MAILBOX: GroundUp and vaccine immunosuppression – PANDA

When does a reputable media organisation have the right to deny a person or organisation the right of reply? How does one discern the grey area in a piece of writing when it offers opinion and ‘strays’ from pure scientific fact? And perhaps, most important of all; what are the harms in each? The simplest answer, it seems from the furious spat between sections of the media and PANDA, who proffer an alternative narrative to the dominant scientific discourse on the Coronavirus, is that this lies mostly in the eye of the beholder. Most of the protagonists seem hell bent on discrediting large swathes of one others’ discourse, if not actually launching personal attacks. Alec Hogg, founder of BizNews, has something in common with PANDA; he’s a disrupter. Shaking up the accepted way of doing things is part of his media DNA. PANDA will tell you they simply don’t buy the dominant discourse on Covid-19 – and Hogg believes they have a right to be heard. That’s in direct contrast to News24, GroundUp, Daily Maverick and Vrye Weekblad. They believe PANDA are misinforming the public – dangerously so – and that on these grounds, they have a globally cited right to deny them the right of reply. It’s a fascinating dust-up where finding common ground seems about as likely as a new political party winning the next election. – Chris Bateman

GroundUp and vaccine immunosuppression

By PANDA*

The attack on PANDA by a social activism group continues with two additional hit pieces published by GroundUp and regurgitated by its fawning fans, Daily Maverick, News24 and others.

GroundUp claims to be a news agency, like Agence France-Presse or Reuters. News agencies sell their stories to newspapers of all political leanings. They seek to provide objective information because their clients are across the political spectrum. GroundUp is not a news agency. It makes no bones about the fact that it has an agenda – to make a difference in society by influencing the narrative on the social issues that matter to it. It has no paying subscribers, does not charge for the articles it produces and is funded by donations, notably from George Soros. As a result, the issues that matter to GroundUp are necessarily the issues that matter to its funders.

GroundUp claims to emphasise human rights, but you won’t find them participating in the massive human rights protests taking place across the globe against lockdowns. GroundUp is currently focussed on silencing dissenting voices and arguing for the limitation of human rights in the context of vaccine mandates, even though there is no medical or epidemiological rationale for mandates.

Earlier this year, GroundUp and Daily Maverick tried, and failed, to silence PANDA by peddling a story that we were part of a global disinformation conspiracy. Although it ruled against PANDA’s request for a right of reply, the Press Council found Daily Maverick guilty of misleading readers and the case revealed the extent of cooperation between parts of the media. Confidential information had been shared by Daily Maverick with GroundUp, Daily Maverick’s journalist, Rebecca Davis, was caught lying to the Press Ombud and compromising PrimeMedia podcasts mysteriously disappeared off the Internet. The Daily Maverick article was co-authored by a noted propagandist, Nafeez Ahmed, whose penchant for conspiracy theories got him fired from The Guardian. The fact that critics of PANDA turned to a character like Ahmed speaks volumes.

The first of the two GroundUp pieces was a continuation of the saga that began with computer scientist Nathan Geffen’s first hit piece which was published by GroundUp, News24, Vrye Weekblad and others. We have published below the correspondence between PANDA, News24 and GroundUp. To cut a long story short, GroundUp wrote a piece complaining about a tweet written by PANDA’s Chairman, Nick Hudson, criticising Western Cape government propaganda. Hudson had critiqued the government for purposefully overstating the efficacy of the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines by classifying partially vaccinated people (including some who had received two Pfizer shots) as unvaccinated.

Neither Geffen, nor any of the organisations who published it, contacted PANDA or Hudson for comment before publishing Geffen’s piece. They also refused to publish PANDA’s reply, in which we agreed with Hudson’s tweet and explained why. That was printed in BizNews and on our website.

News24 gave, as a reason for denying the right of reply, the allegation that our response contained too much “misinformation” to be published. News24’s George Claasen, referred incessantly to a Press Ombud case against GroundUp where the “expert” opinion in defence of GroundUp had been provided by himself!

News24 initially undertook to identify the “misinformation” in the PANDA piece, but subsequently went back on this undertaking – evidently unable to identify any misinformation. Geffen, however, had a go. In everything PANDA had said about the Western Cape government propaganda, Geffen took issue with only one statement, namely this:

The many individuals who get COVID soon after vaccination are counted as unvaccinated. Immunosuppression was noted at least in the Pfizer trials, where lymphocytopenia was observed, and in the AstraZeneca trials, where neutropenia was observed in 46% of recipients in the first 14 days. This risk was also cited in this Danish study. This effect places recipients at significantly enhanced risk of contracting Covid immediately after vaccination, a phenomenon that is so pronounced as to be observable in the national Covid death curves of some 90 countries, some of which were substantially free of Covid deaths prior to the inception of mass vaccination programmes.”

Geffen dishonestly put this forward as BizNews’ position on vaccines in an attempt to also shame BizNews into silence. Geffen may not have any medical qualifications (notwithstanding News24’s insistence on referring to “Dr Geffen” – he has a PHD in mathematics), but he is the editor of an organisation that has had its fair share of run-ins with the Press Council. He knows full well that an opinion piece cannot be attributed to the publisher.

The meat of Geffen’s response is that the quote above amounts to “misinformation” because the Pfizer vaccine clinical trial, funded by BioNTech and Pfizer, shows that its vaccine was still working 6 months after it was administered. It is becoming tedious to respond, but here’s why, once again, GroundUp is wrong:

  1. The Pfizer paper has no bearing on the point Geffen takes issue with, namely that it has been demonstrated in medical trials (including the same Pfizer trial Geffen references) and in the real world that the vaccines have the effect of suppressing the immune system in the first few days after administration. To put it simply, Pfizer’s claim that their vaccine works after an initial period is irrelevant to the point PANDA made about the vaccines’ efficacy during the initial period.
  2. The Pfizer paper Geffen references was published after PANDA had submitted its reply to GroundUp and News24. PANDA could not possibly have taken it into account, even if it were relevant.
  3.  “Misinformation” is false information distributed with the intention to deceive. PANDA fully referenced the point we made about immunosuppression. By definition, this is not misinformation. Moreover, PANDA’s qualifications in medical matters far outweigh those of GroundUp or News24.
  4.  PANDA agrees that there is evidence of Pfzer vaccine efficacy in reducing hospitalisations and deaths after the initial 14-day period and during the first four months thereafter. Though Geffen once again tries to apply the “anti-vaxxer” label to PANDA, we have, time and time again, linked to the public record showing that we support safe and efficacious vaccines and specifically promote the use of the COVID-19 vaccines for people for whom the benefits exceed the risks.
  5.  The Pfizer paper Geffen links to confirms that trial participants who contracted COVID-19 soon after being vaccinated were not taken into account when calculating the efficacy of the vaccine – precisely the point PANDA made. This is also what the Western Cape government did. As PANDA showed with references to scientific data and real world examples, these post-vaccination infections are not rare. Nearly everyone knows someone who “coincidentally” caught COVID soon after vaccination. By denying the science, Geffen is exposing people who do not take care to protect themselves in this period, to potentially serious harm.
  6.  The real world data referenced in the Pfizer paper as evidence for the efficacy of the vaccines is outdated. The graphs below show the period that Pfizer referenced (yellow square) vs confirmed COVID-19 cases for Israel, England and Scotland. Subsequent infection spikes suggest that the vaccines have not been effective in limiting transmission – the rationale for mandating the vaccine.

What Geffen doesn’t like about PANDA and BizNews is not that we are publishing misinformation – it’s that we are not. Geffen wants us to toe the line and support government propaganda, because he believes that we should all be on his crusade against “vaccine hesitancy”—a crusade in which the end always justifies the means. Geffen is fine with using “excess deaths” to overstate the impact of COVID and classifying vaccinated people as unvaccinated to overstate the efficacy of the vaccine. He does not want PANDA to point out the flaws in those arguments. PANDA thinks that everyone deserves accurate information and that “vaccine hesitancy” will be worsened by misleading people.

GroundUp’s second hit piece on PANDA (which was again published far and wide) was comically executed. Although GroundUp claims not to be embarrassed by the fact that it is funded by George Soros, a billionaire who has invested millions in vaccines and COVID testing technology, it dislikes the fact that PANDA points this out. So GroundUp set out, by hook or by crook, to show that PANDA is also conflicted. What they found is that Hudson is one of the managers of an investment fund. The fund holds an investment in a company that, amongst hundreds of thousands of kilograms handled, supplies 1kg a month of product to an unrelated company that uses the product as an ingredient in the manufacture of a health supplement. This, they concluded, shows that PANDA is punting health supplements as vaccine alternatives so that Hudson can make money. It is obviously complete trash. To be clear, neither PANDA nor Hudson owns any company that sells “alternative medicines”. This is a blatant lie by GroundUp. It is also a lie that PANDA has promoted health supplements like the one they identified, as vaccine alternatives. PANDA plainly has no conflict of interest and the fact that these outlets published this drivel tells you all you need to know about their agenda. It is a war against the truth.

News24 was never able to identify the misinformation they said PANDA’s right of reply contained. In contrast to News24’s articles, PANDA’s were copiously referenced with up-to-date scientific data. The reality here is that the South African media are amplifying propaganda produced by groups like Bhekisisa and GroundUp and denying a platform to anyone who questions the vaccine fundamentalist agenda. Much of the information being disseminated about the vaccines comes from groups that are funded by vaccine stakeholders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (nearly all of our Universities, Daily Maverick, Bhekisisa, the Medical Research Council, SAHPRA, the Western Cape government, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases etc.) and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations (GroundUp, WITS, Sisonke etc.).

GroundUp and PANDA are both NGOs, but there are important differences between us. PANDA’s mission is to produce accurate information on COVID-19 through scientific analysis. GroundUp is essentially a propaganda machine, seeking to influence society by producing content on issues it selects. GroundUp is Geffen’s job. PANDA’s analysts all have day jobs and they are not remunerated. Because of the dirty media tactics (such as the attempts to expose members and their employers that you see in the attached correspondence), PANDA members have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by being involved with the group.

Legacy media outlets have, over decades, become hollowed out by the erosion of their business models and they now show every sign of being compromised and failing to present balanced accounts of key aspects of the COVID policy response. Geffen’s deeply flawed outbursts, and the unthinking eagerness of the Daily Maverick, News24, The Citizen, Vryeweekblad and others to republish his drivel speak to this. The way out of this crisis is to stop listening to such outlets.



Right of Reply: 

By George Classen*

Please read my previous communication with PANDA on this, and why the right to reply on science issues was refused by News24. It was based on a judgment by the appeal panel of the Press Council in June last year, and also according to and in line with international news practice in media ethics: the media do not have to give a right to reply when claims are not accepted and evidence-based (as in PANDA’s claims). I have set this out in various columns that BizNews should perhaps study to understand the media ethical principles involved. In this regard, the media do not need to give a right to reply to pseudoscientific claims, quackery, and other forms of unscientific thinking. This is also in line with the general interpretation applied by media ombuds/public editors/reader’s editors (the general titles for media ethical watchdogs) at the international Organization of Newsombudsmen & Standards Editors (ONO). You can read my columns on this here: https://www.news24.com/news24/columnists/georgeclaassen/science-denialism-is-a-litmus-test-for-quality-journalism-20190625 and https://www.news24.com/news24/columnists/georgeclaassen/opinion-press-councils-appeal-decision-a-victory-for-accurate-science-reporting-and-for-countering-quackery-around-covid-19-20200324.

With regard to your question about Dr Geffen being defamed by PANDA’s response: News24 cannot publish and repeat defamatory statements made by PANDA against Dr Geffen. Ad hominem attacks lead nowhere and in fact obscure the issues on the table. BizNews should do its own checking of possible defamation in articles and not be prepared to force News24 to repeat defamatory statements.

Just one last observation, Mr Hogg, if you will allow me, please: the article by PANDA contains numerous factual errors (titles and positions of persons mentioned, wrong spelling of names, qualifications of persons mentioned, etc). If PANDA can’t even get the basics of journalism 101 right…?

  • George Claassen is the Naspers group’s Ombudsman

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