COVID-19 misinformation has been coming at me (and everyone) so fast and furious that to me it seems like only yesterday that I was addressing the resurrection and repurposing of an old antivax claim that SV40 had contaminated COVID-19 vaccines, making them carcinogenic. It wasn’t, though. It was well over a month and a half ago. As you might recall, at the time an microbiologist turned COVID-19 conspiracy theorist named Kevin McKernan had, either cluelessly or intentionally, confused simian virus-40 (SV40) that had contaminated live attenuated virus polio vaccines 60 years ago, leading to an old antivax claim that polio vaccines cause cancer with the SV40 promoter, a DNA element from the virus that, when in front of a gene, can stimulate cells to make a lot of that gene’s product, and then fear mongered about it. As I said at the time, it was almost as though McKernan, his background in microbiology and (apparently) genomics notwithstanding, either did not know the difference between a promoter sequence and an actual gene or, more likely, knew the difference but also knew that his audience didn’t know the difference but was aware of the polio vaccine/SV40 story.
After writing my post, I moved on, as there was (and continues to be) so much misinformation and so little me, with nary a second thought. I should have known better. I should have known that, once created, an antivax distortion of science never really dies. It just spreads, mutates, and evolves. This time around, it’s Dr. Peter McCullough, who has repeated this claim on, appropriately enough, InfoWars. Let’s just say that, if you’re a formerly respectable doctor and you find yourself being interviewed enthusiastically by Alex Jones, you have your explanation for why you are no longer respected and are now considered a crank.
Here’s the relevant video excerpt, complete with transcript:
So let’s see what Dr. McCullough is claiming:
Besides variation in the amount of messenger RNA in it [COVID shots], there’s contamination with cDNA. These are little fragments of DNA that come off the manufacturing process. And one of them, Alex, you’re not going to believe this, is SV40. SV40 is a known cancer-promoting segment of DNA. And yes, they’re in the shots.“Cancer-promoting segment” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this statement.
Scary! “Contamination with cDNA”! One wonders if Dr. McCullough even knows what he’s talking about. cDNA just means “complementary DNA.” It’s the DNA sequence that codes for the mRNA used in the vaccine. While Alex Jones and his viewers don’t know this, Dr. McCullough is basically admitting here that there’s little to fear. “little fragments of DNA” are not complete and won’t be able to code for a gene product. Also, SV40 is a promoter element. Going back to my original post about this, let’s look at the illustration of a typical plasmid, like the ones used to generate the mRNA used in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines:
The diagram above is somewhat simplified, but basically the map of nearly every common plasmid used to express a protein. Again, short fragments of degraded plasmid are unlikely to do anything, even if there is as much contaminating plasmid DNA in the Pfizer vaccine, which is highly unlikely given how McKernan used old expired vaccine lots, for which the mRNA could have degraded faster than the contaminating DNA. Let’s just say that there are a lot of good reasons to question McKernan’s results but I’ve already discussed them; so I’ll move on.
Let’s see what else Dr. McCullough told Alex Jones:
Alex Jones: “I’m not a scientist like you and a famous published person, but I know that mainline news reports that many cancers — I saw federal documents. They estimated 98 million Americans had cancer or related cancer from SV40 contamination in the 50s, 60s, and 70s with live polio. Explain what SV40 or Simian Virus 40 is and how big a deal it is that you just said. And I’ve been seeing this in the literature now that SV40 is in there.”
Dr. McCullough: “SV40 turns on cancer genes in the human body. To make matters worse, the spike protein, the S2 segment in a paper from University of Pittsburgh by Singh and colleagues. It impairs the tumor suppressor systems P53 and BRCA. What I’m telling you is the shots promote cancer through SV40, and they inhibit our ability to fight cancer by suppressing the tumor suppressor system. So now this is looking very bad. Every system is showing cancer rates are up. So, that’s inarguable. The big question is, how much of this is due to the vaccines?”
Notice what Dr. McCullough is doing here. First, he’s claiming that SV40 inhibits p53 and the BRCA system of tumor suppressors. You might recall that p53 (also called TP53) has long often been called the “guardian of the genome” because of its critical role in regulating the monitoring and repair of DNA damage in cells. As this press article published by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center describes p53:
Dubbed the “guardian of the genome,” the p53 protein…senses damage in DNA (pink) and triggers a protective response.
More than 50% of all cancers contain a mutation in the p53 gene. The protein made from this gene is critical for ridding the body of cells that have developed genetic mistakes that could lead to cancer. When it stops working, precancerous cells can slip by and a tumor may develop.
Scientists have known about the p53 protein — dubbed the “guardian of the genome” — since the 1970s. It is one of the most investigated molecules ever, the subject of more than 80,000 research papers.
So, yes, p53 is very important, and one mechanism by which the SV40 virus can cause cancer is by inactivating it. As Prof. Wafik El-Deiry puts it:
For those who aren’t into molecular biology or research into p53 and cell cycle, Prof. El-Deiry is a giant in the field. He published some of the earliest papers three decades ago about p21, the protein that is induced by p53 and mediates the ability of p53 to produce cell cycle arrest and stop cells from growing, a couple of which I remember reading as a graduate student. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear to be particularly well-versed in misinformation, as the second part of his Tweet reads:
As a p53 researcher I wanted to study the spike protein more and it’s effects on p53, proposed it in 2020 but did not have sufficient resources. Remember, according to
@AmericanCancer there will be nearly 2 million cases of cancer in the US in 2023 and over 600,000 deaths. We need to prevent, detect early and treat cancer better through support of research.
Does he know that antivaxxers seem to think that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein causes cancer, but only seemingly if it is produced by the vaccine rather than the virus itself? I suspect not, which is why the exchange continued:
Seriously, it’s incredibly unlikely, and, I suspect, Dr. El-Deiry knows that, while not knowing that just saying it might be “possible” will lead antivaxxers to say that it’s happening or that its so likely that it’s too dangerous to find out.
But what about the spike protein supposedly inhibiting p53 as well? This is an old antivax claim based on a 2020 paper by Singh et al that antivaxxers like Dr. McCullough are still citing. First of all, the paper looks at an in silico model; i.e., computer modeling of the structure of the spike protein and the structure of p53 showing that there could be an interaction. I addressed the study, which, as far as I know, has not been confirmed by actual biochemical and molecular biological experiments, which is something that is mandatory to confirm any in silico study. In any event, I briefly discussed this study while discussing the antivax claim that COVID-19 vaccines are causing “turbo cancer,” noting that, even if the in silico modeling panned out and the S2 segment of the spike protein really does inhibit p53, the model would only be relevant in the case of sustained infection with SARS-CoV-2 producing spike protein for long periods of time, not by a transient expression of spike protein by a vaccine. Cancer takes longterm inhibition of p53 to develop. The entire claim, while not quite as blisteringly stupid as the claim that mRNA from the vaccines causes cancer by inhibiting tumor suppressor gene activity, the best that can be said about the idea is that it’s highly speculative and lacking evidence.
I was curious, though. So I did some PubMed searches, only to find a surprising dearth of papers on the subject. I did come across a retracted article that I had discussed in detail when it came out that claimed that spike protein inhibited DNA damage repair and VHJ recombination. I also found the infamous review article that Dr. McCullough co-authored with Stephanie Seneff—yes, that Stephanie Seneff, the one who claimed in 2014 that 50% of children born in 2025 would be autistic due to GMOs—in Cureus (not what I would consider a particularly good journal, particularly not for basic cell culture experiments) claiming that spike protein causes neurologic damage by activating a pathway called MAPK, inhibiting p53, and causing protein misfolding to cause prion disease. I might have to devote a separate post to go through its claims, although I must say that it reminds me of a similar review article by the same suspects that I deconstructed in detail as being misinformation. Let’s just say that one of the authors is associated with a naturopathic practice called Immersion Health, while McCullough himself is associated with something called Truth for Health Foundation.
I did find this one interesting paper that found that spike protein could cause cellular senescence (loss of ability to divide associated with reaching the end of a cell’s replicative potential) through the p53 pathway, which is rather the opposite of what Dr. McCullough is claiming. The bottom line is that Dr. McCullough is just regurgitating pure speculation that antivaxxers have been regurgitating based on a single in silico protein binding modeling study that relies on the ignorance of the audience to whom the speculation is being pitched of the basics of molecular biology.
Unfortunately, Dr. McCullough’s fans are lapping it up and then taking it further. For example, Andreas Oehler, who is a finance guy and not a scientist or physician, went wild with McCullough’s claims. Predictably, he goes on and on and on about the history of contamination of some lots of polio vaccine in the early 1960s, trying mightily to convince you that they caused all sorts of cancer. I’ve addressed this conspiracy theory before more than once and pointed out that there’s no evidence that the SV40 from those vaccines was responsible for a wave of cancer decades later; so I’ll just leave the relevant couple of links and move on.
First, Oehler writes something that I’m going to cite extensively because my face still hurts from all the facepalming as I read it:
SV40 promoter is about 317bp long, but the sequencing of the Pfizer plasmids also detected
a repeatof the SV40 enhancer (72bp) at the tail of the SV40 promoter, in one of two Pfizer vials studied. As is well known, the 72bp SV40 enhancer is associated with more robust expression and nuclear localization. Sounds benign, right? Wrong! “The SV40 72 base repair repeat has a striking effect on gene expression both in SV40 and other chimeric recombinants” (Nucleic Acids Res. 1981 Nov 25):By introduction of recombinant plasmids into monkey CV1 cells, we have unambiguously demonstrated that sequences entirely within theTwo enhancers better than one, eh? SV40 on steroids, so to say. Now to nuclear localization:
72bp repeat, which is located upstream of the SV40 early region, are crucial for T-antigen expression in vivo. We have also shown that a DNA fragment containing
the 72bp repeat, inserted directly before chicken conalbumin or adenovirus-2 major late promoter sequences in chimeric plasmids where these promoters replace that of the SV40 early genes, caused a dramatic increase in the expression of T-antigen in vivo.A nuclear localization signal or sequence (NLS) is an amino acid sequence that ‘tags’ a protein for import into the cell nucleus by nuclear transport.Indeed, “The role of plasmid constructs containing the SV40 DNA nuclear-targeting sequence in cationic lipid-mediated DNA delivery” (Cell Mol Biol Lett. 2005):One of the steps that limit transfection efficiency in non-viral gene delivery is inefficient nuclear import of plasmid DNA, once it has been delivered into the cytoplasm. Recently, via microinjection into the cytoplasm and in situ hybridizations into a few cell types, it was shown that a region of Simian virus 40(SV40), specifically a c. 372-bp fragment of SV40 genomic DNA encompassing the SV40 promoter-enhancer-origin of replication (SV40 DTS), could enable the nuclear import of a plasmid carrying these sequences (Dean D.A. Exp. Cell Res. 230 (1997) 293).So, we get 2-in-1 importation of the S spike-coding dsDNA plasmid into the cell nucleus and enhanced replication of the S spike in the transfected cell. What not to like!
Tell me you don’t understand molecular biology without telling me you don’t understand molecular biology. Let’s go back to the drawing of a typical plasmid above:
Sounds scary, right? Here’s the thing. All of this (“2-in-1 importation of the S spike-coding dsDNA plasmid into the cell nucleus and enhanced replication of the S spike in the transfected cell.”) only works the way Oehler claims if the promoter, cDNA, and poly-A signal contained in the plasmid are all intact and the whole construct enters the cell in sufficient quantity. If only fragments of the plasmid get into the cell, it won’t work. Even if the nuclear localization signal is intact, it won’t matter if cDNA isn’t intact and translatable into mRNA. Even McKernan doesn’t claim that this happens! Rather, he relies on his audience’s lack of understanding of the difference between the SV40 promoter and the SV40 virus and lack of knowledge that the way the SV40 virus can induce cancers is through its gene for a protein called large T antigen. Basically, plasmid won’t localize to the nucleus, won’t make a lot of spike protein there because mRNA transcribed from DNA in the nucleus has to be exported out of the nucleus into the cell cytoplasm to serve as a template to translate it into protein. That’s where the ribosomes are.
I know, I know. The claims alternate, and others claim that the DNA somehow integrates into the genome to cause what is known as insertional mutagenesis, but this is a rare event. Not only does the DNA have to integrate into the genome, which it does with very low efficiency, but it has to integrate in such a way as either to knock out a tumor suppressor gene or to result in greatly increased expression of a transforming oncogene.
Basically, the above passage by Oehler is the sort of thing you get when an intelligent layperson who doesn’t understand the very basics of molecular biology tries to interpret molecular biology. It’s nothing more than biobabble, a term that I like to use in homage to Star Trek technobabble, in which the impressive scientific-sounding utterances full of buzzwords that ultimately convey nothing but nonsense when it comes to describing a scientific phenomenon are all about biology. Basically, Oehler’s passage sounds impressive, but anyone with anything beyond a basic freshman level of molecular biology—hell, even with a freshman level of understanding of molecular biology—will recognize that his speculation is nonsense unrelated to even the worst case scenario of all of McKernan’s studies being correct about the amount of plasmid DNA fragments in the COVID-19 vaccines.
As The Real Truther put it:
I can’t help but finish by wondering whether Dr. McCullough is ignorant or lying. It’s true that most physicians are not very knowledgeable about molecular biology; so ignorance is possible. However, if his review articles are any indication Dr. McCullough seems to know enough molecular biology that he should know that he’s peddling bullshit, in which case he’s lying. I’ll just say: Take your pick. It could be either. I know which direction I’m leaning.