In 2011, the CIA constructed an elaborate ruse involving a fake vaccination program in a town in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was suspected to be hiding. The agency recruited a senior Pakistani doctor who, under cover of a mass immunization campaign, had to obtain DNA samples of children living in a compound in the town to confirm the location of what was then the world's most wanted man.
The operation proved successful as the CIA found a DNA match. Bin Laden's lair was confirmed and on May 2, 2011, a team of US Navy Seals descended on the Abbottabad compound and terminated the Al-Qaeda leader.
But bin Laden's death did not stop extremism from spreading in Pakistan, and conservative religious movements became even more influential. Over the next three years, several terror groups -- foremost among them the Pakistani Taliban -- carried out bloody attacks and established strongholds in northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
These extremist groups would also go on to exploit the CIA sham operation as ammunition for their anti-vaccination propaganda. By discrediting official, state-sponsored public initiatives, the Taliban aim to boost their own credibility. The fake vaccination program -- which actually involved genuinely vaccinating a lot of people against hepatitis B, including people in a poorer part of town in order to make it look more authentic -- was never authorized by Pakistani health authorities. So after it was revealed how the Americans employed vaccines to trick bin Laden's people, the Taliban issued several edicts linking legit vaccination campaigns to CIA espionage. Later, the Taliban even used violent action against vaccination workers.
The CIA is long gone from Abbottabad but even ten years later, the repercussions of its daring operation to locate Bin Laden are still felt by the local populace. In a new study, researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK found that the vaccine ruse resulted in a significant drop in vaccination rates in Pakistan.
Using data from the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement on children born between January 2010 and July 2012, the researchers investigated the effects of the disclosure of the CIA operation on vaccination rates for polio, DPT, or measles.
According to the researchers' estimates, vaccination rates declined between 23% and 39% in districts with high levels of electoral support for parties espousing political extremism compared to districts with lower levels of support for such politics. The vaccination rate decline was higher among girls than boys.
In the context of the COVID pandemic, these mind games will likely have an even more tragic toll. Pakistan managed to limit the spread of COVID in the first and second waves, but the third wave is a different story. According to the National Command Operation Center (NCOC), over 1.8 million Pakistanis have been vaccinated at government facilities while over 18,000 received shots at private hospitals – in total, less than 1 percent of the country’s population.
"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," said Andreas Stegmann, one of the paper's authors. "This seems particularly relevant today as public acceptance of the new vaccines against Covid-19 is crucial to address the pandemic."
The findings appeared in the Journal of the European Economic Association.