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I was spending a day in bed with a laptop when I got an e-mail from a reader linking to an article titled “20 Essential Studies that Raise Grave Doubts about COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates.”

It got my attention.

After a Moderna booster the day before and a restless night, I’d awakened that morning woozy and fatigued. It felt like a hangover and caught me by surprise. I’d had no problem after the original two vaccine injections.

Twenty-four hours later, it was gone; nothing like the weeks in intensive care and continuing aftereffects suffered by a friend who got COVID itself.

A small enough price to pay for protection.

But while I was still in bed and bleary-eyed, the headline claiming that “20 Essential Studies” were raising “Grave Doubts” about “COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates” was a grabber.

“Mandates” might have been the ostensible issue, but what jumped out was “Grave Doubts about COVID-19 Vaccine.”

As it turned out, no accident: that was the argument being made.

Here’s how the article opened:

“The following research papers and studies raise doubts that Covid vaccine mandates are backed by science and good public-health practice . . . They demonstrate that these mandates provide no overall health benefit to the community and can even be harmful.”

The list of studies that followed featured a single quotation or brief paraphrase from each. Skim them, and you had a horror story: vaccine effectiveness waned, breakthrough infections occurred and were transmitted, PPE and masks were essentially ineffective.

Wow, really?

Stuck in bed that day, I did what most readers wouldn’t have time for: clicked on the links and began reading the sources. It quickly became clear that in many of these studies, the thrust of the paper had been distorted by the isolated quote. The researchers weren’t suggesting that vaccines are ineffective or that protective mandates are poor policy. On the contrary, in the face of the then-newly arrived Delta variant, the studies repeatedly emphasized the importance of vaccines along with continued use of mitigating social practices.

Here’s the quote from the study that was first on the list:

“Found no significant difference in cycle threshold values between vaccinated and unvaccinated, asymptomatic and symptomatic groups infected with SARS-CoV-2 Delta.”

What’s the quick take on that? Nothing matters?

And here’s a quote that could have been presented from that study: “While vaccination remains the best protection against becoming infected and severe disease . . . neither vaccine status nor the presence or absence of symptoms should influence the recommendation and implementation of good public health practices, including mask wearing, testing, social distancing, and other measures designated to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2.”

The point: Vaccines are hugely important (“the best protection”), but, with new variants circulating, don’t get complacent about your behavior.

In other words, it’s an argument for more stringent protective practices, not less.

The article, which continues to be massaged and expanded, was written by Paul Elias Alexander. If that name sounds familiar, it’s likely because he was senior science advisor to Michael Caputo, the former Trump campaign aide appointed to the job of assistant secretary for public affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration. Alexander—who wanted to let the virus run rampant through most of the population in an attempt to reach “natural” herd immunity—left HHS in September 2020 after, among other issues, it was reported that he and Caputo attempted to interfere with CDC COVID messaging.            

Alexander’s publisher, the Brownstone Institute for Social and Economic Research, is a new nonprofit founded in May as “the spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration,” a public letter issued October 4, 2020, protesting lockdowns. Its founder, economics writer and cryptocurrency promoter Jeffrey Tucker, has had a career on the conservative, right-wing side of libertarianism, from Ron Paul’s staff (in the 1980s) to the American Institute for Economic Research, the libertarian think tank that issued the Barrington Declaration.

According to its website, Brownstone’s mission is to prevent future lockdowns and “take on the technocratic disease managers, or anyone else who believes rights and liberties can be violated, at the discretion of political leaders.” Their roster of articles includes titles like “Why I Will Not Take the Second Dose”; and “New Book Exposes Fauci’s Mythological Scientific Acumen.”

What would the researchers say about cherry-picking their work?

“The propagandists are now doing their misinformation in listicle format,” is what professor David O’Connor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine told me.

“This is unfortunate, but a continuation of what’s been going on throughout the pandemic. They selectively excerpt and selectively edit from scientific studies, to try to support preconceived conclusions,” O’Connor said.

A Chicago-area native, O’Connor is a coauthor of two papers listed in a recent version of the Alexander article. His group found that when vaccinated people got breakthrough infections of the Delta variant, they could conceivably transmit it to others. But when that finding was lifted out of context, two fundamental points were lost, O’Connor said: first, “You’re still much less likely to become infected if you’ve been vaccinated, and if you’re not infected you’re not going to spread the virus to anyone else.” And second: “Because the vaccine means you have immune responses that can mop up the virus, it also means that the window in which you’re contagious might be much shorter.”

“What we were doing was sounding an early alarm bell that just because you’ve been vaccinated, it doesn’t mean you can go to a concert or go other places without worrying about giving COVID to others. But if people just focus on that one point, and don’t contextualize it around the idea that the vaccines minimize your likelihood of getting infected in the first place, and minimize that infectious window, you miss the forest for the trees.”

According to the CDC, in September 2021, unvaccinated people in the U.S. were 14 times more likely to have a COVID-associated death than those who’d been fully vaccinated.