Members Only | February 28, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

DeSantis and Doctor Antivax

Florida’s surgeon general is running the anti-vaccination playbook.

Dr. Joseph Ladapo.
Dr. Joseph Ladapo.

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Last week, Dr. Joseph Ladapo issued a meaningless “health alert” to the people of Florida about mRNA covid vaccines. 

Ladapo was back last week when it emerged that he’d been investigated for allegedly falsifying data for a previous antivax gambit. 

The investigation was closed after the tipster clammed up.

The recent health alert was based on an uptick in reports to the federal Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS). Ladapo baselessly alleges that increased reporting must point to safety problems with covid vaccines. 

As a contributor to the USA Today network put it, “Ladapo is emerging as a central player in the governor’s outreach to vaccine skeptics and opponents who now form a stunningly large part of the GOP’s national voter base.”

However, the increase in 2021 and 2022 is better explained by the biggest and most carefully-monitored vaccine rollout in US history, more stringent reporting requirements for covid vaccines, and increased public awareness of the VAERS system. 

It’s malpractice for a government agency to issue health directives based on VAERS data. VAERS reports guide future research, not shape medical decisionmaking. 

VAERS data are correlational and unvetted. Anyone can report that they experienced any symptom after receiving a vaccine. 

Healthcare providers are required to report some adverse events, but compliance has historically been spotty. 

Antivaxers love to claim that 32,000 people have died from the covid vaccine, because there have been 32,000 reports of people dying after being vaccinated. 

VAERS provides zero evidence any of these people died because of the vaccine. 

VAERS scientists look for unusual patterns. 


If they think they see a signal, they’ll pull medical records or death certificates to confirm these patients actually got the vaccine and actually experienced the adverse event, say, heart failure. 

But even then, further research would be needed to determine whether the vaccine is the culprit – or an innocent bystander.

Covid vaccines came with much stricter VAERS reporting requirements than other adult vaccines. What’s more, the government worked to educate doctors about their new responsibilities. Healthcare providers are legally required to report all major adverse events following a covid vaccine, whether they’re plausibly connected to the vaccine or not. 

So if the patient gets struck by lightning on their way home from the vaccine clinic, their doctor is supposed to report it, just in case. 

To make matters worse, some major antivax groups and personal injury attorneys coach their followers to make VAERS reports about third parties. 

Antivax propaganda drives VAERS reports and antivaxers point to increased VAERS reports as proof that the vaccines are dangerous. 


Media and internet exposure also drive VAERS reporting. When vaccine safety is in the news, people are more likely to attribute their symptoms to vaccines and more motivated to report those symptoms to VAERS. The media firestorm over Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent paper linking vaccines and autism boosted VAERS reporting rates for the MMR vaccine. VAERS reports also rose for Gardasil when the rightwing decided that vaccinating young girls against cervical cancer was grooming. 

The antivax site OpenVAERS now gets more traffic than the real VAERS website. Between December 2020, when the covid vaccines first rolled out to mid-August of 2021, rightwing media like Fox and Breitbart mentioned VAERS seven times more often than mainstream outlets. 

This is not the first time Ladapo has misused surveillance data to push governor Ron DeSantis’s antivax agenda. 

Last year, he disregarded CDC guidelines and recommended against covid mRNA vaccines for men aged 18 to 39. He did this based on a severely flawed, non-peer reviewed study conducted by unnamed individuals within the Florida Department of Health. 

This was the same project that generated the investigation into potential data falsification. A faculty committee convened by Ladapo’s peers at the University of Florida condemned him for “careless, irregular, or contentious research practices.” 

Amongst other things, the professors faulted Ladapo for misuse of statistics and cherry picking his data. 

As a contributor to the USA Today network put it, “Ladapo is emerging as a central player in the governor’s outreach to vaccine skeptics and opponents who now form a stunningly large part of the GOP’s national voter base.” 

DeSantis is trying to brand himself as the biggest antivax loon in the GOP presidential primary. 

It’s a tall order, but Ladapo is prepared to do whatever it takes. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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