Critique of “Leftwing” Antivax Disinformation: Antivaxxers of All Stripes Pose a Serious Threat to Public Health

Cliff Conner

Yes, the vaccines work? credit: Viacheslav Lopatin/Sutterstock

IN THE UNITED STATES, most of the Covid antivax agitation comes from rightwing sources. It is dangerous and reprehensible because it threatens legitimate public health efforts to bring a pandemic under control that has already killed at least 750,000 people in the U.S. and five million worldwide. The rightwing ideologues who carry out this campaign of disinformation are simply unconscionable scoundrels.

Unfortunately, they have “leftwing” ideological allies who devise rationales designed to appeal to progressive-minded people. A blog post entitled “The Snake-Oil Salesmen and the COVID-Zero Con: A Classic Bait-And-Switch for a Lifetime of Booster Shots (Immunity as a Service)” provides a prime example.

It is a relatively slick piece of virulent antivax propaganda. The bulk of it consists of mansplaining the ABCs of immunology, much of which is not controversial. As its author, Julius Ruechel, says: “What I have laid out here in this essay is pretty basic virology and immunology knowledge.” But every point is embellished with an ideological antivax twist. To deconstruct it in its entirety would be an oppressive chore, but I will try to briefly expose its essence.

Its “leftwing” antivax arguments for the most part boil down to this syllogism:

Big Pharma produces the Covid vaccines.
Big Pharma is absolutely corrupted by its profit motive.
Therefore the vaccines are fraudulent and worthless.

Here is a small sample of how the blog piece in question expresses this position:

“To the eyes of profit-hungry pharmaceuticals and funding-hungry national and international public health institutions, this virus must look like manna from heaven.

“So, what if COVID-Zero and the vaccine exit strategy is merely the global state-sanctioned equivalent of a drug dealer creating dependency among its customers to keep pushing more drugs?

“The holy trinity of pharmaceutical companies, public health, and international health organizations, all egging each other on in their hunger for a reliable flow of cash: shareholder profits, larger budgets, and governmental donations.”

The anti–public health message it seeks to spread is summed up as follows:

“The con is clear. It’s time to focus all our might on stopping this runaway train before it takes us over the cliff into a police state of no return. Stand up. Speak out. Refuse to play along. Stopping this requires millions of voices with the courage to say NO—at work, at home, at school, at church, and out on the street.”

And it buttresses that clarion call by cynically quoting Martin Luther King on the need to confront authority with civil disobedience.

Now, what’s wrong with that argument? I have steadfastly condemned Big Pharma corporations and the deep corruption of their profit-motivated scientific practice. I have damned it, in my recent book The Tragedy of American Science (Haymarket Books, 2020), as “science in the private corporate interest” as opposed to the ideal of “science in the public interest.” So how can it be that private corporate laboratories have created not one, not two, but a number of safe and effective vaccines with the potential to bring the nightmare contagion under control?

The syllogism’s premise that Big Pharma is corrupted by the profit motive does not justify the conclusion that its products must be fraudulent. The multinational industry has demonstrated the capacity to accomplish remarkable scientific feats when it wants to. But there’s the rub: it has to want to. And the only thing that can make it want to is the prospect of material rewards in the form of supersized profits.

That was the point of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. Billions of dollars were paid out to elite Big Pharma firms like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson as well as to venture capital startups like Moderna, Vaxart, and Novavax that had never previously brought any vaccine to market. The program was hyped as a scientific “race for a vaccine” among competing research laboratories, but in fact it was a speculative frenzy among competing hedge funds.

It took a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars—public funding, not private capital—to incentivize the research and development of several viable vaccines. But private investors who bore no financial risk were allowed to reap the financial rewards, the extent of which has been deliberately hidden from public view by allowing the Warp Speed profiteers to bypass traditional federal contracting rules and regulatory oversight. Even a partial accounting, however, reveals that Moderna and Pfizer locked in guaranteed Covid vaccine sales of more than $60 billion for 2021 and 2022. Furthermore, analysts forecast a future annual market of $5 billion or more.

The point is that despite all that, the profit-grubbing of the pharma firms does not invalidate the fruits of their science.

The essential lesson of Op Warp Speed was not that the vaccines and the associated public-health programs were fraudulent, but that there was no material reason for funneling all that money through private corporations. The Trump and Biden administrations have allowed private investors to organize and control the vaccine research and production, and to become fabulously wealthy by taking all of the profits for themselves. The rational and equitable approach would be to cut private investment out of the picture entirely by nationalizing Big Pharma and creating the vaccines in publicly-funded laboratories.

The remarkable achievements of Cuban biomedical science demonstrate how even a relatively poor country could—in the absence of the profit motive—mobilize its scientific and financial resources to create and produce a suite of safe, effective Covid-19 vaccines. Cuba was the first country to immunize its population against Covid-19 with its own vaccines. And in sharp contrast to Big Pharma’s relative neglect of poorer countries, Cuba plans to share its vaccines with Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, Jamaica, Vietnam, Iran, and others.

The blog piece under consideration here seeks to terrorize its readers by positing a grand conspiracy of “all vaccine makers and public health authorities” and alleges that “the media” is in on it, too, due to the “billions of vaccine advertising dollars floating around.” And not to be neglected is the ever-popular “Bill Gates, his fawning public health bootlickers, and the pharmaceutical companies that whisper sweet-nothings in his ear.”

Author Ruechel lambastes “our health authorities” in these words: “You’d have to be a completely reckless and utterly incompetent idiot, or a cynical bastard with an agenda” to “force us to submit to medical tyranny based on mandatory vaccines, never-ending booster shots, and vaccine passports.” And after all that, he has the chutzpah to accuse “our health authorities” of “shamelessly hyperventilating”!

As I have demonstrated, there are valid, serious criticisms to be made of Big Pharma and U.S. public health agencies, but the essential value of the worldwide Covid vaccine programs is challenged only by scoundrels and demagogues. As for his critique of “the media,” our ersatz contrarian completely leaves out of account the many legitimate investigative journalists who relentlessly scrutinize the activities of Big Pharma and public officials on a daily basis.

Although I have characterized this blog piece as an example of leftwing antivax propaganda, a qualification is necessary. The erroneous critique of Big Pharma is counterfeit leftism; its underlying ideological inspiration is of solid rightwing provenance. Here is how Ruechel expounds his fundamental principles:

“Freedom of speech, individual rights, private property, individual ownership, competition, good faith debate, small government, minimal taxes, limited regulation, and free markets (the opposite of the crony capitalism we now suffer under), these are the checks and balances that bullet-proof a society against the soulless charlatans that fail upwards into positions of power in bloated government institutions and against the parasitic fraudsters that seek to attach themselves to the government’s teat.”

As a colleague of mine, Bob Schwarz, astutely observed, “Whatever the partial merits of one or another pseudo-scientific argument in the article, at the end of the day this is just Ayn Rand dressed up in a lab coat.”

November 21, 2021

15 comments

  1. I looked at the piece being denounced as “Leftwing”. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

    “But the principles laid out by America’s Founding Fathers remain as true today as the day they were written and are waiting to be rediscovered. If there is one culprit who deserves to shoulder more blame than any other for the fiasco of the last 18 months, it is society itself for allowing itself to fall prey to the siren song of big government, the illusion that there can ever be a benevolent, virtuous, and incorruptible referee. He who creates the red tape, he who has the keys to the treasury, he who wields the power of the tax collector, and he who commands those sent to enforce the laws will always have an entourage of self-serving charlatans, rent seekers, and parasites following him wherever he goes. So, keep his powers on a very short leash to keep other people’s hands off your money, your property, your freedom, and your body. You don’t need better leaders. You need less powerful institutions. That’s how you prevent this from ever happening again.

    “Freedom of speech, individual rights, private property, individual ownership, competition, good faith debate, small government, minimal taxes, limited regulation, and free markets (the opposite of the crony capitalism we now suffer under), these are the checks and balances that bullet-proof a society against the soulless charlatans that fail upwards into positions of power in bloated government institutions and against the parasitic fraudsters that seek to attach themselves to the government’s teat.

    “Yes, we need a Great Reset. Just not the subscription-based version that the World Economic Forum imagined.”
    https://www.juliusruechel.com/2021/09/the-snake-oil-salesmen-and-covid-zero.html

    I find nothing leftwing about it. Denunciations of big drug companies, big banks, Bill Gates, facebook, etc. are not, in themselves, evidence of any sort of leftwing tendencies. The piece strikes me as fairly standard rightwing bs.

    1. No argument there, Alan Ginsberg. I quoted that middle paragraph to make the same point. I characterized the anti-Big Pharma polemic as “counterfeit leftism,” pretending to challenge a pillar of big capitalism. I wouldn’t call that a fairly standard rightwing gambit, but it is fairly typical of the ultralibertarian variant of rightwing demagogy.

  2. Cliff Conner masterfully refutes the “left-wing” critique of vaccines that they enrich Big Pharma. In spite of the profits gained from the vaccines (and contrary to the right-wing conspiracy theories against vaccines), vaccines have succeeded in vastly reducing infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. Those who choose to forgo the vaccines – for whatever reason – endanger not only themselves, but their communities as well.

  3. I agree with Marjorie Cohn’s analysis of Conner’s well-developed critique of so-called “Left-wing anti-vaxxers.” Cut to the most basic argument: Vaccines save lives, and opposing the COVID-19 vaccine (whether willfully or ignorantly) is promoting suffering and death of vast numbers of people.

  4. Thanks Cliff for an intelligent debunking of the “left wing” COVID-as-a-cover-for-imposing-a-security-state argument. Another aspect that strikes me is that this theory must posit a global conspiracy that includes every public health authority in every nation of the world, including Cuba. On its face it isn’t credible. I can imagine some people accepting the idea that big pharma in the USA has effectively bribed the entire public health establishment in the USA. But the entire public health establishment on the entire planet?

    To me it does seem reasonable for those whose concern is focused on the imposition of a security state to warn against the potential for an abuse of vaccine passports as a new method for developing such a state. And could it be that some of the mandates are an overreach of authority (if we balance the question of public health and the question of individual rights)? I am at least open to the argument. Vaccine mandates for health-care workers should be a no-brainer, but sanitation workers, firefighters, and civil servants who are still working from home and have no contact with the public? It does seem to me like a legitimate question which can be posed and discussed in a reasonable way.

    Still, there is a difference between the abuse or overreach of legitimate public-health measures and declaring that the abuse/overreach is all there is, that the public-health concern itself is a fraud. Ask any doctor or any nurse in any hospital that was overrun with patients at the height of the pandemic whether the public-health concern is a fraud. (Which reminds me: it is not only the entire public-health establishment on the entire planet that has sold out to big pharma according to this theory, but all the doctors and nurses who testified to the devastating effects of the pandemic as well.)

  5. Cliff Conner ably dissects one pseudo-left article, but as Alan Ginsberg points out, it’s from the libertarian right, not the left. It would be useful to discuss articles and organizations that are genuinely on the left side, like the several trade unions that have opposed vaccination mandates. I’m aware of one socialist group that opposes mandates: The Spark, at https://the-spark.net/np1135101.html/. Are there others? The Spark argues that mandates are no substitute for a decent public health system unobtainable under capitalism – which is true but not an answer to the immediate danger. Are there any leftish arguments out there that socialists need to be prepared to counter?

    1. Yes, Walter, there are several European Left-Communist groups that oppose mandates and it seems a lot in France oppose the “health pass” though there might be something to the French version that is objectionable, I don’t know enough about it.

      I think the main point in part, is that being anti-mandate IS being anti-Vaxx.

  6. I think it is important to distinguish the “scoundrels” promoting the antivax movement with the many honest people that influenced by it. Cliff’s piece makes the important point that that simply because vaccines are produced by profit-seeking corporation does not invalidate their widespread use. However, it does not address the valid concerns of many of the people taken in by the antivax movement, which include:

    1. The lack of confidence in government regulatory agencies in properly regulating product safety and keeping the public informed.
    2. The historic exploitation and oppression of people of color, particularly African-Americans, by government agencies and corporations in matters involving medicine and public health. (Some examples: the Tuskegee syphilis studies, forced sterilization policies, studies showing discrimination by medical providers, failure to address racial disparities in the pandemic).
    3. The historic role of corporations in essentially lying to the public in matters relating to health and safety.
    4. The facts that there are some risks to vaccines and that vaccines are not 100% effective (which are not always well communicated. )
    5. The dismal track record of federal and state governments in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and protecting workers and public health.

    I think efforts to discredit the antivax movement and promote the widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines are more likely to succeed if they address, or at least acknowledge, some of the concerns listed above.

    1. I agree with Frank Rosenthal’s comment. Many white leftists and “progressives” are segregated from communities of color. So resistance to vaccination on the part of some BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People Of Color) might be simplified to “ignorance.” This website lists the most recent government stats on the rates of vaccination by race: https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/latest-data-on-covid-19-vaccinations-by-race-ethnicity/

      Another article compares the effect of the 1918 flu epidemic with that of COVID-19 on the Black community: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/magazine/magazine_article/deadly-parallels/
      This article rejects the “blame the victim” approach to COVID’s higher death rates amongst people of color (which could include refusal to get vaccinated). Rather, it offers stats on the racial disparity among people who can work remotely plus historical environmental racism, etc., as the root cause of premature deaths in BIPOC communities from maladies across the board.

      Still, it is frustrating to hear anti-racist activists of all colors repeating anti-vax rumors, some even promoting Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine. Some insist that any position on COVID-19 should be given equal voice, for the sake of “Freedom of Speech.” There is a fight within WBAI radio in NYC over long time host Gary Null, who promotes anti-vaxxers on his M-F noon hour show. I find it ironic that those who oppose Big Pharma ignore the pecuniary interests of Little Pharma: petit bourgeois supplement-selling charlatans. Not surprising that Null, a libertarian, also attacks critical race theory (he compared the Black Lives Matter movement to Sherman’s march on Savannah!). If you think Null should be taken off the air, I urge you to write to WBAI and its parent, the Pacifica Foundation.

  7. Great article, Cliff! Yup, Reuchel’s piece is definitely a libertarian screed. Just like the promoters of the Great Barrington declaration, with all it’s permutations. Evincing the cost of big pharma profiteering for providing access to vaccines, you might have thrown in the latest exploits of Moderna (“when you’re number two, you try harder” to be greedy, selfish bastards).

    I was just looking at a report by the Lancet Commission on Vaccine Refusal, Acceptance, and Demand in the USA (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)02507-1/fulltext). t is pretty comprehensive, and, to it’s credit, does not hesitate about highlighting socioeconomic inequality, but it also shines a spotlight on another, major, shortcoming of capitalist vaccine and other public health efforts. And that is the top-down, service, COMHE model. Specific measures are not necessarily wrong, but they require a substrate of structural change and mass empowerment to be effective. For example, the authors do seek engagement with community organizations, but as transmission belts for “culturally sensitive messaging.” And they underscore the need for structural changes, but only in terms of vaccine access. How much more effective would their standard health promotion and behavioral interventions be if they were matched by jobs with full sick-leave and unemployment benefits for all, universal health care, etc., and if public health and vaccine awareness were based on clear accountability of public authorities, and grass-roots empowerment and decision-making, for example?

  8. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/11/24/938591815/pfizers-coronavirus-vaccine-supply-contract-excludes-many-taxpayer-protections

    The above NPR piece explains the nuances of the tax money Pfizer nabbed. They didn’t get Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, but still are making out like bandits. Cliff Conner’s article superbly answers what might seem to be a left critique of vaccines and mandates, but only masquerade as such. Conner’s essay is excellent. Perhaps it can be reprinted for comment among the many left-wing currents in France (perhaps elsewhere in Europe) that also oppose mandates.)

  9. I concur with Sheila’s thoughts. Here’s a statement adopted by Grassroots candidates for the KPFK Local Station Board (Pacifica station in Los Angeles): Grassroots Community Radio Coalition on the Difference between Conspiracism and Skepticism

    The COVID pandemic has underlined the troubling tendency within Pacifica to conflate skepticism about government and corporate power and institutions with right-wing conspiracism. Right wing groups for years have tried to influence and infiltrate left and progressive movements with antisemitic, anti-communist and apparently “anti-elitist” political views. This has intensified with fear of both the COVID pandemic and the measures and medicines proposed to combat it. Fear is an effective organizing emotion for racist and reactionary “solutions” to complex social and material problems and issues.

    Skepticism about Big Pharma, and about the white supremacist nature of both governmental, medical and corporate institutions and systems of power in the United States are all well justified by history. These range from experimentation on Puerto Rican women in the development of the oral contraceptive, to faulty medical studies that do not study the effects of a medication on women, to the infamous Tuskegee “experiments” on Black men with STDs when effective medications were already available, to the use of smallpox infected blankets to spread disease among Native peoples. US bioweapons research must be condemned and ended. There may be many valid reasons for particular individuals and groups to decide not to get vaccinated with any of the vaccines for COVID currently on offer in the U.S. (Most vaccine “mandates” offer the alternative of masking and frequent testing to accommodate them.)

    But into those legitimate concerns have come mostly right wing and racist forces to promote false claims that either COVID was a hoax or that COVID was a plot to depopulate the earth; false claims that mRNA vaccines transform your DNA; false claims that mandating masks indoors, or requiring employees who deal with the public to either vaccinate or agree to frequent testing, is part of a literally diabolical plot to strip people of all their rights. KPFK has unfortunately often been a transmission mechanism for such views in the name of freedom of speech, and as the result of an undiscriminating appetite for any allegedly anti-establishment viewpoint, it has sanitized and accepted extreme right wing and antisemitic political expressions. KPFK used to air the content of a woman, Desiree Green, who claimed to be channeling an extraterrestrial alien who dictated to her long sections of the antisemitic Czarist forgery called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This type of broadcasting, in which Pacifica becomes a platform and amplifier of views that are being ballyhooed on Fox News, or by associations of police and prison guards, is inconsistent with the Pacifica mission.
    The Grassroots Community Radio Coalition is opposed to such acceptance or distribution of false, racist, and/or anti-communist views in the name of freedom of speech or under a gloss of anti-elitist or anti-establishment dissent. We understand that there are many unresolved questions about COVID and its treatment and prevention, but these cannot and should not be used to equate mandates for wearing facial covering indoors with the Nazi genocide of European Jewry or Roma and mass incarceration and murder of communists and other opponents. There is plenty of room for healthy debate, which is essential to the scientific process. That process is based in part on mechanisms for peer review, challenges, and falsification of theories. The search for truth in material and social matters of course requires and depends on debate and contestation. Policies must be crafted that allow for individual exceptions and accommodations. But these factors should not become a mechanism for allowing racist right wingers masquerading as New Age practitioners, or antisemitic fearmongers presenting themselves alternatively as skeptics or “true patriots”. People who are righteously skeptical of the propaganda of the state and the corporate owning class should not fall prey to the equally dangerous and sophisticated propaganda and disinformation campaigns of neo-fascist elements within the US or internationally.

  10. Ivermectin (the human variety in small doses, not the animal de-worming variety!) has been proved in studies to work against COVID 19. Whatever you think of Gary Null, it is the many people he has on his show or mentions on his show who give good reasons for boosting the immune system and combating viruses with safe, natural methods or safe drugs. There is no need for a little-tested vaccine. (I wish the best in 10 years, 20 years for the millions of people including many of my close friends who have taken this vaccine.) Ken Laufer, NYC

  11. Hi
    I would like to thank Ken Laufer for his comments.
    I hate the fact that now people who don’t want to get this vaccine are called names and antivaxxer’s it’s just not true.
    What we are concerned with is the fact that you can still get the virus even after two doses and a booster.
    I get the fact that they are trying, so good for that.

    GET THE JAB!!!

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