Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewed frequent Fox guest and pandemic misinformer Alex Berenson, who made a number of false claims about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Israel, adding to the network’s ongoing misinformation about the vaccines.
Carlson has a long history of pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, calling the COVID-19 vaccine rollout a method of “social control,” and accusing medical experts of “lying” about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. (By contrast, the 89-year-old Fox News founder and right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch received his first vaccine dose back in December.)
Berenson and Carlson are waging a fear campaign against the vaccines, exploiting two different points of argument: noting that vaccines are not 100% effective, even at their most successful levels; and seemingly attributing any illnesses that occur in some individuals directly to the vaccine, despite a lack of any direct evidence.
Israel’s rollout shows that the vaccine works
Israel has administered at least a first dose of vaccine to 5 million citizens, including nearly 3.8 million who have received a second dose. Among the fully vaccinated population, The Times of Israel reported this week, only 0.2% have developed any COVID-19 symptoms at all, and less than 1% have tested positive for the virus.
But on the March 8 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Berenson claimed that Israel had demonstrated that the vaccines were not as effective as has been touted — and he appeared to echo online conspiracy theories claiming that the vaccines were themselves causing serious harm.
Berenson’s comments followed a discussion on how “pure mask theater” was making air travel more dangerous for commercial pilots and air traffic controllers, despite a lack of evidence of real-world accidents that would have resulted from this purported danger.
To make this point fully clear, vaccines are not 100% effective. But as The Times of Israel’s March 8 report shows, the vaccination campaign has clearly made a drastic difference:
Of the 6,095 coronavirus patients hospitalized in serious or critical condition since the start of Israel’s vaccination campaign, only 175, or 2.87 percent, had received the second vaccination dose, the figures show.
At the same time, 4,589 patients, or 75% of those in serious or critical condition, had not received a first dose.
New coronavirus deaths and infections in Israel have continued to decline from highs in January, and the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients has dropped to its lowest point since last year.
The rhetorical trick: Connecting any negative health event to the COVID-19 vaccines
Conspiracy theories have circulated online for well over a month, claiming that the vaccine rollout in Israel had led to deaths. Reuters fact-checked this in early February, finding “no evidence the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has caused any fatal reactions among recipients in Israel,” and reporting that nearly all coronavirus-related deaths from the previous month had occurred in people who had not been vaccinated.
Reuters also determined that a web site collecting stories of deaths that supposedly happened as a result of the vaccines “do not offer evidence of a causal link between vaccination and death; they offer a personal timeline of a vaccination dose being given, and a death that occurred afterwards.”
However, Berenson appears to be alleging on Twitter that governments are covering up a surge in negative health events among the vaccinated population.
In many cases, conspiracy theorists have latched onto stories about illnesses that might have happened anyway, and removed them from any context. For example, a series of viral online posts back in December focused on four cases of Bell’s palsy, a condition that causes facial paralysis, among the vaccine test subjects. However, these cases were found to have been “consistent with the expected background rate in the general population,” and thus unlikely to have been linked to the vaccine at all.
Another Murdoch media property, the New York Post, promoted stories in December and January about a 75-year-old Israel man who had a heart attack as well as the deaths of two nursing home residents in Norway after being vaccinated, though in each case there was no evidence linking the causes of their deaths to the vaccines.
Real side effects are rare — and they are being monitored and treated
One area of very minor concern to genuinely emerge has been the occurrence of anaphylaxis, a rare but severe allergic reaction that can potentially occur with any type of vaccination. The CDC has publicly acknowledged since January that anaphylaxis now appears to be occurring at a higher rate for COVID-19 vaccines in comparison to vaccines for the seasonal flu — but even then, the reported rate was at only 11 people out of every 1 million who were vaccinated. The agency has posted guidelines for both individuals and vaccine distribution facilities, to be on guard for this rare side effect and to provide immediate treatment.
Naturally, Berenson is also accusing the authorities of vastly understating the true incidence of anaphylaxis, adding that “the reality is that for rare events (under 1 in 1000) you can say what you like and without access to a database no one will be able to contradict you.”
Of course, this comment might apply just as well to himself.