Federal agencies withholding data behind pilot heart condition change, COVID vax stroke reversal
FAA says "new scientific evidence" justified widening acceptable range for heart rhythms. Medical experts disagree whether change is "shocking" or "benign and practical" given pilot shortage. CDC called out for changing methodology to "get the result you want."
The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook
- industrywide vaccine mandates
- Oct. 26 update
- FAA Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners
- list of "normal variants"
- pilot Robert Snow blamed his in-flight cardiac arrest
- Federal Air Surgeon Susan Northrup
- "wealthy businessmen" have contacted him
- Sheumas McGonnegal
- once courted by Democratic presidential hopefuls
- Jan. 5 essay
- Fox News host said
- spike in possibly vaccine-related adverse events
- threatened class-action lawsuit against Twitter
- "unhysterical review"
- "classic" analysis from 2009
- Philadelphia cardiologist Anish Koka
- heart scarring in children after COVID vaccination but not infection
- CDC and FDA told the public Jan. 13
- The Washington Post
- Marty Makary wrote on Twitter
Federal agencies are withholding the data behind recent decisions that relate or may relate to COVID-19 vaccines and severe adverse events, fueling speculation that they are putting both vaccinated and unvaccinated lives at risk.
The Federal Aviation Administration told Just the News it widened the acceptable range of heart rhythms for commercial pilots, who were initially subject to industry-wide vaccine mandates, in light of "[n]ew scientific evidence" that it has yet to specify.
The Oct. 26 update to the heart arrhythmias section of the FAA Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners made two key changes.
The agency raised the maximum so-called PR interval for first-degree atrioventricular block to 300 milliseconds, with no regard to age, on the list of "normal variants" that don't require deferment in the absence of "symptoms or AME concerns."
For intervals longer than 300 ms, the FAA will make the call based on evaluations by examiners. The previous maximum PR interval for AV block was 210 milliseconds, but only in pilots under age 51.
FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor provided a modified version of the statement the agency released last spring after American Airlines pilot Robert Snow blamed his in-flight cardiac arrest on coerced vaccination.
Federal Air Surgeon Susan Northrup has deemed all U.S.-authorized COVID vaccines safe for pilots, the FAA said, claiming it had "seen no evidence" of vaccine-related complications that caused "aircraft accidents or pilot incapacitations."
The agency followed "standard processes based on data and science" to determine it could "safely raise the tolerance used to screen for a certain heart condition" and notified AMEs of the change. Gregor didn't respond to queries for the specific evidence.
Such representations may not assuage those who have more flight options. U.S. Freedom Flyers cofounder Joshua Yoder, whose group collects and analyzes adverse event reports from pilots, tweeted that "wealthy businessmen" have contacted him "looking for unvaccinated pilots."
Yoder started getting requests in fall 2021, "a mix of charter companies and private individuals who own personal jets," he wrote in an email. "I've spoken to 30 plus individuals myself and have also heard from an aircraft broker recently who told me he's receiving similar requests."
Sheumas McGonnegal, a self-described veteran in London, claimed his charter company had received such requests. He didn't answer Just the News requests for more details.
Vaccine-skeptic philanthropist Steve Kirsch, once courted by Democratic presidential hopefuls, called attention to the three-month-old FAA change Tuesday, claiming it showed the agency has conceded "the EKGs of pilots are no longer normal." He interviewed cardiologist Thomas Levy, who pointed Just the News to his Jan. 5 essay.
The FAA change is "arguably a shocking one, as many pilots are in the age range when heart attacks occur without any early symptoms but with a normal ECG, the ECG being the only mandatory heart-related test," Levy wrote. "A fatal heart attack from very advanced coronary artery disease could occur 10 minutes after the normal ECG was recorded."
The FAA declined to provide the "data and science" when Tucker Carlson asked for it in response to Kirsch's essay, the Fox News host said.
Military flight surgeon Theresa Long, who blew the whistle on a spike in possibly vaccine-related adverse events in a military medical database in 2021, told Carlson the expanded interval "does not improve safety" and called on Northrup to release the data.
She said the military requires annual EKGs of pilots regardless of age, in contrast to commercial pilots, who get EKGs at age 35 and then annually starting at 40, a problematic "five-year gap."
Other medical experts who are concerned about COVID vaccine side effects pushed back on the portrayal of the FAA change.
Former Ivy League epidemiologist Andrew Bostom, who was slated to lead a threatened class-action lawsuit against Twitter before Elon Musk's purchase, provided an "unhysterical review" Wednesday.
He cited a "classic" analysis from 2009 in the decades-old Framingham Heart Study, where he once worked as a cardiovascular epidemiologist.
Starting from a mean age of 46 and tracking pilots for 35 years — past their FAA-mandated retirement at 65 — the study suggests a 90-millisecond increase is associated with small annual increased risks for all-cause mortality (1%), atrial fibrillation (1.5%) and permanent pacemaker placement (3%), Bostom said.
A PR interval over 300 ms could be "a benign finding in isolation" that requires "clinical correlation," without which it "makes even less sense to revoke flight privilege," he wrote. Normal PR intervals rise with age, but a short-term rise above 350 ms could be cause for concern, Bostom told Just the News.
"The most likely explanation [for the change] is very benign and practical: the airlines are losing pilots by attrition," both before COVID and since vaccine mandates pushed them out, and the FAA "wanted to liberalize these unreasonable criteria," he wrote in an email. This is "much ado about nothing."
"The rate of progression to more advanced heart block is slow enough and rare enough that it would seem reasonable to allow pilots to fly with mild PR prolongation if you’re doing an annual Ecg," tweeted Philadelphia cardiologist Anish Koka, who has highlighted research finding heart scarring in children after COVID vaccination but not infection.
Shortly after the CDC and FDA told the public Jan. 13 they found a signal for ischemic stroke in elderly recipients of Pfizer's bivalent vaccine, unidentified officials told The Washington Post the signal disappeared after the CDC used a "different methodology" to analyze the data in its Vaccine Safety Datalink system.
"[Y]ou can't just run different stat tests until you get the result you want," Johns Hopkins medical professor and National Academy of Medicine member Marty Makary wrote on Twitter. "Make the data public."
A CDC official told the Post that non-CDC officials, "including at the FDA," argued against publicizing the stroke signal because it could "fuel anti-vaccine sentiment and scare older Americans into avoiding the boosters." Makary blasted the FDA for "working so hard to sup[p]ress data."
The CDC didn't answer requests to respond to Makary's allegations or explain why it's withholding the VSD safety-signal data. The FDA didn't respond when asked to confirm the Post's reporting.