Experts taken aback by Florida surgeon general advising against COVID vaccines for young men

"This study is too flawed to be used to set policy on the mRNA vaccines in younger males," one expert said

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 13, 2022 3:03PM (EDT)

Florida surgeon general Joseph Ladapo speaks at a press conference at the Space Coast Health Foundation in Rockledge, Florida on August 03, 2022 (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida surgeon general Joseph Ladapo speaks at a press conference at the Space Coast Health Foundation in Rockledge, Florida on August 03, 2022 (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has positioned himself as the face of ideological defiance to the COVID-19 policies supported by the overwhelming majority of public health experts and scientists. DeSantis sued Joe Biden's administration over the president's vaccine mandates, has been accused of intimidating state officials into destroying COVID-19 data from his state and even scolded high school students for following scientific wisdom and wearing masks.

Now, Florida Surgeon General Joseph A. Ladapo — a staunch DeSantis supporter appointed by him to replace Scott Rivkees, who DeSantis famously pulled from a press conference in 2020 for refusing to downplay the pandemic — is facing his own firestorm of controversy for seeming to politicize the pandemic.

In a press release linked to in a brief Friday evening tweet, Ladapo claimed that young adult men should avoid taking the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna on the grounds that they would be at an "abnormally high risk" of heart-related deaths. The Florida Department of Health-certified press release claimed that "the benefit of vaccination is likely outweighed by this abnormally high risk of cardiac-related death among men in this age group [males 18-39 years old]." 

Ladapo only offered one piece of evidence for his assertion: A short state analysis with no authors, that has not been peer reviewed, that admits its own findings are "preliminary," that seemed to select patients in a way that would skew its conclusions, and which relied on unreliable information like death certificates instead of more reliable information like medical records. Ladapo, though a physician, does not specialize in infectious diseases.

Twitter initially removed Ladapo's tweet, describing it as misinformation, but reposted it hours later. It has been retweeted over 50,000 times at the time of this writing.

Public health experts who spoke to Salon about Ladapo's views were less than impressed. Dr. Monica Gandhi, the director of the University of California San Francisco Bay Area Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), criticized the study by email for its small sample size, biased control group, failure to account for COVID-19-related mortality, refusal to acknowledge the long-term vaccine benefits in younger males and other problems.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

"In short, the risk factors for myocarditis with the mRNA vaccine in males are quite well defined and are enhanced by giving the second dose too close to the first, so we recommend spacing of at least 8 weeks between mRNA vaccine doses," Gandhi told Salon. "But this study is too flawed to be used to set policy on the mRNA vaccines in younger males."

"One can go on and on with the spurious, undocumented nature of these alleged data."

Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean emeritus and professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, dismissed Ladapo's study as "totally ridiculous."

"No other reputable institution has reported anything like the results he is quoting, and there are very many carefully studied situations in which nothing of this sort has ever been found," Sommer wrote to Salon, adding that "one can go on and on with the spurious, undocumented nature of these alleged data."

Ladapo has a long history of opposing science when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before his appointment, he signed a petition opposing a decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to fast-track authorization of COVID-19 vaccines. He has wrongly claimed that mRNA vaccines are unsafe and urged children not to get their shots. Under Ladapo's watch, Florida became the only state to not pre-order vaccine supplies for children after the FDA authorized vaccination for children under the age of 5 as an emergency measure. Ladapo has repeatedly cited erroneous or non-definitive sources, as he did in his recent statement, to back his views.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Salon by email that Ladapo's new source is "a very poorly constructed study. I am still unclear who the heck wrote it." He added that, while "I try to stay away from his motives as much as I can, it's not uncommon for health departments to do internal studies and then to make policy decisions based on their studies. But when those studies are in variance to common accepted guidance, it takes a lot more vet and quite frankly, you usually bring in outside experts to validate the study and certainly do some kind of peer review on the study, and none of that was done."

In short, Benjamin felt that "the challenge we have with this particular physician is that I'm just not quite sure how we can trust his guidance based on this particular study." Noting that Ladapo seemed to be refusing to give advice based on the preponderance of evidence and the analysis of trained experts (which Ladapo is not), Benjamin concluded that "I still think that the best advice is from trusted experts, which includes the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I cannot recommend [Ladapo] as a trusted expert."

There is no evidence that mRNA vaccines pose a threat to human heart health — whereas, by contrast, a recent study in the scientific journal Immunology found that COVID-19 patients likely suffer from long-term heart problems.

While Ladapo has criticized mRNA vaccines such as those manufactured by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, the new vaccines are effective and far less dangerous than COVID-19 infections. The term "mRNA" is short for "messenger RNA," a specific type of RNA that transmits information from genetic codes in the nucleus to the cytoplasm where proteins are manufactured. While other vaccines use dead or weakened version of pathogens to train your immune system to fight them, mRNA vaccines contain instructions that help cells produce proteins similar to those on designated pathogens. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, the mRNA helps cells produce proteins similar to the spike proteins that the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to infect human cells. The immune system then recognizes and eradicates those spike proteins, thus learning how to defend against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Rarely, COVID-19 mRNA vaccines seem to be connected to myocarditis and pericarditis cases, meaning inflammation of the heart or surrounding heart tissue. A peer-reviewed study published in January 2022 in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported 1626 cases of myocarditis after vaccination out of 354,100,845 mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines given — or, 0.0004 percent. In contrast, contracting COVID-19 itself poses a much higher risk for one's heart. A recent open-access study involving more than 11 million people found that COVID-19 patients were at a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart failure or stroke longer after the virus had cleared their bodies.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Covid-19 Florida Furthering Joseph A. Ladapo Moderna Pfizer Ron Desantis Vaccines