US black legend journalism blunders in attempt to discredit Chinese vaccine

Stephen Gowans

June 28, 2021

A Wall Street Journal article has attempted to discredit the effectiveness of China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine, even though the article presents data which show the vaccine to be highly effective, but does so in a way that conceals the shot’s efficacy and suggests the vaccine has largely failed.

The article is emblematic of black legend journalism aimed at China—the Western media practice of painting a defamatory picture of the Communist country in order for Washington to better battle it, and to discourage other countries that may be seeking to engage more deeply with Beijing, especially in trade and investment.

Among the defamations are claims that China is perpetrating a genocide against the Uyghur people, is exploiting coerced labor in Xinjiang, is engaged in covering up a coronavirus lab leak, and, now, is peddling ineffective vaccines across the global south.

More than one hundred years ago, Lenin identified the practice of black legend journalism aimed at China. “At the present time, the press is conducting a campaign against the Chinese,” he wrote in 1900, in connection with the Boxer Rebellion. “Journalists who crawl on their bellies before the government and the money-bags are straining every nerve to arouse the hatred of the people against China.”

The latest attempt to inspire enmity against a country which Washington has issued a virtual declaration of war against, is Jon Emont’s June 27, 2021 Wall Street Journal article titled “Covid-19 Killed 26 Indonesian Doctors in June—at Least 10 Had Taken China’s Sinovac Vaccine.”

According to Emont, “At least 10 of the 26 doctors in Indonesia who died from Covid-19 this month had received both doses of the vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech Ltd.”, raising “questions about the Chinese-made shot that is being used in many parts of the developing world.”

Rounding out his attack on CoronaVac, the name of Sinovac’s Covid-19 vaccine, Emont went on to quote two professors, one from the UK, who opined that “the Sinovac vaccine was ‘probably not as effective a vaccine as most of the other vaccines that are on the market’,” and another from Hong Kong, who recommended that Indonesian medical workers be given “a U.S.-developed shot to ensure stronger protection.”

Emont’s message is clear: The Sinovac vaccine is largely ineffective, US-developed vaccines are superior, and Chinese vaccines are leaving the global south unprotected.

The problem is that the data in Emont’s report make a stronger case that the Sinovac vaccine is highly effective than largely ineffective.

According to his reporting, “Around 90% of Indonesian doctors—roughly 160,000 in all—have been vaccinated with Sinovac’s shot.” This information, along with Emont’s lead that at least 10 of the 26 doctors who died had been vaccinated, is all that is needed to estimate the efficacy of Sinovac’s vaccine in reducing Covid-19 mortality among Indonesian doctors.

The table below assembles the data Emont provided. Figures marked by an asterisks were directly cited in his article. The remainder are arithmetic deductions (e.g., if 10 of 26 doctors who died were vaccinated, then 26 – 10 = 16 were not vaccinated.)

Vaccinated (90%)*Not vaccinated (10%)Total (100%)
[A] Died from Covid-1910*1626*
Didn’t die from Covid-19159,99017,762177,752
[B] Total160,000*17,778177,778
Mortality rate [A/B]0.0063%0.0900%0.0146%

At less than one two-hundredths of one percent, the Covid-19 mortality rate among Indonesian physicians is vanishingly small. It’s questionable that a Covid-19 mortality rate this miniscule merits an article in a major US newspaper. Lenin’s imagery of journalists “straining every nerve” is highly relevant here.

The mortality rate is much smaller among vaccinated than unvaccinated doctors. In fact, doctors who were vaccinated with CoronaVac were more than fourteen times less likely to die from Covid-19 compared to unvaccinated physicians. This translates into an efficacy rate of 93 percent, using a formula analogous to the one used to calculate vaccine efficacy (see the note at the end).

Emont blundered by restricting his analysis to doctors who died, rather than comparing the mortality rate of unvaccinated physicians to those who received the vaccine. Because the vast majority of Indonesian doctors are vaccinated, most Covid-19 deaths are going to happen in this group owing to its preponderant size.

Emont’s error is tantamount to arguing that most people who die in traffic accidents were wearing seatbelts, therefore seatbelts are ineffective. Since most people wear seatbelts, it’s likely that most traffic deaths will happen among this majority group. To know how effective seat belts are, traffic accident fatality rates must be compared between two groups: those who wear seat belts and those who don’t. When the analysis is done properly, the conclusion is that seatbelts are effective.

Likewise, to examine the efficacy of a vaccine, those who are vaccinated must be compared with those who aren’t. When the analysis is done this way, it appears that Sinovac’s vaccine has worked well.

It’s possible that Emont is numerically and logically inept, and that he made an honest error, but then we would have to conclude that his editors are equally inept, also a possibility. However, just as some stories are too good to check, so too is some stupidity too good to correct. I have had opportunity on countless occasions to see research of low quality receive unqualified praise when it corroborated a desired political position, while research of high quality was torn apart that challenged the same stance.

It’s possible that Emont’s blunder was overlooked because it said what the Wall Street Journal’s editors and owners, the US government, Wall Street money-bags, and not least, those with investments in Western vaccines, wanted to hear. Or it could have been a crafty construction of a defamatory anti-Chinese message. Whatever the case—stupidity allowed by a system of propaganda to evade all checks, or a deception deliberately constructed to fit such a system—Sinovac’s vaccine appears to have been effective in protecting Indonesian doctors from Covid-19 mortality.   

Blunders of this sort, along with shoddy reporting on the Uyghurs and alleged coerced labor in Xinjiang, all of which rely on patently biased sources, along with the resurrection of a conspiracy theory about a lab leak that is manifestly inspired by the political goal of diverting attention from Washington’s abject pandemic failures, can’t help but recall Lenin’s imagery of journalists crawling on their bellies before the government and the money-bags, straining every nerve to rouse the hatred of the people against China.

Notes

1 The formula used to calculate the efficacy of CoronaVac in reducing Covid-19 mortality among Indonesian doctors is:

Efficacy = (mru – mrv) / mru X 100%

where

mru is the mortality rate among the unvaccinated

mrv is the mortality rate among the vaccinated

2 My analysis of CoronaVac’s efficacy in reducing mortality among Indonesian doctors departs from a proper analysis, which would require random assignment of doctors to vaccinated and non-vaccinated groups. Assuming this didn’t happen, the Indonesian doctors who weren’t vaccinated may be different in important ways from those who were–in ways that make them more or less likely to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or die from the disease. It cannot, therefore, be concluded from my analysis that CoronaVac is highly effective, but the analysis strongly challenges Emont’s reporting and is far more supportive of the idea that CoronaVac works well in reducing Covid-19 mortality than doesn’t.