Fla. surgeon general used ‘flawed’ vaccine science, faculty peers say (2024)

Joseph A. Ladapo, a professor of medicine at the University of Florida and the state’s surgeon general, relied upon a flawed analysis and may have violated university research integrity rules when he issued guidance last fall discouraging young men from receiving common coronavirus vaccines, according to a report from a medical school faculty task force. But the university says it has no plans to investigate the matter.

Ladapo recommended in October that men younger than 40 not take mRNA vaccinations for covid, pointing to an “abnormally high risk of cardiac-related death.” Doctors and public health officials swiftly pounced, dismissing the underlying research for its small sample size, lack of detail and shaky methodology.

In its new report, a task force of the University of Florida College of Medicine’s Faculty Council cites numerous deficiencies in the analysis Ladapo used to justify his vaccine recommendation. A summary said the work was “seriously flawed.” The report’s authors say Ladapo engaged in “careless, irregular, or contentious research practices.”

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The report, which was shared on Tuesday night with medical school faculty members and obtained by The Washington Post, is the first formal challenge to Ladapo from his academic colleagues. It was referred to the university’s Office of Research Integrity, Security and Compliance, a UF spokesman confirmed on Tuesday. Under university guidelines, the referral could have compelled the state’s flagship university to consider a formal investigation of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s surgeon general.

But the university’s top research officer said on Wednesday it would close the matter, because Ladapo’s work as a state official was outside the school’s purview.

“As this work was done by the Dr. Joseph Ladapo in his role as the state of Florida Surgeon General and not in his role as a UF faculty member, the UF Office of Research Integrity, Security and Compliance has no standing to consider the allegations or concerns regarding research integrity set forth in the Faculty Council task force report,” David Norton, the university’s vice president for research, said in a statement provided to The Post.

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The faculty panel does not suggest Ladapo committed classic research misconduct, such as falsifying data or plagiarism. Instead, its report zeroes in on what it describes as methodological flaws in the analysis, which was presented to the public without any named authors — much less their credentials. The analysis relies on data that is not statistically significant, the task force concluded, and it fails to compare the risks of vaccination with the benefits, such as limiting covid-19 deaths and reducing hospitalizations. Finally, the analysis claims deaths are cardiac-related without sufficient evidence to support that, the task force stated. As a result, it adds, Ladapo’s guidance may have violated a section of UF’s research integrity policy that concerns “questionable research practices.”

Although the school declined to review Ladapo’s actions, the task force argues that Ladapo should be held to the standards of a university professor at all times, including in his role as a public servant. “While Dr. Ladapo has the right and responsibility to develop public health policy as the state Surgeon General, he must simultaneously uphold the expectations and responsibilities of a tenured professor,” the task force stated in the summary report of its findings.

Read the University of Florida report

Ladapo did not respond on Tuesday to emails requesting comment. But he has publicly defended his guidance before. “Backed by the data, I stand by my recommendation against Covid-19 mRNA vaccination for young men,” Ladapo wrote in a column published in October by the Wall Street Journal. “At this point in the pandemic, it is unlikely that the benefits outweigh these risks.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that everyone 6 months or older get a coronavirus vaccine.

In response to a summary of the task force’s findings, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health questioned why Ladapo’s university colleagues would “vilify” him for his work as surgeon general.

“The ‘research’ conducted has no affiliation with the university and was a surveillance assessment of public health data within the Surgeon General’s authority,” James “Jae” A. Williams III, the department’s assistant press secretary, wrote in an email. “It is interesting that the Faculty Council spent such a significant amount of time to vilify their colleague’s work.”

DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, is a prominent vaccine skeptic. In December, he successfully persuaded the state’s Supreme Court to order a grand jury investigation of “crimes and wrongs in Florida related to the COVID-19 vaccines.”

Daniel Salmon, a vaccinologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, said in a recent interview that Ladapo’s affiliation with UF “increases his credibility” — and, as such, also “increases the likelihood that he’ll do harm.”

‘Gray area’

Ladapo, who was known early in the pandemic for his public skepticism of vaccines and mask mandates, was appointed at UF in 2021, around the time DeSantis named him surgeon general. Before joining UF, Ladapo was an associate professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. He holds a medical degree and a PhD in health policy, both from Harvard University.

Recent controversies are driving what some at UF say is a hyper-politicized environment. Ladapo joined the university with tenure through a fast-tracked process that drew criticism from a faculty panel. In October, students and professors criticized an opaque presidential search process in which Ben Sasse, the departing U.S. senator from Nebraska, was named the sole finalist for UF’s presidency. (Sasse will assume the position in February.) In 2021, UF came under fire for blocking professors from assisting in litigation against the state on matters including voting rights and mask mandates. The school reversed its position under heavy criticism.

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“The climate is not good,” said Ira Longini, a member of the task force and a professor of biostatistics. “People feel worried and threatened. The governor controls or tries to control the universities in the state. The whole system is under siege at the moment.”

Professors sue University of Florida, claiming free speech restraints

In addition to experts on biostatistics, the task force included professors with expertise in infectious diseases, pediatrics, public health, vaccines and epidemiology. Michael Haller, chief of pediatric endocrinology at UF, served as chair of the group.

Haller declined to comment on the task force’s findings or the university’s decision not to investigate Ladapo.

In an email to medical faculty on Tuesday night, Martin Rosenthal, president of the medical school’s Faculty Council, said, “The Task Force found no research misconduct.” But the report points to a provision of university policy on “research integrity violation[s].” Rosenthal told the faculty that “Any further investigation is being handled by the Office of Research Integrity.”

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Rosenthal did not respond to numerous inquiries from The Post.

At UF, “any allegations of research misconduct and other violations of research integrity” are investigated in accordance with university policy, according to an online description of the university’s processes. An allegation, however, does not ensure a formal investigation — and the research chief’s statement on Wednesday makes clear that won’t happen as a result of the task force’s work.

The case against Ladapo falls into a “gray area” of research compliance, according to Christopher J. Cramer, a former vice president for research at the University of Minnesota.

“I certainly wouldn’t call it misconduct,” said Cramer, a professor emeritus of chemistry. “The question then arises, ‘But what about integrity?’ The faculty of the University of Florida might be within their rights to suggest that the surgeon general should take a leave of absence or otherwise dissociate from the university because of a failure to live up to academic responsibility.”

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The challenge to Ladapo from his UF colleagues is reminiscent of a case at Stanford University where, in 2020, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution condemning Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank hosted by Stanford. As President Donald Trump’s pandemic adviser, Atlas questioned the science of mask-wearing and once urged Michigan residents to “rise up” against covid restrictions. In a recent interview with the Stanford Review, Atlas said the faculty criticisms of him “had no basis whatsoever.”

Paul Offit, a professor of vaccinology and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said that Ladapo has put people at risk through his vaccine guidance. The university needs to stand up and say that, Offit said.

“If people are making statements that are incorrect and with the potential to do harm,” Offit said, “then I think it’s incumbent upon the university to bring that person who speaks to task.”

Fla. surgeon general used ‘flawed’ vaccine science, faculty peers say (2024)

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