Members Only | January 17, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The antivaxers’ ghoulish exploitation of dead celebrities

If you think dying at a ripe old age will get you off the hook, think again.

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Benjamin Franklin liked to say the only certainties are death and taxes. We can now add a third certainty: Antivaxers alleging that the deceased are killed by the covid vaccine. 

You might wonder how they know the vaccine status of all these strangers. They don’t! But 80 percent of Americans are at least partially vaccinated. It’s a good bet that anyone who dies will from now on have been vaccinated. Sadly, while the shot greatly reduces the odds of dying by covid, it doesn’t make you immortal. 

That means endless grist for the antivax rumor mill. 

Staying alive
In the scramble for antivax clout, it’s critical to hurl the accusation as quickly as possible, before inconvenient facts come to light. The cause of 54-year-old singer Lisa Marie Presley’s fatal cardiac arrest is still unknown and the antivaxers are taking full advantage of the uncertainty. 

By comparing a list with no standards to a list with very strict standards, the GoodSciencing crew observe that their pile is larger and declare victory. This is not good sciencing. 

It’s a race against time. If antivaxers had hesitated before blaming the vaccine for high-profile deaths, they might have learned that beloved comedian Bob Saget shattered his skull in a hotel room, sports journalist Grant Wahl succumbed to an aneurysm and guitar legend Jeff Beck died of bacterial meningitis. 

Staying alive won’t save you from the antivax ghouls either.

 Just ask singers Celine Dionne and Justin Bieber

If you think dying at a ripe old age will get you off the hook, think again. Supplement peddler Peter McCullough alleged that Queen Elizabeth II died of the vaccine, as opposed to being 96. Anti-vaxers even circulated a fabricated quote to make it look like actress Betty White had just gotten her booster before she passed peacefully in her sleep at nearly 100 years of age. 

Some antivaxers don’t even wait for the victim to die. 

Substacker Steve Kirsch speculated the vaccine had rendered Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin braindead on the field when in fact he was recovering in hospital.

Someone’s braindead in this scenario, but not the 24-year-old Hamlin, who was released from the hospital last week. The cause of his cardiac arrest has not been released, but given that the player collapsed shortly after taking a blow to the chest on national television, the most likely culprit is a rare condition called commotio cordis. Scientists have known since the 1930s that an ill-timed blow can stop a healthy heart by disrupting its rhythm. 

They have a list!
The flurry of rumors about Hamlin’s cardiac arrest are part of a larger pattern of antivaxers falsely implying that vaccines have caused a sudden surge in sudden deaths among athletes. 

Tucker Carlson said that, “since the vax campaign began, there have been more than 1,500 total cardiac arrests in [European sports leagues] and two-thirds of those were fatal.” Carlson was riffing on a letter to the editor by none other than Peter McCullough who was riffing on a list he saw on the antivax website, “GoodSciencing.com.” 

The list purports to be a compendium of “vaccine-related” illnesses and deaths since the vaccines came out. Many of these deaths are neither cardiac, sudden, nor plausibly vaccine-related. 


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These include the deaths of 81-year-old soccer star Pele, who died of colon cancer; a 69-year-old who apparently fell off a cliff; a snowboarder who mysteriously crashed through a window; an accidental drug overdose; a car crash, some drownings, a kidney infection; and sepsis from Strep A. 

The list includes all ages, and a grab bag of sudden and not-so-sudden deaths, lovingly cherry-picked from all over the world. 

Rather than limiting themselves to competitive athletes, the authors appear to have included almost anyone with a connection to physical fitness, including a gym owner who keeled over in his parking lot; an NFL official; some referees in their 70s; assorted weekend warriors; and a nameless little girl who died in dance class. 

The anonymous authors swear they have more stories they didn’t include because they weren’t confident of the connection to the vaccine. 

Based on what they put in, I shudder to think what they left out. 

Fear and deceit
The GoodSciencing folks attempt to show an increase in something or other by comparing their giant pile of random clippings to a study that only looked at competitive US athletes under the age of 25 who were perfectly healthy before they died suddenly and whose cases found their way into a special registry. 

By comparing a list with no standards to a list with very strict standards, the GoodSciencing crew observe that their pile is larger and declare victory. This is not good sciencing. 


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Sadly, young athletes have always been at increased risk of sudden cardiac death. Scientists have known for decades that a small percentage of apparently healthy young people have heart conditions that are silent until they push their bodies to the limit. The ignorance and malice of the antivaxers is so profound that they think nothing of exploiting these tragic deaths to advance their narrative.

Antivaxers are resorting to increasingly desperate and manipulative rhetoric because they’re losing. Now that most people have been vaccinated, they’re gloating that we’re all going to die horribly because we didn’t listen. 

It is estimated that the covid vaccines have saved over 3 million lives in the US and over 14 million lives worldwide. The vaccines have also prevented countless illnesses and hospitalizations and saved global health care systems trillions of dollars. 

Antivaxers ghoulishly exploit the deaths of celebrities, because they have no compelling data. Their only weapons are fear and deceit. 


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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