Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is no stranger to FactCheck.org. He is a prominent anti-vaccine advocate who has been on our radar for years, primarily as the founder of Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit that spreads anti-vaccine misinformation.
We’ve written numerous stories about his claims and those made in posts appearing on his nonprofit’s website. In 2021, the Center for Countering Digital Hate named Kennedy and CHD one of the “Disinformation Dozen,” or top 12 spreaders of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines online.
In April, Kennedy — the son of a former attorney general and presidential candidate, and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, both of whom were assassinated in the 1960s — officially entered politics for the first time, announcing his bid for the presidency as a Democrat challenging President Joe Biden. He has virtually no chance of nabbing the nomination, but he has received more media attention in the following months that has allowed him to spread false and misleading health claims.
Many of these are about vaccines. Kennedy, who is also an environmental activist and lawyer, has been opposed to vaccines since at least 2005, when he published an error-laden story in Rolling Stone and Salon that pushed the false notion that certain vaccine ingredients cause autism. The publications later retracted or withdrew the story.
In many ways, Kennedy has not moved on. Today, he still refers to things he wrote in the article to bolster his bogus arguments against vaccines, even though he was wrong then and nearly two decades of additional research has continued to bear that out. Kennedy insists he’s not “anti-vaccine,” but many of his debunked arguments are straight from the anti-vaccine playbook, which he and his nonprofit have helped write.
Kennedy also played a part in one of the worst measles outbreaks in recent memory. In 2018, two infants in American Samoa died when nurses accidentally prepared the combined measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine with expired muscle relaxant rather than water. The Samoan government temporarily suspended the vaccination program, and anti-vaccine advocates — including Kennedy and his nonprofit — flooded the area with misinformation. The vaccination rate dropped to a dangerously low level. The next year, when a traveler brought measles to the islands, the disease tore through the population, sickening more than 5,700 people and killing 83, most of them young children.
But Kennedy’s unorthodox views aren’t limited to vaccines. He’s suggested that certain antidepressants are behind the rise in school shootings and that a particular herbicide might be part of why more young people are identifying as transgender, neither of which is backed by any science. And he’s stated that Wi-Fi radiation and 5G are dangerous and cause cancer, despite no good evidence that they do.
Kennedy also promotes conspiracy theories. He believes the CIA was behind the killing of his uncle, and likely his father. He’s alleged that the 2004 presidential election was stolen (it wasn’t). He’s written a book claiming that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was part of “a historic coup d’état against Western democracy.” And he has repeatedly questioned whether HIV is the true or only cause of AIDS (it unequivocally is).
An undercurrent to many of Kennedy’s science-based claims is that he is uniquely positioned to understand the science, whereas actual scientists are not. “I don’t necessarily believe all the scientists, because I can read science myself,” he told the New Yorker in July, just after misrepresenting the science of the COVID-19 vaccines. “That’s what I do for a living. I read science critically.”
But time and time again, a review of the evidence contradicts Kennedy’s views. He misrepresents major conclusions from papers and gets other details wrong. He conveniently ignores the scientific literature — often vast, and of higher quality — that runs counter to his beliefs. He misleads on vaccine law and misunderstands key governmental programs, consistently viewing them through a lens of conspiracy and corruption.
Our team of science writers has combed through his recent interviews to identify and correct some of his most common health claims in a three-part series. We’re focusing on some of his more plausible health claims because these are more likely to negatively influence people.
In this first installment, we address several of his key talking points about vaccines in general. In a second article, we go deep on some of his go-to arguments about vaccines and autism. Although these have long been debunked, the claims could be compelling to someone if they only hear from Kennedy, as they would in many podcast interviews. In a third and final part, we tackle his numerous claims about the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which we’ve written about before and may be familiar to readers already.
We reached out to his campaign with a list of questions about his claims, but we haven’t received a response.
False Claim About Vaccine Testing
One of Kennedy’s most common and pernicious false claims is that vaccines are not tested for safety in clinical trials.
“Vaccines are the only medical product that is not safety-tested prior to licensure,” Kennedy said in a July 15 “Fox & Friends” interview.
“We should have the same kind of testing — placebo-controlled trials — that we have for every other medication,” he also said to Fox News’ Jesse Watters on July 10. “Vaccines are exempt from pre-licensing placebo-controlled trials.”
“None of the vaccines are ever subjected to true placebo-controlled trials,” Kennedy said in a June 15 episode of the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. “It’s the only medical product that is exempt from that prior to licensure.”
Kennedy’s line is a falsehood he’s been using since at least 2017, when he said much the same in a Q&A interview with STAT.
All vaccines undergo safety testing prior to authorization or approval. To claim that vaccines are not tested for safety is overtly false.
As one begins to unpack what Kennedy might mean by this, it becomes clear that Kennedy thinks the only appropriate safety trial is a placebo-controlled trial — and that the only legitimate placebo is water or saline. This is scientifically naive and misunderstands the purpose of a placebo in a trial.
First, many vaccines over the years have in fact been tested in randomized, placebo-controlled trials. Such trials are considered a gold-standard in medicine. Because the participants are randomly assigned to receive the vaccine or a placebo — which can be saline but doesn’t have to be — the results are less prone to bias, and differences between the groups can be attributed to the vaccine. Ideally, the trials are also double-blind, meaning neither the volunteers nor the people running the study are told who is in which group, which further reduces the possibility of bias.
The first polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, was famously tested in a massive placebo-controlled trial with more than 600,000 children (more than a million other children participated in a non-placebo-controlled part of the trial). The COVID-19 vaccines and the newly approved RSV vaccines for older adults are recent examples of shots that were tested in placebo-controlled trials.
But placebo-controlled trials are not the only legitimate way to test vaccines. In fact, there are scenarios that scientifically and ethically require other methods — and it doesn’t mean that vaccines haven’t been tested for safety, as we and others have explained.
In certain circumstances, such as rolling out a new version of an existing vaccine, it would be both unethical and unhelpful to test the new product against a placebo. It’s better to test the new vaccine against whatever people have been using before.
Since most current vaccines aren’t the first version of a vaccine, or are part of a combination vaccine, most of these haven’t been tested in placebo-controlled trials. This includes the latest diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, or DTap, vaccines, and the latest pneumococcal vaccine.
Another reason not to give a saline placebo is to make sure vaccine recipients in a trial are blinded and don’t know if they received the vaccine or a control, which could skew the results. This sometimes means using a different vaccine as a control or a placebo that includes everything in a shot except for the part that will trigger immunity, as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains.
The Food and Drug Administration, which evaluates and approves vaccines, told us in an email that vaccine studies typically include a control group, which can include “an FDA-approved vaccine (active control), a placebo or another substance.” (For more, see our chart “FDA Vaccine Approval Process.”)
“A placebo control, such as saline, is not required to determine the safety (or effectiveness) of a vaccine. In some cases, inclusion of placebo control groups is considered unethical,” the agency continued. “In cases where an active control is used, the adverse event profile of that control group is usually known and the findings of the study are reviewed in the context of that knowledge.”
Kennedy is also wrong to imply that vaccines are different from drugs because drugs are always tested in placebo-controlled trials. Similar to when there is an existing vaccine, it’s common for drugs to be tested against another treatment that’s the standard of care, rather than a sugar pill.
And contrary to Kennedy’s suggestion that drugs are more closely scrutinized for safety than vaccines, if anything, the opposite is true. “A higher standard of safety is generally expected of vaccines than of other medical interventions because, in contrast to most pharmaceutical products that are administered to ill persons for treatment purposes, vaccines are generally administered to healthy persons to prevent disease,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Pink Book, which is a guide to vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases, explains.
“Less tolerance of risk associated with vaccines requires close monitoring and timely assessment of vaccine adverse events to help distinguish true vaccine adverse reactions from coincidental unrelated events and to help maintain public confidence in vaccination,” the book continues.
Indeed, vaccines are arguably subjected to much more intensive post-marketing surveillance than drugs. Such monitoring is important because even the largest clinical trial cannot exclude very rare serious side effects. The FDA and CDC use several systems for this, including the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, but also the Vaccine Safety Datalink, or VSD, which analyzes electronic health data from sites across the country in near real-time to spot possible vaccine side effects.
“I think those systems, if they were put in place for drugs, would pick up drug adverse events much more quickly,” Dr. Paul A. Offit, a vaccine expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told us in an interview for a previous story. “Vioxx being one example … that drug would have been found to be a rare cause of heart attacks much sooner.” Vioxx was a prescription anti-inflammatory drug that Merck voluntarily took off the market in 2004 after studies linked it to heart attacks and strokes.
Hepatitis B Vaccine
In multiple interviews, Kennedy misleads about the hepatitis B vaccine, falsely suggesting that the reason the vaccine is given to newborns is to boost profits for vaccine makers.
“The major vectors for [hepatitis B] are it’s sexually transmitted or by needles. Why would you give that to a one-day-old child?” Kennedy said in a town hall broadcast on NewsNation at the end of June. “It’s really a profit motive.”
In his appearance on Rogan’s podcast, Kennedy made the same argument, saying that people get hepatitis B from sharing needles, “going to a really seasoned prostitute,” or participating in “sort of compulsive homosexual behavior.” He acknowledged that babies can get hepatitis B from their mothers, but said that every pregnant woman is tested for it, “so the baby doesn’t need this.”
“Why would you give it to a one-day-old baby, you know, or a three-hour-old baby, and then four more times, when that baby’s not going to be even subject to it for 16 years?” he asked, erroneously stating the number of vaccine doses (it’s three in childhood).
Kennedy then suggested that the CDC recommended the vaccine for children to ensure revenue for Merck, because the vaccine had originally been given only to high-risk groups that weren’t buying enough vaccines.
Kennedy is distorting what happened — and omitting the fact that hepatitis B can be spread in ways that do leave infants and young kids susceptible to the virus.
As the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains, the hepatitis B vaccine was first licensed in 1981 and recommended for high-risk people, including certain adults but also infants born to mothers with hepatitis B, since vaccination can prevent mother-to-infant transmission.
“However, immunization of these groups didn’t effectively stop transmission of hepatitis B virus. That’s because about one-third of patients with acute disease were not in identifiable risk groups,” CHOP’s website says. “The change of recommendation to immunize all infants in 1991 was the result of these failed attempts to control hepatitis B by only immunizing high-risk groups. Following this recommendation, hepatitis B disease was virtually eliminated in children less than 18 years of age in the United States.”
After initially advising that infants be vaccinated “preferably” before hospital discharge, but no later than 2 months of age, the U.S. changed its guidance in 2018 to have babies vaccinated within 24 hours of birth. This is slightly different from some countries, including the U.K., which give the first dose at 8 weeks unless a mother is hepatitis B-positive. But it’s in line with what the World Health Organization advises. There is no safety reason to delay the dose; Kennedy’s implication that giving newborns a vaccine is somehow risky is not based on any evidence.
Also contrary to Kennedy’s statements, there are good reasons to give infants hepatitis B vaccines. While most cases of hepatitis B in the U.S. occur in adults, the viral disease is especially dangerous to young children because infection early in life is more likely to lead to chronic hepatitis B, which can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure.
More than 90% of babies and up to half of children ages 1 to 5 infected with the virus develop chronic infection, compared with less than 5% of older children and adults, according to the CDC’s Yellow Book, which provides health information for international travelers. A quarter of children who are chronically infected will prematurely die of a liver problem. As a result, protecting babies and young kids from hepatitis B has an outsized impact on reducing the burden of the disease.
As for how young children get hepatitis B, babies can contract the infection from their mothers during birth, since the virus is spread via blood. American hospitals test pregnant people for hepatitis B, but as the CDC explains, there can be errors or delays in testing or reporting of results. So giving all infants the vaccine soon after birth “acts as a safety net” for reducing mother-to-infant transmission. Studies also show that vaccination at birth increases the chance that a child will complete the three-shot series.
Kids, though, can also pick up hepatitis B later, especially if they live with or are cared for by someone with the disease. Many people with hepatitis B may not have symptoms and don’t know they are infected. Hepatitis B virus is highly contagious, so minute amounts of blood can spread the virus. The virus is also hardy and remains infectious on objects for at least a week. This means children can get hepatitis B from washcloths, a shared toothbrush or nail clippers, or through pre-chewed food given to a baby — no drug use or sexual activity required. Vaccination at birth protects children right away from any household exposures they might have.
Distorted, Illogical Historical Argument About Vaccination
On multiple recent occasions, Kennedy has cast doubt on vaccines by saying that sanitation and nutrition were more important than vaccination in driving down mortality in the 20th century.
This may be true to some extent, but it doesn’t mean that vaccination is not important.
“There was this huge decline in infection, in mortalities from infectious diseases that took place in the 20th century, an 80% drop in deaths from infectious disease. And what caused that wasn’t vaccines,” Kennedy said in his interview with Rogan, describing a study published in Pediatrics in 2000. “The real drop happened because of really, engineering solutions: refrigerators, you could store food … better housing, sanitation, the invention of chlorine, sewage treatment. But mainly nutrition. Nutrition is absolutely critical to building immune systems. And so and what was really killing these children was malnutrition.”
The study Kennedy references does say some of this, including noting that “nearly 90% of the decline in infectious disease mortality among US children occurred before 1940, when few antibiotics or vaccines were available.” But it doesn’t mention malnutrition at all. And the paper is still pro-vaccine.
According to the study, the large drops in child mortality in the first third of the last century were likely due to “improved socioeconomic conditions” and things such as water treatment, food safety and waste disposal. That dramatically cut down on diarrheal diseases. Better housing and less crowding in cities also greatly cut the number of deaths from tuberculosis and other airborne diseases.
Vaccination, the study notes, could not have contributed to a decline in deaths during this time because most vaccines were not widely implemented yet.
“Vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis became available during the late 1920s but only widely used in routine pediatric practice after World War II. Thus vaccination does not account for the impressive declines in mortality seen in the first half of the century,” the paper reads.
But, the article continues, the reductions in vaccine-preventable diseases “are impressive. In the early 1920s, diphtheria accounted for about 175 000 cases annually and pertussis for nearly 150 000 cases; measles accounted for about half a million annual cases before the introduction of vaccine in the 1960s. Deaths from these diseases have been virtually eliminated, as have deaths from Haemophilus influenzae, tetanus, and poliomyelitis.”
Kennedy also has a habit of citing a sociology paper from 1977, which noted that death rates from many infectious diseases had already begun to fall well before the arrival of vaccines or effective drugs. The authors estimated that only 3.5% of the total decline in mortality between 1900 and 1973 was due to medical measures of any kind.
But just because people were able to reduce the burden of disease by having access to clean water, indoor plumbing, and better food and housing doesn’t imply that vaccines were not needed or helpful to further reduce disease. Few people would decline a life-saving antibiotic today just because antibiotics weren’t a dominant force in lowering American mortality rates in the 20th century. The same should be true of vaccines.
In response to anti-vaccine advocates citing their work, the authors of the 1977 paper have said that they “consider this an egregious misinterpretation of our research,” adding that “[e]ffective vaccines clearly have an important role in the ongoing containment of a disease after its prevalence has been reduced.”
It’s worth noting that plenty of data indicate that vaccines have prevented many deaths, hospitalizations and illnesses over the years. Globally, measles vaccination alone is estimated to have saved 56 million lives between 2000 and 2021.
‘Lazarus Study’ and Alleged ‘Vaccine Injuries’
As supposed evidence of vaccine harm, Kennedy frequently refers to what he calls the “Lazarus study.”
“Fewer than 1 in 100 vaccine injuries are ever reported because it’s voluntary,” he said in his interview with Rogan, referring to reports to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. “You can find support for this in the Lazarus study. Lazarus actually looked and said, how many injuries are actually happening, how many are reported? And they said fewer than 1 in 100 are ever reported.”
He again referenced the work in an interview with Bill Maher on the podcast “Club Random with Bill Maher.” “What they found is that the actual rate of injury was about, I think, 2.3%, which is 1 out of every 37 people,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy’s nonprofit, Children’s Health Defense, also frequently cites the analysis, as we’ve written. But several aspects of these claims are incorrect or misleading.
First, the document is not formally a published study; it’s a 2010 final report by researchers with the nonprofit health insurance company Harvard Pilgrim Health Care for a project funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a governmental agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. (The lead investigator’s name was Dr. Ross Lazarus.)
Second, what Kennedy is calling “vaccine injuries” are in fact adverse events, which are health issues that occur after vaccination but aren’t necessarily due to a vaccine. Many of them are coincidental. This is a prevailing misunderstanding about VAERS. (For more, see our article “What VAERS Can and Can’t Do, and How Anti-Vaccination Groups Habitually Misuse Its Data.”)
VAERS works by collecting reports of possible vaccine side effects. Because these are voluntarily submitted, the database doesn’t include every real side effect that does occur. Anti-vaccine advocates often complain about this “underreporting.” At the same time, not all reported events were caused by vaccines, so there is also “overreporting.”
This issue is relevant to understanding the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care report’s findings. The scientists wrote a computer program to analyze electronic medical records, looking for certain prescriptions, lab tests and diagnostic codes that occurred within 30 days of a vaccine to identify possible vaccine side effects. The original plan was to then use this automated system to help medical professionals submit reports to VAERS.
The group identified, in data described as “preliminary,” 35,570 possible side effects after 1.4 million vaccine doses, or possible side effects occurring after 2.6% of vaccinations.
The key word here is possible. Although Kennedy presents these events as being caused by vaccines, that is not necessarily the case. (Later, in the Rogan interview, Kennedy does say they might not be vaccine-caused, but by that point, he had already repeatedly called them “vaccine injuries.”)
And while Kennedy’s language could suggest that such “injuries” are all serious, that’s also not the case. Elsewhere in the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care report, the authors state that “fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are reported.” This is the sentence Kennedy and others have long latched onto, using it to misleadingly argue that the problems reported in VAERS are only the tip of the iceberg.
It’s unclear how this was calculated, but Dr. Michael Klompas, a public health surveillance researcher at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the report, told us in an email for an earlier story that the 1% number “takes into account that many adverse effects of vaccines are mild and expected so not worth reporting (sore arm, fatigue, local redness, etc.).” It’s misleading to refer to this number without noting that it includes mild, expected side effects that people would rarely bother reporting to VAERS.
The report, then, is not evidence that vaccines are dangerous, as Kennedy tries to claim. Instead, it describes one approach that could be used to improve reporting to VAERS, essentially changing it from a purely passive system.
Other government vaccine safety monitoring systems, it should be noted, are active systems that automatically collect data and do not rely on reporting, including the Vaccine Safety Datalink. The CDC and FDA purposely use multiple passive and active systems together for vaccine safety surveillance.
Misleading Claim About the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act
In at least three different recent interviews, Kennedy has spun a misleading tale about the origin of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 to incorrectly suggest that vaccines are irredeemably unsafe.
In the 1970s and 1980s, vaccine makers were increasingly being sued for millions of dollars by parents for alleged harm to their children, many for certain neurological health issues claimed to be due to the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, or DTP, vaccine. Although studies would later show that there was no link to the vaccine, vaccine companies sometimes lost these cases in court. This led some companies to stop making vaccines altogether, running up the cost of vaccines and also increasing the risk of vaccine shortages.
In recognition that vaccines are highly beneficial, but do rarely cause serious side effects, such as allergic reactions, the government stepped in and decided to give immunity in most cases to vaccine makers — and set up an alternate compensation system for people with reasonable claims of harm. The law also required vaccine recipients to receive fact sheets about each vaccine and spawned VAERS to function as an early warning system for detecting possible safety problems due to vaccines.
Kennedy’s version of the story, however, plays up the risks of vaccines.
“The reason the Vaccine Act was passed that gave immunity from liability to these companies is because they said the vaccines could not be produced — that they were unavoidably unsafe,” he said in the podcast interview with Maher. “And that phrase is in the 1986 statute, and it’s in the Supreme Court Bruesewitz case, which upheld that statute.”
“Anybody who tells you vaccines are safe and effective, the industry itself got immunity from liability by convincing the president and Congress that vaccines are unavoidably unsafe,” he also said in his interview with Rogan.
This is misleading — and also wrong on the specifics. “Unavoidably unsafe” doesn’t mean, as Kennedy implies, that a product is really dangerous and shouldn’t be used. As University of California Law San Francisco professor Dorit Reiss has explained in a blog post, the legal term actually refers to a product that is considered to be highly beneficial, but that cannot be made entirely risk-free. (Safe and effective, it should be said, doesn’t mean perfectly safe and perfectly effective, either — a standard that no medical product would be able to meet.)
“Unavoidably unsafe” also doesn’t appear in the 1986 law, as Kennedy claims. Instead, what the law says is that no vaccine manufacturer “shall be liable … if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.”
In the majority opinion for the Bruesewitz case, the phrase is only mentioned because it was part of an argument that was rejected. The issue before that court, Reiss explains, was whether a plaintiff could sue for an alleged vaccine injury for a vaccine design defect in state court. This hinged on whether the 1986 law meant to invoke tort law’s “unavoidably unsafe” language. Most justices said no. “In other words,” Reiss told us in an email, “the majority of the court mentioned the phrase only to say it’s not a correct interpretation of the law.”
This brings us to Kennedy’s claim in his interview with Maher that vaccine companies get immunity “no matter how negligent they are … no matter how reckless the behavior, no matter how shoddy their manufacturing and testing process is.”
This is false. Reiss told us that while the Bruesewitz case determined that someone cannot sue for a vaccine design defect, one can bring other claims against vaccine makers, including for manufacturing defects, negligence and fraud. Claims can be taken to state court, she said, if one first goes through the vaccine compensation program and it either takes more than 240 days for a response or one rejects the decision.
This is in fact exactly what Kennedy himself has done in lawsuits against Merck over its HPV vaccines. “[T]hat shows that his point is untrue — and that he knows it,” Reiss said.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s articles providing accurate health information and correcting health misinformation are made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.