Image: Getty

On Wednesday, a series of photos posted by activist and vaccine “skeptic” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. showed him and actress Jessica Biel lobbying California state lawmakers. Those lawmakers later confirmed that the duo were there to advocate against SB 276, a bill seeking to introduce more oversight into the process that allows parents to get medical exemptions from vaccines for their children. The same day, we were contacted by a legislative staffer who sat in on one of those meetings. The staffer says that both Biel and Kennedy spent some of the meeting talking about their personal belief that vaccines are both dangerous and ineffective, a belief that goes against the overwhelming weight of medical and scientific evidence.

“I’m a legislative staffer in the CA State Capitol, and I was in a meeting with Jessica Biel and her crew yesterday,” the person wrote. (We’re granting them anonymity to freely discuss a sensitive professional situation, but their identity and the lawmaker they work for was easily verified.) The legislative staffer wrote that, in the meeting, Biel said she personally didn’t go by the regular vaccine schedule for her child, due to a perception that a friend’s child had suffered negative health consequences from a vaccine.

Biel’s public relations representatives haven’t responded to three requests for comment from Jezebel, but Biel responded to the headlines on Thursday morning with an Instagram post, where she mistakenly referred to the bill as “SB 277,” which was a 2015 law that was controversial in the anti-vaccine world. She said that opposing the current bill doesn’t make her anti-vaccine.

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Her post caption reads, in full:

This week I went to Sacramento to talk to legislators in California about a proposed bill. I am not against vaccinations — I support children getting vaccinations and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians. My concern with #SB277is solely regarding medical exemptions. My dearest friends have a child with a medical condition that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state. That’s why I spoke to legislators and argued against this bill. Not because I don’t believe in vaccinations, but because I believe in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients and the ability to provide that treatment. I encourage everyone to read more on this issue and to learn about the intricacies of #SB277. Thank you to everyone who met with me this week to engage in this important discussion!

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The legislative staffer we spoke to, however, says that some of what Biel discussed did center around her own personal concerns regarding vaccines.

“Jessica said that her doctor recommended the regular vaccine schedule for her kid and she refused,” the staffer wrote, saying that Biel claimed that her friend’s child had an adverse reaction to a vaccine. (In her Instagram post, Biel wrote, “My dearest friends have a child with a medical condition that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state.”)

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The staffer also said that Biel seemed to indicate she’d then visited multiple doctors to find one who was comfortable with her preference: “She practically admitted to doctor shopping, which SB 276 is trying to prevent. She said she wants safe vaccines and mentioned ‘corporations’ a lot.”

At that point, the rest of the group Biel was with, the staffer wrote, including RFK Jr., “tried to pivot away from the doctor shopping piece, talking about how vaccines are both dangerous and ineffective at the same time. They kept mentioning these people who don’t develop antibodies from vaccines. They also mentioned a gene associated with vaccine injuries, and when I looked it up, I could only find it on these anti-vax sites.”

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The staffer later confirmed the two had been referring to the MTHFR gene; variants of the gene are extremely common. However, as the The Atlantic reports, people in the anti-vaccine community have, for several years, been ordering 23&Me tests and downloading raw data to analyze whether they or their kids have an MTHFR variant, which they believe could make them susceptible to an adverse vaccine reaction. Some anti-vaccine websites have recommended pursuing a medical exemption if parents can claim their children have an MTHFR variant making them “susceptible to vaccine injury.” But 23&Me wrote in 2017, “Despite lots of research—and lots of buzz—the existing scientific data doesn’t support the vast majority of claims that common MTHFR variants impact human health.”

Kennedy, the staffer adds, “also mentioned that he feels it’s crazy that Democrats are for this bill.”The staffer added that he also “also talked about how his granddaughter and other kids won’t be able to get permanent medical exemptions under the bill.”

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The idea that no one will be able to get a legitimate medical exemption under SB 276 is false. The bill text, which can be read in full here, calls for the state public health department to create a standardized form for medical exemptions that, beginning in 2021, would be the only one accepted. The bill would require the State Public Health Officer to review medical exemption requests, then notify the physician or surgeon who submitted the request if it was approved or denied. If it was denied, the bill “would require the reason for denial of a request to be included in the notification,” the proposal says “and would authorize the physician and surgeon to submit additional information to the department for further review for purposes of filing an appeal if an exemption request is denied.”

In an interview with the Daily Beast yesterday, Kennedy badly mischaracterized what the bill contains, telling the outlet, “The biggest problem with the bill, which is something I think Jessica is concerned with, is that a doctor who has made a determination—if he has found children in this state whose doctors have determined that they’re too fragile to receive vaccinations—this bill would overrule the doctors and force them to be vaccinated anyways.”

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The sponsor of SB 276, State Senator and pediatrician Richard Pan, says some doctors in the state are selling bogus medical exemptions to families who have no legitimate medical reason not to vaccinate. One particularly prominent family physician who’s long been critical of vaccines, Bob Sears, was punished last year for exempting a two-year-old boy from all vaccines. Sears was threatened with the revocation of his medical license, but ultimately was simply required to take medical education and ethics courses and agree to a period of supervision by another doctor. After the punishment came down, Sears wrote a Facebook post maintaining “I’ve done nothing wrong,” and also implied he was being politically punished: “I picked a fight with a California Legislator, and he has been very vocal about openly working with the medical board to prosecute doctors who excuse patients from their vaccines, regardless of the merits of a case.”

The legislative staffer told us that the meeting with Kennedy and Biel was, in their words, “interesting.”

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“They all definitely came prepared for the meeting,” they told us. “But it was a strange one.”