Last month, a British man launched a site allowing visitors to type in COVID-19 vaccine lot numbers, the codes that identify batches of the safe and effective shots, and call up the number of alleged deaths and injuries associated with them.
These figures are drawn from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). The safety monitoring database, operated jointly by the CDC and FDA, encourages people to submit reports of anything negative that happened after they or someone they know received a vaccine, so experts can scrutinize their accounts and potentially identify rare or unexpected risks. Many of these reports are unverified, but of the cases that do get investigated, the vast majority turn out to be unrelated to vaccines; those that are related are usually minor reactions.
However, you’d never know that reading this batch search site.
The man behind the site, Craig Paardekooper, lays out a number of misleading claims based on his interpretations of these figures. Chief among them is that, while most vaccine batches are connected to few (if any) reports, a handful are tied to hundreds—even thousands. In the United States specifically, he writes on the site, “5% of the batches appear to have produced 90% of the adverse reactions.”
At times, Paardekooper adopts a cautious scientific voice, stressing that there are many possible explanations for these observations. But instead of exercising actual scientific caution himself, Paardekooper runs through what Paul V. Williams, an immunologist who reviewed his claims, characterized as “likely faulty data analysis” supplemented by “wild conjecture and conspiracy theories” to present a series of increasingly batshit arguments as the only logical conclusions.
Specifically, Paardekooper argues that most or all of the deaths and injuries reported to VAERS are clearly real, were definitely caused by the vaccines, and are just a fraction of the true vaccine casualty count. So, not all vaccine doses are created equal; some are obviously more toxic than others, he falsely claims. There’s a clear and direct link between the alphanumeric sequences of lot codes and their level of toxicity, he further tries to argue via a series of charts and graphs, which he takes to mean that this variation isn’t the result of random quality control errors—but an intentional scheme.
As he puts it on the site, “the batches have been labelled [sic] with batch codes for the purpose of distinguishing one toxic level from another.”
The Daily Beast attempted to contact Paardekooper several times via multiple email addresses, social-media accounts, and phone numbers associated with him and projects he’s worked on. But neither he nor anyone else who’s reportedly worked with him on his site responded.
The site itself is not particularly innovative; anti-vax groups have been churning out web tools to help people cherry pick data—and gin up fear about vaccines—for years. Yet this bizarre new project has rapidly gained visibility and acclaim in anti-vax circles, because the spurious arguments Paardekooper and his allies have posted on the site, based on their facile analyses of batch-specific data, are unique and striking.
Misinformation experts believe that these arguments could also be compelling to many people who nurse doubts about vaccines but haven’t gone full anti-vaxxer yet. After all, it’s easier to sell someone on the claim that only a portion of the shots—that in truth have saved millions of lives and only cause notable adverse reactions in exceedingly rare cases—are dangerously toxic than it is to argue that they are uniformly malignant. And the embrace of this “bad batch” theory could hamper vaccination efforts and fuel general mistrust in governments and health-care systems—all as experts and institutions struggle to contain the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
“It’s a very worrisome, paranoid evolution of anti-vax sentiment,” Ofer Levy, a doctor who works on vaccine programs and studies public attitudes towards vaccinations in general, told The Daily Beast.
Beyond his core assertions, Paardekooper also claims that he obtained information from an unidentified source that shows only the most toxic lots have expiration dates, which he suggests means that most vaccines are likely placebos. (This is, of course, not the case.) At some times, he argues this proves governments and big pharma players worldwide are engaged in one big experiment, figuring out which toxic slurries lead to specific levels of death and injury in key demographics. At others, he suggests placebos just serve to obscure the effects of scattered toxic batches.
Either way, he argues that it’s likely a nebulous they are using selectively toxic batches to quietly kill off undesirable groups, and to leave others so permanently weakened that they can no longer resist the rise of tyranny and are utterly dependent on pharmaceuticals. (None of this is remotely true.)
Notably, on Jan. 15, Paardekooper posted a video to a social-media channel connected to his site explaining, “with a sense of some urgency,” that after a recent round of number crunching, he realized that “the vaccines being distributed to the red states [in America are] more toxic than the vaccines being distributed towards the blue states.” This, he falsely suggests, can only mean that America is attempting to cripple and/or kill off its conservative populations.
In a blurb under the clip, he adds: “This is like a civil war… You are being targeted. You are under fire. The bullets are biological.”
In light of his so-called findings, Paardekooper and his allies urge everyone to use their site to check the toxicity of any vaccines they’ve already received, and offer a list of recovery and detox ideas. In a recent interview with an anti-vax streamer, Paardekooper also suggests that, if people succumb to vaccine mandates, they should run lot numbers through the site before they get jabbed, and demand a different batch if it flags as toxic. In several venues, he’s also offered “an action list” to help people “coping with tyranny,” including general notes on how to stymie “harmful operations” like vaccine drives and mandates using “strikes and blockades, boycotts” and other measures.
“Anything that paralyses [sic] or disables the apparatus of harm,” he writes on the site.
These arguments are, of course, all bullshit. As biostatician and epidemiologist Susan Ellenberg told The Daily Beast, they hinge upon fundamental misunderstandings and misrepresentations of VAERS. The system’s own administrators stress it is not a record of proven vaccine injuries and deaths; to be clear, repeated rigorous analyses show most of the issues recorded in the database turn out to be unrelated to vaccines—and the bulk of the rest are just minor issues.
A spokesperson for the FDA told The Daily Beast that they actively monitor “counts of serious events reported by lot,” and their analysis to date “does not show an unusual concentration of reports with a single lot or small group of lots.”
Paardekooper also relies on what several biostatistics and misinformation experts characterized as laughably weak statistical analyses, which largely fail to account for numerous important factors, like the size of each batch of vaccines, where they were distributed, and when. What’s more, the logic of Paardekooper’s overarching theory of a giant, malicious conspiracy only holds together as long as one doesn’t poke the elaborate series of fanciful assumptions undergirding it too hard.
Yet over the last month, several prominent pandemic misinformation brokers have picked up on Paardekooper’s site and claims, and put them into heavy circulation. Notably, on Jan. 13, Robert Malone, currently one of the highest-profile vaccine skeptics on the planet, promoted the project in his newsletter, noting that it seemingly explained why his first dose of Moderna was quick and easy—but his second “almost did me in. As in I almost died.” That dose was on Paardekooper’s list of the most toxic batches, Malone wrote. “The data is so compelling,” he added.
He then echoed many of Paardekooper’s talking points on a livestream hosted by Steve Bannon. (Paardekooper’s site now features a Malone Tweet on its homepage. Malone did not reply to a request for comment.)
“In the last week, for the first time during the pandemic, I’ve noticed people on vaccine skeptical streams saying things like, ‘and of course we know that certain lots of the vaccine are toxic,’” vaccine misinformation researcher Jennifer Reich told The Daily Beast. “Vaccine opponents are increasingly inserting the idea into their conversations as if it’s a common and established fact.”
Misinformation researchers told The Daily Beast that this buckwild theory has likely taken hold because, for all its obvious shortcomings, it hits most of the key features of successful misinformation. It employs the language and trappings of rigorous scientific inquiry. It draws on official data, albeit in a misleading and distortionary way. And it presents a series of basic cause-and-effect steps, which start out simple and reasonable and only descend into wild conspiracy towards the end of a logical chain. Many people likely won’t deal with openly conspiratorial elements of the theory, just its topline observations and general doubt-casting. But some with pre-existing fringe beliefs may find the extreme aspects of Paardekooper’s ideas resonate with their gut instincts or core worldviews.
But perhaps most importantly, Reich said, this new bad batch theory offers a clear explanation for why the supposedly toxic vaccines haven’t caused the clear and massive wave of illness and death among the vaccinated that many early COVID-era anti-vax theories predicted they would.
“It adds a layer of believability to claims that it’s not safe to get a vaccine,” she explained. And that added layer, experts told The Daily Beast, may drag a notable number of skeptical people who weren’t sold on older anti-vax theories fully into the conspiratorial orbit.
This isn’t the first time anti-vaxxers have glommed onto the idea of bad batches. Notably, in the 1980s and early 1990s, major anti-vaccination groups published articles in their newsletters about the risks of what they called “hot lots,” supposedly uniquely toxic vaccine shipments.
However, back then, the idea usually wasn’t that sinister actors were intentionally creating and shipping out highly toxic vaccine batches. Instead, anti-vaxxers riffed on concerns about errors or unreliability and inconsistency in vaccine production, shipping, and administration that might somehow taint a batch and create a supposedly elevated risk. Historical examples of accidents during very early vaccination drives lent some credence to these fears. And after VAERS launched in 1990, these groups ran analyses on the system—much like Paardekooper’s—to try to identify current examples of supposedly “hot lots.”
But public health officials repeatedly explained and demonstrated the numerous oversight and safety mechanisms that help vaccine makers to fairly reliably avoid, identify, and respond to these sorts of production, distribution, and administration issues. They also pointed out that some vaccine lots are just larger than others, so seeing more reports about a batch in VAERS may just mean that it was a much bigger batch than less-reported lots. (The database, again, is just a passive repository for any report, submitted by anyone.)
No one The Daily Beast spoke to for this article could say exactly when or why, but at some point a couple decades ago, anti-vax groups started to drop their focus on “hot lots.” There just wasn’t enough clear or compelling evidence, anti-vax experts suggest, to prop the narrative up against debunking.
It’s unclear if Paardekooper was aware of this history when he started formulating his worrisome new conspiracy theories. However, it is clear from his social-media history that he’s been a vocal anti-vax activist since at least the fall of 2020. His Facebook page in particular is a repository of the greatest hits of anti-vax and anti-mask misinformation. In old posts, he throws around the term “plandemic,” talks about how vaccines are supposedly almost entirely made of graphene oxide that can turn people magnetic, and spews pseudoscience about how masks prevent humans from getting enough oxygen and expelling pathogens. (These are all firmly debunked conspiracy theories.)
In one particularly vitriolic post about how COVID control measures are acts of illogical tyranny, he says masks are “associated with slavery [and] gimp-hood.”
Over the course of the past year, Paardekooper’s social-media history suggests he gradually grew more and more convinced of the likelihood of a coming social and economic collapse—and of the need to become a prepper. According to his posts, he at least temporarily fled his home in the U.K. for a remote plot of land in supposedly COVID-woke Tanzania to hide from “tyranny.”
While Paardekooper is British, his constant engagement with anti-vax drivel from across the globe likely exposed him to the entirely American VAERS. Matt Motta, an expert on anti-science misinformation, pointed out that despite its clear limitations, the database is one of the most frequently cited sources that vaccine opponents (mis)use to try to prove that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. In Paardekooper’s arguments, he notably repeats a number of common anti-vax talking points about the system, most of which reflect what anti-vaxxers want to be true about it rather than what actually is true.
He apparently started picking apart batch-specific data in early 2021, publishing an initial “report” on so-called vaccine toxicity in a Facebook group in February that floated but did not fully develop the idea of lot-specific lethality. Although he seems to have had a small following on that group, and wider social-media channels, his work only appears to have started to gain a wider audience last fall, when far-right outlets seemingly stumbled upon it and republished the findings in his reports, often with no apparent scrutiny.
These figures have described Paardekooper as a biochemist and a researcher well positioned to comment on vaccines and qualified to run complex statistical analyses. At least one letter that an anti-vaxxer claimed he sent to government officials urging them to heed bad batch findings and stop vaccination programs now—or face dire legal consequences—identifies Paardekooper as a doctor.
In truth, Paardekooper’s own statements on social media indicate that he was a salesman, self-employed software developer, and author of “short books… on Christianity, Judaism, and ancient history” for most of his life. (He claims that he’s identified patterns in human DNA that prove intelligent design.) A few years ago, he went back to school in London to pursue an undergraduate degree in chemistry. It is unclear if he graduated; the school in question said it could not comment on student records in any way, shape, or form.
However, since going back to school, Paardekooper has attempted to identify himself as a biochemist working on innovative anti-aging research; U.K. corporate registration records show he started a short-lived company called “Anti-Aging Science and Research Ltd” in 2019. He often uses a picture of himself wearing a white coat and goggles while standing in a lab for profiles and bios online. So, it is easy to see how supporters might assume he is a relevant scientific expert—if they don’t do any due diligence.
Whether he was not equipped to recognize and respond to them, or simply chose to ignore them, Paardekooper has certainly overlooked a number of major factors in his analyses of VAERS data.
Notably, vaccine experts The Daily Beast spoke to pointed out that the timing and distribution of lots could explain many of Paardekooper’s observations: When a new, high-profile vaccination push starts up, a wave of hyper-awareness, as well as active anti-vax campaigns, often prompt a surge of adverse reaction reports. This may account for apparent links between lot numbers—which often reflect the order in which batches were produced and distributed—and so-called toxicity levels. Similarly, VAERS reporting tends to be higher at all times in regions with higher levels of vaccine skepticism—like red states.
“Medical professionals and statisticians can account for these factors in analyses,” Motta noted.
Paardekooper did recently acknowledge in a post on his site that it’s worth considering lot sizes relative to numbers of VAERS reports. But he doesn’t do much to dig into that idea, noting that he doesn’t have substantial data on lot sizes. Elsewhere, he waves away the importance of lot size in determining supposed batch-specific risks. And in one key writeup on his core findings, he notes that “all batches are assumed to be equal in size.”
Instead of meaningfully engaging with serious, confounding variables, Paardekooper often leans back on a common COVID-19 misinformation trope: insisting that his interpretations are so obvious anyone with common sense ought to see the logic in them. The only reason others looking at the same data haven’t come to similar conclusions, he argued in a recent interview, is that a “cloud of misinformation and propaganda” has “dampened their minds,” blocking out blatant truth.
Motta suspects that, even if Paardekooper and his project’s profile are rising, they are still mostly confined to dedicated far-right and anti-vax spaces—preaching to an already conspiratorial choir.
But Paardekooper and his allies and supporters are actively trying to change that. On his site, Paardekooper encourages everyone who finds his analyses compelling to spread the word of bad batches “where ever [sic] you go. Educate others.” He specifically suggests using fringe communication channels, like Telegram, to share info and discuss ideas, in part to avoid what he sees as an inevitable wave of state scrutiny and censorship against his views.
“You can only survive within a community of aware people,” Paardekooper adds.
Links to his site, and synopses of his basic observations about supposed variations in vaccine safety by batch, have shown up on a handful of ideologically middle-of-the-road forums over the last few days. So, there’s some reason to believe that Paardekooper’s ideas can get a foothold in the general consciousness, spreading baseless fears about vaccine consistency and the reliability of public health institutions—and dragging a few people all the way down Paardekooper’s paranoid rabbit hole.
Granted, the unhinged and borderline incoherent nature of Paardekooper’s late-stage logic will limit the appeal of his views. (“The vaccine rollout first started during the Trump administration,” Williams, the immunologist, pointed out. “Why would they target red states?”) So will the quality of his website, argued David Gorski, a doctor who reports on and combats antivax misinformation, often under the pseudonym Orac. “I can’t make heads or tail of a lot of the data the way they present it,” he said. “It reminds me of websites from the late 1990s.”
“The project is clever, if only somewhat original,” he added. “But it would concern me more if it weren’t for the fact that the website [at its center] is so badly designed and difficult to use.”
But Motta pointed out that antivax sentiment thrives by throwing around ideas, finding the ones that stick, and then adjusting their presentation to make them even stickier. Which is why he, like most other misinformation experts, stressed that it’s important to get out in front of these ideas, identifying the flaws and misinformation within them, before they can expand and take hold.