Andrew Wakefield is a prominent figure in the US anti-vaccine movement – Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced British former doctor, is using the coronavirus pandemic to promote his claims that vaccines are unsafe as he calls for widespread protests against their use in America.
Since being struck off the British medical register over a discredited study suggesting a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism, Mr Wakefield has become a prominent figure within America’s anti-vaccine movement.
Now, with the outbreak of Covid-19 in the US, Mr Wakefield has been appearing alongside other prominent vaccine sceptics who promote unfounded theories that call into doubt the severity of the virus and suggest its dangers have been exaggerated in order to force the public to receive mandatory vaccinations.
In one recent appearance, Mr Wakefield called on his followers to protest “in numbers that are sufficient to terrify the politicians into doing the right thing”. He went on to warn of a scenario in which vaccines will cause “one in two children” to have autism by 2032.
“Vaccines are going to kill us,” he added, “people need to wake up to that”.
Offering a dystopian view of the future, he said: “Everything [else] is irrelevant… that’s what we face, it’s so enormous that people can’t even conceptualise where we are.”
The comments were made during a nine-part documentary series entitled “The Truth About Vaccines”, in which Mr Wakefield is identified as a gastroenterologist and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. The Royal College of Surgeons confirmed to The Telegraph that Mr Wakefield has not been a member of the body since 1996.
Another prominent anti-vaccine activist and close friend of Mr Wakefield, Del Bigtree, also appears in the series to claim the latest vaccine discussion is an attempt “by the pharmaceutical industry to take over our lives once and for all”.
There is no evidence that vaccines are unsafe, and most health officials agree that a safe and effective treatment is the only long term route out of the current pandemic.
Wakefield is tapping in to anti-lockdown sentiment
But Mr Wakefield and his peers have found a newly receptive audience among Americans who are frustrated with the ongoing restrictions in place to halt the spread of Covid-19.
In recent weeks thousands of protesters across the US have defied lockdown orders to voice their frustration at the restrictions, arguing they constitute government overreach.
They have been joined by anti-vaccine activists who argue the lockdowns are evidence of the kind of government intervention into individuals’ health care that they have long warned against.
“The anti-vax movement has aligned itself very nicely with that open-up movement which is all anti-government, pro-autonomy,” said Dr Litjen Tan, from the Immunization Action Coalition.
“I think [Wakefield] is galvanising that to stoke fear,” he said.
Vaccine proponents are also warning that these fears about the jabs are being promoted at a time when immunisation rates are already falling because most people are avoiding non-essential medical appointments.
One activist, Ethan Lindenberger, a teenager who made headlines last year when he defied his mother’s wishes to get vaccinated, said he had noticed a definite increase in vaccine-related misinformation and conspiracy theories in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
He said the misinformation ranges from claims that face masks pose serious health risks to theories that Covid-19 is linked to 5G towers.
“If you look at statistics from polls and discussions with people as the quarantines and shutdowns continue, there has been a really large rise in impatience and anger towards the medical community,” he said.
“That lends itself into a larger distrust towards the government and that’s what the anti-vaccine community feeds on.”
“You’ve seen the anti-vaccine community targeting that by saying ‘you don’t want to be stuck at home, you don’t want the government to tell you what to do. They shut down the economy, lost your job and once they have a vaccine they’re going to pump it into your kids’. That ideology rings true to a lot of people in a very dangerous way.”