As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on and enters its third year, every so often I think that I’ve seen all the examples of bad science, silly analogies, and general conspiracy mongering from COVID-19 contrarians, antimaskers, anti-“lockdown” advocates, and antivaxxers that there are. Every so often, I’m wrong, too. Enter Marc Girardot. As strange as it seems, I didn’t recall having heard of Girardot before, but apparently he’s a tech guy with an MBA and a masters in Economics and Business who’s worked for Cisco, Booz Allen and Air Liquide, which makes him exactly the sort of guy whose takes on COVID-19 I want to hear. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Girard describes himself as a “seasoned strategy consultant trained in the scientific method with experience.” Like far too many tech guys with no discernible serious expertise in public health, virology, infectious disease, molecular biology, or other relevant disciplines to comment on COVID-19, public health, and vaccines, Girard nonetheless does not let a little thing like his lack of relevant expertise stop him, as evidenced by his Substack (where all the quacks now go), Covid Myth Buster Series, which, he brags, debunks “the COVID narrative, with observation, facts, data, and rigorous scientific method.”
Unfortunately, Girardot’s braggadocio notwithstanding, apparently his “facts, data, and rigorous scientific method” don’t include an understanding of basic chemistry, if his post What happens to those billions of NanoParticles you’ve become host to? is any indication. Either that, or he knows basic chemistry but is simply intentionally using the fact that most people don’t understand a lot of basic chemistry and, as a result, will find his analogy frightening because of all the big numbers to fear monger in a manner that, to this old chemistry major, made me laugh out loud with contempt.
Get a load of his analogy:
Some of you might recall one of the most beautiful commercial ever, the colourful Sony advertising in my childhood’s neighbourhood in San Francisco. As you might recall, they let go 170,000 bouncing balls tumbling down the streets in a beautifully chaotic ballet of rubber balls of all colours.
During that poetic descent, balls bounce off rain gutters, car trunks, wooden-tile roofs, lamp posts… Hitting mailboxes, running down trash cans, shaking newspaper racks… there’s no telling where they’d end up: stuck in a garage, in a garden, on a roof, who knows… The only thing certain is gravity was going to pull them down, a majority will end down at the Marina, and that they will bang on a variety of objects along the way, solo or in pack, in a wonderful haphazard choreography.
Current anti-COVID vaccines can be like bouncing balls in your body. Obviously Nanoparticles1 (LNP/Viral vectors) and spike proteins are far less poetic, but what they lack in poetry, they compensate in potential chaos and surprises. The domino effects they trigger sometimes can be disquieting and dramatic.
Only someone either ignorant of chemistry or who knows that his audience is ignorant of chemistry could make an analogy like this seriously. Come to think of it, only someone ignorant of basic physiology and biochemistry. I mean, pretty much every large free-floating protein “bounces around” the body in the bloodstream, and the lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) actually resemble lipid bodies that already exist in the body.
Girardot’s analogy only gets worse:
The number of nanoparticles (NP) injected in a dose of these anti-COVID vaccines is utterly flabbergasting: up to 50 billion viral vectors for AstraZeneca, 40 billion LNPs for Moderna, and likely 10 for Pfizer. It’s not very clear how many intact messenger RNA are in each LNP , but even if we agree to only 1, and that each one produces 1000 spike protein, we are talking your body having to deal with a minimum 30 trillion pathogenic spike proteins2 in a few months time…
Those are numbers way beyond very severe SARS-COV-2 infections: typically at infection peak between 1 and 100 billion virions, are present in the body.
I can’t help but note the false comparison as well. His estimate of the total number of virions (virus particles) of SARS-CoV-2 in the human body covers a wide range, from 1-100 billion, and is based on a single study. Even if that estimate is accurate, one can’t help but note that viruses enter cells, replicate, and, if you use the very source cited by Girardot, kill the cells they’ve hijacked, releasing approximately 1,000 new virions, which go on to enter more cells and then produce more virions, and so on, in the meantime causing all sorts of havoc in the body in terms of cell and tissue destruction as well as provoking a large immune response. Girardot, whether he realizes it or not (and I suspect that he does), is comparing apples and oranges in a misleading way.
Let’s give Girardot the benefit of the doubt (although he doesn’t deserve it) and issue for the moment that these numbers are correct. They sound like enormous numbers, don’t they? But they aren’t, not really, as anyone who’s studied biology or chemistry knows. For example, 40 billion = 40 x 109 or, in scientific notation, 4.0 x 1010 particles. What is that in terms of a common unit used to measure the number of molecules in chemistry, the mole? One mole = 6.023 x 1023 particles, which means that 40 billion LNPs = 6.6 x10-14 moles, or 66 femtomoles (17 femtomoles for the Pfizer vaccine, one femtomole being 10-15 mole).
While I’m at it, we know that the Pfizer vaccine contains 30 μg mRNA, while the Moderna vaccine contains 100 μg. How many moles? Let’s just say that the SARS-CoV=2 spike protein consists of 1,273 amino acids, which means three times the number of nucleotides, plus some for regulation and other functions in the mRNA. (Let’s say around 3,900 nucleotides, or 3.9 kb.) The average molecular weight of a single RNA base is 340, which means a 3.9 kb mRNA will have a molecular weight of around 1.326 x 106. Thus, 100 μg of mRNA in the Moderna vaccine is the equivalent of ~7.5 x 10-8 mol; in the Pfizer vaccine it’s around 2.25 x 10-8. Let’s just say that it’s not a lot, although I could make it sound like a crapton by multiplying by Avogadro’s number (again, 6.023 x 1023), which would yield an estimate of ~4.5 x 1015 mRNA molecules. At the risk of scaring Girardot even more, from this number we can even estimate how many mRNA molecules there must be in a single LNP, an exercise I’ll leave to the interested reader.
When described this way, the amounts that Girardot fear mongers about amount don’t sound so large, do they? I could throw in another number just for fun, the total number of cells in the body, 30-40 trillion cells, or 3-4 x 1013 cells.
Oh, wait. Girardot goes on, because of course he does:
While many of these LNPs will transfect the same cell, or will simply get destroyed before ever transfecting, for a reason or another, these numbers remain truly gigantic. And it’s no surprise that some people’s arms are painful – or other die quasi instantly – post-vaccination as T-cells attack these spike-producing cells to start ridding the body of the infection mimicry.
These numbers are only “truly gigantic” if you are ignorant of chemistry and biology., and, of course, as I’ve discussed more times than I can now remember in the context of antivaxxers weaponizing the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database, serious adverse events after the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are quite rare. Thanks, though, M. Girardot, for the gratuitous antivax claim. I suspect that biochemists, chemists, and biologists also thank him for the chuckle.
Girardot seems to know how the vaccines are designed, namely to stay intramuscular, there to transfect muscle cells to churn out the antigen used in the vaccine, namely the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which is the protein that binds to the ACE2 receptor and thereby gets the virus into the cell to do its dirty work. He even discusses that:
Of course, these are supposedly intramuscular vaccines which were meant to stay in the muscle. Straight forward, no chaos, no unforeseen consequences: Theoretically, LNP fuses with muscle cell, mRNA is inserted, muscle cell’s intra-cellular machinerystarts producing spike proteins, cells are identified by the immune systems as “compromised”, T-cells attack infected cell and the spike proteins are spilled into tissues and blood stream to trigger antibody selection and production, antibodies neutralise and rid the spike protein. If the bouncing balls stay in the same place, then there’s no domino effect, nothing happens apart from muscle cells being destroyed and ultimately replaced. End of story.
Unfortunately, this seemingly reasonable discussion serves only as a jumping off point for what we in the biz like to call JAQing off, a common crank technique in which wild claims are made to seem plausible by framing them as questions, as in ” Just Asking Questions.” Alternatively, we often call what Girardot does next “handwaving,” in which he goes on and on about a bunch of “what ifs” that sound scary to the average person but, if you know the science, really are not.
Not that that stops Girardot, again:
Well, here’s the catch:If you inject 10 billion nanoparticles in the muscle, how can you be sure it’s going to remain there? … You can’t!Even if Sony had dumped 170,000 bouncing balls at a flat intersection in Pacific Heights, there’s a good chance, many would have ended going downhill. Planning is one thing, reality is another. Same with the vaccines.
I love how cranks like Girardot seem to assume that scientists never, ever thought of such a possibility before—or worse, that they never, ever even thought to think of it before. Girardot, apparently, is the only one smart enough to ask this question. It reminds me of creationists who used to like to bring up various issues with the theory of evolution, acting as if they were the first to have discovered them and that literally thousands of scientists over many decades hadn’t considered them and then rejected them based on evidence. Indeed, Girardot reminds me of a famous creationist refrain, “If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?” His weaponization of seemingly large numbers that betray an ignorance of basic chemistry is very much akin to just that, except that I suspect that he knows exactly what he is doing.
This leads to all sorts of the aforementioned handwaving, even as Girardot expands on his silly analogy:
When the producers of the Sony advertising decided to actually use real bouncing balls down the streets of San Francisco, they designed the experience not only to create a marvellous artistic experience, but also to protect the pedestrians and the environment. The balls were chosen to avoid damaging Victorian houses and protection nets were installed to avoid harming people. They didn’t decide overnight to throw thousands of bouncing balls down a tourist-filled street like Lombard Street.
A reckless production could cause damage and hurt many, either if a mass of balls descended on a few wondering tourists, or just a few of them could cause a car accident to slip or a person to fall.
In the case of the vaccines, it seems “the balls have found their way down Lombard Street”. We are off-script here. It is clear that in many occasions LNP are escaping the muscle with very serious consequences.
Again, Girardot seems to think that the scientists at Moderna, BioNTech, and Pfizer—not to mention the FDA or regulatory bodies in other countries responsible for drug and vaccine approvals—never even thought of such a possibility as these vaccines were developed, tested, and then approved for use in humans. It’s as though Girardot thinks that not a single scientist involved in any step of the process, from the conception of the mRNA vaccines, to their synthesis, to their testing in cell culture, to their testing in preclinical models, to their initial tests in humans, to the phase 2 and 3 clinical trials, to the application to the FDA and other regulatory bodies for approval, once thought to ask: Gee, what sorts of potentially bad things could happen if these lipid nanoparticles got into the bloodstream? It’s truly ludicrous. Does Girardot even know what goes into the development of a vaccine or biologic like the mRNA vaccines? He says he’s in biotech, but, damn.
The rest of his post just made me alternate between chuckling at Girardot’s obviousness and facepalming at his takes. For instance, he asks, what could happen if these LNPs were to go where they weren’t meant to go or even—gasp!—get into the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Of course, in the case of the latter, it was always expected that some would get into the lymphatic system given that muscle has a lot of lymphatic vessels in it. One has only to look at early videos of the Moderna vaccines to see that, and getting some of the LNPs to the lymphatics is actually good for ramping up the immune response. Again, it’s not as though scientists didn’t know this; there were actual studies of where LNPs go by injection site dating back to before the vaccines were even in clinical trials:
Here’s a peer-reviewed study that shows where intramuscular vaccines (which all three of the COVID-19 vaccines are) travel in macaques (a type of monkey). Vaccines mostly remain near the site of injection (the arm muscle) and local lymph nodes.
This makes sense: Lymph nodes produce white blood cells and antibodies to protect us from disease. A key part of the lymphatic system, lymph nodes also clean up fluids and remove waste materials. Finding pieces of spike protein in the lymph nodes is completely normal, because lymph nodes act as the trash removal service for the body. That means the vaccine did its job (made spike proteins, which caused the creation of antibodies) and will be cleared from the body.
Another peer-reviewed study tested exactly where an mRNA vaccine went in mice. Most of the mRNA vaccine stayed in the injection site muscle – where you get the shot. Look at Table 1. A lot of mRNA vaccine was found in local lymph nodes, which peaked about eight hours after the shot was given. A much smaller amount of mRNA vaccine went to farther away lymph nodes.
It’s also not as though there weren’t biodistribution studies of the LNPs. I discussed one of them from Pfizer in detail many moons ago. Tiny amounts of LNPs do go beyond the intramuscular injection site, but only very tiny amounts, with no evidence of significant toxicity. That study even included intravenous injection of the LNPs, in which most of the LNPs ended up in the liver, there to be slowly eliminated. Remember, too, that even to see that required direct intravenous injection of a large amount of LNPs, a situation very much unlike that of vaccination. It’s an intentionally artificial situation, in which investigators are trying to see where the LNPs go by injecting a large amount of them intravenously, again, a situation very unlike the situation after vaccination, in which the vast majority of LNPs stay near the site of vaccination. Moreover, according to the Japanese biodistribution study, “no toxic findings indicating liver toxicity were found in the repeated-dose toxicity test.”
None of this stops Girardot from cranking up the nonsense in his conclusion:
Beyond the fact that the vaccines are utterly ineffective, the mechanisms by which they are harming people is not a complicated as we think. The Danes have apparently reduced the risk 60% by enforcing the aspiration technique. One wonders what the other public health agencies have been doing since! Another CDC alert highlighted leaky blood vessels were a problem. Again admitting the risk caused by these product going intravenous. One wonders how anyone knowing that would continue to vaccinate billions? How can any of the authorities be certain these products won’t leak? They can’t. They never could. It was excusable to not understand the implication of transfection. It is not excusable to avoid looking at the reality in the face for over a year. And they will soon stand trial for that. I wouldn’t want to be their lawyers…
What is he blathering about? That part about the Danes involves a reference to a recommendation from Danish health authorities that healthcare personnel administering vaccines aspirate first, to make sure the needle is not in a blood vessel, before injecting the vaccine. This is fairly common practice with all intramuscular injections. No doubt Girardot will view CDC recommendations that routine aspiration is not necessary before injecting a vaccine into an infant because there are no large blood vessels in the area injected and aspiration makes vaccination more painful for infants as a conspiracy to “cover up” the truth, but it turns out that it’s not nearly as straightforward a question as Girardot thinks whether routine aspiration before intramuscular injection is necessary. Indeed, the Danish paper even prefaces its recommendation by saying that routine aspiration is not necessary before intramuscular injections of a vaccine but that it is changing its recommendation for the COVID-19 vaccine based on the precautionary principle. Again, it’s not as though this question hasn’t been long debated; for example, here’s a paper from 2014 discussing the issue.
After I finished my deconstruction of Girardot’s risible attempt to frighten with large numbers, I looked into his background a bit more. In his Substack profile, he describes himself thusly:
Panda member / Critical Thinker / Citizen scientist Author of multiple breakthrough articles on Covid Senior advisor in Bio and Auto
I should have known. First, anyone who proclaims himself a “Critical Thinker” in his social media or blog bio is guaranteed to be neither critical nor a thinker, much less a critical thinker. Second, rare is the person proclaiming himself a “citizen scientist” who actually knows how to do halfway decent science. In general, whenever I encounter “citizen scientist,” I tend to find someone who is not using science to look for facts and accurate assessments but rather someone who is cherry picking science to support his preexisting beliefs. Finally, he’s a member of PANDA.
It didn’t take much searching to figure out that PANDA, of course, is a rabidly antivaccine organization dedicated to only the worst takes on the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s headed by an actuary named Nick Hudson, who seems to think that being good at math makes him good at epidemiology, science, virology, and public health. Of course, I had heard of PANDA before and been meaning to write about it in the context of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), that libertarian think tank-inspired and supported document from October 2020 that advocated a “let ‘er rip” approach to the pandemic among the “healthy, ” with unspecified and almost certainly ineffective attempts at the “focused protection” of the elderly and those at high risk for serious disease and death. Why? Because PANDA’s initial scientific advisory board announced two days after the GBD was signed, included not only all three of the original authors of the GBD (Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta, and Jay Bhattacharya), but prominent GBD signatory Michael Levitt. And GBD supporters cry that they are “not antivaccine.”
Now that I’m aware of Marc Girardot, I suspect that I will be looking into more of his awful takes. In the meantime, I strongly encourage him to take a basic chemistry course and a basic biology course. He’s obviously forgotten whatever he might have learned from such courses when he was in college.