse’s experience is, or how she “knows” of the deaths. For all we know, she may have read about them online. But while deaths and harms from children from heart issues are not as common as in the older, they have happened before (and anti-vaccine activists tried to blame those deaths on vaccines before).

The abstract of this study from 2015 opens with “Cardiovascular conditions rank sixth in causes of death in 1- to 19-year-olds.” Maybe she should have talked to people who have more experience with heart issues in children. Similarly, heart conditions are rare in the young, but “as many as 4% to 10% of all heart attacks occur before age 45, and most of these strike men.” They are less common, and in the time before becoming anti-vaccine, these nurses may have been less focused on this than now (confirmation bias), when they are seeking to blame vaccines. Their lack of awareness of the fact that this happens is not data. 

Maybe there are more heart issues in the young – after all, COVID-19 itself could cause it – but this survey does not show us that, because these two nurses’ impressions are not data. As to wanting to blame COVID-19 vaccines, the question of whether they affect hearts is subject to intensive scrutiny. We do not need anonymous survey responses for that. 

Point 8

“Doctors aren’t recording vaccination status in the medical records so that all the deaths are attributed to the unvaccinated.”

This is in tension with what’s actually going on. In April 2022, headlines pointed to the growing percentage of vaccinated patients among COVID-19 deaths, though the rates are still much higher among the unvaccinated (it’s still safer to be vaccinated). There have been deaths recorded among the vaccinated throughout. This is another conspiracy theory – “doctors are engaged in a conspiracy to hide the data and are willing to lie for it” – and it’s against the evidence. The likely explanation is that the anonymous anti-vaccine survey responders are, well, wrong. 

Point 9

“Doctors are deliberately ignoring the possibility that the vaccines could be the cause of all the elevated events. The events are simply all unexplained.”

As a reminder, we have identified several issues that are related to COVID-19 vaccines. Including the J&J clots and myocarditis from mRNA vaccines. As a reminder, there exists extensive literature looking at mRNA vaccine safety, from all around the world. Different studies looked at a lot of problems. This VSD study, for example, looked at 23 possible issues raised. It’s probably true that individual doctors aren’t doing research, but there are many researchers that are. 

Point 10

“Many doctors have either quit or will quit.”

Yes, that’s true. It’s been a hard pandemic, doctors were slammed. Many burned out. Having to see anti-vaccine activists misled by people like Mr. Steve Kirsch die slowly of COVID-19 – or having to argue with them to save their lives – likely contributes to that. But again, we do not need anonymous survey responders for this, nor is it related to Mr. Kirsch’s views about COVID-19 vaccines. 

Point 11

Many doctors have falsified vaccine cards – well, if Mr. Kirsch’s responders have falsified vaccine cards, they should lose their jobs, and face consequences. That tells us less about COVID-19 vaccines than about Mr. Kirsch’s responders. People willing to fake medical documents should not be in healthcare and are not reliable sources.

Point 12

“Things don’t seem to be getting any better.”

If this means “the population is not buying into our anti-vaccine claims,” great. 

Point 13

“Medical examiners all over the world are not doing the proper tests during an autopsy to detect a vaccine-related death.” The point went on to claim that there is no investigation and it’s deliberate. 

The link for what should be tested goes to Mr. Kirsch’s interview with Ryan Cole, a pathologist that has spread unreliable claims about COVID-19 vaccines before, and claimed in an interview with Mike Adams (another unreliable source) that COVID-19 vaccines cause cancer.

Yes, I expect doctors are not following the anti-vaccine guidance on this. On the other hand, deaths after COVID-19 vaccines are investigated. In many countries. The results just do not support anti-vaccine claims. 

Point 14

“Doctors are being forced to take other vaccines so the hospital can meet their quota. This was admitted to them.”

In the initial form, the point claimed that doctors are forced to take an “HIV vaccine”, and that’s mentioned on p. 15 of the document collecting the responses. I suspect someone since told Mr. Kirsch that there is no HIV vaccine, so he removed the reference. But this should alert people to the fact that they really should approach these anonymous responses with care – that is not just untrue, it’s ignorant – and that Mr. Kirsch is simply not able to fact-check or evaluate the responses. 

More generally, vaccine mandates in healthcare have a long history (though there’s no HIV vaccine), and healthcare workers have been required to have, for example,  MMR, Hepatitis B, and Tdap vaccines – and sometimes annual influenza – in many facilities. This is not new. If Mr. Kirsch’s respondents are also hostile to these vaccines, that’s a further indication of anti-vaccine bias. 

Photo by Georgina Vigliecca on Unsplash

No, televised debates are useless

Mr. Kirsch’s view is that he could prove all the claims he is unable to support simply by writing articles on substack if only someone would be willing to have a televised debate with him, and he has been offering people money to do so. This is in spite of the fact that when Avi Ritterman agreed to such a debate, it did not go well for Mr. Kirsch.

On this, I agree with Dr. Gorski that the demand for a theatrical debate is a ploy to avoid responding to the actual debunking of his claims, and that:

Common “live public debate” formats favor science deniers because they are not bound by science or even the truth. They are free to Gish gallop to their heart’s content; that is, to “baffle them with a torrent of BS” that includes obscure studies, bad studies, studies that don’t support their points, and even irrelevant information that superficially to nonexperts appears to support their arguments.

Unless a scientist or science communicator is not only very skilled at dealing with this technique but also very familiar with the deep well of studies ranging from the highly dubious to the good studies misrepresented by the science denier, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to swat down each gallop in turn and have no time left to make an argument for science. Such “debates” also value glibness, rhetorical skill, and the debater’s charisma far more than facts, logic, reason, and science.

Further, anti-vaccine activists are not legitimate participants in a debate – they are not within the circle of legitimate opinion, and they are desperate for such debates exactly to increase their legitimacy. I encourage people not to help them. Mr. Kirsch’s claims cannot stand on the merits, and no Gish Galloping on a video would change that, as I hope to show in my analysis of his post, below. If he wants to counter the points, he can write out his disagreement. But I think the points are pretty straightforward.

Conclusion about the claims from Steve Kirsch

This new article from Steve Kirsh is a summary of anonymous survey responses by people claiming to be healthcare workers who follow Mr. Kirsch, an anti-vaccine activist. This is not data. These are the unverified – and sometimes patently wrong – opinions of an anonymous and biased population.

That would make the article unreliable by itself, but the point Mr. Steve Kirsch draws also has many glaring errors or shows a lack of knowledge. This is another example of the fact that Mr. Kirsch is an unreliable source on vaccine science. It has some points that are likely true – mostly about the feelings of the respondents – but the factual claims it makes should be taken with extreme caution. 

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
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