On that anti-mRNA vaccines video

person holding injection

The Times of India has published an irresponsible article today on a video by a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claiming with dubious evidence that all mRNA vaccines are harmful. The article quotes from the video at length, effectively offering less-sceptical readers a transcript and encouraging the uncritical absorption of the video’s contents.

Irrespective of the quality of data that is available vis-à-vis the adverse effects of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, the Times of India article is an offence to good sense, responsible journalism and public healthcare. It amounts to a major news outlet misusing its status to normalise the low quality of arguments and discussion surrounding the public discussion on COVID-19 vaccines.

1. The headline is “Coronavirus vaccine: MIT Professor calls for immediate suspension of COVID mRNA vaccine”. It doesn’t say that the individual, Retsef Levi, is a professor of operations management at the Sloan School of Management, giving rise to the ad verecundiam fallacy. Expertise is not the (partial) name of the institute where a person is employed, the prefixes or suffixes to their name, or even their claims. Expertise is exactly what they have received specialised training to do and/or have been doing at a professional level for a long time. Times of India should have included Prof. Levi’s actual expertise in the headline – although I may be asking for too much here because it appears as though the author was aware of it but didn’t think it mattered. That Prof. Levi works at MIT also appears to have impressed the author, and may well have prompted the article in its current form.

2. The article neither facilitates nor encourages independent verification of Prof. Levi’s claims. Even if – and that’s a big if – Prof. Levi’s claims hold up, allowing readers to check for themselves the claims an article is platforming is an important expression of trust and, in a manner of speaking, the right thing to do when one is participating in a discourse of reason and facts. But the article doesn’t contain any links to the papers that Prof. Levi invokes in his defence. The only ‘independent’ expert it has chosen to quote is Aseem Malhotra, the British cardiologist who has made controversial claims about warding off COVID-19 with a diet he devised and who has become known for opposing the use of the mRNA vaccines.

(By the way, this isn’t whataboutery per se: that a scientist has made other dubious claims shouldn’t mean that they’re current claim should be dubious as well – nor that their legitimate and brave championing of one cause means that all their causes are legitimate. As a journalist, I’d be wary of the extent to which their willingness to swim against the current has benumbed their ability to recognise and respond to valid criticism.)

3. The article neglects to mention the potential dangers of allowing people to interpret the findings of their own studies. For example, google “Retsef Levi” and one of the top five results is a link to his Google Scholar profile. Click on it, and on the landing page, sort Prof. Levi’s papers by year (instead of by number of citations). The ninth article should be a paper published by Scientific Reports – a Nature journal – and coauthored by Prof. Lefi, Christopher Sun, and Eli Jaffe. The numbers and names you must have seen in the course of this clickthrough should tell you three things:

a) A note atop the paper’s page, dated May 2022, says the journal’s editors are reviewing criticisms that the paper’s conclusions are problematic.;

b) Scientific Reports is a peer-reviewed journal, but peer-review didn’t prevent it from publishing this paper (and then flagging problems about it, rather than before it enters the scientific literature). This is because peer-review has several limitations.;

c) According to Google Scholar, this paper has been cited 19 times – but it doesn’t say anything about the contexts of citation. If I write a paper criticising studies of poor design or quality and cite Prof. Levi’s Scientific Reports paper as an example, the citation count of the paper increases by one, but beyond this one-dimensional number, the reputation of the paper has actually declined (or ought to have).

4. How can we be sure that Prof. Levi is interpreting, to his audience at large, all the other studies he cites in his video in a fair manner? The way the Times of India article its written, we can’t. We need to find (without any links) and follow-up on each one (without access to expertise) separately.

For example, consider the “Harvard Medical School” study that purportedly found unattached spike proteins in the blood of young people with post-vaccination myocarditis. In this study, researchers worked with 16 people with post-vaccination myocarditis and 45 people without post-vaccination myocarditis, and found that those with the condition had unattached spike proteins in their bloodsteams.

Conclusions: a) post-vaccination myocarditis is rare, which both Prof. Levi and Times of India leave out; b) the results are indicative because the cohort sizes are too small to reliably elucidate rare side-effects and the real extent of their rarity; c) per the paper itself, “the mRNA vaccine-induced immune responses did not differ between individuals who developed myocarditis and individuals who did not”; and d) spike-protein overproduction could be implicated in the mechanism connecting mRNA vaccination and myocarditis.

This is just one study that Prof. Levi has invoked.

Again, irrespective of the legitimacy (or not) of Prof. Levi’s various claims in his video, Times of India was duty-bound to raise these issues – or at least flag their relevance. The newspaper may believe it is ‘simply reporting’ something that someone somewhere said and is therefore free of blame, but that’s like saying you’re simply erecting a billboard reproducing Nick Naylor’s comments on smoking and are expecting to be free of blame. At least in the realm of reason and facts.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.