Two Democrats facing long odds in competitive primaries are hoping that their opponents’ past skepticism of vaccines will prompt voters to give them a shot during a pandemic that has heightened awareness of scientific protocols.
The issue is most prominent in Vermont, where former state Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe is battling Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the Aug. 11 primary. Holcombe has blasted Zuckerman for questioning the need for vaccines to be mandatory in 2018 and supporting a “philosophical” exemption to vaccination in 2015.
Suraj Patel, an attorney challenging New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the June 23 primary, has crafted a video documenting Maloney’s past interest in a link between vaccines and the instance of autism. The idea that vaccines can account for an increase in the documented cases of child autism always lacked credible evidence and the work of a British scientist promoting the theory has been debunked and discredited.
Both Zuckerman and Maloney claim they are staunch supporters of vaccination and say their opponents are distorting their records on the matter.
But Holcombe and Patel maintain that their rivals’ histories are enough to disqualify them. And in contemporary Democratic politics, anything resembling the science-illiterate approach of President Donald Trump is quite often radioactive.
“Why it is more potent now is because you’re seeing the real-life consequences of ‘Do you believe science or do you not believe science? Do you believe in following medical advice to avoid all these things or are you going to be a skeptic?’” said Lis Smith, a Democratic communications consultant, who advised Patel during his first unsuccessful bid to unseat Maloney in 2018.
As a presidential candidate, Trump pandered to anti-vaxxers in Sept. 2015 by expressing concern that the higher “doses” and frequency of vaccines were creating more autism cases. (During a resurgence of measles cases in April 2019, however, Trump urged parents to vaccinate their children.)
And under his presidency, a slew of right-wing politicians have embraced the anti-vaxxer movement, particularly in state governments. For example, in 2018, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R), a Trump ally, appointed a supporter of broad vaccine exemptions to an open state Senate seat, and named the head of an anti-vaxxer group to an open state House seat.
Trump’s fact-free statements about the COVID-19 pandemic, endorsement of untested for the virus, and rocky relationship with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, makes the matter that much more relevant.
“We’re seeing the consequences every day of a president who ignores scientific and medical advice with all the COVID stuff,” Smith said.
A Vermont Candidate Who Called Vaccines ‘Disputed’ Science
As a Vermont state senator in 2015, Zuckerman tried to preserve a “philosophical” exemption to vaccines by introducing an amendment that would have made the exemption’s elimination contingent on the development of a DNA test to determine whether someone had a genetic predisposition to an allergic reaction to a vaccine. He was unsuccessful.
At the time, he also said that vaccine science was “disputed.”
During his 2018 reelection run for lieutenant governor, Zuckerman, who is an organic farmer, also used arguments typically wielded by anti-vaxxers to explain his skepticism. He questioned the integrity of the CDC’s infectious disease board, claiming it had a “number of conflicts of interest.” And he maintained that while he supported vaccination personally, he was unsure that the “government should be forcing that on to individuals.”
Efforts to turn vaccination mandates into a question of personal freedom fail to account for the need to establish “herd immunity,” a term for when vaccination rates are so high that even individuals who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons are safe from contracting a disease. Parts of the United States where anti-vaxxer sentiment is high have seen resurgences of dangerous childhood illnesses, such as measles, mumps and whooping cough.
And despite the insinuations of anti-vaxxers, the CDC does not profit from the production or dissemination of vaccines and its officials are prohibited from accepting gifts from outside groups worth more than $20.
Dr. Walter Orenstein, a former head of the CDC’s immunization program who now runs vaccine policy and development at Emory University, noted that the CDC has a record of withdrawing its endorsement of vaccines if they spark a medical problem that was not detected during the approval process. For example, in 1999, the agency recommended suspension of the rotavirus vaccine after it emerged that 15 people who took it suffered intestinal blockages.
I don’t think Vermont will elect somebody who disputes the basic public health research behind childhood immunization.
Rebecca Holcombe, former Vermont Secretary of Education
Holcombe, who left Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s cabinet in 2018 over what she saw as an effort to impose austerity on local school districts, put Zuckerman on the defensive about the comments in her opening statement during a May 11 debate.
“In the midst of a pandemic, when it is so important that we replace Gov. Scott, disputing the science behind immunization is both misguided and dangerous,” she said.
In a Wednesday interview with HuffPost, she was more blunt, arguing that nominating Zuckerman after his comments would effectively preclude Democrats from retaking the governorship. “I don’t think Vermont will elect somebody who disputes the basic public health research behind childhood immunization,” she said.
During the May debate, Zuckerman accused Holcombe of taking his legislative record and comments out of context. He noted that he has vaccinated his daughter and introduced a bill making the HPV vaccine mandatory. And he promised he would “trust the scientists” when a COVID-19 vaccine comes out.
Reached for comment, Zuckerman’s campaign referred HuffPost to a statement he issued after the debate with Holcombe. “I think everyone should get vaccines unless it is medically contraindicated,” he said.
Garrison Nelson, a retired political scientist at the University of Vermont, said Zuckerman’s superior name recognition virtually assured him the nomination, notwithstanding any damage Holcombe manages to inflict. But he was equally certain that Zuckerman would lose to Scott in the general election, who has presided over one of the country’s more moderate outbreaks of the pandemic.
“The Vermont COVID-19 death toll is minuscule and Governor Scott will get credit for it,” Nelson said. “David Zuckerman’s anti-vaxxer stance is a non-winner in a state as enlightened as Vermont.”
In the meantime, Zuckerman’s proximity to leading national progressives has raised questions for them. Zuckerman, who ardently supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, has the endorsements of all four of Sanders’ 2020 campaign co-chairs: Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D), San Juan, Puerto Rico, Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen. (Sanders himself has not endorsed.)
“Lt. Governor David Zuckerman has assured me he believes 110% in vaccines and supports the science behind them,” Khanna said in a statement. “Attacks like this against him during the primary undermines not only the Democratic party in Vermont but across the country.”
A New York Congresswoman’s Concerns About Vaccines And Autism
Maloney, who has represented parts of New York City in Congress since 1993, for years pursued an interest in the unsubstantiated link between vaccines and autism. In 2007, and again in 2009, Maloney introduced a bill that would have required the federal government to study whether “vaccines or vaccine components play a role in the development of autism spectrum or other neurological conditions.” She even teamed up with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) in 2009 to ask Health and Human Services to take some of the $300 million allotted by the stimulus bill for vaccine purchase and distribution, and put it toward conducting the vaccine safety studies.
Maloney also co-sponsored a 2007 bill that would have prohibited the use of mercury-based chemicals in vaccines. Due to opposition from anti-vaxxers, vaccines with mercury-based chemicals were already almost entirely no longer in circulation at the time, despite the absence of scientific evidence of their harm.
At the time of the bills’ introduction, there were already multiple academic studies that had concluded there was no link between vaccines and autism, including vaccines with thimerosal, a compound that contains mercury.
“No reputable science supports a role for vaccines in autism,” Orenstein said. “One of the problems is that if 90% of the people are vaccinated, then 90% of the bad things that were going to happen anyway will happen to vaccinated people, purely by coincidence.”
During the late 2000s, as she was introducing bills about baseless vaccine health threats, Maloney kept the company of the anti-vaxxer movement’s more notorious figures. Maloney spoke at a 2008 “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington headlined by anti-vaxxer actors Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, where she praised them for “all they have done to protect our nation’s children.”
McCarthy, who has an autistic son, was one of the anti-vaxxer movement’s leading spokespeople. She promoted the research of quack British doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 study fueling the anti-vaxxer movement was retracted in 2010. That same year, Wakefield’s shady practices led the United Kingdom to strip him of his medical license.
Maloney also had kind words for then-Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) in a 2012 hearing about the health risks of vaccines. Burton, who had an autistic grandchild, was Congress’s leading anti-vaxxer in the 2000s, holding an infamous hearing on the alleged ties of autism to vaccines in 2000 that featured Wakefield. (After retiring from Congress at the end of 2012, Burton took up work as a lobbyist for an alternative medicine group affiliated with Scientology.)
In a Nov. 2012 hearing convened by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on rising autism rates, Maloney praised Burton for “his leadership” on the issue of vaccines and autism, crediting him for making “some progress.”
Maloney repeatedly pressed Dr. Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, on whether the agency had adequately studied the possible link between vaccines and autism. Boyle began to explain that the CDC had already studied the issue, but Maloney cut her off to deliver a speech on her suspicions of the current regimen of vaccines.
“I’m for vaccinations. They prevent disease. I’m totally for it,” she said. “But why do you have to cram nine, six at one time when the verbal evidence seems so strong from so many people that they had a healthy child until they got vaccinated?”
Patel challenged Maloney from the left in 2018. Her past vaccine skepticism came up, but it wasn’t central.
But as Patel mounts another bid to unseat Maloney in the national epicenter of the pandemic, he has made vaccine policy a far more dominant theme. It’s part of a larger effort to paint himself as a science-minded progressive in better touch with residents of New York’s 12th Congressional District, which includes Manhattan’s East Side, Queens’ Long Island City neighborhood and northwest Brooklyn.
In mid-May, his campaign released a 90-second video on social media documenting all of Maloney’s dabbling with the anti-vaxxer movement. The video notes that some prominent anti-vaxxers have touted quotes by Maloney.
It’s a live issue because the damage around this has been done and they refuse to acknowledge that.
Suraj Patel, hotel executive and House candidate
It’s evidence, Patel maintains, that Maloney’s legitimization of vaccine skepticism has had a lasting, negative impact.
“We’re looking at emboldening an anti-vaccine movement that has created the false narrative that vaccine safety is in question,” Patel said. “It’s a live issue because the damage around this has been done and they refuse to acknowledge that.”
Patel, who also teaches business ethics at New York University, worries that the same anti-vaxxer movement that Maloney once legitimized could erode public confidence in a vaccine for COVID-19 when it arrives.
“It’s going to be terrifying when we finally do get a vaccine and these folks make it harder to build up herd immunity,” he said.
Without commenting on individual elected officials, Orenstein said it would be “great” if politicians who have reconsidered their past skepticism of vaccines could “tell people they have and why they have and encourage people to be vaccinated.”
Maloney’s campaign did not address any of her past flirtations with the anti-vaxxer movement. Campaign spokesman Bob Liff instead noted that Maloney and her children are vaccinated, and that she has routinely voted for legislation mandating and funding vaccination. In the wake of a measles outbreak in New York last May, Maloney hosted a community forum in Manhattan with Florida congresswoman and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala (D) about the importance of vaccines.
She has also “fought” for COVID-19 vaccine research funding and called for the vaccine, once approved, to “be provided freely to every single person regardless of their ability to pay,” according to Liff.
“The Congresswoman’s record as a fierce advocate for science-based policy, for universal health care and vaccinations, and for oversight of the Trump administration’s many abuses, more than speaks for itself,” Liff said.
Referring to Patel, Liff scoffed at “one of her opponents’ attempts to gain relevancy” and pointed to the “anti-union practices by his family’s hotel empire.”
Some of the hotels founded by Patel’s parents have been the subject of federal complaints for labor abuses such as wage theft.
“Rep. Maloney has spent 3 years mischaracterizing and attacking an immigrant-family-owned small business because she doesn’t understand the difference between a franchise and a big corporation,” Patel campaign spokesperson Cassie Moreno said in a statement. “Suraj is proud of his family, their come-from-nothing American Dream story, and is happy to compare it with that of one of the wealthiest Members of Congress who has never had to make payroll a day in her life.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.
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