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A lone protester holds a sign calling for an end to the lockdown and claiming chloroquine works as she stands in front of the White House in Washington on Saturday, April 25, 2020.

A lone protester holds a sign calling for an end to the lockdown and claiming chloroquine works as she stands in front of the White House in Washington on Saturday, April 25, 2020. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images)

FBI-Affiliated Group Warned of Danger of Anti-Vaccine Movement During Pandemic in 2019

Some experts, while acknowledging danger, noted the limited reach of the movement said a "lack of proper government preparation" to the pandemic is a bigger threat to public health.

Eoin Higgins

As the anti-vaccine movement joins right-wing protests against coronavirus social distancing measures and concerns are rising around the world over a potential decline in vaccinations for measles and polio, a little-noticed report from an FBI-affiliated group in June 2019 on the danger of "anti-vaxxers" in the time of a pandemic is receiving new attention. 

"The biggest threat in controlling an outbreak comes from those who categorically reject vaccination," wrote the report's co-authors, Norwell Health senior vice president Mark Jarrett and healthcare cybersecurity consultant Christine Sublett.

The authors are both members of the Department of Health and Human Services' Public Health Emergency Health Care Industry Cybersecurity Task Force.

"The Anti-Vaxxers Movement and National Security" (pdf) was published last year in InfraGard, the journal of a national security analysis non-profit tied to the FBI. The Guardian reported on the study Monday, citing its eerie applicability to the coronavirus outbreak and the behavior of the anti-vaxxer movement amid the pandemic. 

According to The Guardian:

It lays out a pandemic scenario remarkably similar to the one now afflicting the US along with most of the world, including that "social distancing and isolation have impacts that include loss of manufactured goods, reduced food supply, and other disruptions to the supply chain."

The article then turns to the anti-vaccine movement, arguing that sufficient resistance to vaccination would hobble the chances of reaching herd immunity to a highly infectious pathogen.

Anti-vaccine propaganda, the study noted, has led in recent years to outbreaks of previously-eradicated diseases like measles and polio in the U.S. and other developed nations due to "vaccine hesitancy."

In the context of the coronavirus, or Covid-19, pandemic, University of New South Wales professor of medicine Ben Fort Harris-Roxas told The Guardian, the danger of that hesitancy could become an even graver menace to public health.

"Vaccine hesitancy represents a significant threat," said Harris-Roxas, "not just for any Covid-19 vaccine that might be developed, but also to measures that might assist people and health services now, such as people getting flu vaccinations."

More broadly, the threat of the pandemic to worldwide vaccination programs could be threatening to global health, with UNICEF reporting that up to 117 million children worldwide could miss out on measles vaccinations due to loss of healthcare capacity in the face of the coronavirus. 

"Children younger than 12 months of age are more likely to die from measles complications, and if the circulation of measles virus is not stopped, their risk of exposure to measles will increase daily," said UNICEF UK's Joanna Rea.

The InfraGard study references the use of the anti-science movement by far-right leaders around the world and an "alignment with other conspiracy movements including the far right, and social media misinformation and propaganda campaigns by many foreign and domestic actors."

As the Los Angeles Times reported:

Many anti-vaccine activists—who have claimed that diseases such as measles aren't that serious—now contend the coronavirus isn't dangerous enough to justify staying home. They agree with President Trump that the "cure" for the pandemic could be worse than the disease itself.

"This is just a fresh coat of paint for the anti-vaccine movement in America, and an exploitative means for them to try to remain relevant," Baylor College of Medicine professor Dr. Peter Hotez told the Times.

Former FBI agent turned Brennan Center fellow Michael German, however, said that the threat of the movement to public health in the midst of a pandemic was being overblown and paled in comparison to the government's disastrous response to the outbreak. 

"The lack of proper government preparation and stockpiles of medical materials to respond to a pandemic was a much more serious problem than the influence of a relatively small group of anti-vaxxers could ever be," German told The Guardian, "but it is hard to argue with the need for a science-based policy approach."

In comment to the Times, California state senator and pediatrician Dr. Richard Pan emphasized the fact that the anti-vax movement doesn't represent the views of most Americans. 

"Let's put this movement into proper context," said Pan. "They're loud, they're noisy, and they're small."

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