Canada Drops More Preprint Bombs
Two preprints about Covid detonate deadly misinformation about vaccines
What’s going on with the Canadians? They keep detonating Covid preprint bombs that sow doubt about the safety or efficacy of Covid vaccines. And it’s killing people.
First, it was a preprint on medRxiv (now marked with a subtle “Withdrawn” you might catch if you look for it) which estimated that the incidence of myocarditis after mRNA vaccination for Covid-19 occurred at a rate of approximately 1 in 1,000. This one came from researchers at the Ottawa Heart Institute. Despite the data being publicly available and the math simple, these “smart” people made a dumb calculation mistake — there were ~25x more vaccines administered than they accounted for, making the risk 1 in 25,000, or lower than the risk of myocarditis from Covid-19 itself. My coverage of this particular preprint detonation is here.
Unfortunately, there was nothing to stop misinformation purveyors from exploiting the mistake to foment fear among parents with children newly eligible for vaccination against Covid. From Twitter to anti-vax web sites, it was everywhere within days, and it persists — I saw evidence of this just yesterday on Twitter.
Now, two more Canadian preprint bombs have detonated.
As a reminder of the stakes here, between July and November 2021, 163,000 vaccine-preventable deaths from Covid occurred in the US. This is nearly double the number of deaths of Americans during wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined.
The first preprint bomb comes from Kyle Beattie, a PhD student at the University of Alberta where he is studying political science. Posted on Github, the 13,000-word “paper” mimics other attempts by unqualified people to tackle statistics and science. Beattie purports to use Bayesian methods (another red flag) to discover that vaccines are increasing the spread of Covid and leading to more deaths.
Beattie is out of his depth, and fails to understand that a highly communicable disease can outrun vaccination efforts, especially when vaccine benefits need weeks to accrue, take multiple doses, and require herd immunity levels before the disease is brought under control.
Basically, he doesn’t understand epidemiology and infectious diseases.
But that didn’t stop him from posting his thoughts in one of the most obvious examples of pseudo-intellectual sophistry I’ve ever seen. The kind of oblivious hubris required is becoming so familiar it’s predictable — when I first clicked over to the posting and started reading it, I immediately thought, “How long before he mentions God?” With this in mind, I flipped to the acknowledgements, and sure enough:
All praise and thanks is due to God, Creator of the Cosmos, first and foremost. . . . Ultimately, God knows best where the truth lies.
Think of that what you will, but it’s predictable, and you don’t usually find such appeals in a modern scientific treatise — especially the part in which the author surrenders the search for truth to religious forces.
Responses to the preprint by experts and scientists illustrate a deep problem facing scientific communications with the public — hedging. Rather than calling the paper “bullshit” or “garbage” or “mental masturbation,” the scientists couch their responses using phrases such as “fraught with difficulty,” “likely to be misleading” or “unlikely to give a sensible answer.”
Meanwhile, the paper is spreading on Twitter, InfoWars, and right-wing misinformation outlets around the world with only weak tea responses from the scientific community to dispel its negative influence.
Scientists need to learn how to speak to the public and pull the verbal fire alarm when needed. Eh?
Another preprint, this one on medRxiv again, is described well by the CBC:
A Canadian study that vastly underestimated the protection COVID-19 vaccines provide against the Omicron variant is being revised — but not before it spread widely on social media by anti-vaxxers, academics, and even the creators of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.
The authors claimed that any three doses of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines were just 37% effective against Omicron infection, while claiming two doses actually showed negative protection:
. . . receipt of 2 doses of COVID-19 vaccines was not protective against Omicron infection at any point in time, and VE was –38% (95%CI, –61%, –18%) 120-179 days and –42% (95%CI, –69%, –19%) 180-239 days after the second dose. VE against Omicron was 37% (95%CI, 19-50%) ≥7 days after receiving an mRNA vaccine for the third dose.
It looks like real science and real math, but the authors acknowledge they didn’t have the right data and didn’t use the right methods to examine it. Yet, up went the preprint, thanks to our friends at Yale, BMJ, Cold Spring Harbor Labs, and CZI. (Let’s not forget who is enabling so much of this junk.)
Since being posted January 1, the preprint has been downloaded in PDF form more than 46,000 times, and the abstract viewed more than 126,000 times.
It is also spreading on social media, with Altmetric measuring more than 23,000 tweets as of Sunday afternoon (the first Canadian preprint bomb had 18,000+ tweets after it exploded, so throw-weight is increasing).
In addition, the group behind Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine shared the study with its one million Twitter followers three days after the preprint was posted, saying the study showed “negative efficacy” of two mRNA vaccine doses and “quickly waning efficiency” of a booster.
An academic at UCSF who questions masking and promotes “natural immunity” also tweeted the preprint to his 145,000 followers.
The preprint was even covered by Canada’s Covid-19 Immunity Task Force in a manner that lends it a credence. Yet, in another bit of clueless academic information management, while their coverage of it remains online, they boast in a CBC report that they were able to pull the article from their print magazine before it was mailed — pure 1980s heroism.
CBC reports that the authors are now addressing the data and methodological errors of their initial posting:
The results are currently being updated with additional data that showed completely different results, said Dr. Jeff Kwong, the study’s lead author and an epidemiologist and senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) in Toronto.
“We’re in the process of adding two more weeks of data and it looks like there’s no more negative VE (vaccine effectiveness). Our results are now more in line with the data from the U.K. where it’s lower, for sure, compared to Delta, but never getting to negative,” he told CBC News.
“And then higher VE with the boost. So I think that’s good news and we’re just in the process of running those analyses and we hope to have an updated version, a version two, by sometime next week.”
Two more weeks of data. That’s all they needed to prevent a grievous incident of misinformation. Two weeks.
Kwong has been a public proponent of vaccination, writing in 2017 in the Toronto Star:
As a family doctor, I provide patients of all ages with the shots they need to stave off avoidable sickness. From early childhood inoculations that babies receive in their first 18 months of life to the shingles and pneumococcal bacteria vaccines recommended for adults beginning at age 65, there are vaccines to help us stay healthy throughout our lifespan.
Unfortunately, due to haste and a platform that enables sloppy publishing practices in a volatile information environment, the damage has been done.
The immediate, global amplification of these preprints into misinformation echo chambers will reverberate for years — that can’t be undone. In addition, v1 of Kwong’s will remain accessible on medRxiv for anti-vaxxers and misinformation purveyors to promote again and again, because bad preprints never die, because the scientific record. Right-wing media will continue to feast on it. We’ve known this for years, yet for medRxiv, it’s business as usual. They either don’t know, or don’t care — and I’m 99% certain it’s the latter.
But back to Canada. What’s going on with you and your scientists? Do we have a problem? Are we not giving you enough love? Why are you acting out via preprints?
More to the point, why are you so bad at math?
Pull it together, you hosers.
The Geyser — Hot Takes & Deep Thinking on the Info Economy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.