The delusions of Andrew Bridgen
Conspiratorial thinking corrodes reason, democracy and humanism.
It can be tempting to ignore the anti-vax conspiracy theorists – the people who believe the Covid vaccines are killing hundreds of thousands and injuring millions, and that it’s all being covered up by the powers-that-be. After all, these beliefs are mainly confined to a small but vocal fringe. But now that this tendency counts a British MP among its ranks, we cannot afford to let it slide. It is simply too irrational to shrug off – it needs to be challenged head on.
That MP is Andrew Bridgen, the member for North West Leicestershire. This week, we learned that he has been expelled from the Conservative Party for his anti-vax agitation (he was initially suspended back in January).
Bridgen’s backers are outraged by this. They insist that he was merely ‘raising concerns’ about vaccine safety. They say he has been martyred for ‘dar[ing] to criticise the Covid regime’. But this is a rewriting of history. It downplays just how deranged and lurid some of Bridgen’s claims about the vaccines have been. Many of his remarks have been utterly indefensible.
In a sense, there are two public faces of Andrew Bridgen. On the many occasions he has spoken up about the vaccines in parliament, he has been careful to put forward an argument that sounds vaguely scientific. In a now-infamous Westminster Hall debate last December (a recording of which was wrongly and quite outrageously censored by YouTube), Bridgen reeled off a list of academic papers, citations and statistics, all purporting to show that the vaccines are doing more harm than good (much of it based on misinterpretations or perhaps misrepresentations of the data). And then there is what Bridgen says online, when he’s on Twitter or appearing on podcasts, where he really lets rip.
The online version of Bridgen believes that there is a conspiracy against the public. In an interview last year with NHS100k, a group representing healthcare staff opposed to vaccine mandates, he spoke of a plot around the pandemic that ‘would have taken a lot of planning over many, many years – an awful lot of organisation and money’. Most infamously, in the tweet that led to his suspension, he claimed that the vaccines were the ‘biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust’. This is not ‘just asking questions’. This is not ‘raising concerns’. This is exploiting the mass murder of six million Jews to bolster a blatantly false claim.
Even before Bridgen compared the vaccines to the Holocaust directly, he often complained that the vaccine rollout was in breach of the Nuremberg Code. As most people know, this code of ethical principles on medical experiments was drawn up after the Holocaust. To say that the vaccines breach the code is to suggest there’s something a bit Hitler about them.
In truth, the Nuremberg Code applies only to medical experiments – not to vaccines that have already passed clinical trials, have been approved by medical regulators and have been rolled out, in the UK at least, on a largely voluntary basis. There are very good and principled reasons to object to coercive measures like vaccine mandates or vaccine passports. But even those policies are not infringements of the Nuremberg principles.
Of course, anti-vaxxers get around this fact by insisting that the vaccines are indeed ‘experimental’. For instance, Bridgen refers to the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA jab as ‘experimental gene therapy’. This technology is certainly novel. Rather than using a neutralised version of an infection or a close cousin, the mRNA vaccines deliver instructions to human cells which induce an immune response. The successful deployment of mRNA in the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines marked a major scientific breakthrough. But these vaccines are not ‘experimental’, as they have gone through clinical trials. Nor are they ‘gene therapy’, as they make no changes whatsoever to a patient’s DNA.
Many anti-vaxxers protest that they are not opposed to vaccines in general, only the ‘experimental gene therapy’ mRNA variety. But Bridgen is inconsistent here. He told the Delingpod podcast last year that he regrets taking two doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca jab, even though it is not an mRNA vaccine (it uses a chimpanzee adenovirus to induce immunity to Covid). When a BBC employee reportedly died following complications from the AstraZeneca vaccine, Bridgen blamed it on ‘experimental treatments’. He says that he himself has suffered side-effects from it, although thankfully nothing more serious than hayfever.
Bridgen’s claims about the potential damage caused by the vaccines are wild. He has tweeted that the vaccines are ‘causing the majority of the excess deaths we have seen in the UK and around the world’. Just think about that statement for a second. The majority of excess deaths. This would make the vaccines more lethal than Covid-19 itself. More deadly than the severe NHS backlog, which has left many curable diseases untreated. More dangerous than the myriad harms of closing down society for months on end in 2020 and 2021. And this is all apparently being covered up.
Pretty much all medical treatments have potential side-effects and the Covid vaccines are no exception. But anyone who followed the progress of the vaccines in 2020 and 2021 will remember a great deal of discussion over the side-effects. Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) was identified early on as a potential risk of the mRNA Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Rare instances of blood-clotting also led UK regulators to offer under-thirties an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine in 2021. It also led to a delay in the approval of the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine.
None of these potential harms are state secrets. They are just incredibly rare. By December 2022, when Bridgen led a parliamentary debate on vaccine harms, calling for the rollout of booster jabs to be suspended, the UK’s Office for National Statistics had recorded just 47 deaths in England and Wales where the underlying cause was a Covid vaccine (although we do not know which specific vaccines were involved). The medicines regulator, the MHRA, has recorded 80 deaths from the kind of blood clots known to be linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine, although we can’t know whether the vaccine was the underlying cause.
Bridgen tends to cite another set of statistics, from the MHRA’s Yellow Card reporting scheme. When someone experiences an adverse reaction from a vaccine, they can lodge a Yellow Card. By November last year, the MHRA had received and analysed nearly 178,000 such cards for the Pfizer vaccines, 247,000 for the AstraZeneca jab and 47,000 linked to Moderna. These may sound like large numbers, but we shouldn’t forget the size of the vaccinated cohort – the UK has handed out more than 151million doses of vaccine and has double-vaccinated almost nine in 10 residents.
Besides, the overwhelming majority of these reports relate to reactions at the injection site or include things like sore arms, dizziness, nausea, headaches and fatigues. These symptoms are generally not associated with longer-term health issues.
But for Bridgen every Yellow Card is to be taken as evidence of serious vaccine injury. He even claims that this number disguises the ‘true’ scale, as it supposedly represents ‘only 10 per cent of the true rate of serious adverse events’. This is how he has convinced himself that the crime of the century has been committed – that millions of injuries and deaths have been caused by vaccines in the UK alone and then ruthlessly covered up. And of course, only he and his fellow travellers are ‘brave’ enough to speak out about it. Raising concerns? Just asking questions? Bridgen is a hell of a lot further down the rabbit hole than that.
The proliferation of conspiracy theories is poisonous to public life. While it is healthy to be sceptical towards elite groupthink, conspiracy theories represent their own form of dogmatism. Conspiracy theorists are impervious to reason. Anyone who objects to them will be dismissed as part of the conspiracy. There is an undeniably anti-democratic undertone to these activists, too – in that they think ordinary people are sheep hoodwinked by the elites. Not to mention a profound anti-humanism. After all, the anti-vaxxers are taking one of humanity’s most incredible achievements – medical advancements that have alleviated vast suffering – and denouncing it as unnatural, deadly, evil and even Satanic.
This conspiracism is a particular problem for opponents of lockdown. We desperately need a reckoning with lockdown – with the extreme, authoritarian policies that our elites implemented during the pandemic. But some prominent self-styled sceptics would apparently rather tumble down the anti-vax rabbit hole than actually hold our rulers to account, making it all too easy for all critics of lockdown to be smeared as cranks. All the talk of grand plots and dastardly schemes is not only irrational, it also disempowers people, promoting cynicism at the expense of rational debate and effective agitation.
Picture by: Getty.