Opinion

Let evidence be our guide: Misinformation most insidious when it comes from health-care professionals

Misinformation comes in many forms, but perhaps it is most harmful when it is produced by a health-care professional and published in a respected national newspaper.

On Jan. 22, the Globe and Mail published a long opinion piece by psychiatrist Norman Doidge that completely misrepresents the relevant evidence on vaccines and COVID-19. The broader theme of the piece – the conspiracy-tinged idea that there is a coordinated “master narrative” to subvert the use of therapies – is also a deeply wrong and harmful notion. Below, we outline just a few specific places out of many that the piece clearly gets wrong.

In the initial version of his article, Doidge spent several paragraphs on preliminary data that suggested vaccines are only 37 per cent effective against Omicron. However, as authors of the study noted, “the results are currently being updated with additional data that showed completely different [more positive] results.” In other words, a large portion of the Doidge article, which has since been updated “to include a clarification,” was based on incomplete research. Either Doidge was unaware of the well-known reality of these pending updates or he chose to ignore them.

Doidge goes on to claim that achieving herd immunity through vaccination would eliminate the virus in the human population, implying both that this was at the expense of other countermeasures such as antiviral therapeutics, and that the vaccines have failed to deliver. This grossly misrepresents the purpose of vaccination.

Eradication of SARS-CoV-2 was not the primary goal of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns and never has been. Rather, the goal from the start has been to limit morbidity and mortality caused by COVID-19 – an entirely reasonable end goal, which vaccines have achieved as indicated by an ever-growing body of evidence, including three independent large-scale studies showing more than 80 per cent effectiveness of three doses of COVID-19 vaccine against hospitalization and death due to Omicron – an impressive feat given that current vaccines were modelled against the ancestral virus rather than Omicron.

Indeed, accumulating data show that three vaccine doses confer robust immunity that protects against divergent viral variants, including Omicron. This is due to successful imprinting of the immune response against the SARS-CoV-2 spike, something Doidge incorrectly and derisively refers to as “Original Antigenic Sin.” But rather than this being a bad thing, evidence shows this imprinting is precisely what elicits broad, cross-protective immune responses against variants in a manner exceeding that conferred by infection alone.

With more than 3 billion people worldwide yet to receive their first shot, we remain a long way from achieving global protection against the harm exerted by COVID-19. Inaction in gaining control of viral transmission across the globe has profound implications because unmitigated transmission produces a much larger pool of mutations. It is a question of “when,” not “if,” a new variant will emerge. Although COVID-19 mitigation and control efforts rely on multiple tools, including equitable access to diagnostics, routine surveillance, high-quality masks, ventilation/filtration and therapeutics, vaccines are the cornerstone of our efforts.

With billions around the world suffering from devastating consequences of infection, Doidge’s contention that the “master narrative” rejects so-called “natural” immunity is wrong and inhumane because there is nothing “unnatural” about vaccine-acquired immunity and there’s nothing “natural” about promoting disease and potential long-term disability through infection. Relying on infection alone is also problematic due to the potential for long COVID, and the fact that the level of infection-generated immunity varies greatly even among immune-competent individuals.

Like his misrepresentation of vaccines, Doidge also distorts the scientific approach to COVID therapeutics. From the pandemic’s earliest days, researchers repurposed drugs to treat patients. Approved medications such as corticosteroids and other immunomodulating agents have been essential to treating severely ill patients after scientific trials proved their effectiveness. Other repurposed drugs, such as aspirin and some antibiotics, proved ineffective when rigorously tested whereas hydroxychloroquine led to harm. Doidge implies that debate about the value of hydroxychloroquine has been suppressed by political polarization. This is an ironic assertion because the exact opposite is true: There is no good clinical evidence to support the use of hydroxychloroquine in the context of COVID. That myth has been spun by ideological agendas. Fluvoxamine may help patients, but Ontario’s Science Table has been careful to point out that it has “very low certainty evidence of benefit.”

The harm caused by such insidious distortions of science reverberate beyond the traditional anti-vaccine echo chambers.

Another deeply flawed false equivalency presented by Doidge is his misuse of the Amnesty International Report to bolster his claims of censorship. He equates the pushback received by North American experts who promote fringe ideologies rather than scientific facts with that of journalists and health-care professionals who are punished and imprisoned under autocratic and totalitarian regimes for promoting evidence-based strategies or exposing the humanitarian crises unfolding in their home countries.

Most North American MDs who have attracted attention from the regulators have pushed harmful and absurd misinformation (no, the vaccines will not make you magnetic) and are not engaging in constructive “scientific debate,” as suggested by Doidge. Dissenting voices in Canada have not been “censored” (being proven wrong is not censorship or an infringement of freedom of expression).

Indeed, there is evidence that their misleading messages are so ubiquitous – they are on podcasts and cable news shows with large audiences, and in the popular press – that the bigger issue is false balance (creating the impression the evidence on both sides of a debate is equal). Regulatory bodies, like the provincial Colleges of Physicians, have a legal duty to maintain a standard of care in the best interest of the public. We need more, not less, oversight. As recently noted by the U.S. Federation of State Medical Boards, there has been a “dramatic increase in the dissemination of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation by physicians,” such as that featured in Doidge’s inaccurate piece.

The harm caused by such insidious distortions of science reverberate beyond the traditional anti-vaccine echo chambers. They cause harm even among many conscientious Canadians who do not typically fall prey to misinformation. The Saturday morning ritual of reading the Globe and Mail for a Vancouver family was turned on its head when the Doidge article was read. The family is vaccinated and waiting for third-dose appointments for two teenage sons. However, reading this piece fraught with misrepresented evidence opened the way for doubt and anxiety in the mind and heart of one parent. The other parent, a professor of immunology and microbiology, was able to address questions and offer reassuring, accurate information. What of the many Canadians who have experienced similar anxieties, doubts, and fears because of the misinformation sprinkled throughout this article and have little to no access to accurate sources of information?

The scenario is similar to what occurred in other households in 2015 when a Toronto Star article spread fear about HPV vaccines. The article was subsequently challenged by Canadian scientists who asserted, rightfully so, that evidence should be our guide in judging the safety of vaccines. Let’s be evidence-based again in 2022 as we review the successes of COVID-19 vaccines, an essential and effective arrow in our quiver in our response to COVID-19.

 

Author Bios

Ninan Abraham, Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia; Director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Indigeneity, CoVaRR-Net.

Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, Professor, Faculty of Law and School of Public Health, University of Alberta; Director of Misinformation Assessment and Response, CoVaRR-Net.

Jen Gommerman, Canada Research Chair in Tissue Specific Immunity; Professor and Acting Chair, Department of Immunology, University of Toronto; Pillar 1 Co-Lead, CoVaRR-Net.

Jason Kindrachuk, Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair in Emerging Viruses; Department of Medical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, University of Manitoba; Pillar 2 Deputy, CoVaRR-Net.

Marc-André Langlois, former Canada Research Chair in Molecular Biology and Intrinsic Immunity, Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, University of Ottawa; Executive Director, CoVaRR-Net.

Andrew Morris, MD, Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto; Pillar 8 Deputy, CoVaRR-Net.

Angela Rasmussen, Research Scientist, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization and Adjunct Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Immunology, University of Saskatchewan; Pillar 2 Lead, CoVaRR-Net.

Raphael Saginur, Chair of the Ottawa Health Science Network Research Ethics Board; Co-Director of Bioethics, CoVaRR-Net.

Fatima Tokhmafshan, Geneticist, Research Institute of McGill University Health Centre; Director of Community and Patient Engagement and Outreach, CoVaRR-Net.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

11 Comments
  • Nicholas R StC Sinclair says:

    Vaccine-induced antibodies have at least two protective actions – viral neutralizing and immunoregulatory. The first action limits viral spread while the second limits damaging antibody responses. Both actions are important and should be measured separately.

    • Nicholas Sinclair says:

      Both actions highlight the advantages of immunization. The first reduces viral spread. The second reduces immune damage due to excessive immune responses or autoimmune responses. T cells have similar mechanisms. Immunization helps!

  • doug wadsworth says:

    I neglected to mention one more glaring deficiency in your supposed rebuttal of Norman Doidge. He quotes dozens and dozens of legitimate scientists and other professionals with first hand facts and observations, not to mention reliable studies and conclusions by these other professionals. I think it is safe to say that the dozens of professionals he cites, trumps the conclusion of this author. How do you respond to the mountain of evidence he provides supporting his hypothesis and conclusions? Just by calling him “insidious” and talking about lots of people suffering from Covid” Suffering and dying from Covid is sad, but that doesn’t get you a free pass to ignore science. The United States popular media and political narrative refuses to share the science, and Canada appears to be doing the same.

  • Doug Wadsworth says:

    Your article refuting Norman Doidge is inaccurate and misleading in several ways, I see other commenters noted the same thing. What can we expect from an author who directs DIE though – part of the “woke” movement? Your article is Orwellian, like Animal Farm: the pigs changing the 7 commandments over time, and hoping nobody notices.

    1. I don’t know what news YOU were watching, but HERD IMMUNITY and ERADICATION of COVID by vaccine was certainly touted as the cure to the pandemic, at least in the USA, and still is (but now it is the BOOSTER).
    2. You also discount the efficacy of natural immunity, perhaps quoting the small “outlier” study, regardless of the majority of others results that differed. In the US, natural immunity has been completely discounted, and the narrative has been “everybody needs vaccines and boosters, and natural immunity doesn’t matter, and if you dissent from that opinion, you are a crazy un-educated redneck.”
    3. You claim his article is so harmful, implying he is partly to blame for “billions around the world are suffering devastating effects” – really… billions? Have you checked the statistics of other countries and how effective vaccines have been, and their death rates – and besides, there are under 8 billion people in the world anyway. And how many of those suffer “devastating” effects from COVID – a small percentage, primarily very elderly or sick.
    4. And how about actual science welcoming debate and questions? Instead, your article seems to encourage the more authoritarian dogmatic “religious” of this issue, and demonization of anybody who questions the narrative. Big Pharma and politicians have been awfully quiet about the vaccine testing methodologies, while pushing it on the lowest risk people in our population, like young children, whose risk of dying is .003% – and are more likely to die from getting struck by lightning.
    5. I am vaccinated, along with my whole family, and thankful for it. However, trying to silence anybody who wants to dig deeper into the science, or encourage hate and demonization or mockery of people who are vaccine hesitant is insidious, and harmful, instead, you should be encouraging governments to consider Doidges points, drop mandates, – and just encourage and educate – THAT is how we can get more high risk people vaccinated! Why is the narrative to vaccinate EVERYONE, even young children, and soon TODDLERS, when the risk is so low as to be completely irrelevant?
    In closing, it makes me concerned that the authors of this article are somehow benefitting financially from the Big Pharma involved. I know what your real goal is though… for people that haven’t read Norman Doidges article, and just see your response, and thus you seek to discredit it, for all the people that don’t take the time to do their own research. Sad. Be careful, with 20-20 hindsight, history change the position on WHO exactly the insidious ones were (hint – follow the money).

  • Brian Brown says:

    Huh?

    Authors write: “Eradication of SARS-CoV-2 was not the primary goal of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns and never has been. Rather, the goal from the start has been to limit morbidity and mortality caused by COVID-19…”

    Who is spreading misinformation now?

    At the beginning everyone claimed that the vaccines were going to stop transmission and that this was the road back to “normalcy”. CDC claimed the vaccine was “a critical prevention measure to help end the COVID-19 pandemic.”

    What a joke.

  • Rob Ruttan says:

    What an excellent piece! I too found Doige’s use of the Amnesty International document that referred to Russia, China, Nicaragua, and Tanzania bizarre and disingenuous.

  • E. Osborne says:

    Thanks to Dr. Morris’s newsletter for alerting me to the issues in Doidge’s article. Although I hadn’t blindly accepted what he said, I passed the article on to family members (we are all triple vaxxed). I have forwarded your article to them. As pointed out towards the end of your article, it’s frightening how easy it is to spread misinformation to people who pride themselves on critical thinking but lack the medical background to truly assess an article like Doidge’s.

  • J.C. Currie says:

    I too know colleagues who took many of the points in this article very seriously including the idea that there is a master plot to subvert the use of drugs like fluvoxamine…and before that hydroxychloroquine. But isn’t Doidge a bit of an inflencer/entertainer who has successfully marketed his theories on brain neuroplasticity very successfully even though some of his claims appear to lack evidence? It is irresponsible for the Globe to print this article without a fact check and does not help us make public health decisions that will serve us all.

    • Elizabeth Bredberg says:

      Thank you. I read this and Doidge’s initial article because I’d followed his very dubious writings on “plasticity” and wondered what new dubious assertions he was about to make. I’m puzzled at why he finds it necessary to assault science now and then.

  • Maureen Taylor says:

    I have friends who are intelligent journalists who read the Globe “article” (it was nothing of the sort, it was an ill-informed editorial”, and shared it on social media it as it made them question vaccine effectiveness, and the “master narrative”. One of them was particularly worried about Doidge’s assertion that vaccinations may somehow compromise our immune systems in the long run (for what other vaccine is this true?). My point is, the Globe gave this crap credibility by giving it the front page, and even seasoned journalists fell into the trap. Bad form, Globe and Mail. Thank you Healthy Debate for allowing these knowledgable experts a forum for pointing out the facts.

Authors

CoVaRR-Net brings together some of Canada’s most eminent researchers and experts in a variety of disciplines linked to emerging variants. By connecting this country’s best variants of concern-related research labs, this network ensures a rapid and coordinated response to this complicated facet of the pandemic. Contributors to this piece include Ninan Abraham, Timothy Caulfield, Jen Gommerman, Jason Kindrachuk, Marc-André Langlois, Andrew Morris, Angela Rasmussen, Raphael Saginur and Fatima Tokhmafshan.

Republish this article

Republish this article on your website under the creative commons licence.

Learn more