Guest Post! Everything is a Conspiracy in Anti-vaccine Land, Even when it Isn’t, Take #3125: The Israeli Version
Sep 29, 2022
By Dorit Reiss
By 2022, literally billions of doses of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have been given around the world, and extensive data exists from many monitoring systems, suggesting that while they have risks, those risks are relatively rare and far outweighed by the vaccines’ benefits.
Anti-vaccine activists desperate to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt about this data are working in multiple ways to do that, including misrepresenting unverified reports as showing such harms and seeking evidence that public health agencies around the world are engaged in a conspiracy to hide the real and actual harms they think exist.
This is hardly a new tactic: those of us following anti-vaccine efforts saw it play out with efforts of anti-vaccine activists to claim there’s a conspiracy to hide a link between vaccines and autism. Very similar to this effort, in the early 2000s anti-vaccine activists misrepresented selected quotes from a conference to discuss a preliminary draft of a paper, the Simpsonwood conference, and created a baseless conspiracy theory. This was also the theme of the CDC Whistleblower conspiracy theory in 2014, where anti-vaccine activists mined recorded conversations with a CDC scientist to claim a conspiracy. Anything suggesting such a conspiracy – however weak – is picked up and amplified by vaccine deniers and outlets that specialize in sensational misinformation, like Epoch Times. This is another example of that behavior.
In September 2022, Israeli Journalist Yaffa Shir-Raz, who has a history of making inaccurate claims about vaccines, claimed she discovered a conspiracy to hide COVID-19 vaccine harms. She released snippets of a discussion from a presentation about a new report regarding adverse events in Israel. A series of short videos published on Rumble elaborated on the conspiracy theory. Then, anti-vaccine activist Steve Kirsch picked up the claim in an article, and – potentially unrelated – Epoch Times amplified it, too. This kind of conspiracy theory is especially easy to market outside Israel because the evidence to counter it is mostly in Hebrew, so outsiders are at the mercy of their sources… and their sources here are not reliable.
The problem for Shir-Raz and her amplifiers is that their claims are wrong. Israel had multi-pronged monitoring of vaccine adverse events from the start, and multiple studies were published off it, showing high safety. Further, the report they are basing their conspiracy theory off is a report of voluntarily reported events – like the VAERS database – that do not show causation and did not suggest a serious problem.
Israel’s Monitoring of Vaccine Adverse Events
Israel started giving people COVID-19 vaccines on December 20, 2020. It engaged in surveillance pretty much from the start. On January 12, 2021, the first meeting of the Ministry of Health’s “Committee for Surveillance of the Vaccination Operation” (I think the official Hebrew name, from the site links, is “The COVID-19 Vaccine Efficacy and Safety Follow Up Committee”, but I think my translation is more accurate) took place, and in that meeting data about the vaccines, subsequent noted side effects, and any hospitalizations after the vaccines was presented. Meetings continued monthly or more often, and in each, data was presented about side effects after the vaccines. Here, for example, is the presentation on vaccine side effects from January 27, 2021.
These presentations drew on two main sources, as summarized in the report the current conspiracy theory misrepresents. Reporting was done via:
- Reporting of events that arise close in time to receiving the vaccine by the medical team
- An option for the public to report vaccine adverse events on the ministry [of health’s] site – “a mechanism created especially for the current vaccination effort”. (p. 3 to the report, my translation). [This option is no longer available]
This was not the only monitoring. Unlike the United States, in Israel, people get their health insurance through one of only four HMOs. These HMOs engaged in their own active monitoring in a variety of ways, and the results of many of these efforts were published. For example, Maccabi Health Care Services, serving 2.5 million out of Israel’s less than 9 million people, sent out surveys to people who got the vaccines Multiple times. Here is a study that received over 300,000 surveys from the HMO’s members, looking at side effects between December 2020 and March 2021 – very early after the rollout. Here is a narrower study looking at the safety of booster in seniors and immunocompromised individuals during July to August 2021. Both these studies combined surveys with checking medical records, allowing researchers to verify the evidence.
Here is a study actively analyzing the data of the largest HMO in Israel, Clalit Health Services, covering over 50% of Israel’s population (4.7 million people), looking at data from December 2020 to May 2021.
In other words, Israel had abundant data on vaccine side effects. Even if the reporting systems could be improved, it’s incorrect to claim there was no information on this. Israel caught problems like myocarditis after the vaccines early, and as I will discuss, the new report did not really show anything new. And this is in addition to other monitoring systems from other countries – like the United States and Europe. The data on COVID-19 vaccines come from all around the world.
The New Report
You can find the new report here. Essentially, what the Ministry of Health (MOH) did is create a new form for voluntary reporting – like the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System in the United States, which allows voluntary reporting and is both very good for detecting signals fast and very vulnerable to abuse by anti-vaccine activists.
Since MOH already had a system for voluntary reporting, why did it need a new one? Well, in the words of the report, MOH was concerned because the anonymous free-text reporting made it hard to check if the entries were credible, analyze the entries, and draw conclusions. MOH also thought there might be value in capturing milder events that did not involve seeing a doctor (P. 3). In the words of the report:
- איתור וניטור תופעות שבעטין לא בהכרח פונים לקבלת טיפול רפואי.
- הגברת הרגישות של ניטור ארועים בסמיכות לקבלת החיסון ע”י שיתוף הציבור
- תרומה להבנת ההיבטים השונים של בטיחות החיסון .”
“Goals of surveillance:
- Finding and monitoring things that do not necessarily lead to medical treatment.
- Increasing sensitivity of monitoring events close in proximity to getting the vaccine by involving the public.
- Contributing to understanding the different aspects of vaccine safety.” (p. 3)
The report also reminded us that these are spontaneous reports by the public that do not necessarily show a link between the vaccines and any events. In other words, like VAERS, anyone can submit anything into the form, and the form may show something that happened after the vaccine (“may” because the events are not – and if there was no medical treatment likely cannot – be verified) but that event may or may not be connected.
There’s also no time limit – someone who had an event happen a year ago can report it today. Here is what the reporting form looks like:
It asks for personal information, the date of the vaccination, whether you had any event after the vaccine, which type of event, and leaves room for commentary.
According to the report, the system received 8,054 reports, out of them 6259 which were “identifiable, non-duplicate, with information about the event.” As a reminder, Israel gave over 18 million vaccine doses at this point. Although it’s more likely people recently vaccinated – a smaller group, since the report’s launch in December 2021 – would file a report than people vaccinated earlier in the vaccination campaign, there’s nothing to prevent people from filing a retroactive report.
Out of the reports, 70-90% were general, (p.4) (defined as general weakness, fatigue fever, or headache (p. 10) or local reactions (redness, swelling, or pain at the site of injection, p. 10) – both well-known phenomena and usually short-lived. Other categories included menstrual changes, heart issues, digestion issues, and neurological issues, though the number of reports for these was small, especially given the large number of vaccines given (see p. 4). The most commonly reported event after general and local reactions for children – both the 5-11 group and the 12-17 – was digestive problems (p.4), which means stomach aches, vomiting or nausea, and diarrhea (p.5). The most common for adults was menstrual changes, and heart and blood issues. As a reminder, these are voluntary reports that – A. Have not been verified, B. Cannot by themselves show causation (though there’s evidence of causation from elsewhere), and C. are pretty small numbers, given the large number of vaccines given in Israel.
The Ministry concluded – reasonably, based on these findings – that the reported events are known in the literature, already reported on in previous ministry reports, and there was no new signal.
The Conspiracy Claims
The conspiracy theory was based on a leaked recording of a presentation of the report’s findings to the Ministry of Health’s Committee that Yaffa Shir-Raz used in a series of tweets and an article. The full presentation can be found here.
Most of the videos include snippets of the discussion. And it’s in Hebrew, making it very easy to misuse against an American audience. Further, the nature of such a presentation is that people may well say – in passing – things that can be made to sound bad, and the results have not yet been examined and subject to quality control.
What are the anti-vaccine activists claiming? Shir-Raz’s article is titled “Breaking: Leaked Video Reveals Serious Side-Effects Related to the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Covered Up by the Israeli MOH.” In it, she makes a number of claims that are either straight out wrong or problematic.
- Shir-Raz claims that the “Israeli MOH had no adverse events reporting system for the entire year of 2021. They commissioned a research team to analyze the reports from a new system implemented on December 2021.” As demonstrated above, that’s simply untrue. They had multiple reporting mechanisms. They were looking to improve them, and there were criticisms that the reporting system is not good enough, but that does not mean there was no data. There was a reporting system, and there were multiple other sources of information – including active surveillance. Nor is the new system a radical departure. It’s another system for voluntary, unverified reporting, only better than before.
- Shir-Raz claims that the system can show causation. She is aided in that by a snippet of comment from the video “Israeleak Part 4 – No new signals?” on Rumble, which includes a claim by one of the presenters that the system can show a causal connection. This is incorrect: the presenter seems to have misspoken – and the report corrects that. Showing causation based on a small number of unverified reports in a voluntary reporting system just does not work (it’s easy for anyone to put in a report). The same is true for VAERS, even with a larger number of reports. It feels as if the speaker wanted to emphasize the value of her system, but making such an inaccurate statement is very unhelpful.
- Shir-Raz claims that the presenters found new signals: that’s even more problematic. The main mentioned events such as “hypoesthesia, paresthesia, tinnitus, and dizziness; back pain; and Digestive System symptoms in children.” But just having reports of something is not a signal, and at least for some of these, the claims are not new. For example, the question of tinnitus was subject to several studies, though the evidence is still, I think, inconclusive. Digestive symptoms are known. Back pain is known. Menstrual irregularities are known. None of these are new.
- Shir-Raz claimed the presentation showed events are long-lasting. The duration of events is an important question, but it, too, is studied. Here is another study about the duration of menstrual irregularities. A prospective study followed over 3,000 women (actually for over 10 years, but for COVID-19 vaccines for over a year) and found the duration was six months after vaccination. The new system of voluntary reporting cannot tell us more than actual controlled studies. This needs to be studied, but it’s not a new question or issue, and the presentation does not add to it (or suggest a conspiracy to hide anything).
- Shir-Raz makes much of a snippet of a video in which a man is heard saying – and I’ll include both a Hebrew transliteration and translation because anti-vaccine activists have been sharing their own translation – כאן צריך לחשוב גם מדיקו-לגאלי, למה מדיקו-לגאלי? כי לא מעט תופעות שהיו אמרנו אוקיי, זה קיים, יש דיווח אבל בכל זאת תתחסנו. זאת אומרת שצריך לחשוב איך כותבים את זה ואיך מציגים את זה בצורה נכונה ולא שיהיו אחרי זה תביעות משפטיות רגע, רגע, רגע, אתם אמרתם שהכל יחלוף ואפשר להתחסן״. Translated, this means “here we need to think also medical-legal, why medical legal? Because there were quite a few events we said okay, it exists, there is reporting, but get the vaccine anyway. So we need to think how to write it and how to present it in the right way so there won’t be afterward legal lawsuit, wait, wait, wait, you said all will pass and we can get the vaccine.” She puts this video on top of her Twitter thread, apparently thinking it’s a gotcha.
This quote can certainly be misused, but in essence, it’s reminding us that these are not new things – it tells us they were already reported – and wants the ministry to think about presentation, apparently, to prevent triggering unfounded lawsuits. Note, again, that it’s talking about already known issues, and a recommendation to vaccinate in spite of them. It is exactly the job of the experts to recommend based on a risk-benefit analysis, including known risks, and that’s not by itself an issue.
Israel engaged in extensive monitoring of vaccine safety, providing options for voluntary reporting and working on active surveillance. In June 2022, the Ministry of Health saw a presentation regarding an improved reporting form for voluntary, unverified claims of adverse events. The system was designed, among other things, to catch less severe problems that did not lead to medical treatment. There are bound to be statements in such a presentation that can be misrepresented – but the reality is that the report found no real new problems, and careless statements in a presentation do not negate the extensive data from multiple sources in Israel that gives us a clear view of the (rare) risks and benefits of COVID-19 vaccines.
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