By now you know of the fall from grace of Mark Tykocinski, the president of Thomas Jefferson University. Tykocinski met the displeasure of The Philadelphia Inquirer when it learned that he has “liked” through his Twitter account certain tweets, among them the irrepressible commentary of the Covid-vaccine skeptic Alex Berenson. Soon came a public rebuke of Dr. Tykocinski by his own chief executive officer, Joseph Cacchione.
There is much that might be said about Berenson, a former reporter for The New York Times who delights in defying ex cathedra pronouncements about all things Covid-related, whether from the Times, the Food and Drug Administration, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He clearly has his biases in selection and characterization of Covid-vaccine studies, and he can be free with snark: President Biden has on occasion been “Uncle Joe” and Anthony Fauci “Cousin Tony.”
He’s audacious. Following his short-lived de-platforming by pre-Musk Twitter, his lawsuit against Twitter discovered further evidence that the Biden administration was pressuring social media to stifle dissent — now he’s suing the president himself. (A disclosure: As an unreconstructed First Amendment type, I contributed a piddling sum toward Berenson’s legal expenses in the Twitter case.) Further, given revenue from both his Substack column and his book, Berenson has hardly impoverished himself by going heterodox.
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One Berenson remark that the Inky selected for special censure is sourced to a tweet of this past December: “Two years after their introduction, the mRNAs [sic] vaccines have proven to be what we all should have expected — another in a long line of overhyped, rushed, profit-driven Big Pharma flops with weak long-term efficacy and a lousy side effect profile.”
Apparently the Inky cut Berenson some slack. It could have added this as well: “I knew these vaccines were not going to protect against infection. And I think we overplayed the vaccines, and it made people then worry that it’s not going to protect against severe disease and hospitalization. It will. But let’s be very clear: 50 percent of the people who died from the Omicron surge were older, vaccinated.”
Wait, no, I got that wrong. Those lines aren’t Berenson’s. They’re Deborah Birx’s. Recall that Birx was the tsarina of the Trump administration’s Covid-response team.
Okay, then. But the Inky could also have stuck Berenson with this: “Because these viruses,” that is, respiratory viruses including SARS-CoV-2, “generally do not elicit complete and durable protective immunity by themselves, they have not to date been effectively controlled by licensed or experimental vaccines.”
Oops. Wrong again. That line issues from no less than the now-retired Dr. Fauci.
Nothing here is meant to suggest that Berenson has ever aligned with the reigning narratives about Covid. Rather, he has collided with them, whether they concern vaccines, masking, lockdowns, school closures, or incessant testing. From early in the pandemic, he ridiculed the notion that if most everybody constricted their lives month after month after month, the virus would go poof.
“Virus is gonna virus” became a Berenson slogan. Who would dispute that today? As to mRNA vaccines, he doesn’t outright contend that they haven’t prevented (or delayed) deaths among vulnerable populations, though indeed he does controversially argue that the true effect is hard to discern amid statistical muddles and that certain estimates of the benefit are grossly inflated.
Whether in one or another of Berenson’s opinions he has been spot-on right or oh-so wrong, he remains a useful citizen. He disdains the “experts say” vein of Covid journalism that has predominated these past three years. He brings to light contrarian information that many other reporters would just as soon overlook, if it is even known to them, and he strains to get his head around study designs and statistical analyses when others don’t make the effort. He will risk taxing his readers’ concentration for more than 30 seconds.
Because these viruses generally do not elicit complete and durable protective immunity by themselves, they have not to date been effectively controlled by licensed or experimental vaccines.
Dr. Tykocinski, whose experience comprises research into immunotherapies as well as executive roles in academia, has made his recantations, saying he never understood that to “like” is to endorse. Who can say whether Jefferson will now put this ruction behind it? If as the Inky tells its readers, it is serving as a conduit for Jefferson employees with complaints about Dr. Tykocinski’s “likings,” should there be worry that the university remains atremble with woke sensitivities? The grievance list runs beyond Berenson to what should be the approved attitude toward diversity officers, “gender reassignment” surgery, and Michael Shellenberger, the author of “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.”
As for the Inky, I won’t hazard a view as to how often the paper allows Covid iconoclasm onto its pages. But here’s one indicator: Did the Inky give much space, or any space, to the largest evaluation yet of studies (78 of them) to measure the effect of masks among other interventions on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory viruses? The review was done under the auspices of the UK-based Cochrane Library, a preeminent institution in the field of “evidence-based medicine,” and led by Tom Jefferson, an Oxford University professor.
The conclusions were hedged, as conclusions of academic papers will be. But Jefferson was blunt during an interview, asserting that “there’s still no evidence that masks are effective during a pandemic” and dissing “overnight experts” who had imposed sweeping Covid policies. He got some pushback, however, and even within Cochrane.
You’d think such a controversy would make for good copy, but the Inky has no comment, and searching the paper’s archives, I don’t find this piece. Perhaps it can be recalled by more avid readers of the paper than I am.
I’ll take a little risk with this next one: the outrageously stretched efficacy claims for Covid vaccines heard during a July 2021 CNN town hall, the misinformationist being the president of the United States. Did Inky readers find the next day a little scolding of Biden on the op-ed page? Maybe just a soft rap on the knuckles?
I don’t find it, and I’m betting no. And if I’m wrong? The Inky’s publisher gets a free Covid home-test kit. My treat.
Richard Koenig is the author of the Kindle Single No Place to Go, an account of efforts to provide toilets during a cholera epidemic in Ghana.