WAPO Undermines Public Health Confidence – Again

I understand that the Washington Post and other so-called mainstream media think they have some obligation to report both (or many) sides to news matters of public interest. A lot is happening all the time so there is the difficult problem of triage – what do you choose to report and how much coverage do you give the chosen subjects?

In the latest problematic example, I am mystified as to the thinking behind the choice to devote 1,930 words to an item with the click-bait headline, “Biden team tries to get ahead of the virus — and maybe the science — with decision on booster shots.” https://wapo.st/2UChWHg The byline for this piece shows four names, all senior writers for WAPO with some degree of specialization in health policy.

To make the point of why this type of “journalism,” if that’s what it is, is so concerning, I am going to analyze the piece in some detail. Bear with me if you can.

The opening lines state the subject matter and point of view of the article:

President Biden vowed to “follow the science” in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, but some scientists say his decision to recommend widespread coronavirus vaccine booster shots relies on incomplete data and will put pressure on regulators yet to approve the plan.

You understand right off that the message is that the President has not lived up to his word, that “some scientists” think he’s made a major public health mistake in the fight against COVID-19 and is mixing politics with health science to get inappropriate approval from government health experts.

To support that thesis, WAPO quotes Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University that the data thus far do not support the need for a COVID booster shot. I checked out Prof. Racanciello. He is a major figure in virus science. He sided with Dr. Fauci in his fight with Moron Sen. Rand Paul about whether Chinese researchers were doing “gain of function” research with bats that led to COVID-19. He is not, therefore, one of those random “doctors” who are dredged up by right-wing media to contradict whatever the CDC and other important health authorities have said.

Prof. Racaniello has tweeted his position on the sustaining power of COVID vaccines thus:

Science tells us that most Americans do not need a COVID-19 vaccine booster 1. With time, vaccine-induced antibodies wane but the same happens with all vaccines and infections. 2. It is not correct to conclude that COVID vaccine efficiency is waning. What is going down is protection against infection. Most human vaccines do not prevent infection. Results of studies have shown that despite waning antibody levels, most fully vaccinated people are protected against severe disease, hospitalization, and death. What we need to do is get everyone fully vaccinated!

The delta variant is NOT in itself causing cases to surge in the US. That is being driven by unvaccinated people, failure to mask, and a return to physical interactions. ANY SARS-CoV-2 variant would behave in the same way.

Those messages were met with considerable hostility by many Twitterfolk – this is a sensitive subject in which nuances of language can have huge emotional effects.

Returning then to WAPO, the article noted that,

While Biden acknowledged the plan was “pending approval” from the Food and Drug Administration and experts who advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the president mostly portrayed it as a done deal, saying that tens of millions of booster shots would become available the week of Sept. 20.

Thus, while the President expressly acknowledged that health policymakers’ approval was needed, WAPO’s writers assert that the President is dissembling. But then the article notes that he was not dissembling:

The president’s top science and medical advisers — including senior CDC and FDA officials — concluded last weekend that widespread booster shots were necessary, drawing on an array of data from the United States and Israel that suggested immunity from a two-dose regimen of coronavirus vaccine declined over time and that greater protection might be needed against the highly contagious delta variant.

Based on the rest of the article and on many other sources, the “dispute,” if there is one, is about whether to announce the booster program ahead of the surging infection numbers or wait until “more data” is available. Biden’s approach is supported by multiple health experts, including

  • Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes for Health, and
  • Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers

But, WAPO goes on, “a number of outside experts faulted Biden’s timing and said the White House was acting prematurely based on the latest vaccination data.”

For instance, the administration focused on multiple research studies showing that vaccine effectiveness against mild to moderate illness wanes over time, while boosters ramp up antibodies tenfold or more. Most, although not all, of the recent data shows the vaccines continue to provide robust protection against severe disease….

Many prominent figures in the scientific and medical communities said that’s the key measure of vaccine success. The vaccines’ main purpose is not to prevent infection, so much as to keep people from getting severely ill or dying, they note, and recent concerns about breakthrough coronavirus infections have been overblown….

It may be that WAPO and the White House may be talking about two different things. As a matter of national emergency planning, the President is concerned about waiting until the resurgent virus (Delta Variant and possibly others) is even more widespread before beginning to boost resistance. The “dissenters” are making technical points about what the data shows right now about the continued strength of the vaccine.

“The metric that matters is the protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death among people vaccinated,” said David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He said the booster decision was premature and potentially misleading. “It tends to portray that we’ve lost confidence in the ability of this vaccine to prevent severe infection. And I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.

Given that case counts are surging in multiple states, vaccinations are lagging, and health resources are being overrun yet again in multiple states, why is this “conflict” being written about as if the President were being dishonest or has, like his predecessor, attempted to politicize national health policy?

WAPO cites efforts by Dr. Fauci and others to reassure health policy staff but then “some experts said the White House was backtracking on its pledge to allow regulators to shape coronavirus policy,” citing Biden/Harris’s criticism of Trump for “publicly pressuring regulators to approve the first coronavirus vaccines.”

Does WAPO really believe that disagreement over whether it’s timely to talk about a booster program is the same as Trump’s declaration that the virus is “their new hoax” or whether hydroxychloroquine is a real treatment for COVID?

WAPO keeps doing the dance, first stating why the White House wants to get ahead of the virus, then citing more people who think it should wait for more data and trying to equate the push for a booster program to the “pressure the Trump administration exerted on scientific agencies, like a threat to fire then-FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn if he didn’t move quickly to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.”

I can just imagine the reaction if a booster program becomes critical – “why didn’t the White House plan ahead and get on top of this instead of waiting until the catastrophe was obvious?”

WAPO continues both-sidesing this for many paragraphs, almost as if the authors were told they had to produce a certain volume of words. Granted, both sides are covered, but is this just a question of two honest differences of opinion when the political machinations of the prior administration are repeatedly injected into the discussion? Is WAPO really unaware of the differences between the Trump administration’s denial of the existence of a pandemic, and all that followed, versus the Biden administration’s effort to plan ahead and prepare for worst-case scenarios which are already present in places like Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana?

I have argued before that the main-stream press needs to be more cognizant of the effects of the words they use and how those words can be misused by people whose goal is not to protect the public but to score political points. WAPO seems intent upon feeding the misinformation media rather than focusing on critical issues of what is truth and what is not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s