Special Report: The ex-Pfizer scientist who became an anti-vax hero
LONDON (Reuters) – Late last year, a semi-retired British scientist co-authored a petition to Europe’s medicines regulator. The petitioners made a bold demand: Halt COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials.
Even bolder was their argument for doing so: They speculated, without providing evidence, that the vaccines could cause infertility in women.
The document appeared on a German website on Dec.1. Scientists denounced the theory. Regulators weren’t swayed, either: Weeks later, the European Medicines Agency approved the European Union’s first COVID-19 shot, co-developed by Pfizer Inc. But damage was already done.
Social media quickly spread exaggerated claims that COVID-19 jabs cause female infertility. Within weeks, doctors and nurses in Britain began reporting that concerned women were asking them whether it was true, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. In January, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a non-profit organization, found that 13% of unvaccinated people in the United States had heard that “COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility.”
What gave the debunked claim credibility was that one of the petition’s co-authors, Michael Yeadon, wasn’t just any scientist. The 60-year-old is a former vice president of Pfizer, where he spent 16 years as an allergy and respiratory researcher. He later co-founded a biotech firm that the Swiss drugmaker Novartis purchased for at least $325 million.
In recent months, Yeadon (pronounced Yee-don) has emerged as an unlikely hero of the so-called anti-vaxxers, whose adherents question the safety of many vaccines, including for the coronavirus. The anti-vaxxer movement has amplified Yeadon’s skeptical views about COVID-19 vaccines and tests, government-mandated lockdowns and the arc of the pandemic. Yeadon has said he personally doesn’t oppose the use of all vaccines. But many health experts and government officials worry that opinions like his fuel vaccine hesitancy – a reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated – that could prolong the pandemic. COVID-19 has already killed more than 2.6 million people worldwide.
“These claims are false, dangerous and deeply irresponsible,” said a spokesman for Britain’s Department of Health & Social Care, when asked about Yeadon’s views. “COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to protect people from coronavirus and will save thousands of lives.”
Recent reports of blood clots and abnormal bleeding in a small number of recipients of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine have cast doubt on that shot’s safety, leading several European countries to suspend its use. The developments are likely to fuel vaccine hesitancy further, although there is no evidence of a causative link between the AstraZeneca product and the affected patients’ conditions.
Yeadon didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. In reporting this story, Reuters reviewed thousands of his tweets over the past two years, along with other writings and statements. It also interviewed five people who know him, including four of his former colleagues at Pfizer.
The visage and views of Yeadon, widely identified as an “Ex-VP of Pfizer,” can be seen on social media in languages including German, Portuguese, Danish and Czech. A Facebook post carries a video from November in which Yeadon claimed that the pandemic “fundamentally… is over.” The post has been viewed more than a million times.
What gives Yeadon particular credibility is the fact that he worked at Pfizer, says Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an organization that combats online misinformation. “Yeadon’s background gives his dangerous and harmful messages false credibility.”
In a debate last fall in Britain’s House of Commons about the government’s response to the pandemic, parliamentarian Richard Drax called Yeadon an “eminent” scientist, and cited his view “that the virus is both manageable and nearing its end.” Drax didn’t respond to a request for comment.
More recently, David Kurten, a member of the London Assembly – an elected body – tweeted there is a “real danger” that COVID-19 vaccines could leave women infertile. “The ‘cure’ must not be worse than the ‘disease’,” Kurten wrote. He, too, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In November, Yeadon appeared in a 32-minute video for the anti-lockdown group, Unlocked, sitting in a shed with a motorbike behind him. A shorter version appeared on Facebook titled, “The pandemic is over.”
Yeadon called for an end to mass testing and claimed that 30% of the population was already immune to COVID-19 even before the pandemic started. By the time of the recording, he said, there was little scope for the virus to spread further in the UK because most people had already been infected or were immune.
Those views ran counter to the findings of the World Health Organization. In December – nine months after declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic – the agency said testing suggested that less than 10% of the world’s population had shown evidence of infection.
Yeadon’s petition to the European Medicines Agency to halt vaccine trials followed on Dec. 1. The agency didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
It’s impossible to measure the impact of Yeadon’s claim that COVID-19 vaccines could cause female infertility. Anecdotally, though, many women have bought into it.