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The NYT Publishes Falsehood by Former Biden Covid Coordinator About UK Vaccine Policy
A blatantly untrue statement by a former White House official disparages a foreign government, and adds to an article's misleading context about US policy.
On Tuesday this week, the New York Times ran a story about the CDC’s new recommendation that every American aged six months and older should get the latest Covid shot. The article said that some CDC advisors had concerns about the broad-based recommendation, but that they voted for it anyway, and the article over all presented a vigorous, one-sided endorsement of the CDC’s decision.
Yet the agency’s uniform recommendation has been met with sharp opposition by a number of public health professionals—including Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee—who say there is insufficient evidence that the booster will yield a net benefit for much of the population. Dissenting voices were not presented in the piece.
Further, in line with the criticisms, the CDC’s indiscriminate guidance differs greatly from widely-adopted tailored plans abroad. The UK, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Germany, Belgium, and Australia, among other countries, each have far more restrictive recommendations or availability of the booster dose than the US—generally limiting it to people over aged 65 or to those at high risk or in regular contact with those at high risk. Some of these countries do not recommend any Covid vaccination at all for healthy children and adolescents.
Only one of these countries—the UK—was referenced, passingly, in the Times article as a contrast to the US recommendation. But even here the counterpoint was framed as unscientific, allowing the article’s narrative supporting the CDC to remain unchallenged. The problem is the framing was not true.
A statement attributed to Dr. Ashish Jha, the former Biden White House Covid Response Coordinator, explained away the British vaccine policy’s focus on specific groups as strictly being financially motivated:
That decision was based not on calculations about who would most benefit, but because of the prohibitive costs to the British government of offering the shots to everyone, according to Dr. Jha.
This was an incendiary statement, suggesting the British government’s policy is based not on trying to limit the number of its citizens becoming severely ill or dying, but rather simply because it doesn’t want to pay for a sufficient quantity of vaccines. It is also blatantly false. And it is worth considering why the Times published it, and why, in a correspondence with me, Jha stood by it.
With a moment’s reflection, Jha’s statement is illogical on its face. It is self-contradictory—British officials could not select specific groups to get the vaccine without also calculating who “would most benefit” from the vaccine. Jha’s claim made no sense.
When I reached out to Jha I assumed he would tell me that he was misquoted or perhaps that he misspoke. Instead, he referred me to a colleague who he instructed to provide evidence to me for his claim. The colleague later sent links to a Guardian article and a statement from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), the official advisory group to UK health departments.
While both the article and the JCVI statement mention cost effectiveness as a consideration, this, of course, was not to the exclusion of “calculations about who would most benefit,” as Jha asserted in the Times. Moreover, neither reference had any text saying the decision had been made because offering shots to everyone would have been cost prohibitive. Rather, the decision was made using a standard cost-benefit analysis, where the JCVI specifically did factor in who would benefit most from the new vaccine. This excerpt from JCVI’s statement makes this quite clear:
“The latest COVID-19 variant vaccines [are] prioritised for use in persons at higher individual clinical risk of severe COVID-19.”
Jha and his colleague did not respond to me when I replied to them with this information.
At the same time as I corresponded with Jha, I also reached out to UK health authorities to ask about this striking quote. An official from the Health Security Agency, which is responsible for protecting British citizens from health threats, responded bluntly: “No, that statement isn’t true.”
A communications officer responded the next day with a more formal statement that said in making its recommendation the committee weighed “the cost of vaccination against the health benefits derived.”
The objective, they said, was to focus the offer of vaccination on “those at greatest risk of serious disease and who are therefore most likely to benefit from vaccination.” This is literally the opposite of Jha’s claim that the Times printed.
There is not just a reporter who wrote this manifestly false statement, but multiple editors who reviewed and approved it. And the reporter chose to ask Jha, a former US bureaucrat, about the UK policy rather than British officials themselves. (Even as an independent journalist, without the weight of the Times behind me, I was able to get a response from multiple British officials within hours.)
Yet these types of editorial decisions at the Times are not unusual. A most recent example is a Times vaccine piece this week, published on Thursday, titled “DeSantis Spreads Vaccine Skepticism With Guidance That Contradicts C.D.C.” The article’s thesis is that Florida’s guidance is against the scientific establishment, is unsupported by data, and is being used by DeSantis to rile up his supporters in a flagging presidential campaign.
The Florida guidance differs from that of many European countries by recommending against the new booster for anyone under aged 65, whereas the other countries generally include an exception for those under aged 65 who are at high risk. Still, Florida’s recommendation is arguably akin to those in a host of countries abroad. Yet nowhere in the Times Florida article are the recommendations from these other countries—which differ so greatly from our own, and at least directionally echo Florida’s recommendation—mentioned for context. Florida, for going against the CDC and a Democratic administration, was presented as a freakish aberration, its policy motivated not by science, but by politics.
Yet throughout the pandemic, and now beyond, it is the United States that has been an outlier among peer nations in a long list of policies—from masking toddlers, to extensive school closures, to its zealous vaccine recommendations. (Two years ago two senior FDA officials resigned over the Biden administration’s overbearing push on the original boosters.) This outlier position has almost always fallen on the side of more intrusive interventions.
Along the way, much of the legacy media, and perhaps most so the Times, regularly acted as a megaphone for the CDC’s extreme policies, rather than as a filter. Part of that amplification has been a repeated dependence on a short list of reliable cheerleaders like Jha. This was often done in lieu of actually investigating the evidence, or lack thereof, behind the policies, and without accurately contextualizing American policies with those abroad.
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