Amid a flurry of policy changes initiated by Elon Musk since his takeover of the social media company last month, Twitter has ceased its formal efforts to combat COVID misinformation. To date, Twitter had removed over 100K posts for violating its COVID policy. The company will now rely on its users to combat disinformation through its “Birdwatch” program, which lets users rate the accuracy of tweets and submit corrections. Many of the 11K accounts suspended for spreading COVID misinformation, including those of politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), have also been reinstated.
The Gist: We’ve seen the damage caused by inaccurate or deliberately misleading COVID information, which has likely played a role in the US’s lower vaccination rates compared to other high-income countries. Around one in five Americans use Twitter, far fewer than Facebook or YouTube, but the platform is seen as highly influential, both for the reach of its content and also its moderation decisions.
This policy change is worrisome, not only because COVID is still taking the lives of hundreds of Americans daily, but also because COVID misinformation catalyzes broader healthcare misinformation, including antivax sentiments and an overall mistrust of medical experts.
The website for the group Physicians for Informed Consent (PIC) reads like an apolitical, educational resource that provides information on vaccines and why they shouldn’t be government-mandated. Its mission is “that doctors and the public are able to evaluate the data on infectious diseases and vaccines objectively, and voluntarily engage in informed decision-making about vaccination.”
The group’s accompanying social media accounts, however, tell a different story. On PIC’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn feeds, you’ll find post after post about reasons to be scared of vaccines – especially for children – often highlighting selective portions of scientific research that contain vaccination risks.
Who’s Behind PIC?
The group was founded in 2015 after California passed a law that prohibited the use of personal belief exemptions from vaccinations required for children to attend any public or private school in the state.
Three years later, the number of waivers issued by doctors to parents seeking medical exemptions for their children tripled. As a result, another law was passed in 2019, cracking down on the inappropriate use of medical exemptions.
The group’s founder, Shira Miller, MD, is a concierge integrative medicine doctor based in Los Angeles, specializing in menopausal care. On her own Twitter profile, she describes herself as “Facebook’s Most Popular Menopause Doctor.”
Miller earned her medical degree in 2002 from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and has reportedly been working as a concierge physician since 2010.
PIC’s leadership team also includes 20 physicians from a wide range of specialties, most of whom, like Miller, don’t specialize in infectious diseases.
Among its leaders is Paul Thomas, MD, an Oregon-based pediatrician. Thomas, who is listed as one of PIC’s founding directors, was issued an emergency suspension order of his medical license in 2021 by the state medical board, in which they cited at least eight cases of alleged patient harm. In line with PIC’s philosophy, Thomas maintains that he isn’t “anti-vax” – he’s pro-informed-consent.
Also on the team is Jane Orient, MD, internist and executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), a group that also opposes vaccine mandates. Orient received her medical degree from Columbia University and currently practices in Arizona. In 2020, the AAPS sued the federal government for withholding its stockpile of hydroxychloroquine from COVID patients, despite research showing that the drug is ineffective. The complaint was dismissed in September 2021.
Doug Mackenzie, MD, a plastic surgeon who graduated from Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, is PIC’s treasurer. He has previously identified himself as an “ex-vaxxer” rather than an anti-vaxxer when speaking on a panel in 2019.
The only RN on the team is Tawny Buettner. After California mandated vaccinations for healthcare workers, Buettner organized a protest outside of her place of work, Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego; she later sued the hospital after she was dismissed from her job. According to the complaint, Buettner and the 36 other plaintiffs alleged that their requests for religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine were all denied.
Kenneth Stoller, MD, also listed on the leadership team, graduated from the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine and completed pediatric residency training at the University of California Los Angeles. Stoller was disciplined in 2019 for doling out medical exemptions to children without adequate evidence. According to state records, his license in California has since been revoked; he currently holds a medical license in New Mexico.
The most notable physician groups accused of spreading COVID-19 misinformation since the vaccine rollout have been affiliated with right-wing media, if not overtly proclaiming conservative, anti-vaccination beliefs.
For example,America’s Frontline Doctors, a group notorious for its support of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, has made its values well-known. The group’s founder, Simone Gold, MD, JD, was arrested for participating in the Jan. 6 capitol riot and has openly opposed mask-wearing. Similarly, physician leaders of theFront Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, known for promoting the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19, tout their appearances on the ultra-conservative Newsmax on the website’s homepage.
PIC wants to be different. The group’s focus, according to its general counsel Greg Glaser, JD, of Copperopolis, California, is on the “authoritative citations that show, or calculate, the risks [of vaccines] to the public,” he told MedPage Today.
“We are pro-informed consent, pro-ethics, pro-health. PIC is not anti-vaccine, and PIC is not pro-vaccine – PIC is neutral,” Glaser said on behalf of the group.
In August 2021, Glaser submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court PIC’s behalf, arguing against the implementation of vaccine mandates. The document claims that “government statements confirm there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19,” ignoring the breadth of existing literature that says otherwise.
Oh, how the tide has turned. Three months ago, COVID was ravaging my homeland, India. The Delta variant was burning through the country like an uncontrolled wildfire. People carted dying relatives town to town, desperately seeking hospital beds or a whiff of oxygen. A cousin in India said, “COVID is not taking lives, just the beds. Lack of oxygen is taking lives.”
I watched India’s suffering unfold and felt guilty for living in one of the world’s most resourceful and scientifically advanced countries. My homeland was floundering, but at least my other homeland — the U.S. — was finally on track.
104 million Americans had been vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine alleviated the worst outcomes of the B.1.1.7 and B.1351 variants. Adolescents aged 12-15 were gearing up for vaccine eligibility within days, and the CDC was reporting the U.S. could see a sharp decline in COVID cases by July if nationwide vaccinations continued. Health care workers had proper PPE, millions of people were getting vaccinated each week, and infection rates were declining steadily. We could finally see Spring’s light at the end of the year’s tortuous dark tunnel. Our country was in the home stretch.
Now the Delta variant is here and I have to wonder, Who were we kidding? We don’t live in a world where vertical borders prevent airborne particles from crossing time zones. Planes and boats carry viruses from one country to the next like microscopic stowaways. The virus doesn’t abandon ship. It mutates, and adapts, and colonizes.
We had a real chance to strangle this monster, to show the rest of the world how it was done, to help them all in the process. We let that chance slip away. Not everyone and not everywhere, but enough people got complacent. Some waited for herd immunity to carry the load—a number that crept from 60 to 70 to 85 percent, depending on what you read and when you read it—and others just figured it would pass. Now the Delta variant, the same one that tore through India and Great Britain, has twisted out of our flimsy grip and is roaring with laughter.
How did this happen?
Misinformation. Political discord. Vaccine hesitancy. The bottom line is our vaccination rate faltered. The CDC reported that on August 1, 2021, approximately 400,000 Americans received their first COVID dose. While that seems high, it’s less than a quarter of the peak in mid-April. We haven’t maxed out eligible people (only 58.1 percent of eligible people were fully vaccinated as of a week ago). We’re maxing out the number of people who know COVID’s real repercussions are far worse than the vaccine’s feared ones.
The U.S now has the third-highest rate of vaccine skepticism among 15 of the world’s largest economies. Our vaccine surplus is so large the FDA extended Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine expiration dates to avoid throwing out perfectly good doses. Less than a week ago, President Biden announced the U.S. has donated and shipped more than 110 million doses to 60 countries. While I applaud the humanitarian effort, I question the fate of those doses if the 41.9 percent unvaccinated eligible people in our country had wanted them.
It makes me wonder: Why does science take a backseat to unsubstantiated pseudoscientific claims?
Spreaders of vaccine disinformation fill their social media accounts with statements questioning COVID’s existence and purporting unproven treatments (never mind the fact that we wouldn’t need treatments if COVID didn’t exist) with little to no peer-reviewed scientific research to support their anti-vaccine claims. According to Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, twelve people — the “disinformation dozen” — produce 65 percent of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms.”
Is it easier for some to believe that a science-backed treatment is inherently more dangerous than an unknown herb plucked from a field? Perhaps. But what do they say to the approximately 216 kids hospitalized daily in the U.S. over the past week, particularly in areas where vaccine coverage is low? Bad luck? You weren’t strong enough? What would have made them stronger?
Yes, there are measures underway to increase vaccinations—full FDA approval, social media crackdowns on misinformation, and government, company, military, and college mandates. But let’s be honest, many Americans are fighting these measures, as they will fight future mandates, and the next vaccine.
Only two things can change how non-vaxxers perceive COVID vaccines: education and trust. We need to sincerely hear their reasons, and then gently clarify misinformation—vaccines don’t introduce disease into our bodies. They stimulate our immune systems to obtain immunity without getting the disease. Vaccines don’t alter our DNA. Their safety has been tested. Medicines have potential side effects, but illnesses have definite ones. COVID kills indiscriminately; vaccines don’t.
Trust is harder. How can we help people trust these vaccines? I suppose on a deeper level, it’s more about trusting the people that make the vaccines. Big pharma, for-profit companies—sure, they are the money makers. But behind the scenes, the vaccines are created by men and women who’ve accepted the charge to make this world—not just individuals—safer and healthier. They’ve spent years studying, researching, and testing potential vaccines with dedication and patience, including the mRNA technology in COVID vaccines. Just because the COVID vaccine’s rollout was fast-tracked to combat the pandemic doesn’t mean the scientists cut corners in designing and testing it.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of slowly educating and gradually building trust. COVID is terrorizing our planet now. The world is shaking its heads at the U.S., wondering what happened. We were supposed to be the leader. This morning, an aunt in a small town in India sent me a WhatsApp message: “I have taken the vaccine … the positivity rate has gone down … I am worried for America … how r u?” I don’t know. America, how are we? It’s not too late to destroy this monster, but if the unvaccinated remain unmoved, it will be soon.
The U.S. may have entered into a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the public health crisis is far from over. The nation’s hospitals and health systems will likely be dealing with its after effects for decades, according to new findings from Fitch Ratings.
Specifically, health implications related to the coronavirus will drive elevated health system utilization long after the acute phase of the pandemic has ended, likely leading to increasing costs and higher insurance premiums for years to come.
These costs will emerge from the necessary addition to outpatient capacity to deal with the ongoing treatment of chronic conditions related to what may be permanent damage caused by the virus.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
It’s nigh impossible to determine the magnitude of these effects, said Fitch. It will be dependent on tangential health issues related to deferred diagnostic testing and treatment during the pandemic. Since related conditions are likely to develop over time, Fitch doesn’t anticipate these issues to directly affect the credit profile of issuers in the U.S. healthcare system.
In the near term, health insurers have been able to incorporate expanding COVID-19 claims data, estimates of infection trends and pent-up demand for previously deferred care into 2021 premium rates, which should benefit cost management and pricing this year and next.
However, for healthcare providers, the expansion of the healthcare system over the long term will likely exacerbate traditional pressures on operating performance, such as tight labor and wage markets for experienced staff, rising pharmaceutical expenses and supply costs in general.
Although the U.S. has glimpsed signs of the pandemic’s potential end over the past couple of months, the ultimate story of the pandemic is still being told.
The infection rate is once again trending up, presumably due to a combination of factors, including a dramatic reduction in demand for new vaccinations, the rapid spread of the more infectious Delta variant and the reduction in mitigation measures.
THE LARGER TREND
The rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. are occurring mostly in communities with low rates of vaccinations, with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky saying in July that “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Data published by USA Today shows that cases are rising in all 50 states, with some startling increases in certain areas. Rhode Island, for example, saw cases almost triple in a one-week period, with Maine and Vermont following closely behind. Massachusetts, Alaska and Kentucky have seen their cases more than double in that time, followed by Minnesota, Florida and Texas.
Cases are rising fastest in Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and Nevada, all of which have low vaccination rates, according to Market Watch. In all four of those states, less than half of residents are fully vaccinated.
Vaccine hesitancy remains a problem, with many Americans reluctant to get their shots or unwilling to do so. In May, a Sermo poll showed that more than 72% of physicians surveyed said that patients continue to voice concerns over vaccine side effects.
Still others have reported ongoing misinformation discouraging people from getting vaccines. And close to 30% of physicians reported encountering patients who have skipped their second dose due to unpleasant side effects from the first dose, or concerns over side effects.
We’re a year into the coronavirus pandemic, so the math that undergirds its risks should by now be familiar. We all should know, for example, that the ability of the virus to spread depends on it being able to find a host, someone who is not protected against infection. If you have a group of 10 people, one of whom is infected and nine of whom are immune to the virus, it’s not going to be able to spread anywhere.
That calculus is well known, but there is still some uncertainty at play. To achieve herd immunity — the state where the population of immune people is dense enough to stamp out new infections — how many people need to be protected against the virus? And how good is natural immunity, resistance to infection built through exposure to the virus and contracting covid-19, the disease it causes?
The safe way to increase the number of immune people, thereby probably protecting everyone by limiting the ability of the virus to spread, is through vaccination. More vaccinated people means fewer new infections and fewer infections needed to get close to herd immunity. The closer we get to herd immunity, the safer people are who can’t get vaccinated, such as young children (at least for now).
The challenge the world faces is that the rollout of vaccines has been slow, relatively speaking. The coronavirus vaccines were developed at a lightning pace, but many parts of the world are still waiting for supplies sufficient to broadly immunize their populations. In the United States, the challenge is different: About a quarter of adult Americans say they aren’t planning on getting vaccinated against the virus, according to Economist-YouGov polling released last week.
That’s problematic in part because it means we’re less likely to get to herd immunity without millions more Americans becoming infected. Again, it’s not clear how effective natural immunity will be over the long term as new variants of the virus emerge. So we might continue to see tens of thousands of new infections each day, keeping the population at risk broadly by delaying herd immunity and continuing to add to the pandemic’s death toll in this country.
But we also see from the Economist-YouGov poll the same thing we saw in Gallup polling earlier this month: The people who are least interested in being vaccinated are also the people who are least likely to be concerned about the virus and to take other steps aimed at preventing it from spreading.
In the Economist-YouGov poll, nearly three-quarters of those who say they don’t plan on being vaccinated when they’re eligible also say they’re not too or not at all worried about the virus.
That makes some perverse sense: If you don’t see the virus as a risk, you won’t see the need to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, it also means you’re going to be less likely to do things like wear a mask in public.
Or you might be more likely to view as unnecessary precautions such as avoiding close-quarter contact with friends and family or traveling out of state.
About a quarter of adults hold the view that they won’t be vaccinated when eligible. That’s equivalent to about 64 million Americans.
Who are they? As prior polls have shown, they’re disproportionately political conservatives. At the outset of the pandemic, there was concern that vaccine skepticism would heavily be centered in non-White populations. At the moment, though, the rate of skepticism among those who say they voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and among Republicans is substantially higher than skepticism overall.
That shows up in another way in the Economist poll. Respondents were asked whose medical advice they trusted. Among those who say they don’t plan to get the vaccine, half say they trust Trump’s advice a lot or somewhat — far more than the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the country’s top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci.
If we look only at Republican skeptics, the difference is much larger: Half of Republican skeptics say they have a lot of trust in Trump’s medical advice.
The irony, of course, is that Trump sees the vaccine as his positive legacy on the pandemic. He’s eager to seize credit for vaccine development and has — sporadically — advocated for Americans to get the vaccine. (He got it himself while still president, without advertising that fact.) It’s his supporters, though, who are most hostile to the idea.
Trump bears most of the responsibility for that, too. Over the course of 2020, worried about reelection, he undercut containment efforts and downplayed the danger of the virus. He undermined experts such as Fauci largely out of concern that continuing to limit economic activity would erode his main argument for his reelection. Over and over, he insisted that the virus was going away without the vaccine, that it was not terribly dangerous and that America should just go about its business as usual — and his supporters heard that message.
They’re still listening to it, as the Economist poll shows. One result may be that the United States doesn’t reach herd immunity through vaccinations and, instead, some large chunk of those tens of millions of skeptics end up being exposed to the virus. Some of them will die. Some may risk repeat infections from new variants against which a vaccine offers better protection. Some of those unable to get vaccinated may also become sick from the virus because we haven’t achieved herd immunity, suffering long-term complications from covid-19.
Trump wants his legacy to be the rollout of the vaccine. His legacy will also probably include fostering skepticism about the vaccine that limits its utility in containing the pandemic.
Anti-inflammatory oral drug colchicine improved COVID-19 outcomes for patients with relatively mild cases, according to certain topline results from the COLCORONA trial announced in a brief press release.
Overall, the drug used for gout and rheumatic diseases reduced risk of death or hospitalizations by 21% versus placebo, which “approached statistical significance.”
However, there was a significant effect among the 4,159 of 4,488 patients who had their diagnosis of COVID-19 confirmed by a positive PCR test:
25% fewer hospitalizations
50% less need for mechanical ventilation
44% fewer deaths
If full data confirm the topline claims — the press release offered no other details, and did not mention plans for publication or conference presentation — colchicine would become the first oral drug proven to benefit non-hospitalized patients with COVID-19.
“Our research shows the efficacy of colchicine treatment in preventing the ‘cytokine storm’ phenomenon and reducing the complications associated with COVID-19,” principal investigator Jean-Claude Tardif, MD, of the Montreal Heart Institute, said in the press release. He predicted its use “could have a significant impact on public health and potentially prevent COVID-19 complications for millions of patients.”
Currently, the “tiny list of outpatient therapies that work” for COVID-19 includes convalescent plasma and monoclonal antibodies, which “are logistically challenging (require infusions, must be started very early after symptom onset),” tweeted Ilan Schwartz, MD, PhD, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
The COLCORONA findings were “very encouraging,” tweeted Martin Landray, MB ChB, PhD, of the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford in England. His group’s RECOVERY trial has already randomized more than 6,500 hospitalized patients to colchicine versus usual care as one of the arms of the platform trial, though he did not offer any findings from that study.
“Different stage of disease so remains an important question,” he tweeted. “Maybe old drugs can learn new tricks!” Landray added, pointing to dexamethasone.
“I think this is an exciting time. Many groups have been pursuing lots of different questions related to COVID and its complications,” commented Richard Kovacs, MD, immediate past-president of the American College of Cardiology. “We’re now beginning to see the fruit of those studies.”
COLCORONA was conducted remotely, without in-person contact, with participants across Canada, the U.S., Europe, South America, and South Africa. It randomized participants double-blind to colchicine 0.5 mg or a matching placebo twice daily for the first 3 days and then once daily for the last 27 days.
Participants were ages 40 and older, not hospitalized at the time of enrollment, and had at least one risk factor for COVID-19 complications: age 70-plus, obesity, diabetes, uncontrolled hypertension, known asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known heart failure, known coronary disease, fever of ≥38.4°C (101.12°F) within the last 48 hours, dyspnea at presentation, or certain blood cell abnormalities.
It had been planned as a 6,000-patient trial, but whether it was stopped for efficacy at a preplanned interim analysis or for some other reason was not spelled out in the press release. Whether the PCR-positive subgroup was preplanned also wasn’t clear. Key details such as confidence intervals, adverse effects, and subgroup results were omitted as well.
While a full manuscript is reportedly underway, “we don’t know enough to bring this into practice yet,” argued Kovacs.
Some physicians also warned about the potential for misuse of the findings and attendant risks.
Dhruv Nayyar, MD, of the University of Toronto, tweeted that he has already had “patients inquiring why we are not starting colchicine for them. Science by press release puts us in a difficult position while providing care. I just want to see the data.”
Angela Rasmussen, MD, a virologist with the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security’s Viral Emergence Research Initiative in Washington, agreed, tweeting:“When HCQ [hydroxychloroquine] was promoted without solid data, there was at least one death from an overdose. We don’t need people self-medicating with colchicine.”
As was the case with hydroxychloroquine before the papers proved little efficacy in COVID-19, Kovacs told MedPage Today: “We always get concerned when these drugs are repurposed that we might see an unintended run on the drug and lessen the supply.”
Citing the well-known diarrheal side effect of colchicine, infectious diseases specialist Edsel Salvana, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh and University of the Philippines in Manila, tweeted a plea for use only in the trial-proven patient population with confirmed COVID-19 — not prophylaxis.
The dose used was on par with that used in cardiovascular prevention and other indications, so the diarrhea incidence would probably follow the roughly 10% rate seen in the COLCOT trial, Kovacs suggested.
In the clinic, too, there are some cautions. As Elin Roddy, MD, a respiratory physician at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust in England, tweeted: “Lots of drug interactions with colchicine potentially — statins, macrolides, diltiazem — we have literally been running up to the ward to cross off clarithromycin if RECOVERY randomises to colchicine.”