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The GOP’s top vaccine skeptics have lost the plot

While some GOP politicians toe the line between advocating for vaccines and protecting individual freedoms, legislative barriers to vaccination still exist. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
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There are valid debates to be had about whether businesses, schools or even the government should be mandating coronavirus vaccines. We’re also still learning new details about just how effective the vaccines are against the delta variant. (The evidence so far: They remain very effective, particularly at preventing serious illness.)

But increasingly, prominent Republican skeptics of vaccines and mandates are going well beyond raising concerns. In the service of denouncing mask and vaccine mandates, they’re trading in misinformation, faulty absolutist logic and other highly dangerous rhetoric that suggest the vaccines themselves don’t really work.

The most prominent example this week came, yet again, from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). While Greene has more than dabbled in vaccine conspiracy theories, she went so far as to claim in a tweet that the “vaccines are failing and do not reduce the spread of the virus.” Greene has been suspended from Twitter for one week for promoting misinformation.

“Failing” is certainly a subjective term. Nobody promised the vaccines would be 100 percent effective — a point vaccine skeptics often ignore, and which we’ll get to — and they’ve proved less effective against the delta variant than they have been against earlier variants.

But the idea that they “do not reduce the spread of the virus?” That’s taking things to a whole new, specious level. The vaccines proved highly effective against the early strains of the virus, reducing cases, hospitalizations and deaths substantially in the most-vaccinated countries. We’re even seeing this play out incontrovertibly in the United States, with more-vaccinated states doing significantly better than less-vaccinated ones — and the vast majority of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations being unvaccinated people.

If we’re being charitable, perhaps Greene was only referring to the more-contagious delta variant? The vaccines’ effectiveness in reducing the spread of the variant is still being studied, but the evidence suggests it does.

Early studies have indicated vaccinated people who contract the delta variant might have similar viral loads to unvaccinated people, and thus might be able to transmit the virus as easily as those who are unvaccinated. This has led others to make a similar argument to Greene’s about a “failing” vaccine.

But studies also indicate that vaccinated people see their viral loads decrease more quickly, apparently reducing the time during which they are contagious. And it doesn’t account for the vaccines’ success in preventing the vaccinated from contracting the virus in the first place. Even if the vaccinated/infected transmit the virus as easily as the unvaccinated/infected, if significantly fewer are infected because of the vaccines, that slows the spread.

And none of that is to say anything about the overwhelming evidence that the vaccines significantly reduce severe cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Even if they did nothing to halt transmissions, that alone would be hugely significant.

Of course, for some reason Greene didn’t see fit to mention that — and she’s not alone. Greene’s omission of that fact is a symptom of the increasingly widespread absolutism and misinformation surrounding the virus, including from fellow members of Congress.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) tweeted this week that “Big Pharma gets BILLIONS in taxpayer dollars. And what do we get in return? A vaccine with no guarantees.”

This gets at a similar point to Greene’s: the idea that the vaccines are falling short because there are “no guarantees.” Except virtually no vaccine or medicine is fully guaranteed to prevent illness, nor were these vaccines billed as such. It’s setting up an impossible goal post.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the most prominent vector for vaccine misinformation in the Senate, combined Greene’s and Cawthorn’s arguments Wednesday. He allowed that vaccines do reduce the severity of coronavirus cases, but he argued against mandating them because the vaccines “do not stop infection and transmission.”

Suggesting a vaccine should “stop infection and transmission” is, again, an extremely high bar that nobody has suggested the vaccines would or should clear. Perhaps it’s just a careless choice of words, but it follows on other claims that suggest a ridiculously absolutist view of what the vaccines are and should be.

Another telling example of this overzealous vaccine absolutism this week came from conservative activist Emily Miller, who very briefly served as the chief spokeswoman for no less than the Food and Drug Administration (which approves vaccines) under President Donald Trump.

Miller tweeted: “My decision not to get vaccinated does not affect anyone else’s health. Full stop.”

It’s not clear where to begin with this claim, but it gets at the same supposed points as Greene’s and Johnson’s — and one that’s increasingly floating around in right-leaning vaccine-skeptic circles: that being vaccinated doesn’t really matter to others.

Except people who are unvaccinated do indeed impact other people’s health by being more likely to become infected and spread the virus to them. Vaccines require widespread adoption to fully work.

And even if all of that somehow weren’t the case, we’re literally seeing hospitals nearing or exceeding capacity in states such as Florida and Texas because of unvaccinated people who contract the virus and become severely ill. Being an unvaccinated person increases your risk of being one of those people and taking the bed of someone else who needs treatment.

What unites all of these claims is not that they’re saying vaccine mandates are bad (which, again, is a valid debate) but that perhaps the vaccines themselves are bad — or at least not good enough. It goes well beyond philosophical discussions of the need for mandates and into suggesting the mandates just aren’t worth it because the payoff is either insufficient or something approaching nil.

The problem is that its purveyors seem to badly misunderstand and mischaracterize the available evidence, at best, to push that larger goal. And it’s only getting worse. The increasing use of vaccine mandates in some settings such as the military appears to be pushing these GOP vaccine skeptics further to the fringe of attacking the vaccines themselves.

And while these are among the most extreme voices in the official GOP, they are echoing — and furthering — claims already widely circulating in the vaccine-skeptic community, with a big one recently being that the vaccines are indeed failing, as Greene claimed.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has, to his credit, been one of the foremost GOP promoters of coronavirus vaccines. But a few weeks ago, he lamented that there wasn’t much more he could do than tell people to get vaccinated. Yet again, he and his fellow pro-vaccine Republicans might want to look at those in their midst who are promoting these kinds of increasingly extreme arguments that unjustly denigrate not just mandates, but vaccines in general.

Because while things weren’t great before thanks to the likes of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, they appear to be taking a turn.