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.”
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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.”
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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.