A fake CIA-led vaccination campaign in Pakistan in 2011 led to a lowered vaccination rate in the country, which could affect COVID-19 vaccination efforts today, a new paper in the Journal of the European Economic Association explains. The goal of the fake inoculation campaign? To capture Osama Bin Laden.
The paper, by researchers from the University of Warwick, claims that distrust generated by the 2011 CIA-organized campaign resulted in a significant decline in vaccination uptake in Pakistan.
"The empirical evidence highlights that events which cast doubt on the integrity of health workers or vaccines can have severe consequences for the acceptance of health products such as vaccines," Andreas Stegmann, one of the paper's authors, said in a press statement.
"This seems particularly relevant today as public acceptance of the new vaccines against Covid-19 is crucial to address the pandemic," Stegmann continued.
The CIA's fake inoculation campaign
In 2011, the CIA recruited a local doctor in Pakistan to run an immunization campaign with the covert goal of obtaining DNA samples of children living in a compound in Abbottabad, where the intelligence agency suspected Bin Laden was hiding at the time.
The CIA believed that if they could ascertain that one, or more, of the children were related to Osama Bin Laden, then they had a solid lead that he was also likely to be staying at the Abbottabad compound.
The CIA ran their fake vaccination campaign without consent from the Pakistani health authorities, and as The Guardian reported in 2011, the doctor that worked on the campaign was subsequently jailed for 33 years.
The CIA was criticized by medical aid charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for committing a "grave manipulation of the medical act" and for putting legitimate Polio vaccination campaigns at risk due to widespread distrust.
"It is challenging enough for health agencies and humanitarian aid workers to gain access to, and the trust of, communities, especially populations already sceptical of the motives of any outside assistance," MSF told The Guardian at the time. "Deceptive use of medical care also endangers those who provide legitimate and essential health services."
In fact, after news of the CIA's fake inoculation campaign got out, the Taliban used anti-vaccine propaganda for their recruitment efforts and even used violent action against vaccination workers.
Today, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries in the world where Polio remains endemic, according to the the Polio Global Eradication Initiative.
Anti-vaccination movements are almost as old as vaccines
In order to investigate the effects of the CIA campaign on vaccination efforts, the University of Warwick researchers used data from the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement on children born between January 2010 and July 2012.
The researchers' estimates indicate that the vaccination rate declined between 23-39 percent in regions where electoral support for extremist parties was strong. The researchers also revealed that the decline in the vaccination rate is higher for girls than it is for boys.
Unfortunately, campaigns such as the CIA's run a serious risk of spreading public distrust of vaccination campaigns, a fact that is particularly relevant in our current lockdown days. In a separate example of fake vaccinations potentially sowing mistrust, Pfizer announced that fake doses of its vaccine had been sold in Mexico and Poland.
As a book by Nadja Durbach, Bodily Matters, explains, anti-vaccination campaigns have been around since the first compulsory vaccination campaign for smallpox dating back to 1853 in England. Seeing as reactive public responses to vaccination campaigns are well documented, it's fair to say that the CIA knowingly compromised public health in its bid to capture Osama Bin Laden.