Well, what can I say apart from this is the most egregious propaganda and inversion of the truth?
17 July, 2021
A group of dissident doctors have joined the ranks of those seeking to undermine confidence in New Zealand’s vaccine campaign by spreading misinformation. What are they saying and do they pose a real threat to our Covid-19 response? CATE BROUGHTON reports.
On June 14, talkback radio host Peter Williams welcomed Wellington GP Matt Shelton onto his show to discuss the Covid-19 vaccine.
Shelton was from the little-known group New Zealand Doctors Speaking Out on Science (NZDSOS), Williams said.
The host told listeners he wanted to ask questions about a recent report from the Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring, which included information about two elderly people who had died after having the vaccine. The report concluded both deaths were unrelated to the Pfizer vaccine.
Shelton claimed authorities were hiding the truth about adverse reactions to the vaccines. He provided no evidence to back this up.
He said general practice was familiar with giving vaccinations and it was not common to see any reactions. By contrast, the Covid vaccine was “not a walk in the park … we’re more likely to see patients who have felt unwell.”
Shelton works independently at the Plimmerton Medical Centre in Porirua. A receptionist told Stuff the centre had not started offering the Covid-19 vaccine at the time of the interview.
Shelton also told Williams the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out was “indefensible in the light of science” and should be stopped as Covid-19 was “essentially an influenza-level illness in terms of death rates and who is hit hardest
When Williams pointed out the decrease in Covid-19 cases and deaths since the rollout of vaccination programmes overseas, Shelton claimed it was the result of widespread falsification of test results. Again, he provided no evidence.
“Whilst not wanting to undermine the Government’s objective,” Shelton said, “We feel that the underlying principle … which is that the only solution is a vaccine programme is incorrect, and we are recommending it be stopped.”
Shelton is one of 32 doctors, 100 nurses and 187 allied health professionals who have signed an open letter casting doubt on the Covid-19 vaccine, published on the NZDSOS website in late April.
They are part of a tiny minority of medical professionals who have taken a position on Covid-19 in direct opposition to the Government, and, perhaps more importantly for them, the New Zealand Medical Council (NZMC).
The council is investigating seven doctors, following 26 complaints about the promotion of misinformation on Covid-19.
Investigations usually take nine months to complete and can lead to charges being laid. If these are upheld, the doctor can be stripped of the right to practice.
Council chairman Dr Curtis Walker would not confirm if any signatories to the open letter were under investigation, citing privacy, but defended the process as “robust”.
“[The investigators] will get the answers that we need that can reassure the public that doctors are conducting themselves in a fit and proper manner.”
Walker said the number of doctors of concern was “incredibly small” – just seven out of 26,000 nationwide.
But the council took the notifications seriously.
“It’s a percentage that can attract attention because of the position of trust that doctors are held in,” Walker said.
Doctors were entitled to have personal views, Walker said, but their professional practice and the advice they gave to the public needed to be “expertly informed and evidence-based”.
“The weight of scientific evidence over Covid-19 is that the vaccine is safe and effective and necessary if we are going to defeat this global pandemic and that is the over-arching message we are expecting medical professionals to adhere to.
“Medical practitioners may have to decide if they are going to remain medical practitioners or peddlers of conspiracy theories.”
A recent survey of more than 2300 people over the age of 16 found the vast majority of New Zealanders – 91 per cent – believed Covid-19 was real. 4 per cent believed it was false and 5 per cent said they were unsure.
However, nearly one in four believed the dangers and severity of the virus had been exaggerated by officials, and nearly one in five believed lockdowns were about “increasing government control.”
Three quarters of respondents thought false information about Covid-19 was an urgent and serious threat
Could this threaten New Zealand’s Covid-19 vaccination targets?
Auckland University research fellow Kate Hannah who is the lead researcher for a group monitoring Covid-19 disinformation was unsurprised that some doctors were involved in spreading misinformation. “It’s not about how educated you think you are, or how much knowledge you have. It’s about something in the story that appeals to you in ways you can’t explain.”
She said it was likely NZDSOS had been set up by another group to attract people who had genuine fears or experiences of inadequate or unequal health care.
Hannah said typically about 8 to 12 per cent of people strongly opposed vaccination.
But the Covid pandemic had seen “larger numbers of people showing levels of commitment to misinformation pages and posts”.
Closed social media groups, formed to spread misinformation, were growing with more people signing up to platforms which did not have agreements to ban Covid19 misinformation, she said.
She said there appeared to be an intentional effort to move people into closed, private groups and mailing lists and away from good sources of information.
“At that point, when people have signed up, that separates them from other sources of information, and you get the echo chamber.”
However, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield was more optimistic.
The most recent Ministry-funded Horizon survey results on attitudes to the vaccine showed 77 per cent of 1234 respondents were likely to get the vaccine, with 12 per cent unlikely and 7 per cent “definitely unlikely” to get the vaccine.
Bloomfield said he expected those indicating hesitancy or resistance to drop by about half over time.
“It will become, I think, a social norm and I think we will continue to see the number of people who genuinely don’t want to have it will continue to decline.
“If we look at childhood immunisation rates, very consistently on average across the county about 5 per cent of parents ultimately refuse to have their child vaccinated, and I am fully expecting we will land at a similar figure for our vaccination for Covid-19.”
Hannah said she was hopeful Bloomfield’s assessment was “more reflective of people’s actual processes for their decision-making than the information that we are reviewing”.
Stuff attempted to contact the GP signatories to the open letter multiple times by phone and email.
Only two doctors provided personal responses.
Takaka-based doctor Aida Hasbun said she signed the letter because she did not believe there was “sufficient data” to support the vaccination programme.
“I believe that it is my responsibility, as a doctor, to bring that to the attention of the involved authorities so that a collegial discussion can happen to avert potential harm and benefit all.”
One GP replied by email to say he had signed the letter because he had “questions as a clinician as to how best to advise patients as to the efficacy of the Pzifer vaccine”.
He “agreed to support the letter … with the objective of addressing these issues” but has since asked for his name to be removed. “I fundamentally support the Covid-19 vaccination programme.”
He said he has asked multiple times for his name to be removed but this has not been done. Stuff has decided not to name him.
The NZDSOS website has no information about how the group was formed, or who is behind it. The only contact information is an email address.
Stuff received a response to an inquiry from an unnamed representative which pointed to a media release published on June 28.
“We are deeply concerned about the integrity of involved journalists; therefore, we will not respond to direct requests from reporters until we are satisfied that they can provide fair and honest coverage of the issue, without suppressing available facts.”
Signatories a shock to medical colleagues
One of those who has signed the letter is former Christchurch doctor Samantha Bailey. Bailey has been among the most active to promote misinformation through her social media channels, with a following of over 200,000 people. Recently, she has redirected viewers from her YouTube channel to an unregulated social media platform where she delves deeper into anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
Bailey’s practising certificate has lapsed, but she is still registered with the New Zealand Medical Council.
She recently complained about being under investigation by the council but said she had more influence now than she had ever had while a practising doctor.
Four doctors who signed the open letter on the NZDSOS website had their names blacked out in the last week of June.
A colleague of one of the four said she was shocked to learn a doctor she worked with had signed the letter.
When Stuff tried to get in touch, the GP’s medical practice said she was on leave.
As a strong supporter of immunisation, including the Covid-19 vaccine, the GP, who did not want to be named, said it was upsetting news and the practice would be speaking with their colleague.
“It’s just absolutely dangerous, and ridiculous and will cost people their lives, this sort of rubbish.”
Another GP who signed the letter but has had his name blacked out was also on leave from the rural North Island medical practice where he works.
A colleague said he had no idea of the GP’s views, and he and the other GPs would distance themselves from them.
Many of the doctors who signed the letter worked independently, including Matt Shelton, and promoted themselves as being integrative practitioners who work outside mainstream medicine. Others worked in traditional medical practices as well as small, independent healthcare enterprises.
Rob Maunsell worked as a GP at Masterton Medical but also works for Fresh Start Health Services, which is based on alternative medicine therapies. Maunsell declined to comment.
In addition to his work at the Plimmerton Medical Centre, Shelton works for The Diabetes Clinic as an online consultant to clients who pay for a programme to “reverse type-2 diabetes and pre-diabetes naturally”.
Owner Kimbra Lawrence said she was aware of Shelton’s views about Covid-19 and the vaccine and shared them.
Fighting the good fight
Auckland-based Felicity Williamson works as a public health specialist supporting MIQs and quarantine facilities for Auckland Regional Public Health.
Along with her day job she is active in trying to counter misinformation online, mainly on Facebook.
Williamson said she contacted page administrators to let them know the content was against Facebook’s terms of service, and reported the content to the company.
She said the Medical Council investigations could be precedent-setting.
“I think those of us who do support vaccines are hoping this is another mechanism that can be used to protect public health.
“I would struggle to understand how [doctors holding anti-Covid-19 vaccine views] wouldn’t affect their practice.”