Field of Science

Scare-mongering about the flu vaccine and cancer

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. The anti-vaccination activists, the same people who continue to claim that vaccines cause autism, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, have invented a new way to scare people in order to prevent them from getting the vaccine against the new pandemic flu strain (aka swine flu). Here is the headline, which appeared yesterday on several websites:
"Another Shocking Warning About Swine Flu Vaccine"
The article begins with this gem: "The swine flu vaccine has been hit by new cancer fears after a German health expert gave a shocking warning about its safety." This "warning" was news to me: did you know that the vaccine can give you cancer? Neither did I. The source of this new claim is Wolfgang Wodarg, a German politician who is described in the article as a "lung specialist." The article on mercola.com (the website of Dr. Joseph Mercola, more about him below) calls him "Dr. Wodarg", but when I checked Wodarg's own websites, I found that he was a politician in the German parliament who claims to be an expert on health matters. Whatever his claims, though, he doesn't know beans about the flu.

Despite the lack of credibility of the source, I wanted to know where in the world this seemingly-crazy claim came from. Was there anything to it? The main claim is this: "The nutrient solution for the vaccine consists of cancerous cells from animals, and some fear that the risk of cancer could be increased by injecting the cells." Let's break this down.

There are at least two claims here: first, that the vaccine is grown in "cancerous cells from animals," and second, that "some" people are afraid that this could give them cancer. Let's deal with the second claim first. No references are given in the original story, and it appears to be completely invented. Mercola just repeats the invented claim, which in its original form read: "some people fear that the risk of cancer could be increased by injecting the cells." How can a reporter just make this up? My guess is that simply by stating that "some people" have this fear, the reporter has created a self-fulfilling claim - after reading about the "fear", it is entirely possible that some people will begin to fear the same thing. Whatever the case, it's extremely irresponsible to make this statement without providing any proof.

Now let's look at the first claim. Here there is a very tiny little speck of truth, grossly misrepresented and distorted. This is a common strategy among conspiracy theorists and quacks: find some little factoid and then make wildly distorted claims about it. Then when experts (real ones, not fake ones like Wolfgang Wodarg) are asked about the claim, they will endeavor to explain the truth, but in trying to be clear and accurate, they will give credibility to the original claim. I'm going to try to be clear and accurate here, but first I want to say that this entire story is complete and utter nonsense, and Wolfgang Wodarg is an irresponsible idiot for starting it. If people follow his advice, many will likely get very sick, and some people might die. There, got that out of the way.

So let's look at the "cancer cells" claim. First of all, the claim doesn't apply at all to the vaccines made in the U.S., which are grown in chicken eggs. It refers to a new vaccine manufacturing process that involves cell lines, which is being developed in Germany and in a few other European countries - and which will lead to much more rapid, efficient production of vaccines in the future. (The flu vaccine, as I've written in the journal Nature, is produced using out-of-date methods that are far too slow.) The Dr. Mercola website make no mention of any of this - possibly because Mercola is ignorant of it. But what about the German vaccine?

Here's the scoop: the company Baxter announced in August that it was testing its new H1N1 vaccine, grown in a Vero cell line, for safety and effectiveness. If it passes, it may be approved for use in Europe. Growing the virus in a cell line is much simpler, and faster, than growing it in eggs. The Vero cell line originally isolated in 1962, came from kidney epithelial cells from an African green monkey. These cell lines have been used for many purposes over the years, including vaccine development. And here's the grain of truth in Wodarg's claim: yes, Vero cells can be called "cancer" cells. Many cell lines are cancer cells, in that they divide and grow indefinitely (stem cells also have this feature). If they didn't, they wouldn't be much use as cell lines - the cells would simply die after a relatively short time.

However - and here's where Wobarg goes right off the rails - there is no evidence that Vero cells have ever caused cancer. These cells have been used in the past to produce other vaccines, including rabies and measles (references are easy to find), and no humans have ever gotten cancer from these vaccines. So there is no legitimate reason to believe that the flu virus will cause cancer. I'd probably have to write ten more pages to demonstrate why these cells don't pose a cancer risk, and there lies the insidiousness of the claims by Wodarg and Mercola: they made their outrageous claim with no evidence at all, but now, to refute it, I could spend hours and hours looking at the history of vaccines made using Vero cells.

And wait: there's a third claim buried in the sentence about the fear of cancer: by writing "some fear that the risk of cancer could be increased by injecting the cells", Mercola is claiming that cancer cells will be injected into your arm if you get the vaccine. Sorry, Dr. Mercola, that's not true. The vaccine is grown in a cell line, purified to remove the Vero cells, and then the virus particles themselves are killed. So this third claim is bogus too. But just like the others, to disprove it thoroughly, I'd have to dig through the literature on cell cultures, purification, and vaccine testing. Mercola didn't bother to look at any real science, as far as I can tell.

This article was posted on mercola.com on September 8 (yestesday, as I write this), and it appears to be spreading quickly among the anti-vax movement, with postings on Facebook and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the likely effect of this is to reduce the number of people who get vaccinated for swine flu, which in turn will increase the severity of the pandemic as it continues to spread this fall. Even worse, nonsense like this increases the average person's overall distrust - or fear - of vaccines, which has even greater public health consequences.

Why does someone who claims to be a doctor (Mercola) do this? Why does he want to keep people from getting vaccinated? Is he so interested in money and self-promotion that he just doesn't care? Is he so poorly trained and ill-informed that he really believes this drivel? It would have taken him about 5 minutes to figure out that the Vero cell line isn't used for vaccines made in the U.S. - why didn't he point that out, rather than warning all of his readers (mostly in the U.S.) about this new "risk" of vaccination? To me, this kind of reckless disregard for the facts indicates that he just doesn't care.

I looked a bit further into "Dr." Mercola (an osteopath, not an M.D.), whose website is awash in self-promotion as well as offers to buy his books and other products, and he is more than just an anti-vaccination quack. He makes all kinds of unsubstantiated health claims about his products (and he has an entire website devoted to selling them), and it wasn't too hard to learn that he has violated federal regulations at least twice: in 2005 and again in 2006, the FDA ordered him to stop making illegal claims about multiple products he was selling on his website (see the 2005 FDA letter here, and the 2006 FDA letter here). Not surprisingly, these FDA warnings did little to slow this guy down.

Mercola is a conspiracy monger as well - he recently posted an article titled "Do Drug Companies Secretly Favor a World Flu Pandemic?" which claimed, in addition to its wacky title, that vaccines "don't work" and that they pose a "significant health risk" to children. And today he posted a video accompanied by the claim that "studies show that flu vaccines are unsafe and ineffective." This guy must have a few wires loose somewhere. Or he is one greedy, uncaring quack. Or both.

Why the ad hominem attacks, you ask? It's true that regardless of how much of a quack Mercola might be, that doesn't mean that everything he says is false. However, once we learn that someone is willing to lie in order to promote bogus medical treatments (see the FDA violations I mentioned above), we should view any future claims from that source with great skepticism. I can't stop Mercola from making his pseudoscientific statements, but perhaps I can convince a few people that they shouldn't believe anything they read on his site.

In the meanwhile, people, get yourself vaccinated against the flu!