The Comedy Club Owner With a Background Questioning Vaccine Safety

Come with me down a disturbing rabbit hole.

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Here’s something interesting.

A few days ago, The Stand co-owner Cris Italia responded to my report on the indoor podcast recording at his club with what appeared to be a suggestion that Covid-19 is “curable.” When I replied with a screenshot of the CDC’s determination that it’s not, he wrote back: “Yeah its called building an immunity. Its a virus like the flu, like a stomach bug. Its treatable.”

Covid-19 is a much more dangerous (and contagious) illness than the flu. It’s unclear whether survival provides lasting immunity; already there are several confirmed reinfections. More than 5,000 scientists and health experts have signed a memorandum decrying the logic of herd immunity approaches to pandemic management, which they call “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.” Italia’s statements struck me as such an obviously skewed take on the science that I couldn’t get them out of my head. On a whim, I searched his timeline for the word “vaccines.” What I found were these replies to a 2018 tweet by Chelsea Clinton.

Andrew Wakefield is the disgraced former physician who sparked a wave of vaccine hesitancy in 1998 when he published a fraudulent, retracted paper showing a link between autism cases and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. That’s an interesting man to defend, especially given the full context of Clinton’s tweet, which links to an article about a measles outbreak. Then there’s Italia’s reference to his background as a journalist covering autism, which he frequently cites while attempting to discredit my own work. Between his dubious statements about Covid-19, his insistence that the live podcast recording in his club was completely safe, and this impassioned defense of a thoroughly debunked grifter, I figured now might be a good time to see what Italia’s previous career as a journalist was all about.

In short: he spent years running a publication that favorably covered the vaccine hesitancy movement—specifically, the segment of that movement that falsely argued vaccines cause autism—and published some of its most vocal proponents.

From 2004 until 2010 Italia served as editor-in-chief of Spectrum, a magazine “For the Autism & Developmentally Disabled Community.” Spectrum does not exist anymore, and its website is defunct, though remnants are available via the Internet Archive and captured on other websites. (It has no relation to Spectrum, an autism news and analysis resource published by the Simons Foundation, which has no relation to me.) Italia launched the magazine with its publisher, Evelyn Ain, a Long Island woman who ran a chain of cell phone stores before founding Autism United, a nonprofit advocacy group. Here’s a column she wrote for Spectrum comparing public school vaccine mandates to civil rights violations. And here she is testifying at a 2008 Nassau County hearing on vaccines and autism:

A lot of people say there's absolutely no connection, but there is research out there that clearly links autism to vaccines. Why are we so quick to ignore it? Why are we turning around and saying yes, we're going to listen to the other flip of the coin, saying that there is no link between autism and vaccines, and continue to vaccinate our kids? Why are we ignoring good research? And who is at the end of the table saying "this is the research we should listen to and this isn't"? Well, that's the American Academy of Pediatrics. And there's a lot of money to be made on vaccinating our children.

During Italia’s tenure as editor-in-chief, Spectrum published cover stories on Deirdre Imus, Jenny McCarthy, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., all of whom advocated the disproven conspiracy theory that vaccines are linked to autism. I could not find complete copies of these cover stories via the Internet Archive, but the Imus feature, written by Italia, is available on her foundation’s website. Here are some passages:

What began as a photo shoot has now become a three-hour lesson on environmental toxins. Deirdre Imus can't help it. This is the first time she's ever met with the photo crew and part of her work is to arm people with knowledge. Since 2001 she has operated the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, a 501c3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and ultimately prevent exposures to environmental factors that may cause adult and especially pediatric cancer, as well as other health problems with children. The center also looks to educate children and their parents as well as the general public about carcinogens and other environmental factors that affect people everyday. She speaks with passion of the work they do here, but over two years ago she took on another passion: autism.

David Kirby sent her the gallies of Evidence of Harm in late 2004. She remembers hearing about autism and that there might have been environmental factors linked to the rise in recent years, but had read nothing as thorough as Kirby's book. "Kirby had done his homework for everyone," she says. The information would keep her up at nights and she couldn't help but pressure her husband to read what she had read.

[…]

The idea that mercury in vaccines may have triggered autism made sense to her. Deirdre Imus had known for years that the rise in cancer has been triggered by toxins in the environment. Since she has been working with childhood cancer there has not been a decrease and it still remains the leading cause of death among children with diseases. "Genetics only goes so far," she says. "The real questions are: What are we predisposed to when we're born, and what triggers it?"

"In that time there has been a shift," she says about the last 20 years. "The statistics today say that one out of six kids have a learning disability. The trigger is environmental. You can't just say there is better diagnosis, that wouldn't explain numbers in epidemic proportions. With autism, the vaccine program is a link. It was Hillary Clinton in the 90s who was pushing a stricter vaccine schedule. Now kids can get up to eight shots during a visit to the doctors. Why would you put that burden on a developing immune system? Why would you poison a developing brain?”

[…]

There was no way out of it for Deirdre Imus. She was going to bring attention to autism. In the fall of 2005 she had contacted then Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. She spoke to him about a bill the autism community had been working on called the Combating Autism Act and how it needed leadership. Santorum and fellow Senator Christopher Dodd (Dem., Conn.) said they would help, but only if the autism community as a whole (meaning the advocacy groups who believed that autism was linked to thimerosal, an ingredient containing mercury in vaccines) would be on board with the other organizations involved, such as Autism Speaks, Cure Autism Now, and the National Alliance for Autism Research.

The anti-vaccination movement in the early 2000s advanced the idea that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in certain vaccines, caused autism. Proponents argued that Bill Clinton’s vaccine initiatives, which sought to improve vaccination rates in the US, ultimately put more thimerosal in more children’s systems, leading to rising autism rates. (Another argument held that administering multiple vaccines at the same time weakened children’s immune systems.) There is no scientific evidence that thimerosal causes any damage other than temporary local sensitivity and the rare allergic reaction. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics requested that vaccine manufacturers stop using thimerosal as a precautionary measure: even though there was no evidence of adverse effects, they felt its removal would boost public confidence in vaccines. Thimerosal was mostly phased out by mid-2001, and its removal had no effect on autism diagnoses. (It’s still used in some flu vaccines.)

This did not stop writers and activists from spreading the pseudoscientific argument that thimerosal was connected to autism for years after its discontinuation. One such writer was David Kirby, the author who Imus said “has done his homework for everyone.” Here’s Yale neurologist Steven Novella on Kirby’s book Evidence of Harm in 2007:

Proponents of the mercury hypothesis argue that the ethylmercury found in thimerosal was given in doses exceeding Environmental Protection Agency limits. This load of mercury should be considered with prenatal vaccine loads possibly given to mothers, and to other environmental sources of mercury, such as seafood. Furthermore, underweight or premature infants received a higher dose by weight than larger children. Some children, they argue, may have a specific inability to metabolize mercury, and perhaps these are the children who become autistic.

Fear over thimerosal and autism was given a huge boost by journalist David Kirby with his book Evidence of Harm (Kirby 2005). Kirby tells the clichéd tale of courageous families searching for help for their sick children and facing a blind medical establishment and a federal government rife with corruption from corporate dollars. Kirby echoes the core claim that as the childhood vaccine schedule increased in the 1990s, leading to an increased cumulative dose of thimerosal, autism diagnoses skyrocketed.

In the end, Evidence of Harm is an example of terrible reporting that grossly misrepresents the science and the relevant institutions. As bad as Kirby’s position was in 2005, in the last two years the evidence has been piling up that thimerosal does not cause autism. Rather than adjusting his claims to the evidence, Kirby has held fast to his claims, which has made him a hero alongside Wakefield of the mercury-autism connection crowd as he has squandered his credibility.

There have now been a number of epidemiological and ecological studies that have all shown no correlation between thimerosal and autism (Parker 2004 and Doja 2006). I have already mentioned that the current consensus holds that there is no real autism epidemic, just an artifact of how the diagnosis is made. If there’s no epidemic, there’s no reason to look for a correlation between thimerosal and autism. This has been backed up by The Institute of Medicine, which has also reviewed all the available evidence (both epidemiological and toxicological) and concluded that the evidence does not support the conclusion that thimerosal causes autism (IOM 2004).

Spectrum enthusiastically covered Kirby’s work, and occasionally published his writing itself. In 2006, Kirby was named one of Spectrum’s Top 10 Faces of Autism. Also on that list: David Weldon, a congressman who proposed legislation to ban vaccines containing thimerosal, and Bernard Rimland, a psychologist who told Spectrum that vaccine manufacturers “dangle their ad money in order to suppress information” supporting the vaccine/autism link. Italia wrote the blurb on Kirby, subtitled “Evidence of Heroism”:

By now his accomplishments have been well documented. Journalist David Kirby is considered a hero among many in the autism community. His book, Evidence of Harm, which investigated the mercury levels in childhood vaccines and their possible link to causing autism, was a New York Times best seller. During 2005, Kirby was everywhere.

“I didn’t realize that there were that many parents that actually believed in it,” the author says. “It wasn’t until I went on the road that I started to see all the parents who came out. There were conferences where there were more than 1,500 parents and I started to hear all of their stories. You know it’s just the same story over and over and over again. It’s so identical to other stories, but it’s not like they all got together and got their story straight to fool the press. It was real, and that I didn’t expect.”

Kirby’s debate on the autism/vaccine link received national exposure several times. Most notably, he went toe-to-toe with Dr. Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine on NBC’s Meet the Press. Kirby challenged government officials to dispute his findings and debate him, but there were no takers. “I could debate this for hours and hours on just the merits,” Kirby says. “Forget the emotion, let’s just talk about the science. Let’s examine it.”

Even now, more than a year since his book release, Kirby still tours not only to promote Evidence of Harm, but to educate and bring attention to this issue. The paperback edition of his book was released in March and Kirby is currently touring cities in Canada. Plans to make his book a motion picture are already in the works.

“I don’t see myself ever writing about this issue again, at least in the sense that I won’t write another book about it,” Kirby says. “But this is certainly not going away and I intend to follow through on bringing this issue to the public.”

Kirby has been accused of being biased on the issue, but anyone who reads Evidence of Harm will see that there is balance. Kirby tells both sides and never takes a subjective stance. As a journalist, he questions the science and the lack of research into the matter. Kirby asked the questions everyone else has been asking. They have still gone unanswered.

Another Top 10 Face of Autism was journalist Dan Olmsted, whom Italia met when they were both writers for United Press International, the wire service purchased in 2000 by the Unification Church. (The Unification Church is a religious movement that believes its founder, media mogul Sun Myung Moon, was the second coming of Christ.) Olmsted was best known for his “Age of Autism” series of columns on the nonexistent link between thimerosal and autism. In 2006, New York Representative Carolyn Maloney credited the series when she introduced legislation to investigate the issue. In his “Top 10 Faces of Autism” blurb, Italia called Olmsted “Autism’s Columbo”:

Concerned with that lack of attention the vaccine connection to autism was getting, Olmsted questioned why organizations such as the Institute of Medicine were so quick to dismiss the issue. “Not only did they dismiss the issue, but they think it’s absurd to continue to research the science,” he says.

Olmsted began writing a column for United Press International (UPI) called the Age of Autism, which started with a study on the Amish community. As a senior editor, for UPI since 1999, Olmsted has covered mostly health issues, but his two-part story on the lack of autistic cases among the Amish received nation-wide acclaim from parents in the autism community. He questioned why a study was never conducted among the Amish who never vaccinate their children.

“I was surprised by that,” he said. “I would have thought by now if you were going to completely rule out vaccines and their link to autism and since there has been a lot of debate about this, someone would go out and say look we did this study among these children who don’t get vaccinated and there are cases of autism among these people.”

What Olmsted found was not one case of autism among the pure Amish people. There were however a few cases of children with autism who were all at a young age and were adopted and had been vaccinated. To follow up his study on the Amish, he reported on Homefirst Health Services in Cook County, Ill. Homefirst is a medical center with a strong Christian patient base. Most of the children seen by the doctors at Homefirst are home schooled and have not been vaccinated. Again Olmsted found that the few cases of autism among the thousands of patients at Homefirst were vaccinated before they became patients of the medical center.

Olmsted spent several years as a columnist for Spectrum, frequently arguing in favor of the vaccine theory. In 2008 he urged readers “not to give up on the mercury/autism link,” and described the scientific consensus against the theory as “ludicrously flawed and conflicted.” In 2009, he wrote that an NPR segment on efforts to debunk the anti-vaccination movement made him “want to vomit.” That same year, he criticized a Dateline segment that said "vaccines are not the cause of autism," a line he called "pure self-interested wishful thinking." Olmsted, who died in 2017, insisted on the vaccine link as recently as a 2015 Vox interview, spurring his interviewer to examine the underlying research:

After speaking to Olmsted, I looked up some of the claims he made during the course of our interview, particularly places where he cited a specific study that I was unfamiliar with. Here is what I found.

Olmsted said the CDC tried to suppress findings from researcher William Thompson supposedly linking vaccines to autism. Snopes previously deemed this claim false, and the blog Respectful Insolence found the assertion cherry-picks a small subgroup in a study that overall found no link between vaccines and autism. Many studies, including the comprehensive Institute of Medicine review from 2011, have also come out since the original study in question showing no connection between vaccines and autism.

Another study cited by Olmsted supposedly found a link between thimerasol, a mercury compound no longer included in most childhood vaccines, and autism. But as Emily Willingham at Forbes explains, this study — a multi-phase study — ended by finding no link between thimerasol and autism. Even so, it's become the center of many conspiracy theories, most of which seem to center around confusion over how to interpret multi-phase studies.

Olmsted also pointed to a report done by some of his colleagues that allegedly found the federal government paid out parents for vaccine injuries that caused autism.

David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine wrote about this issue in detail. The federal government paid people for vaccine injuries that may have resulted in autism-like symptoms, but a full autism diagnosis requires a collection of symptoms to be present, not just a few. Digging deeper into the numbers, Gorski concluded, "Taking into account the skewed population and the noise inherent in looking at a small population over 20 years, the prevalence of autism in VICP-compensated children does not appear to be detectably different than it is in the general population."

It goes on like that for a while.

Italia’s own writing for Spectrum ranged widely. He wrote cover stories, blogs, news articles, human interest features, and editorial material like the “Top 10 Faces of Autism” blurbs. As we’ll get to later, he feels he covered “both sides” of the anti-vaccination movement. One example of that coverage is a 2008 article about an anti-vaccination rally led by Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey:

Wednesday, June 4, what started as roughly 500 people in 2001 has today grown to more than 7,000 supporters. Although the size of the crowd is different, the message is the same. They believe that there is something wrong not only with the ingredients in vaccines, but also with the schedule in which children receive them. "Too many, too soon," exclaimed the raucous crowd as they marched through Independence Avenue from the Washington Monument to the lawn of the Capitol Building.

Leading the charge were two unlikely figures. In 2001 Jenny McCarthy was still working for Playboy, while parents we’re struggling to find anyone who would listen. In 2001, Jim Carrey was in the running for an Oscar, far away from anything called autism. On June 4, they were together as the most powerful couple in the autism community, telling the world what parents were trying to say on the very same lawn seven years ago. It was called the Power of One in 2001 and there wasn’t a panel of celebrity speakers. On this day it was much different Green Our Vaccines was the theme, and the crowd followed McCarthy, along with her son, Evan, who rode the shoulders of Carrey most of the way. There were police escorts and everyone wore nifty green t-shirts. Who would have guessed in 2001 that a wacky comedian and a Hollywood sex symbol would be the ones who would finally get the nation’s ear? "There is a sea of evidence that can no longer be ignored," Carrey proclaimed. "It’s time for real science and not propaganda."

Carrey, of course, was referring to the lack of attention and refusal of appropriate research that our government agencies have given to this issue. It wasn’t until the HHS v. Hannah Poling that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finally admitting to a link, between vaccines and autism. They still refute that there is a direct affect and proclaim that autism and childhood vaccines, as well as mercury have no connection to the cause.

I also found an undated article by Italia titled “10 Common Sense Tips When Vaccinating Your Child.” Among the tips: “Refuse vaccines containing thimerosal," "Don't count on your child's doctor as your only source for vaccine safety,” and "Never receive combined vaccines such as DTaP, MMR. Ask to receive those vaccines separately." (Combined vaccines are safe and recommended. According to a 2019 editorial in The Lancet, “physicians' advice has been shown to be the most important predictor of vaccine acceptance.”) In the list’s introduction, he wrote:

While vaccines are essential to our children's health, our vaccine schedule is unfortunately compromised. There has been little to no testing on what affects our current government suggested schedule has on children. A closer look at the ingredients used in our childhood vaccines include toxins and metals, such as: antifreeze, aluminum, mercury, anthrax and so many more. Our government has responded by removing thimerosal, a mercury based preservative in vaccines, but there are still so many questions remaining such as the amount children receive in the first two years of life.

Over the last decade childhood vaccines have been linked to the rise of autism and developmental disabilities. While we don't know if there is a direct link (there are studies that claim there is and others that frown against any possibilities), what we do know is that our government can't tell us for certain about the harms multiple vaccines in one doctor may cause or if some children may have a harder time excreting toxins or metals used in our vaccines, leaving their immune system potentially exposed.

"While we are not certified to provide you with medical advice," he concluded, "years of research, writing, and interviews have given the Spectrum staff a chance to put together a list we feel comfortable with for families."


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That was years ago. What does Cris Italia believe now?

As a matter of course, Italia refuses to engage with me via traditional journalistic avenues because he believes I am not a “real” journalist. Fortunately he is more than happy to tweet at me, so I took the opportunity to press him on his background on Twitter. (Look, I’ll take what I can get.) Our interaction was rather long and winding but in the end it yielded some answers.

Italia said he does not believe there is a link between vaccines and autism. At the same time, he stands by the work he published by and about Dan Olmsted, whom he called a “tremendous” journalist whose “brilliant” body of work on autism speaks for itself. As an advocacy journalist, Italia said, it was his job to cover both sides; he did not endorse anti-vaccination activists but simply told their story. He said neither Olmsted nor Kirby were anti-vaccine, and that while Jenny McCarthy is a “crazy bitch,” “it took a crazy bitch to finally shine a light on something that was ignored.” (What did she shine a light on?, I asked. Autism, he said.) He also stood by Spectrum’s glowing coverage of Lyn Redwood, founder of the anti-vaccine activist group SafeMinds. He said Redwood gets unfairly labeled as anti-vaccine when really she’s a leader who was “correct in questioning govt practice” on vaccines, specifically vaccine schedules. (A 2006 Spectrum article about SafeMinds describes Redwood’s belief that “federal agencies like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the FDA and the National Institute of Health (NIH) are in denial over the toxicity of mercury in vaccines and are afraid of what they'll find.” Later it describes SafeMinds’ efforts to bring attention to “the potential harm in vaccines that contain thimerosal” and “to raise awareness of the risks of mercury exposure from medical products including thimerosal.”)

Though he denies believing in a link between vaccines and autism, he also told me the sentence “Vaccines don’t cause autism” is a “basic statement” that ignores the issue’s “layers.” When I asked what those layers are, he told me not to “go by the scientific statement our govt shoves down our throats.” He repeatedly told me to “follow the money,” and suggested the scientific consensus on vaccines is not the full story.

Italia went on to claim “there absolutely is” a link between thimerosal and vaccine-related injuries. (There is not.) To support this claim he cited Kirby—who, again, sought to demonstrate a vaccine-autism link—and a chemist named Boyd Haley, who spoke at that 2008 Jenny McCarthy/Jim Carrey rally. Haley, now retired, was outspoken in his belief that mercury exposure causes autism, and continued pushing the thimerosal-autism link long after thimerosal was discontinued with no effect on autism rates. In 2010 the FDA ordered his company to stop marketing a toxic industrial chemical as an autism treatment:

A product promoted to parents of children with autism is not a harmless dietary supplement, as claimed, but a toxic unapproved drug that lacks adequate warnings about potential side effects, including hair loss and abnormalities of the pancreas, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned in a letter to its maker.

The FDA's June 17 letter to Boyd Haley, a retired Kentucky chemist and hero to the autism recovery movement, details five violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act related to his product, OSR#1. Failing to correct such violations can result in fines, seizure of products and even criminal prosecution.

The Tribune in January reported that the compound, sold as OSR#1, had been developed to treat mining wastewater, and that it had not undergone rigorous testing to ensure it is safe and effective. The report was part of an investigation into unproven autism therapies offered by health providers who say they can reverse the disorder.

[…]

Pharmacologist Dr. Arthur Grollman, director of the Laboratory for Chemical Biology at State University of New York at Stony Brook, said it is clear from the product's chemical structure that it is a "powerful chelator," a compound that binds to heavy metals such as mercury.

The FDA has approved several chelators as drugs to treat heavy-metal poisoning. Some doctors also use the drugs — which carry significant risks — to treat children with autism on the scientifically unfounded idea that their disorder is linked to toxic metals.

Italia said Haley was “one of the most respected” scientists researching the issue, and that his research on thimerosal was “right.” When I asked what he made of Haley selling a toxic chemical as an autism treatment, he said I was “editorializing.” There’s “lots of science on the use of chelation therapy,” he said, with “clear improvements” since the Haley controversy. (According to the Mayo Clinic, chelation therapy—which is premised on the idea that mercury exposure causes autism—”is not an effective autism treatment, and it may be dangerous.”)

Elsewhere Italia cited the “vaccine court” as evidence thimerosal causes vaccine injury. The so-called vaccine court is the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which was created to pay out damages to people who claim they’ve been harmed by vaccines, while shielding pharmaceutical companies from liabilities that might dis-incentivize them from making vaccines. As The Atlantic explained last year, the VICP’s large payouts serve as fodder for conspiracy theorists, when the full picture should really provide comfort:

According to the CDC, some 300 million doses of vaccines are distributed in the United States in an average year. The program reports an average of about 500 petitions, of which it compensates about two-thirds. That’s about one compensation for every 1 million vaccine doses. Working from the estimate that 70 percent of the awards are not clearly attributable to vaccines, the payments estimate a rate of injury or illness caused by vaccination at about one in 4.5 million.

The VICP requires a relatively low burden of proof, and only a small percentage of its payouts involve determinations that a vaccine caused harm. Most receive a “presumption of causation”:

In an attempt to standardize and expedite the compensation process, many of the decisions are based on a document known as the Vaccine Injury Table (the existence of which is stipulated in the 1986 law). It details myriad illnesses, disabilities, and injuries that are, as Nair put it, “presumed to be caused by a vaccine if no other cause is found.”

The key legal stipulation is that if the petitioner has experienced one of the injuries or illnesses in the table in a period after receiving a vaccination, she receives a presumption of causation. Unlike a criminal case, where a defendant is presumed innocent, the vaccine cases are to supposed to presume that vaccination was the cause—unless that can be disproved. So, as the VICP’s site states, “being awarded compensation for a petition does not necessarily mean the vaccine caused the alleged injury.”

As such, it estimates that approximately 70 percent of its payments are the result of a negotiated settlement “in which HHS has not concluded, based upon review of the evidence, that the alleged vaccine caused the alleged injury.”

When I asked Italia which VICP cases confirmed adverse effects of thimerosal, he pointed to the 2008 Hannah Poling case. This $1.5 million award has been cited in the vaccine hesitant community as an admission by the federal government of a vaccine-autism link. It wasn’t. Here’s infectious disease expert Theodore C. Eickhoff at the time:

The Polings’ expert testified in court that the five vaccines administered had “stressed” her already weakened system and worsened her developing autism. The court was persuaded, without even holding a hearing, that the claim was biologically plausible and ruled in the Poling family’s favor. Damages have not yet been determined.

For many who are hesitant about giving their children recommended vaccines, this ruling is seen as an admission by the U.S. government that vaccines may cause autism. Not so, claimed the CDC. “Let me be very clear that the government has made absolutely no statement indicating that vaccines are a cause of autism,” said Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, CDC director. “That is a complete mischaracterization of the findings of the case and a complete mischaracterization of any of the science that we have at our disposal today.”

This ruling took the experts on mitochondrial disease totally by surprise, because they are not aware of any scientific basis to believe that mitochondrial disorder is exacerbated by vaccines. Indeed, one expert at Columbia University suggested that such people, who may be especially susceptible to infections, are even more likely to benefit from vaccines.

And here’s Steven Novella, the Yale neurologist:

This special case – which is not a case of autism being caused by toxins in vaccines – says nothing about the broader vaccine-autism debate. The case was settled (not judged in Poling’s favor, but settled) because both sides realized it was a special case that could not be extrapolated to other vaccine-autism cases.

I asked Italia if he was suggesting the Poling case showed a link between vaccines and autism. He said, “They'll never admit it. If they did they would be claiming responsibility of poisoning a whole generation of kids.”

Wait. Did he mean that if the government admits the Poling case shows a link, it would be taking responsibility for poisoning a generation of kids? He said, “They would be leaving big pharma vulnerable and that would be something that could never happen.”

Did he mean that admitting a link would expose drug companies to civil liability, even though they’re indemnified against vaccine lawsuits? “Not only that but vaccine court protects them from ever being sued. So tax papers are paying for vaccine injury not them.”

Was I correct in understanding him to mean the VICP settles cases before it has to judge the merits in order to avoid admitting a thimerosal-autism link, which would take responsibility for poisoning a generation of children and leave drug companies exposed to lawsuits? “You understand.”

Then, a bit later, he seemed to take that back: he meant I understood something else. He didn’t say what.


In 2019 the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy one of the 10 biggest threats to global health, attributing the global spike in measles cases partially to falling confidence in vaccines. “Media platforms (including social media) have been enormously influential in the spread of vaccine hesitancy,” wrote The Lancet. “Vaccine-hesitant parents are usually more active in searching for information online than vaccine-compliant parents, and are susceptible to unverified reports of adverse effects of vaccination and scare tactics promoted by anti-vaccination campaigners.” Last week, Scientific American laid out the deadly costs of misinformation in the coronavirus pandemic. “Areas of the country exposed to television programming that downplayed the severity of the pandemic saw greater numbers of cases and deaths,” one study found, “because people didn’t follow public health precautions.” Conspiracy theories, misinformation, pseudoscience—these are are no small deals. They spread disease. They kill people. The US has four percent of the world’s population and roughly one-fifth of its Covid-19 deaths.

I would find Cris Italia’s first career an all-around amusing story if not for a few things. He hasn’t reckoned with the reality of his role in the global vaccine hesitancy movement; in fact, he stands by what he published about it. He clearly still questions the science on vaccine safety—accepted, consensus science—and seems to believe in some sort of coverup of the truth, or at least takes the possibility seriously. His belief that Covid-19 is like the flu or a stomach bug—and his conflation of “curable” with “treatable”—suggests he’s not entirely clear on the science of this disease, either. And then there’s the popular comedy club and restaurant he runs in the heart of Manhattan, which held an indoor event last week with unmasked comics and audience members.

We're in the third coronavirus surge. Infections are spreading uncontrolled across the country. Winter is two months away. In New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo moved to quell new virus clusters by placing restrictions on neighborhoods where, he said, people violated health protocols. On Monday the Legion of Skanks recorded outdoors at the Stand, but not for safety reasons. No, Italia told me—they only moved outside because the weather was better than last week.

I guess we’ll see how that goes.