By predilection and profession, I force myself to be open-minded about everything. I try to imagine I’ve inoculated myself against the groupthink that seems to shape attitudes in the modern world, turbocharged by social media. This occasionally leads to the precipice of the rabbit hole as it did when I was alerted to look into a claim—more of a theory, really—that COVID vaccines have done such widespread coronary damage that the FAA has had to loosen the standards by which required ECGs are interpreted for pilot medical issuance.
Such a claim is natural fodder for conspiracy theories, and people susceptible to believing these things may believe irrespective of provable fact. On the other hand, one provable fact is that COVID vaccines have caused injury, as all vaccines have to some degree, and even some deaths. Less provable is how widespread the injury is and how many deaths can be legitimately blamed on vaccination.
The gist of the claim is that last October, the FAA changed requirements related to flagging the timing of what’s called the PR interval. Medically, PR interval is defined as the time between atrial depolarization and ventricular depolarization. Think of depolarization as readiness for passage of electrical current through the heart muscle. Medical literature gives the normal interval as 120 to 200 milliseconds. Heretofore, PR intervals higher than 200 ms were flagged for the FAA to review and, post review, were largely found as a non-issue. Although the medical was issued, it was delayed. The new guidance allows immediate issuance up to a PR of 300 ms. Technically, this longer interval is called an AV block, but block is a misnomer since the signal is not blocked, just delayed. (See a full explanation here.)
So why the change? It wasn’t because AMEs are finding more extended PR intervals due to vaccines, but because so many medicals have been flagged and delayed for no clinical reason, according to two AMEs I contacted. As stated in this FAA guidance, “First degree AV block in asymptomatic aircrew can be regarded as a normal variant up to 300 ms.”
In other words, the change appears to have been made to reduce the paper shuffle and make medical issuance routine. The change took on a conspiratorial life its own when it infected the internet and specifically, in a blog written by Steve Kirsch. Read that here. This long article gives a profile of Kirsch, but the short summary is that he is an MIT-educated highly successful tech multimillionaire. At the onset of the pandemic, he funded good-faith COVID research of his own and hired qualified researchers to do the work. This included investigations of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, which Kirsch believed were effective COVID therapies, counter to the findings of his research team. He also funded trials of another drug, fluvoxamine, which showed promise in early stages. But Kirsch’s contrary interpretation of data caused his researchers and board to part company with him.
As far as pilots go, Kirsch makes the claim that an Army whistleblower—who he doesn’t identify—said that 11 percent of Army pilots were “severely injured” by COVID vaccines. Define severely injured how you like, but I would call it debilitated enough not to carry on daily functions, including flight operations. Extrapolating that to the 166,738 airline pilots in the U.S., Kirsch says that translates to 18,000 seriously injured pilots. That’s a huge, high-amplitude signal unlikely to slip under the radar. This cardiologist, Thomas Levy, argues that the FAA ignored science in making its decision and that myocarditis, a known vaccine side effect, is more widespread than it used to be.
If so, why aren’t we noticing? I contacted five airline pilot friends of mine and two AMEs for any firsthand knowledge or experience with any pilots debilitated by COVID vaccines. Certainly, if this were true, they would have heard something. The general sentiment seems to be “I may have heard of a friend who had a friend …” No direct experience and no names. One pilot, who had access to the company’s long-term illness data, said it accounted for around 2 percent of the workforce, for everything, not just COVID-related disability. Another pilot told me he was told of a pilot who died after a COVID shot and this was attributed to vaccine reaction. In my view, this is not necessarily a bogus claim. More than 264 million have been vaccinated at least once in the U.S. and it’s just not reasonable to believe none haven’t had serious reactions, including death. Nor is it reasonable to believe Kirsch’s claim that more have been killed by the vaccines than saved.
Kirsch’s blog also claims that the FAA has “obscured” crash data and the reader is darkly invited to imagine crashes have been caused by vaccine-injured pilots. The provided link goes nowhere and this claim is kind of in my wheelhouse. I don’t really understand how the FAA could “obscure” crash data in this context. But I’ve been wrong before and probably will be again.
The more compelling issue for pilots who may still be unvaccinated or contemplating a booster is whether the claims about large numbers severely injured by vaccines are credible. Which is why I wrote this blog, to put it before the entire AVweb audience. That’s a pretty large sample unlikely to miss a strong signal of their colleagues laid low by “the jab” as anti-vaxxers like to say.
I’m disinclined to fall into groupthink and dismiss these claims as pure bunk without at least asking: What have you seen? What’s your personal experience with vaccination? Yes, this relies on the same sort of anecdotal commenting that makes the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System such fertile ground for anti-vaxxers. On the other hand, this is a qualified audience with participation in every corner of the aviation universe. You can leave comments below or email me privately here. I realize this issue is perfectly politicized, but please keep the comments civil and as free of political vitriol as possible. I’ll delete comments that cross this line.
Personally, I am double vaccinated and boosted. I’ve had both Moderna and Pfizer and the second Moderna shot put me down hard for about 12 hours. I have had COVID twice, which is twice as many times as I’ve had the flu and twice as many times as I’ve had a cold over the past decade.
When I made the decision to get vaccinated, I took what I thought was a calculated risk based on numbers I knew were flaky. The mortality rate for COVID was—and remains—murky due to inconsistent reporting practices. Vaccine risks were based on what Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson told us and how the government spun the numbers. I’m not so naïve as to believe politics didn’t frame some of this or that the vaccine companies wouldn’t hide data that might appear unfavorable. Nonetheless, I thought and still think the vaccination was the right choice.
While I know of no one who has been injured by vaccination, three friends died of COVID. One was memorialized in these pages. All three had a 90 percent chance of surviving if they had been vaccinated. None were because it either wasn’t available or they declined.
I have not taken the newest bivalent vaccine because that will make shot number five and I have some concerns about possible cumulative effects. Measured against the lower risk of severe disease represented by current virus variants and better therapies, I’m not sure the tradeoff is worth it. I’ll probably change my mind, but I haven’t yet.