As 2021 dawned, my first post of the year was about how many of my fellow physicians behaved very badly last year with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals bravely risked their lives to care for COVID-19 patients (and some even died of COVID-19), a small but disturbing and impossible-to-ignore number of doctors denied or minimized the pandemic, sold unproven or even quack “cures,” and helped spread conspiracy theories designed to spark resistance to public health interventions, like masking, social distancing, and closures of businesses that involve large numbers of people gathering. Some have even engaged in germ theory denial by claiming that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that has been shown to cause COVID-19, either doesn’t exist (it’s an exosome!) or doesn’t cause COVID-19. As these examples led me to think about how such people could get through medical school (just as Andrew Wakefield always did), I learned earlier this week that it wasn’t just doctors, but pharmacists as well, who fall prey to conspiracy theories:
A pharmacist who was arrested on charges that he intentionally sabotaged more than 500 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine at a Wisconsin hospital was “an admitted conspiracy theorist” who believed the vaccine could harm people and “change their DNA,” according to the police in Grafton, Wis., where the man was employed.
The police said Steven Brandenburg, 46, who worked the night shift at the Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wis., had twice removed a box of vials of the Moderna vaccine from the refrigerator for periods of 12 hours, rendering them “useless.”
“Brandenburg admitted to doing this intentionally, knowing that it would diminish the effects of the vaccine,” the police said.
In addition, Brandenberg was clearly a troubled man who believed in other conspiracy theories as well, was going through a divorce, and reportedly had brought a gun to work on two different occasions.
Regular readers will remember that the idea that mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, like the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, will “damage” or somehow “irreversibly alter” your DNA was featured here quite a while ago. I was…not kind…to those promoting this idiotic idea because, to put it uncharacteristically briefly for me, to have such an idea bespeaks an utter ignorance and/or misunderstanding of some very basic molecular biology of the sort that is taught in introductory level biology classes in college. Unfortunately, it’s not just pharmacists. For example, my post deconstructing that claim primarily examines the claim as promoted by a physician, Dr. Carrie Madej.
And then there’s Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield, as you know, is the British physician who launched the modern antivaccine movement nearly 23 years ago with his Lancet paper implying that the MMR vaccine was associated with an increased risk of autism. When last we left him, pre-pandemic, he had been reduced to writing for the official journal of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) that John Birch Society for physicians disguised as a medical professional society that regularly lets ideology trump science. traffics in the most vile antivaccine misinformation (e.g., from the claim that shaken baby syndrome is a “misdiagnosis” for vaccine injury that I discussed the first time I found the group to anti-immigrant fear-mongering, climate science denial, HIV/AIDS denialism, blaming breast cancer on abortion using execrable “science,” and more. The AAPS views doctors as some sort of mythical brave mavericks outside the “herd” (of sheeple, apparently) whose godlike total autonomy must never be infringed by the government, having gone on record about Medicare as stating that “the effect of the law is evil and participation in carrying out its provisions is, in our opinion, immoral.” Basically AAPS rejects any government involvement in medicine, be it Medicare and Medicaid or even state medical boards, as an unacceptable impingement on the absolute autonomy of physicians. It rejects even the concept of a scientific consensus about anything, while rejecting evidence-based guidelines as—you guessed it!—an unacceptable affront to the godlike autonomy of physicians. It last hit the news in a big way four years ago, when it was reported that Donald Trump’s pick to be his first Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, was a member of AAPS. More recently, right before the pandemic overwhelmed all other news, it even sued to protect its “right” to promote antivaccine misinformation.
I haven’t written about Andrew Wakefield for a while, because I hadn’t thought that he could top his claim a year ago for AAPS that the measles vaccine will result in a mass extinction of humans), but, like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Freddie Krueger, the villain who seems to die at the end of one slasher movie, Wakefield has returned, all too alive, to spread more disinformation. The wandering band of antivaccine conspiracy theorists over at that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, Age of Autism, are, unsurprisingly, on the case, and here’s the video:
Surprise, surprise! Andrew Wakefield is a COVID-19 crank, too! Also, unsurprisingly, this video is not on YouTube, likely given that it’s COVID-19 disinformation. In fact, you can tell from the title of the video that Wakefield buys into the same unscientific bunk about mRNA vaccines as Carrie Madej. True, he tries to make it sound more reasonable (remember, Madej called the vaccines “transhumanism”), but Wakefield needs to read an introductory biology or biochemistry text just as much as Madej or Brandenberg does. I mean, lookl at the title: Dr. Wakefield warns=”This is not a Vax, it is irreversible genetic modification.”
Wakefield starts out reasonably enough, because, as so many cranks and conspiracy theorists are, Wakefield is good at starting with a bit of scientific fact and using it to build his conspiracy:
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, are the basis of our genetic structure, if you like, and in every cell encodes for proteins, and it transfers its information to make the protein to messenger RNA. So messenger RNA is an intermediary between the gene and the product, the protein. It’s the protein that ultimately elicits the immune response, not the RNA. If you want to make a vaccine, it’s protein that you give, whether it’s bacterial protein or viral protein or whatever. It’s the protein to which the human immune system develops the immune response.
So far, so good. This is basic biology 101. Of course it’s quite possible to understand these basics (or seem to understand these basics), but still go right off the rails, and go off the rails is exactly what Wakefield proceeds to do very soon after this. What follows next, although not as into the stratosphere of woo as Madej’s take on the same claim, is nonetheless a series of facepalm-worthy statements that gave me a headache.
So, by definition, an RNA vaccine isn’t a vaccine at all because it doesn’t elicit an immune response. It has to be turned into protein, and it’s the protein in turn that creates the immune response. A messenger RNA vaccine is actually genetic engineering. That’s what it is. It’s putting genetic material from an RNA virus into your cells and asking your cellular machinery with the RNA to produce protein from your cells, to which you then mount an immune response.
Didn’t Wakefield just say that an mRNA vaccine couldn’t be a vaccine at all because it doesn’t consist of protein, that it has to be converted to protein to cause an immune response? (I could get into the weeds and point out tha RNA itself is immunogenic and can convert an immune response.) Then he says that the mRNA is taken up in the cells and then the cells do make the protein, which in turn does mount an immune response? How is that not a vaccine? It doesn’t matter where the protein comes from, whether it’s in the vaccine itself or whether the vaccine somehow induces the body’s cells to make the protein to which you want to provoke an immune response. A vaccine is nothing more than a biological preparation that provides active acquired immunity against a disease. Does Wakefield say that a measles vaccine is not a vaccine? It’s a live attenuated virus vaccine; so you’re giving actual virus that infects cells but doesn’t cause disease because it’s weakened. Is that not a vaccine? The idea is that the infection with the attenuated virus vaccine results in a viral infection that is similar enough to the unaltered pathogenic virus that immunity to the weakened virus results in immunity to the full strength virus.
Note, though, how Wakefield cleverly tries to portray the COVID-19 vaccine as “genetic engineering,” because, you know, genetic engineering is scary to most people. Of course, in a trivial way, it sort of is genetic engineering, but really it’s not, at least not in the way that we normally mean. In reality, genetic engineering usually means permanently altering the genetic makeup of an organism, of which some examples are listed here. This is not what we’re talking about with RNA vaccines, which are intentionally designed not to permanently alter the genetics of the cells that they “ask” to make the protein being used as an antigen to provoke an immune response. I’ll go even further. Even if mRNA vaccines did somehow “permanently” alter the cells they affected, they arguably would still not really be genetic engineering, because they would only affect an infinitesimal fraction of the total cells in the body, the remainder of which would be unaffected.
But RNA vaccines don’t even do that. I’ll recap yet again. mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 consist of the messenger RNA (mRNA) for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, surrounded by lipids in lipid nanoparticles. These lipids fuse with the cell membrane, allowing the mRNA into the cell and giving it access to the ribosomes, the large enzyme complex that normally bind to and transcribe mRNA to make protein. The mRNA degrades. mRNA vaccines usually chemically alter the mRNA so that it has a longer half-life than most RNA, so that it continues to make protein long enough for the body to mount an immune response to it, but eventually the mRNA degrades and goes away.
Wakefield, predictably, goes deeper into nonsense:
What could possibly go wrong? You have cells in your own body that are producing protein to which your immune system is going to mount an immune response. That’s called an autoimmune disease.
No, no, no, no, no! No, it’s not! The COVID-19 spike protein is not a human protein. Autoimmune disease involves an aberrant immune response against one of the body’s own proteins. The COVID-19 vaccine is inducing your cells to make a foreign protein to facilitate an immune response. By this rationale, all viral diseases are autoimmune diseases, because all viral diseases induce cells to make a foreign protein that elicits an immune response!
None of that stops Wakefield:
The potential for this to go horribly wrong is enormous. They’ve never been used in humans before. It’s never been tested out, but yet it’s been rushed to market…And we’re already seeing some major problems occurring. I think there were two cases of anaphylaxis. There have been deaths that have just been reported.
No, not really, at least not any more than any other vaccine. Once again, antivaxxers like to act as though mRNA vaccines just sprang out of nowhere, when in fact they have been in development for 10-15 years, and we have large clinical trials showing safety and efficacy of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Mdoerna vaccines. In the clinical trials, there was no statistically significant difference between the number of deaths in the vaccinated group compared to the placebo group. As for deaths after the vaccine, I’m betting that Wakefield is referring to the case of Tiffany Dover, who fainted after getting the Pfizer vaccine and about whom conspiracy theories immediately cropped up claiming that she was dead, resulting in her harassment. Yes, there have been well-publicized incidents of anaphylaxis, but all vaccines have the risk of anaphylaxis, and compared to the risk of COVID-19 the risks of the vaccines are very, very low.
None of that stops Wakefield from repeating the nonsense about how the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are not really vaccines and how they are genetic engineering, before repeating yet again that they have never been tested in humans. (How many tens of thousands of subjects were in the final phase 3 trials that led to the emergency use authorization for the vaccines, again?) None of that stops Wakefield from saying something this ignorant:
If it causes a problem—a year, two years, five years down the line—and it’s already been given to billions of people worldwide, it’s too late. You can’t take it out. You can’t switch it off. You can’t stop it. It’s in there.
No, no, no, no, no! Again, the half-life of mRNA is short. In fact, on average, it’s only 10 hours! Then it’s gone. True, there is a wide range in normal human mRNAs. Some mRNAs have half-lifes under two hours. Indeed, I studied the mRNA of a gene that I cloned in graduate school, and I showed that its half-life was on the order of a few hours but that it rapidly degraded in response to certain cellular stimuli. Again, it’s true that the mRNAs in COVID-19 vaccines have been chemically altered to have longer half-lives, but they are nonetheless gone within two weeks to the point of not making protein any more. Again, this is just nonsense designed to scare people who don’t know anything about molecular biology.
Hilariously, Wakefield then accuses scientists of “living in an intellectual bubble.” No, I kid you not. While condescendingly saying that “some of them really believe” that what they are doing will “save the world,” he pivots to accuse them of living in an “intellectual vacuum” and “bubble” that keep them from seeing the potential problems with what they are doing. I laughed out loud when Wakefield say:
“Because we can, we should”? No, because we think we can, we’re prepared to take the risk on people’s behalf. That’s the truth of it.
Nice mangling of Jurassic Park there. Jeff Goldblum disapproves.
In reality, it is those who are working on these vaccines who are most acutely aware of potential problems with the vaccines and the sorts of problems they might cause. That’s why there are so many safeguards and so many details that they attend to. Unsurprisingly, Wakefield then invokes the “science was wrong before” canard, to which I always respond: Yes, science has been wrong before, but you know how we found out science was wrong? With more science. This is also particularly rich coming from Andrew Wakefield, whose science wasn’t just wrong, but fraudulent and who’s never admitted it. Similarly, his arrogant swipe at science as having made arrogant assumptions about its ability to assert dominion over nature made me laugh too coming from Wakefield. The “arrogance” of science is as nothing compared to Wakefield’s arrogance!
I mean, really. He even invokes the Human Genome Project, claiming that altering the expression of one gene thought to cause a disease sometimes had unexpected effects. I’d love to know what group he’s referring to, because, as always, context matters, and I never trust Wakefield to give decent context, but I could point out that in other cases there have been several successful uses of gene therapy (or “genetic engineering,” as Wakefield would likely put it).
The rest of the video is a crank greatest hits. Wakefield claims that scientists are blind and easily swayed about approaches that look like they will work in cell culture if they have the potential to make a lot of money, particularly given how terrified everyone is of the pandemic and the need to “do something.” Of course, there is a grain of truth in there, but it’s a grain of truth there, but Wakefield, as always, takes it straight into conspiracyville, along the way pimping his latest lie-packed movie about the Vaccine Court, parroting some of those lies, such as the claim that there is no liability for vaccine makers and that it was fear that drove lawmakers to pass the legislation that formed the Vaccine Court. Again, there’s a grain of truth in there. There was fear. There was fear that a tsunami of dubious and bogus lawsuits would endanger the vaccine supply by driving all the companies making childhood vaccines out of the US market.
And, yes, Wakefield finishes up with—you guessed it!—Bill Gates conspiracy theories! Because of course he does. Grifters gonna grift, and conspiracy theorists gonna conspiracy, and Wakefield is both of those.