In recent months, Australia—a country that weathered the pandemic far better than the United States, reporting fewer than 30,000 cases and 1,000 deaths—has struggled to get its citizens vaccinated, battling a deluge of sign-up glitches, shipment blockades, and devastating floods that forced more than 40,000 to evacuate their homes.
Amid the strained rollout, the country has also had to contend with a different kind of hurdle: an erratic billionaire, described by the Western Australian premier as an “Olympic-scale narcissist,” whose political ambitions, immense resources, and faulty grasp of science have helped him drive an aggressive campaign to undermine public confidence in the shots.
Clive Palmer, an Australian mining magnate who is worth an estimated $3.8 billion, according to Forbes, has spent the past few weeks disseminating anti-vaxx flyers and boosting misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine across his home continent and in major national newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
“We started seeing about six weeks ago, Clive Palmer running ads in The Western Australian—which is the major newspaper here in Western Australia,” Member of Parliament Patrick Gorman, who has been publicly critical of Palmer’s anti-vaxx efforts, told The Daily Beast. “[These were] front-page ads, full-page, open letters, questioning the efficacy of vaccines generally, which would be costing him—per day—in the order of $20,000 or more.”
Palmer‚ a man who once tried to build an exact replica of the Titanic called the “Titanic II,” only to abandon the ship before its maiden voyage, has a reputation in Australia as an antagonist of movie-villain proportions. In August, after the businessman filed a lawsuit against the Western Australian state government over mining contracts, a newspaper photoshopped his head onto Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, and ran it with the headline “$30 BIIIIILLION”—a reference to both the character’s catchphrase and the amount Palmer requested in damages. The next day they did it again; this time, Palmer’s head was on a cane toad. The headline read “PEST.”
Their message may not have landed. On Sunday, the former member of parliament shared a graphic of the flyer on his Facebook page. Headlined “COVID-19 VACCINE CONCERNS” and addressed to “Men and Women of Australia,” the caution-tape yellow document outlined Palmer’s personal angst about the vaccine, even though he has no medical training of any kind.
The signed statement—which also ran as a full-page ad in the Murdoch-owned paper, The Australian in March—included multiple falsehoods already debunked by the country’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Most notably, Palmer referred to the Australian government’s “emergency use” approval of the vaccine on the general population. In fact, while other countries including the United States and the U.K. have protocols for “Emergency Use Authorizations”—a legal authority that allows them to distribute unapproved treatments when medically necessary—the TGA does not.
There isn’t any special authorization the TGA granted the vaccines; they are still being reviewed through a six-stage process that is also applied to all other vaccines in the country. While the administration has committed to an expedited schedule, they say it does not involve skipping steps or relaxing standards. For that reason, only the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have been approved, and only for the first stage, which they call “provisional determination.”
“The Therapeutic Goods Administration provisionally approved these vaccines after a complete assessment of all the available data,” the department wrote in a statement on its website. “No part of the process has been rushed, and there was no emergency authorisation granted. The TGA does not have an ‘Emergency Use Authorisation’ pathway for COVID-19 vaccines.” (The TGA, which did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, issued a warning last week against distributing the Astra-Zeneca vaccine to those under 50, because of two cases of blood clots).
Elsewhere in the flyers, Palmer referred to two Australians who “became ill” after receiving an oversized dose of the Pfizer vaccine. While two patients did receive extra doses of the jab back in mid-February, they showed “no signs of an adverse reaction.” Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told Australia 9News that early clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine had experimented with larger doses of up to four times the current recommendation.
“During those trials,” Kelly said, “the side effect profile was minimal, particularly in older people.” (Neither Palmer nor Kelly responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment).
“It made me really angry, to be honest,” Gorman said of the flyers, “because Clive Palmer is someone who has just tried to insert his way into national debates for his own business interests or because he has vendettas against various people.”
As an example, Gorman pointed to Australia’s federal election in 2019, in which Palmer invested some $89 million of his own money campaigning. That is “far above what either major political party would spend in a national election,” Gorman said, “and his model of splashing cash to sort of boost his ego and put out misinformation at the worst possible time is unpatriotic.”
The billionaire’s anti-vaxx promotional materials, of which there are several versions, have caught the attention of public officials as high as the prime minister. PM Scott Morrison attacked the messaging campaign last month as “complete rubbish,” and “misinformation, pure and simple.”
The attacks marked something of an about-face for Morrison, who publicly backed a legal challenge from Palmer over the summer to Western Australia’s “hard border,” which had been closed to stymie the spread of COVID-19. The federal government later withdrew its support, which Gorman said had been poorly received by the Western Australian public, in part due to Palmer’s reputation. In response to the case, the state’s premier, McGowan, called Palmer “Australia’s greatest egomaniac.”
Not long after, Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler flagged the flyers to the Australian Electoral Commission, urging the organization to investigate whether they should be considered political communications. Palmer, who served a single term in Parliament from 2013 to 2017 , formed a political party when he ran with a familiar slogan (“Make Australia Great”). He deregistered the party upon leaving office, but reactivated it in 2018, and continues to run candidates. Butler argued the flyers amounted to campaign materials and should be treated as “official party material.”
“The COVID vaccine rollout and the government's response to the pandemic generally are very clearly going to be big election issues in the lead up to the 2021 or 2022 federal election," Butler told the Australian news organization, ABC News. "Clive Palmer, who is so closely associated with the party he began, is spewing misinformation in exactly the same way he runs an election campaign.” McGowan and Butler did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Their accusations came just months after Palmer was charged with fraud and corporate misconduct over political advertisements for his party in July. Prosecutors accused Palmer of diverting some $10 million from his own businesses to the group (then called Palmer United) in 2013, which he would later use to foot the bill for a $60 million campaigning spree. If he is found guilty, the offenses could entail lengthy prison sentences.
Dabbling in medical conspiracy is not a new development for Palmer; he has been waging a year-long misinformation campaign against the science and legality of Australia’s coronavirus response since the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, the billionaire announced plans to acquire or manufacture more than one million doses of hydroxychloroquine—the malaria treatment endorsed by President Trump as a COVID-19 cure, despite a total dearth of evidence that the drug has any impact on the disease.
The lack of evidence did not bother Palmer. The next month he bought nearly 33 million doses of the drug to distribute for free among Australians. In an infographic published to his foundation’s website, titled “The COVID-19 Hydroxychloroquine Story,” he boasted of plans to make “resources available to fund clinical trials.” The next day, Palmer advertised the move with three full-page ads in prominent national newspapers—all of them owned by Murdoch’s News Corp.
Gratuitous use of hydroxychloroquine can pose a danger to patients who have not been prescribed the medication. The TGA has warned that the medication poses “well-known serious side-effects to patients, including cardiac toxicity potentially leading to sudden heart attacks, irreversible eye damage and severe depletion of blood sugar potentially leading to coma.” According to the Guardian, the TGA later opened an investigation into whether the ads breached their drug advertising rules.
In 2021, Palmer’s faith in fast-tracked medical research seems to have waned, and he pivoted from boosting faulty drugs to questioning clinical studies. In the Australian outlet ABC News, the vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, Chris Moy, offered Palmer a suggestion: “Clive, we’ll leave the mining to you and you leave the medicine and the science to us.”
“The problem is, say somebody doesn’t get the vaccination because of his message, which is clearly not based on any particular expertise on his part,” Moy added. “What happens if they later get COVID or even die later? He'll be completely removed from direct responsibility for it, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s as responsible as any doctor who does something wrong."