Jul 14, 2023

A conversation about vaccine safety.

A conversation about vaccine safety.
Photo by Mufid Majnun / Unsplash

Dr. Joseph Fraiman published a controversial paper on Covid-19 vaccine safety.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” Are you new here? Get free emails to your inbox daily.

Since Joe Biden declared an end to the Covid-19 public emergency, I don’t think there’s been a more controversial topic than the efficacy of the vaccines. 

I wrote about RFK Jr.’s appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast almost a full month ago, and I still get replies to unrelated articles challenging positions I covered in that piece, and that’s despite the fact that my own personal position could be aptly described as “pro-vaccine.” While I wrote in opposition to some government mandates during the pandemic, I’ve also espoused my personal belief that Covid-19 vaccines are safe. I have gotten my two doses and a booster, was critical of many of RFK Jr.’s claims about vaccines, and continue to defend the vaccines as being much more beneficial than they are harmful. On the whole, I think we were very fortunate to have had them considering where we were a few months into the pandemic, and those involved in their discovery and production deserve recognition and gratitude. 

And yet, I enter these conversations with an open mind, knowing I’m not the most qualified person to make any kind of scientific judgment and that I’m almost certainly wrong about some things. What worries me, deeply, is that I’ve seen that any discussion that brings up even potential harms caused by the vaccine seems to generate a huge backlash, resulting in a lot of self-censorship and lack of substantive discussion on vaccine-related injury.

So I decided to interview Dr. Joseph Fraiman, an ER doctor who has also garnered a bit of a reputation on Twitter for discussing Covid-19 vaccine harms. He and a team of scientists published a paper about adverse events following mRNA Covid-19 vaccination, and we had an interesting talk about the research he and his colleagues have done together on the vaccine. Obviously, for better or worse, much of the vaccine discourse has been happening in the political space, so it seemed like a perfect conversation to include in Tangle. 

I joked to Dr. Fraiman after our interview that he was not who I was expecting him to be. When you read about someone like him through the lens of the press, or through Twitter, it’s easy to start believing all the criticisms — that he’s unqualified, a nutjob, an anti-vaxxer, or any other kind of pejorative that gets thrown around. I expected him to be close-minded and dedicated to his narrative. Instead, I found him open-minded and humble, holding nuanced positions, and inviting feedback and criticism — repeating again and again that critics of his work were genuinely improving it. 

When I expressed to him my surprise about how the conversation went, he quipped back, asking if I “was used to hate mail,” because I was going to get a lot of it. Of course, in this line of work, I am. But I do hope he’s wrong. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Isaac Saul: So I guess just to start and maybe set the table, could you tell our audience a little bit about your background, your credentials, and how you came to start studying Covid-19 vaccine safety?