"As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of demand." — Josh Billings

National Geographic’s COVID-19 Coverage Reviewed by Bruce Brown

A former writer for Aububon and National Wildlife looks at the current COVID-19 writing in National Geographic

The following is Bruce Brown‘s commentary response from the Coronavirus Vaccine & Herd Immunity Digest to an article by Amy McKeever, “Dozens of COVID-19 vaccines are in development. Here are the ones to follow…” that appeared in National Geographic on July 31, 2020.

Biblical plague scene
A detail from a painting by Nicolas Poussin depicting a Biblical plague.

HERE’S A sweet little “false news” piece that keeps lurching to one side like a car with a front tire that’s going flat, and finally ends up in the ditch after what looked like a tremendously promising start.

Actually, the best thing about the start is what happened before the start. A+ to whoever at National Geographic was responsible for the original story concept and shaping. It’s slick, intriguing, smart, timely and professional, as you’d expect.

The design and illustration are likewise excellent. I’ll admit I found myself idly staring at the lead illustration featuring a photo by Hans Pennick that I would call a nearly “perfect” pop magazine illustration for August 2020 in America.

Pennick’s photo captures COVID-19 volunteer Melissa Harting, of Harpersville, NY, a 30ish woman with blue hair and lots of accessorized blue tattoos, as she archly considers the flu shot she is about to receive.

THEN, HOWEVER, the story begins.

Speaking personally, I’ve never really gotten terribly heated up about “false” or “fake news” because, as an ex-wife of mine (a lawyer turned mediator) once said to me, “there are ALWAYS two sides to a story, and frequently more!”

And as a journalist, 50 years of professional experience have taught me that nobody owns the truth. The truth serves no one party, cause, nation, religion, race or hair style.

That said, there is this naked right there in public in front of all those people “false news” interlude near the beginning of Amy McKeever’s story where McKeever, her fact checkers and editors simply let a big bald self-congratulatory falsehood slip through, and then used it to support further falsehood.

The matter at issue is McKeever’s assertion that:

It can typically take 10 to 15 years to bring a vaccine to market; the fastest-ever—the vaccine for mumps—required four years in the 1960s.

Dr. Maurice Hilleman
Dr. Maurice Hilleman in 1962.

Unfortunately, that’s just not true. Thanks to Maurice Hilleman, chief of respiratory diseases at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., in 1957, the United States was able to develop and distribute an effective Asian flu vaccine within six months of the first international outbreak of the Asian flu in Singapore and Hong Kong.

So based on what I know right now, I believe the fastest vaccine on record is actually the Asian flu, which took six months in 1957, not the mumps vaccine, which took four years in the 1960s, as McKeever has it.

McKeever then uses the false claim about the mumps to suggest that the coronavirus vaccine contestants today are chasing a vaccine development world speed record — and even praises their plucky effort “to bring one to market in record time” — when in fact the mumps vaccine was not the fastest, and the chance to break the vaccine development speed record already passed last month.

Oops and double oops.

OK, EVERYBODY makes mistakes. Let me tell you I have made my share of ’em, and Amy McKeever won’t be the last one either.

So I shrugged and read on in the National Geographic‘s rundown on coronavirus vaccine contestants. First up was Moderna Theraputics’ mRNA-1273, an experimental mRNA vaccine.

Amy McKeever is pretty upbeat about this Big Pharma vaccine entrant. She likes their experimental, whiz-bang genetic engineering technology and their positioning in the process, and she makes no mention at all about side affects reported for Moderna’s mRNA-1273 coronavirus vaccine candidate.

And she ESPECIALLY doesn’t mention the recently published article in the New England Journal of Medicine stating that in the highest (and clinically desired) mRNA-1273 dosage group, which received 250 mcg, 100% of participants suffered side effects after both the first and second doses. In addition, three of the 14 participants (21%) in the 250-mcg group suffered “one or more severe events.”

Bill Gates was even interviewed by CBS-TV on July 23 about the side effects problems with Moderna’s mRNA-1273 coronavirus vaccine candidate, so none of the side effect information that Amy McKeever and National Geographic missed was exactly hiding.

Was this another right-out-in-plain-sight screw up? It’s McKeever’s job to know about the New England Journal of Medicine study on Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine side effects before the article appears, but it’s also very possible that the National Geographic (which probably has the longer production schedule) was already locked in on the final form of McKeever’s article before McKeever got wind of the New England Journal of Medicine study. Believe it or not, this sort of thing happens in the news game all the time!

Do not fear the (coronavirus) wolf, by Bruce Brown
Do not fear the (coronavirus) wolf. The wolf will make us strong and clean… The wolf is preparing people for greatness again.” — Bruce Brown

SO I KEPT on reading, and I must admit I enjoyed the article on balance, and I learned some things about the vaccines from it.

But after I finished it and figuratively threw it down on the table, something was bothering me. I couldn’t figure out what it was immediately, but later it came to me.

This story has a big, gaping hole in the center of it! That’s because it doesn’t even mention of the most important player on the entire coronavirus vaccine development landscape right now. That would be the Russians, who were the first to complete human trials, have announced widespread introduction of the new vaccine by October 2020, and appear to be months ahead of everyone else.

Somehow, knowledge of these well-publicized Russian COVID-19 vaccine advances were kept from Amy McKeever by occult means? Perhaps the same occult wavelength that prevented her knowing about Moderna’s side effect issues?

MY VIEW? Even though there are somewhat plausible excuses for a couple of the four big gotchas I’ve highlighted in Amy McKeever’s National Geographic article, the four together (getting the fastest vaccine development wrong, falsely claiming that the current vaccine manufacturers have a shot at a vaccine development speed record, omitting the side effects reports on Moderna’s vaccine candidate, and ignoring the Russians) make this National Geographic story by Amy McKeever one of the least competent national magazine pieces I can remember.

For me, McKeever’s National Geographic story ultimately comes down as a sort of false news “cluster fuck” — as Vietnam vets say — even though it began so smartly with a young woman with blue hair and matching blue tattoos!

And where were National Geographic’s editors?

— Bruce Brown
Editor, Coronavirus Vaccine & Herd Immunity Digest

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