News Analysis

Harvard epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding waged disinformation campaign against American scientists working on COVID-19 vaccine

Self-proclaimed Harvard epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding waged an anti-science disinformation campaign—disguised as medical advice—against American scientists working on the COVID-19 vaccine to advance his own career.

Mia Cathell The Post Millennial
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Self-proclaimed Harvard epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding waged an anti-science disinformation campaign—disguised as medical advice—against American scientists working on the COVID-19 vaccine to advance his own career.

"Pfizer is gosh darn INSANE," Feigl-Ding tweeted on Sept. 30. "There is no way they will have enough data to conclude by October."

Fostering national doubt, the adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) quoted an article by The New York Times: "Even if the vaccine shows promising signs in clinical trials—still a big if— the company will not have collected enough data by then to say with any statistical confidence that it is safe and effective."

Then on Nov. 18, Feigl-Ding contradicted his previous uncertainty, breaking the late-stage vaccine trial news reported by the same skeptical left-wing news outlet.

"Updated results from Pfizer said it’s #COVID19 vaccine is 95% effective (vs 90% in previous early results) and had no serious side effects. 94% effective in older adults. Of 170 cases, 162 in placebo. Of 10 severe, 9 in placebo. This is HUGE!!" Feigl-Ding wrote with enthusiasm.

"Remember when @DrEricDing fought against the Moderna vaccine program?" prompted One America News Network's Jack Posobiec. "I’m sure our first responders and senior citizens are glad we didn’t listen to Eric!"

Feigl-Ding attacked the price per dose that the company's CEO set in early August, slated then to charge between $32 and $37 for its experimental coronavirus vaccine for some "low volume" customers.

He questioned, "[W]ho is footing the bill for the development?" Then Feigl-Ding pointed to American taxpayers.

"The U.S. government will be guaranteed 100 million doses for $1.95 billion only if the vaccine is successful," he wrote, citing The Hill. Moderna recently confirmed at the time to Axios that federal money makes up 100 percent of the funding for its COVID-19 vaccine program.

"He shared vaccine disinformation to create panic and hysteria, falsely claiming a vaccine wouldn’t be ready in 2020," conservative commentator Mike Cernovich added on. Feigl-Ding's biography claims that he is "part of FAS's work to stop COVID misinformation, and communication with lay public."

On Oct. 1, Feigl-Ding addressed his purported concerns to President Donald Trump on social media: "Moderna says it’s [sic] coronavirus vaccine won't be ready for widespread public distribution until spring of next year. Did you hear that Donald? You can’t rush it for your election. Neither can anyone else."

Feigl-Ding also promoted the "vaccine horror scenario" by the "Jane Goodall of vaccine epidemiology," Dr. Jenna Patterson, director of health economics at the Health Finance Institute who "dedicated her life to global health."

Patterson pictured her "[s]cary reality: The results of this election will decide whether Americans will even have access to COVID-19 vaccines."

Of all her years of research and of all the nuances of the pandemic, the politics of this scares her the most, she asserted, lambasting Trump's fight with China that supposedly haunts America as his administration "refuses to join" the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility.

While Trump said he did not want to be constrained by "corrupt World Health Organization and China," Patterson positioned, she argued that China "may be the best bet."

"China has a more balanced portfolio of potential COVID-19 vaccines as well as an actual track record for vaccine development," she insisted. "By ignoring global collaboration, we are quite literally PUTTING ALL OF OUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET."

If China or any other country would have beaten the United States to the finish line in vaccine development, membership in the WHO would have likely placed America on the fast-track to share in those benefits, Patterson alleged.

She further stated that the s0-called "WHEXIT" would have "major implications for healthcare and public health efforts globally and domestically;" "further reduce America’s power in the global community;" and "fracture mutually beneficial relationships with numerous countries across the globe, influencing economic and global security."

"Whether or not President Trump is elected for a second term, the administration has sent a strong signal to the global health community that America’s official position, for now, is non-cooperation," she concluded.

"WHO is the only body capable of leading and coordinating the global response to COVID-19. As infection rates and mortality continue to rise in the US and many other countries have flattened the curve, this is the worst possible time for the US to shun its global allies."

After Posobiec exposed Feigl-Ding for spreading anti-vaccine conspiracies and outright falsehood, the public health scientist in turn called the conservative an "anti-vaxxer." But Feigl-Ding's attempted hitpost misfired.

"What if instead of a vaccine we just were able to get exposed to a weak version of the virus that enabled us to build the antibodies we need to fight the real thing," Posobiec jested on Dec. 17. The joke, of course, went over many heads on the political left.

Feigl-Ding thought Posobiec was "serious" and identified the classic "live attenuated vaccine" that has saved "HUNDREDS KF [sic] MILLIONS OF LIVES for people too dense to get it."

"Yes this is a real tweet by someone with other 1 mil followers," Feigl-Ding double downed following Washington Post TikTok producer Dave Jorgenson's failed jab. "The anti-vaxxers went so far right, they looped around and invented vaccinations," Jorgenson sneered.

"Hi Eric! You're a smart guy who cares about data. Please point to anything I’ve ever said about not taking vaccines,"  Posobiec snapped. "You can't, bc it's literally never happened.

"Cool of you to spread lies about me on Christmas night, though!"

Feigl-Ding spun Posobiec's remark into faux outrage, proving that he and his base have nothing on him. Posobiec fired back, quipping that "this is what disgusting liars" do to construct "illusionary enemies" and intensify their own followers.

"Peddling falsehoods about me on Christmas night while I was taking family photos with my kids," Posobiec volleyed. "The definition of shameful, that’s Eric."

"Despite @DrEricDing’s shameful attack on my family on Christmas, I pray for him," Posobiec maintained one day later.

"I have NEVER been anti vaccination whatsoever," Feigl-Ding told The Post Millennial. "Many many other scientists thought October would be too soon for reliable results."

According to an expose published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feigl-Ding is not shy about using all-caps declarations and is often fond of reactionary words like "wowzers," "oof," and "whoa." The science communications expert is liberal with emojis, sprinkling in an abundance of yellow warning signs, red alarm lights, and crying faces.

While other scientists adopt the signature sedate, explanatory tone, Feigl-Ding reaches for the exclamation point. In January, his viral holy-mother-of-god post—which became the tweet heard 'round the world—sounded the alarm early on when the danger felt remote and theoretical at home opposed to abroad.

His amped-up style has awarded him a sizable audience and led to multiple television appearances as an all-knowing coronavirus talking head and a source for unvarnished truth about the virus.

"Everyone wants facts and reality without spin. But do you only want the convenient facts? The sugar coated facts? Goto [sic] other outlets for those. I’m just sharing all the verified facts," he tweeted towards the beginning of the pandemic.

Nearing 370,000 followers on Twitter, Feigl-Ding has outpaced most of his infectious-disease colleagues. Along the way to stardom, he has garnered harsh criticism from several peers for opining about issues that he knows very little about.

"Everyone is very frustrated with him and regretting that we didn’t band together to discredit him," one fellow epidemiologist told The Chronicle. Another labeled Feigl-Ding a "guy with zero background" in infectious-disease research who is "spouting a bunch of half-truths."

Those interviewed spoke on the condition that their names not be used. "I'm not really looking for backlash," one source messaged the publication. "I don’t have 100k followers like him."

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor of epidemiology Marc Lipsitch, also director of the university's Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, is an outspoken critic who has expressed his public disdain for Feigl-Ding's commentary, repeatedly calling him out as an unqualified publicity-seeker.

In March, Lipsitch referred to Feigl-Ding as a "charlatan exploiting a tenuous connection for self-promotion." In that thread, he characterized Feigl-Ding’s analysis of the coronavirus as "80% repeating conventional wisdom, 20% promoting wacko pseudoscience, and 100% derivative."

Lipsitch went on to state that Feigl-Ding "gets something spectacularly wrong sufficiently often that you should find other parts of the firehose of info to drink from."

Feigl-Ding received his doctorate in epidemiology and nutrition from Harvard in 2007. He has a temporary, unpaid visiting-scientist appointment in the nutrition department—not the epidemiology department. Such appointments are generally one year in length. A source at Harvard with knowledge of the situation told The Chronicle that Feigl-Ding had "been asked many times to stop promoting himself as having specialized knowledge."

A scan of his academic articles reveals that much of Feigl-Ding’s work has focused on the health effects of diet and exercise. A recent paper explored those wearable devices that track physical activity. He has co-authored journal articles on Type 2 diabetes, childhood obesity, and red meat and the risk of cancer.

"It's an entirely respectable publication record, with articles appearing in high-profile journals like The New England Journal of Medicine, but it's not a record that would suggest a scholarly interest in pandemics, viruses, or respiratory diseases," The Chronicle deduced.

Feigl-Ding acknowledged in an interview with The Chronicle that he's made mistakes and failed to provide adequate context. However, he countered the concession and blamed his faults on the onslaught of updates related to the novel virus. He contended that he's not the only one who's been forced to revise opinions or delete conclusions.

"We all misread a detail or a Y axis or an X axis," Feigl-Ding said. "I feel like I’m pretty good at synthesizing what I read and trying to be able to translate it for the public."

He likened his role to that of CNN's Sanjay Gupta and Scott Gottlieb—the latter, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration—who are both physicians.

As for his scholarly background, Feigl-Ding declared that he has not misrepresented himself. "I never said I was an expert in infectious diseases," he contested. "But I know a few things about epidemiology as a general epidemiologist."

He also suggested that the excitable tone of his tweets serves a purpose. "A lot of my followers, unless you spoon-feed it to them, they won’t read it," he answered.

Feigl-Ding has his defenders, including FAS president Ali Nouri. "I think some of the criticism has to do with his style rather than the substance," replied Nouri. "It's not typically what scientists do, but it’s been working for Eric."

Despite the firestorm, Feigl-Ding continues to win over new fans, including powerful political figures. Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recalled his "[p]roductive call" with the "renowned epidemiologist" who led the team that developed the first mobile application for contract tracing.

"Eric's guidance will help us utilize technology to #FlattenTheCurve and responsibly reopen New Jersey, driven by public health and science," the state leader wrote. Feigl-Ding retweeted the praise.

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