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Anti-vaccine activists, reveling in their pandemic successes, will rally in D.C. against mandates

Workers set up platforms and audio equipment in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2022. The preparations came ahead of a planned anti-vaccine rally on Jan. 23.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

As anti-vaccine activists from across the country prepare to gather on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, they are hoping their rally will mark a once-fringe movement’s arrival as a lasting force in American society.

That hope, some public health experts fear, is justified.

Almost two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the movement to challenge vaccines’ safety — and reject vaccine mandates — has never been stronger. An ideology whose most notable adherents were once religious fundamentalists and minor celebrities is now firmly entrenched among tens of millions of Americans.

Baseless fears of vaccines have been a driving force among the approximately 20 percent of US adults who have refused some of the most effective medicines in human history: the mRNA vaccines developed against the coronavirus by Pfizer, with German partner BioNTech, and Moderna. The nation that produced Jonas Salk has exported anti-vaccine propaganda around the globe, wreaking havoc on public health campaigns in places such as Germany and Kenya.

That propaganda has also found its way into many reaches of American life. It has invaded people’s offices and shaped the daily decisions of school principals. It has riven families and boosted political campaigns. What was once an overwhelming public consensus on vaccine safety is now a new front in the nation’s culture wars. It is no accident that some in the anti-vaccine movement are describing Sunday’s rally as their first equivalent of the March for Life, the annual antiabortion rally that took place in Washington on Friday.

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‘’Our worst worries have been manifested,’’ said Joe Smyser, chief executive of the Public Good Projects, a nonprofit group that tracks and seeks to combat vaccine misinformation. ‘’These fringe ideas are no longer fringe ideas.’’

Despite signs from the earliest days of the pandemic that the anti-vaccine movement was advancing its cause by preying on the uncertainty and social division that accompanied the virus, the US public health establishment never mounted a true counteroffensive, Smyser said — a view shared by other public health experts and epidemiologists.

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‘’I think we were really naive,’’ he said. ‘’This movement was allowed to get stronger and stronger with almost no pushback.’’

The 153 most influential anti-vaccine social media accounts and groups have accumulated 2.9 million net new followers since January 2020, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an advocacy organization focused on fighting vaccine misinformation. Imran Ahmed, the center’s chief executive, said those gains are especially remarkable in light of social media platforms’ renewed efforts to crack down on vaccine misinformation.

Vaccine skeptics notched another victory just last week, when the US Supreme Court blocked President Biden’s vaccination requirement for large employers. (A smaller mandate for workers at health-care facilities that get federal funding was left intact.)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime anti-vaccine activist who will speak at Sunday’s march, said the widening distrust of vaccines is an organic outgrowth of people’s firsthand experiences with negative side effects from the coronavirus vaccines. He pointed to the large number of reports of reactions to those vaccines now on file in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a database maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 750,000 such reports have been filed from the United States and its territories. But claims of bad reactions in VAERS have not been independently verified, and anyone can make them. Controlled studies of the coronavirus vaccines offer a more accurate picture of how they work, and those studies have repeatedly shown the medicines cause no serious side effects for the overwhelming majority of people who receive them.

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Kennedy said the growing number of infections among the vaccinated from the omicron variant of the coronavirus has also eroded public confidence in a key selling point for vaccine mandates — that they stop the spread of the virus to vulnerable populations.

Although the vaccines are markedly less effective at stopping infection by the new variant, early evidence suggests they still confer protection against hospitalization or death.

‘’I think there’s a lot more skepticism,’’ Kennedy said. ‘’You have a product that simply does not work as advertised.’’

What remains to be seen is whether the movement’s success in sowing fear of the coronavirus vaccines can be translated to a broader public rejection of other forms of inoculation, chiefly the immunization of children against diseases such as measles and diphtheria. Casting doubt on such vaccines and erasing school mandates requiring them were the anti-vaccine movement’s long-standing goals before the emergence of the coronavirus.

Tara C. Smith, a professor of epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health, said it is far too early for the movement to declare victory on those fronts. Arguments that have proved effective against the mRNA vaccines, like questioning their relative novelty and the possibility of long-term side effects, could be less convincing when it comes to established vaccines that many American adults received decades ago without being harmed.

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‘’What will we see when things are somewhat back to normal, and covid doesn’t dominate everything every day? Is this going to bleed over into other things, like childhood vaccinations? I really don’t know,’’ Smith said. ‘’And that’s the fear.’’