In a public health development that one can safely characterize as “not great,” actor Alec Baldwin appeared on Instagram Live on Thursday with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a formerly respected environmentalist who’s been best known in recent years for promoting severe vaccine misinformation. As Baldwin listened obligingly, Kennedy promoted a variety of wildly false claims about vaccine safety, and speculative concerns about the quarantine measures being taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Baldwin’s Instagram account has 1.8 million followers, and the video, in less than two hours, garnered more than 43,000 views. This is not precisely what we need right now.
At the outset of their talk, Baldwin told Kennedy that he’s been watching Kennedy’s videos on vaccines for “years,” which is also, on its face, not great. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the son of assassinated U.S. senator Bobby Kennedy, spent years doing important work advocating for issues like water safety with the Waterkeeper Alliance and with the organization Riverkeeper. He and Baldwin have previously discussed fracking on WNYC.
Beginning in 2005, however, with the publication of a now-infamous story called “Deadly Immunity,” Kennedy began promoting “egregious” misinformation about vaccines, as science writer Seth Mnookin put it in one story outlining his long history of misleading claims.
During the conversation with Baldwin, Kennedy repeated several of his greatest hits, including claiming that vaccines historically contained unsafe levels of mercury, and that the flu shot is still full of mercury. (The respected physician and vaccine researcher Paul Offitt is one of dozens of people who have outlined that Kennedy is conflating two kinds of mercury. Ethylmercury is what the body produces when it metabolizes thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, and leaves the body quickly. It is quite, quite different from methylmercury, which can be toxic to human beings at high levels of exposure.) Kennedy rejects the difference between the different kinds of mercury, and told Baldwin, “There’s no good kind of mercury.”
“Why is it there in the first place?” Baldwin asked, apparently horrified. (The real answer is that thimerosal is only used today in multi-dose flu vaccines, and was removed from all childhood vaccines out of an abundance of caution in 2001.)
Kennedy went on to claim that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe,” a common canard in the anti-vax movement. (The law professor and vaccine policy expert Dorit Reiss has written about how vaccine skeptics frequently misconstrue what that term means; “Unavoidably unsafe” products are products that are so valuable—that have so many benefits—that the risk associated with their use is justified.”) He also claimed that vaccines “are the only medical product that aren’t safety tested,” which is an outrageous lie. Vaccines are among the most tested medical products on the planet, and are tested in thousands of volunteers before being licensed.
“All these COVID vaccines that are coming, I’ve heard of three now, none of them placebo-tested?” Baldwin inquired.
Kennedy didn’t exactly respond directly, instead saying that vaccines aren’t tested “against a placebo” prior to licensing. That’s not the same thing as “not being safety tested;” there are, in fact, a host of serious ethical concerns that preclude a placebo versus vaccine study in human subjects.
Baldwin also gave Kennedy a chance to talk about his organization Children Health Defense’s lawsuit against the manufacturers of Gardasil, a suit that Kennedy has used to promote unproven claims that Gardasil causes autoimmune diseases and a host of other issues. (The American Cancer Society recommends the Gardasil vaccine for pre-teens for preventing HPV, but the uptake rate remains worryingly low compared to other childhood vaccines.)
Kennedy also used some of his time with Baldwin to attack the workings of the federal vaccine court, a subject that several vaccine opponents are focused on right now. “The threshold for getting into the court," he said, "is so high that fewer than one percent of vaccine injuries make it into the court, and in those cases, fewer than 34 percent prevail.”
In fact, data from the vaccine injury program show that it’s exceedingly rare for someone to claim they were injured by a vaccine, and when there is a provable injury, it’s quite common for the government to concede the case and make a payment. According to HRSA, a federal agency: “Since 1988, over 20,629 petitions have been filed with the [Vaccine Injury Compensation Program]. Over that 30-year time period, 17,875 petitions have been adjudicated, with 6,551 of those determined to be compensable, while 11,324 were dismissed. Total compensation paid over the life of the program is approximately $4.1 billion.”
Finally, and most worryingly, Baldwin and Kennedy turned to COVID-19, which Kennedy used as an opportunity to promote dubious claims about quarantine measures and even mask-wearing. “One thing I think we’re not thinking about is what is the death toll from the quarantine,” Kennedy said. He claimed that previous studies from the 1980s have shown that unemployment leads to suicide and “additional admissions to mental institutions.”
“The death toll from quarantine could far exceed the death toll from COVID,” Kennedy proclaimed. (The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 700,000 people worldwide and quarantine measures have been used in virtually every country that’s gotten the pandemic under control.) He also claimed that hydroxychloroquine, a drug frequently promoted by President Trump, had been discredited by studies that weren’t using it “correctly.” (A growing number of studies suggest hydroxychloroquine isn’t an effective treatment for coronavirus.)
“I took hydrochloroquine all the time when I was a kid,” Kennedy said. (This is not what hydroxychloroquine is called; he likely meant chloroquine, another anti-malarial drug.) “It wasn’t given a chance.” He also claimed that Sweden, which used voluntary social distancing guidelines instead of more stringent restrictions, might serve as a good model. “They didn’t shut down businesses. They had a death rate that was slightly higher than their neighbors … but it's much lower than they had in Britain and many other countries. And now coronavirus has disappeared in Sweden, and they didn’t shut down their businesses. They didn’t shut down their economy.” The coronavirus case rate has dropped in Sweden, as in many other countries, but it hasn’t disappeared. Sweden’s economy was less affected than other European countries with stricter lockdowns, but it still saw the largest economy slump in 40 years, in addition to a death rate, as Kennedy correctly pointed out, far higher than neighboring Denmark and Norway.
Kennedy claimed that the kind of “debate” he’d like to see around COVID-19 and vaccines isn’t happening “on CNN” and in other mainstream news outlets. “It’s all about the pharmaceutical paradigm—‘Do what you’re told, Believe what we tell you.’ I think it polarizes people. It makes them angry. It makes them say, I’m not going to do what you tell me because you’re not explaining to me the truth, you’re not allowing this debate to happen, you’re not persuading me.”
Another thing, of course, that “polarizes” people and poisons the public debate is injecting easily disproved lies and misinformation into the discussion. During the conversation, Baldwin didn’t quite endorse Kennedy’s viewpoints, but nor did he push back on them, or even seem to fully understand the claims being made. Instead, at their close of their talk, he told Kennedy only, “I'm glad to see that your passion for public policy is undiminished."
In response, Kennedy congratulated Baldwin for speaking with him.
"I hope you don't take too much crap for letting me speak,” he told him. “You've got a lot of courage."
Representatives for Baldwin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News.