Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories and hesitancy: Interview

Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories extend beyond vaccines to viruses, disease and causes of death.

Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories and hesitancy
Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories and hesitancy
  • Anti-vaxxers conspiracy theories are coming from increasingly vocal doubters who are keen to spread their warnings about the dangers they perceive in vaccines and an expected global campaign to vaccinate just about everyone against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
  • Many believe that not only are vaccines a threat but even doubt the existence or lethality of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, despite data gathered by the World Health Organization (WHO) that says more than 500,000 people have died in less than a year from COVID-19.
  • The denials and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories cover vaccines, diseases, viruses, SARS-CoV-2, HIV, and other issues. They often ignore existing data, pick on single facts in isolation, or are based on comments without the benefit of context.

CAJICA, Colombia. While the world is racing for a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, anti-vaxxers are increasingly vocal, spreading anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories and loud warnings of the dangers they perceive in an expected global campaign to vaccinate just about everyone against the novel coronavirus.

Their warnings are a mix of misunderstandings based on dubious facts, some truths, half-truths and partial truths hidden behind decontextualized facts of limited relevance – and they could jeopardize efforts to deal with COVID-19

On May 29, Dr. Harry Brunal, MD., a surgeon and homeopathic physician in the Caribbean coast of Colombia and a leading anti-vaccine voice, spoke with Anticentric about his views. Brunal is a self-proclaimed anti-vaxxer and activist against the vaccination campaigns. On general principles, he opposes just about all vaccines.

Editor’s Note: The aim of this story is to outline the views of prominent anti-vaxxers to understand how and why their views evolve and spread. Anticentric has taken extensive efforts to fact-check the claims and comments in this story. 

Brunal has 37 years of experience attending patients. He treats his patients without using antibiotics or vaccines, which he totally opposes as a way to prevent diseases. Furthermore, he denies the existence of COVID-19.

He goes even further in discussing anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories, saying he does not believe in diseases, but in people with diseases. 

“There are no pathogenic viruses or bacteria. The problem for us, human beings, is not diseases because diseases do not exist. The patient exists. This is a concept that you already begin to see clearly when you begin to see medicine from a holistic context. It is what happened to me when I started studying homeopathy,” he told Anticentric.

Brunal denied the existence of SARS-CoV-2 as a virus and he is hardly the only one. 

American actor Woody Harrelson, Mexican actor Christopher Uckermann, Spanish singer Miguel Bose, Mexican actor Carlos Villagran (Quico, from Chavo del Ocho), a celebrity in Latin America, and Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly are just some of the famous names that have spread anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories along with denials about the novel coronavirus. Social media has helped amplify their message.

And this belief flies in the face of data gathered by the World Health Organization (WHO) that says more than half million people have died in less than a year from COVID-19.

“Show me the photograph of the virus and the certificate from the electron microscopist where it says that it is a virus,” said Brunal. “Show me the one with the coronavirus. Show me the one for HIV. … doctor Luc Montagnier, who had no hesitation in receiving the Nobel Prize, did acknowledge that he never refined the virus, and refining means you have the virus identified,” Brunal said.

Both viruses have been seen and photographed. National Geographic published photographs of the virus taken with high-res microscopes. (The pictures and a story about how scientists managed to see the coronavirus can be seen here.) Another challenge is that the rise of anti-vaxxers and their theories is facilitating the re-emergence of old diseases.

Montagnier, a French virologist, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2008 along with Françoise Barre-Sinoussi and Harald zur Hausen, for identifying the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A transcript of an alleged interview from 1997 quotes Montagnier as saying that his team never refined HIV, Brunal recalled.

Brunal not only questions the existence of the novel coronavirus but also the usefulness of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for COVID-19. This is the test that is being widely used around the world to detect and fight the virus. It is the test recommended by the WHO.

“Kary Mullis himself told them that this was a test to detect lung cancer, that it was not an infection test to diagnose infections,” said Brunal. 

Kary Banks Mullis was a U.S. biochemist who invented the PCR test in the 1980s. The claim of Mullis’ comments have supposedly gone viral on social media but various anti-vaxxers contacted on Twitter by Anticentric refused to share the original source of the comments. 

Despite being recognized for his achievements, the scientific community is cautious about Mullis, even though he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993. Mullis has denied the existence of HIV and also claimed to have had an encounter with some type of aliens. Mullis was also well known for his strong advocacy of the use of psychedelic drugs.

“So, if the same inventor of the test is saying that this is not to detect infections but they are selling like hot cakes, that is, we return to the same thing: this is a business and they are playing with the ignorance of people who do not have to know about this, but worse still with the ignorance of the doctors indoctrinated in the medical schools by the pharmaceutical mafia,” said Brunal.

Mullis died of pneumonia in December 2019 before SARS-CoV-2 began spreading, leaving his views on the use of the test to detect the novel coronavirus unknown.

The way Brunal sees it, people around the world are not dying of the virus but of more prosaic causes. 

“People die of what they die every year. In Europe, up to one million people a year die of pneumonia. Old people die. Long-term asthma patients die. Chemotherapy patients die. Cancer patients die. They die every year,” said Brunal.

Anticentric fact-checked the figure of deaths by pneumonia every year and they do not seem to match Brunal’s claims. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, “the standardized death rate (three-year average) from pneumonia stood at 26 deaths per 100 000 EU inhabitants in 2016”.That means that in 2016, about 132,860 people died of pneumonia in the European Union, which at the time had a population of about 511 million people.

Confronted with the large numbers of deaths in cities like Guayaquil, Ecuador, or Manaus, Brazil, where people started dying at rates that exceeded the capacity of the authorities and of funeral homes, Brunal claimed that people are dying of something other than the virus.

According to Brunal, people are dying of a biological toxin. He said that the world is in the midst of World War IV (and that the Cold War was World War III). He says that global powers are even using electromagnetic weapons to make people sick and die and are forcing the population to get vaccinated.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and a frequent target of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theories, is important to the story, according to Brunal.

“We have a man today who is called Bill Gates, who is not even a doctor, who is not even a biologist, who is not even an epidemiologist, but is a ‘vaccinologist’,” said Brunal.

He says Gates supported the distribution of vaccines in India. Brunal, like many other anti-vaxxers, linked vaccines in India to a theory that 480,000 children have been left paralyzed in India. This story, with little basis in fact, started with a viral post published by anti-vaxxer leader Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of former US president John F. Kennedy.

The Logical Indian, a fact-checking outlet in India, examined the claim and noted that: “It can be ascertained that the claims made in the viral posts are false.”

The rumors have taken this viral post further, with some even suggesting that Gates is facing trial in India. In exploring the issue, news agency Reuters confirmed that: “Bill Gates is not facing trial in India for an illegal vaccination study.”

Gates has been brought into this debate after years of funding vaccines. He once suggested that effective vaccination is key to curb unchecked population growth. Gates believes there are just too many people in the world.

This alleged use of vaccines as a check on population growth is just one of the many thesis that motivate anti-vaxxers to campaign and spread anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories. Fake news and partial truths are all impacting vaccination campaigns.

“The spread of fake news and misinformation on social media is blamed as a primary cause of vaccine hesitancy,” said a study carried out by Vincenzo Carrieri, Leonardo Madio and Francesco Principe published in August 2019 in Health Economics. 

The researchers said their results “corroborate the thesis that misinformation is a dangerous cause of the vaccine hesitancy issue.”