The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man

In a crowded field of wrongness, one person stands out: Alex Berenson.

A graphic of Alex Berenson standing with an X of red dots over him.
Getty / The Atlantic

Updated at 1:56 p.m. on April 1, 2021.

The pandemic has made fools of many forecasters. Just about all of the predictions whiffed. Anthony Fauci was wrong about masks. California was wrong about the outdoors. New York was wrong about the subways. I was wrong about the necessary cost of pandemic relief. And the Trump White House was wrong about almost everything else.

In this crowded field of wrongness, one voice stands out. The voice of Alex Berenson: the former New York Times reporter, Yale-educated novelist, avid tweeter, online essayist, and all-around pandemic gadfly. Berenson has been serving up COVID-19 hot takes for the past year, blithely predicting that the United States would not reach 500,000 deaths (we’ve surpassed 550,000) and arguing that cloth and surgical masks can’t protect against the coronavirus (yes, they can).

Berenson has a big megaphone. He has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter and millions of viewers for his frequent appearances on Fox News’ most-watched shows. On Laura Ingraham’s show, he downplayed the vaccines, suggesting that Israel’s experience proved they were considerably less effective than initially claimed. On Tucker Carlson Tonight, he predicted that the vaccines would cause an uptick in cases of COVID-related illness and death in the U.S.

The vaccines have inspired his most troubling comments. For the past few weeks on Twitter, Berenson has mischaracterized just about every detail regarding the vaccines to make the dubious case that most people would be better off avoiding them. As his conspiratorial nonsense accelerates toward the pandemic’s finish line, he has proved himself the Secretariat of being wrong:

Usually, I would refrain from lavishing attention on someone so blatantly incorrect. But with vaccine resistance hovering around 30 percent of the general population, and with 40 percent of Republicans saying they won’t get a shot, debunking vaccine skepticism, particularly in right-wing circles, is a matter of life and death.

Berenson’s TV appearances are more misdirection than outright fiction, and his Twitter feed blends internet-y irony and scientific jargon in a way that may obscure what he’s actually saying. To pin him down, I emailed several questions to him last week. Below, I will lay out, as clearly and fairly as I can, his claims about the vaccines and how dangerously, unflaggingly, and superlatively wrong they are.

Before I go point by point through his wrong positions, let me be exquisitely clear about what is true. The vaccines work. They worked in the clinical trials, and they’re working around the world. The vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson seem to provide stronger and more lasting protection against SARS-CoV-2 and its variants than natural infection. They are excellent at reducing symptomatic infection. Even better, they are extraordinarily successful at preventing severe illness from COVID-19. Countries that have vaccinated large percentages of their population quickly, such as the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Israel, have all seen sharp and sustained declines in hospitalizations among the elderly. Meanwhile, countries that have lagged in the vaccination effort—including the U.K.’s neighbors France and Italy, and Israel’s neighbor Jordan—have struggled to contain the virus. The authorized vaccines are marvels, and the case against them relies on half-truths, untruths, and obfuscations.

Berenson’s claim: In country after country, “cases rise after vaccination campaigns begin,” he wrote in an email.

The reality: In country after country, cases decline after vaccination campaigns begin.

One of Berenson’s themes is that the mRNA vaccines are badly underperforming outside the clinical trials and are possibly even causing a spike in cases after the first shot. But just this week, CDC researchers studying real-world conditions came to the opposite conclusion: The mRNA vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer are 90 percent effective two weeks after the second dose, in line with the trial data. “COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all eligible persons,” they concluded.

Still, Berenson pushes the argument that the vaccines are causing suspicious illness and death. On Twitter and in his email to me, Berenson claimed that an “excellent” Denmark study showed a 40 percent rise in infections immediately after nursing-home residents received their first vaccine shot.

I reached out to that study’s lead author, Ida Rask Moustsen-Helms at the Statens Serum Institut, who said that Berenson had mischaracterized her findings. She explained to me that the Danish nursing homes in question were already experiencing a significant COVID-19 outbreak when vaccinations began. Many people in the long-term-care facilities were likely already sick before their vaccine was administered, and “these people would technically count as vaccinated with confirmed COVID-19, even if the infection happened prior to the vaccination or its immune response,” she said. With limited vaccines, countries ought to give the first vaccines to the groups most likely to get COVID-19. That’s exactly what seems to have happened here. Berenson is scaremongering about the vaccines by essentially criticizing their wise distribution.

In our emails, Berenson further argued that many of the perceived benefits of the vaccines are illusory. “It is very hard to distinguish the course of the epidemic this winter in countries that have vaccinated heavily, such as Israel and the UK, and those that have not, such as Canada and Germany,” he wrote.

This is hogwash. In the U.K. and Israel, hospitalizations have fallen by at least 70 percent since mid-January, and they remain low. In Canada, hospitalizations fell by significantly less, and in Germany, the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases has more than doubled since mid-February; its government has debated a new lockdown.

This stage of the pandemic is a race between the variants and the vaccines. In many states, such as Michigan and New York, normalizing behavior combined with more contagious strains of the virus are pushing up cases again. This is not evidence that America’s vaccination campaign isn’t working. Quite the opposite: It highlights the urgency of moving faster to deliver vaccines, which are our best chance to control the spread of contagious variants.

Berenson’s claim: Pfizer-BioNTech’s clinical-trial data prove that the companies are being shady about vaccine efficacy.

The reality: His “proof” is a total mischaracterization of trial data.

Berenson seems to enjoy spelunking through research to find esoteric statistics that he then dresses up with spooky language to make confusing points that sow doubt about the vaccines. Arguing that COVID-19 cases spike after the first dose, he directs people to the Pfizer-BioNTech FDA briefing document, which reports hundreds of “suspected but unconfirmed” COVID-19 cases in the trial’s vaccine group that aren’t counted as positive cases in the final efficacy analysis.

But “suspected but unconfirmed” doesn’t refer to participants who were probably sick with COVID-19. On the contrary, it refers to participants who reported various symptoms, such as a cough or a sore throat, and then took a PCR test—and then that test came back negative.

“His point is absolutely stupid, and I would know because I enrolled participants in the Pfizer-BioNTech trial,” Kawsar Talaat, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, told me. “He’s talking about people who call in and say, ‘I have a runny nose.’ So we mark them as ‘suspected.’ Then we ask them to take a PCR test, and we test their swab, and if the test comes back negative, the FDA says it’s ‘unconfirmed.’ That’s what suspected but unconfirmed means.”

When I emailed Pfizer and BioNTech representatives about Berenson’s claim, they struggled to even understand what I was talking about. Someone was taking a group of several thousand people who had tested negative for COVID-19 and, from afar, diagnosing all of them with COVID-19? “Does not make sense,” a BioNTech spokesperson responded curtly.

If you were enrolled in Berenson’s vaccine trial for SARS-CoV-2 and never contracted the virus, but one day you told a clinician that you had a bit of a cough, Berenson would mark you down as “infected with COVID-19” and blame the vaccine. That’s the logic here, and, as you can tell, it’s not really logic; it just seems like an attempt to find something—anything—wrong with the vaccines.

Berenson’s claim: The mRNA vaccines dangerously suppress your immune system, possibly causing severe illness and even death.

The reality: His claim is based on a total misunderstanding of how the immune system works.

Berenson wrote in an email that “the first dose of the mRNA vaccine temporarily suppresses the immune system.” He has claimed on Twitter that the mRNA vaccines “transiently suppress lymphocytes,” or our white blood cells, and suggested that this might lead to “post-vaccination deaths.”

Scientists tore this one to shreds. “The claim he is making is simply fearmongering, connecting a simple physiological event with bogus claims of deaths,” Shane Crotty, a researcher at the Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, told me. “The observation of lymphocyte numbers temporarily dropping in blood is actually a common phenomenon in immune responses.”

A little background is useful here: White blood cells are the immune system’s scouts. After an effective vaccination, some of them leave the blood and go to the site of inflammation, such as the arm that received the shot. “The cells are not gone,” Crotty said. “They come back to the blood in a few days. It is generally a good sign of an immune response, not the opposite.” To demonstrate that the vaccines are counterproductive, then, Berenson is pointing to the very biological mechanism that strongly suggests they’re working just as scientists expected.

Readers are surely familiar with other biological events that sound bad in the short term but are part of a normal, healthy process. When you lift weights at the gym, your muscles experience small tears that recover and then strengthen over time. Imagine if some loudmouth started screaming in the middle of the weight room, “You all think you’re building your muscles, but actually you’re tearing them to shreds, and it could kill you!” You would probably carry on calmly, assuming that this guy just got a little overexcited after finding a Yahoo Answers article about muscle formation and stopped reading after the first paragraph. Berenson’s claim is basically a version of that, but for your immune system.

“Actually,” Talaat said, “his argument is even worse than your analogy. Muscles really do tear at the gym. But lymphocytes don’t go away. They just move. What he’s describing as dangerous in these tweets is just the regular functioning of our immune system.”

Berenson’s claim: In Israel, the shots are causing a scary number of deaths and hospitalizations.

The reality: Israel is a sensational vaccine success story: a nearly open economy where COVID-19 rates are plunging. See for yourself!

On February 11, Berenson warned his followers that early data from Israel proved that vaccine advocates “need to start ratcheting down expectations.” This was a strange claim to make at the time: An Israeli health-care provider had reported no deaths and four severe cases among its first 523,000 fully vaccinated people. But the claim seems even more ridiculous now, in light of Israel’s incredible success since then. New positive cases in Israel are down roughly 95 percent since January. Deaths have plunged, even though the economy is almost fully open.

When I asked Berenson to explain his beef with Israel’s vaccine record, he sent a link to a news story in Hebrew that, he said, reported “several hundred deaths and hospitalizations and thousands of infections in people who have received both doses.” I can’t read Hebrew, so I reached out to someone who can, Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel. He replied by email: “This link actually shows that the vast majority of those who died were NOT vaccinated.” By Segal’s calculations, the vaccines have reduced the risk of death by more than 90 percent in the Israeli population. Segal also said that “numbers of infections only went down, and even more so among the age groups who were first to vaccinate.”

Berenson is wrong about all sorts of little things when it comes to Israel, but I want to emphasize how straightforward and obvious the big picture is here. Israel is a world leader in vaccinations. Its COVID-19 cases have plunged, and its economy is roaring back to life.

Berenson’s claim: Healthy people under 70 shouldn’t get a vaccine.

The reality: Outside of extremely rare cases, every adult should get a vaccine—and if it’s authorized for children, children should get it too.

I wanted to know where Berenson stood on the most important question: Who does he think should get a vaccine, and who does he think shouldn’t? This was the core of his answer:

For most healthy people under 50—and certainly under 35—the side effects from the shots are likely to be worse than a case of Covid. Over 70, sure. The grey zone is somewhere in the middle and probably depends on personal risk factors.

This response has two huge problems. First, although the disease clearly gets more severe with age, drawing a line at 70 is nonsensical. Those in their 50s and early 60s are three times more likely to die from this disease than a 40-something, and 400 times more likely to die than a teenager, according to the CDC.

Second, the suggestion that the vaccine’s side effects are worse than having COVID-19 is ludicrous. The vaccine can cause chills, fever, and other symptoms in the first few days. That’s just the immune system doing its job; severe illness from the vaccines is vanishingly rare. But severe illness in a pandemic is not rare. Based on data from COVID-NET, a surveillance network that captures hospitalizations across the U.S., hundreds of thousands of people under age 50 have likely gone to the hospital with COVID-19.* Several studies have indicated that at least one-third of hospitalized people suffer from long-term symptoms of COVID-19. (Guess what seems to alleviate the symptoms of some of these patients? Getting vaccinated.)

The idea that the vaccine is worse than the disease for the under-70 crowd falls apart utterly when we consider the “side effect” of death. Roughly 100,000 people under 65 have died of COVID-19. Meanwhile, out of more than 145 million vaccines administered in the U.S., a CDC review of clinical information found no evidence that they had caused any deaths. The current score in the competition between non-senior pandemic deaths and conclusive vaccine deaths is 100,000–0.

One hundred thousand to zero. That might be the most important statistic in this whole mess. Berenson doesn’t tweet blatantly falsifiable statements about the vaccines every day. For the most part, he peddles doubt, laced with confusing and expert-sounding jargon, which may seem compelling at first but can’t survive contact with expert opinion.

To be honest, I initially had serious doubts about publishing this piece. The trap of exposing conspiracy theories is obvious: To demonstrate why a theory is wrong, you have to explain it and, in doing so, incur the risk that some people will be convinced by the very theory you’re trying to debunk. But that horse has left the barn. More than half of Republicans under the age of 50 say they simply won’t get a vaccine. Their hesitancy is being fanned by right-wing hacks, Fox News showboats, and vaccine skeptics like Alex Berenson. The case for the vaccines is built upon a firm foundation of scientific discovery, clinical-trial data, and real-world evidence. The case against the vaccines wobbles because it is built upon a steaming pile of bullshit.

*This piece has been updated to clarify the number of people under age 50 who have likely been hospitalized with COVID-19.