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The recent victory of science over antivaxxer pseudoscience in the Pretoria high court was a highlight in the fight against the dangerous and life-threatening misinformation that characterised both the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing vaccine campaign that aimed to bring the worldwide misery to an end (“Court throws out antivaxxer case, March 5).

The applicants, a coterie of antivaxxer nonprofit organisations — presumably acting out of a deeply held and sincere belief that the Covid-19 vaccine is harmful — took the government to court to interdict any more vaccines being rolled out to the nation. The relief they claimed — on behalf of our children in particular — was spread over four pages in the judgment and included some outlandish demands. For purposes of comparison, the relief SA claimed against Israel in the recent matter at the International Court of Justice was just one page long.

Reading the arguments advanced by the antivaxxers about why the government should be forced to immediately stop administering Covid-19 vaccines was like reading the crackpot arguments that flooded our social media feeds during the lockdowns. These ranged from “inexplicable changes” to the blood cell structure of healthy people who now have “foreign substances” in their blood, to “spike protein shedding” — the false claim that vaccinated people can infect unvaccinated people.

The applicants relied on a group of “experts” of dubious qualification and claims in their court papers. One would have thought that, given the high stakes involved for the applicants, they would have gone to extraordinary lengths to secure experts with unshakeable credentials to prove their case. Not so.

The applicants’ experts appeared to have escaped from Alice in Wonderland. One Dr De Wet Oosthuizen, a general practitioner apparently practising in Tongaat, KwaZulu-Natal, claimed in his affidavit that he “started noticing an increase in the number of patients with medical conditions that he could … not quite relate to as medical doctor”. A rather bizarre claim from a doctor in a founding affidavit.

Another “expert”, Dr Zandré Botha, described herself as “a major scientific multidimensional health practitioner in private practice with a PhD in alternative medicine, specialising in live blood analysis”. No explanation was given for this qualification, and no mention was made of where she obtained her PhD. Can there really be serious universities offering PhDs in alternative (read: ineffective) medicine?

Even the applicants’ attorney, Riekie Erasmus — practising in Roodepoort, in case anyone wants to brief her on similarly outlandish matters — deposed an affidavit in her capacity as a founding member of the Covid Care Alliance, the first applicant. She claimed she has made an in-depth study of Covid-19 since about July 2020 because “everything about it did not make sense to her”.

One has to wonder where she has been all her life, because the science of how viruses work and how our immune systems respond to them is quite well known, comprehensible even to lay people such as attorneys, and can be easily found on Wikipedia.

From one colleague to another, I want to assure her that not understanding things is quite normal for attorneys. We are not expected to understand everything. We are expected to know the law and, crucially, how to choose the best experts available who do understand things to help us win our cases.

If every attorney instituted proceedings over everything they did not understand, chaos would ensue.

Social media do not qualify as expert sources. Not even judges generally understand or know the science, which is why we rely on experts to explain it to them. If every attorney instituted proceedings over everything they did not understand, chaos would ensue.

Erasmus’ affidavit contained some indication of both ignorance and motivation. She stated that “the numbers of people dying unexpectedly is shocking, yet we only know of it from reports on social media”. Who bases a court application on what they read on social media?

Her affidavit seemed a copy-and-paste from antivaxxer tweets, an attempt to elevate social media to incontrovertible truth and a basis from which to berate the government for not taking online rumour and speculation seriously.

Erasmus concluded, without offering any proof, that the only reason the government does not see things as she does is because of an extensive conspiracy between the government and “Big Pharma”. But absence of proof is never an obstacle for conspiracy theorists. In fact, to them it is proof of a cover-up. The fact that there is no proof to substantiate their claims means the cover-up is so effective that it has to be true.

The government’s expert witnesses, specialists with proven track records, went to great lengths to dispel all the myths and poke holes in the inconsistencies of the antivaxxers’ case (admittedly not difficult). Other than pointing out the glaringly obvious fact that the antivaxxers’ “experts” were nothing of the sort and therefore not qualified to make any conclusive statements about vaccines, the government experts explained in detail how many million vaccines were administered compared to what they termed “adverse events following immunisation [AEFI]”.

From May 17 2021 to December 31 2022 a total of 37,523,370 vaccines were administered, with 7,547 AEFI reported. That is about 0.02% of all the vaccines administered. About 232 of those millions of people died soon after receiving the vaccine, and only two of these deaths could conclusively — using scientifically proven methods — be linked to the vaccine. That is 0.0006% of all administered doses.

These percentages are statistically insignificant, serving only to prove that the vaccines are safe. In fact, it is clear that the vaccines saved millions of lives worldwide, and the court duly held that antivaxxers have no right to deny the vaccines to people who do want to take them.

Yet according to the antivaxxers, people were dying in their millions from the vaccine while the pandemic was raging, deaths that were being covered up and attributed to random causes. Armed with their social media knowledge they elevated themselves to heroes, saving all of us from this grave imaginary threat. They even called for Nuremberg-style courts to investigate what they called a genocide.

The antivaxxers could provide no reason that the science could not be trusted. Not even the rushed approvals of the vaccines proved to be harmful. The government gave a persuasive explanation to the court for how the vaccines were developed in record time without compromising safety.

The science on vaccines is well established and clear, and the antivaxxers provided no evidence to contradict it other than anecdotes from people with unproven qualifications in nonexistent fields from unnamed tertiary institutions.

The best one can say of the antivaxxers’ case is that they had the courage to put their money where their mouths were. The fact that their case was hopeless did not sway them one bit, and in pursuing it, they did science a great service. The court rightly rejected all of the antivaxxers’ hogwash claims and made them pay the costs of the application.

• Myburgh is an attorney practising in Johannesburg and São Paulo.

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