Those of you who’ve been reading my posts on “turbo cancer,” an epidemic of which is being blamed on mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines by antivaxxers, in particular Yale epidemiologist Harvey Risch, delicensed nuclear medicine radiologist William Makis, cardiologist turned antivax quack Peter McCullough, and molecular biologists like Phillip Buckhaults and Kevin McKernan, both of whom appear to have forgotten some very basic chemistry along with all the genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology that they abuse. “Turbo cancer,” as I’ve discussed for nearly a year now, is not a thing, at least not a real thing. It’s a term made up by antivaxxers to claim that COVID-19 vaccines are fueling a wave of incredibly aggressive cancers and/or a wave of recurrences of cancers in remission as unstoppably aggressive cancers.
As I point out in every post on the topic, claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause cancer appeared very soon after the vaccines rolled out, starting with the misrepresentation of old in vitro studies and of a Department of Defense database, and then later progressed to doing incredible contortions of science and reason, in essence twisting them into pretzels, to blame SV40 promoter sequences in “DNA contamination” of the mRNA vaccines, an echo of very old antivax claims that SV40 virus in polio vaccines in the early 1960s had led to a wave of cancer decades later. More recently, they’ve tried to claim the implausible mechanism that the vaccines somehow shut down the immune system, thus shutting down cancer surveillance and letting cancer have free rein.
I expect such a narrative to be alarming to the lay person, who doesn’t have detailed biological knowledge of cancer, genetics, molecular biology, or the complex mechanisms of carcinogenesis. What I don’t expect is for an oncologist and a cancer center director to take such wild speculation particularly seriously. Sure, there’s one legitimate oncologist that I can find promoting this narrative—and, no, William Makis and Ryan Cole don’t count—a UK physician named Angus Dalgleish, but Dalgleish also claims that the virus was engineered in a lab, something that even most “lab leak” conspiracy theorists don’t even claim anymore, and is spreading his implausible message seemingly to every antivax influencer who will interview him. Like all “turbo cancer” mavens, Dalgleish bases his fear mongering on anecdotes more than actual data.
Enter Prof. Wafik El-Deiry. It’s funny what a difference 14 years can make. (Actually, it’s funny what a difference that 30 years can make.)
As I’ve pointed out before, Prof. El-Deiry published seminal work on tumor suppressor genes back in the 1990s and continues to run a productive lab since he became the director of the cancer center at Brown University. I first became seriously concerned about him late last month, when he posted this to the platform formerly known as Twitter:
I won’t retread old ground other than to point out that his post was amplifying approvingly a video of antivax propagandist Del Bigtree—yes, Del Bigtree!—interviewing William Makis about “turbo cancer.” Worse, Prof. El-Deiry seemed accept the interview at face value, expressing “concern” about whether there might be something to this myth, and his status as a respected researcher could only serve to make speculations about “turbo cancer” seem credible—or at least plausible—to the lay public.
In any event, two weeks later, Prof. El-Deiry was once again speculating about “turbo cancer.” Unfortunately, when he was corrected by a number of scientists while others pointed out that Makis lost his license and is not an oncologist and that Bigtree is one of the most prominent antivax influencers out there, he doubled down and started complaining that his critics were “harassing” him:
And, of course, “silencing” him:
Here’s some additional context. Prof. El-Deiry, far from chastened by the original criticism of his amplifying Makis and Bigtree’s antivax narrative, had been interviewed by Maryanne Demasi. Ms. Demasi is, of course, a figure that might be familiar to a number of our readers. She’s an antivax “journalist” and has been published a number of times on Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s antivax website, Children’s Health Defense. In fairness, Prof. El-Deiry claims that he didn’t know her background when he agreed to the interview, and I have no reason to doubt him. However, I do have reason to criticize him for not having found out and, even worse, for still continuing to defend his decision to be interviewed by her after he had been shown that not only is she an antivaxxer but she has also been published a number of times on the conspiracy propaganda rag The Epoch Times.
As much as it pains me to do so, I decided that I had to discuss Demasi’s interview with Prof. Wafik, because he provides a perfect example of what not to do, namely to agree to be interviewed by anyone who is unfamiliar to you without investigation who she is. (Warning, antivaxxers trying to pull one over on me by inviting me to be “interviewed” on your platform: That’s exactly what I do. I will Google and ask around if I don’t know who you are. If you are antivax, I will figure it out.) Demasi starts by recounting one case report that I discussed in my usual level of detail last December of a man whose lymphoma took off three weeks after receiving a Moderna booster. I mention this right now because Prof. El-Deiry cites this case as one of his examples, and linking to my post on the case report saves me the trouble of explaining why the case report is unconvincing.
The other thing that amused me about this interview is that Maryanne Demasi dunked on the oncologist turned COVID-19 contrarian, Dr. Vinay Prasad. In fairness, in this case Dr. Prasad was stone cold correct about “turbo cancer,” an excellent example of the proverbial stopped clock being right twice a day:
The story prompted a flood of anecdotes on social media about people’s cancers becoming ‘turbo charged’ following covid vaccination and some doctors said they had observed a spike in aggressive cancers in young patients.
Other doctors fiercely criticised the article for stoking vaccine hesitancy. Prominent haematologist-oncologist Vinay Prasad took to social media to say The Atlantic article was “irresponsible.”
“Where is the evidence that mRNA vaccines fuel cancer growth even in a subset of people? Case-reports don’t count, obviously. You need careful epidemiological evidence to make such a claim. Where is that? Do that before you cover it in the news. Duh,” tweeted Prasad at the time.
Let’s just say that Ms. Demasi…left something out. Here’s the Tweet in context:
Basically, Dr. Prasad was down with the antivax fear mongering about myocarditis, which can happen after COVID-19 vaccination, generally in younger people, and is usually mild with no long term sequelae. He just doesn’t like the fear mongering about cancer. Apparently, when it came to antivax narratives, “turbo cancer” was a bridge too far for Dr, Prasad.
That digression aside—and regular readers know that I do love my digressions when they allow me to dunk on a bête noire of the blog—Ms. Demasi proceeds to regurgitate the fear mongering about “DNA contamination” of COVID-19 vaccines, as though it proves Dr. Prasad completely wrong and justifies those making the claim of “turbo cancer.” (It doesn’t.) This leads to her interview, where she gets right to asking Prof. El-Deiry about “turbo cancer”:
DEMASI: But some people think it can be caused by covid-19 vaccines?
EL-DEIRY: I have seen case reports of hyper-progressive cancers after covid vaccination where it looks like there is a relationship with how rapidly these tumours are growing. But it’s an association. It’s not proof that it caused it. This isn’t the easiest thing to uncover because we know that patients in remission can have cancers that come back, sometimes the tumours grow and don’t respond to treatment.
DEMASI: So, you’re not saying covid vaccines cause turbo cancers, but you’re not dismissing it either?
EL-DEIRY: There are anecdotes [eg 1, 2, 3 and 4], so why not do the studies? We are three years into this, there’s no roaring pandemic out there, life has largely come back to normal, so why haven’t we nailed down these things?
DEMASI: Because anecdotes are often dismissed…
EL-DEIRY: Well, anecdotes may not be your cup of tea as far as acceptable evidence goes but I think anecdotes matter. Case reports and case series are relevant and important. What’s more important is if there are anecdotes, that through the scientific process, people then dig in deeper and try to establish if there is a cause.
I put it out there on social media and people were just dismissing it and they were assassinating the characters of individuals who were raising questions. Is this what we want in science?
Prof. El-Deiry is correct that this is nothing but correlation. I would, however, correct him slightly: It’s a claimed correlation. Correlation has not been established, except through cherry-picked anecdotes that antivaxxers cite to claim that there is a “wave”—or even “tsunami” of “turbo cancer” cases being caused by COVID-19 vaccines. I know that that’s not what Prof. El-Deiry is doing here, but he is inadvertently contributing to that narrative.
Moreover, no one is saying that case reports and case series don’t matter. They do. What Prof. El-Deiry appears to be utterly oblivious to is what these case reports and anecdotes are being used for. (See preceding paragraph.) Being a scientist, he thinks that it’s not unreasonable to use them as hypothesis-generating information. That’s fine, as far as it goes. What he fails to grasp is that Ms. Demasi and those for whom she works are not using them for that. They’re using them to spin an antivax narrative that COVID-19 vaccines are causing deadly cancers in young people, and he’s unwittingly letting her yoke his scientific reputation to the story in order to add credibility to the claim that COVID-19 vaccines.
But what about the case reports (1, 2, 3 and 4)? As I said, #2 is the one that I discussed in detail 10 months ago. It’s not at all convincing. So let’s go with #1, which is the most interesting one and the only one that is even remotely suggestive of a real correlation. Why do I say this? It’s the only one where a cancer developed at or near the injection site. And then I looked at the case report, which describes a 73-year-old woman who developed a sarcoma in the same arm where she received her Moderna booster. At first, I thought that this was an injection site tumor, but then I looked at the MRI, which showed it well down the upper arm overlying the triceps muscle:
She noticed the initial swelling two to four days after receiving her second dose of the Moderna vaccine within 1 cm from the prior injection site. This was initially attributed to phlebitis. She reported mild, non-radiating pain on palpation. Vitals were unremarkable and the patient was afebrile. Physical examination was remarkable for a 6 cm, circular, mobile, soft mass present in the right upper arm without fluctuance, erythema, or warmth. She had no neurological deficits and radial pulses were present.
Complete blood count (CBC) was unremarkable with no leukocytosis, leukocytopenia, or anemia. The comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP) was unremarkable. The patient was advised to obtain an MRI with and without contrast, which revealed a 5.2 cm soft tissue mass within the subcutaneous fat, overlying the triceps region, with irregular features concerning for malignancy (Figure 1). A subsequent ultrasound-guided core biopsy with fine needle aspiration (FNA) was performed.
The tumor turned out to be an undifferentiated, pleomorphic high-grade sarcoma. Fortunately, four months later the woman’s tumor was successfully resected and the resection site treated with adjuvant radiation, as is standard of care for such sarcomas. (I wonder why they waited four months to resect, given that the tumor more than doubled in dimensions durig that time.) Also, all I could think was: The tumor was described as being at the injection site, but that looks awfully low, below the insertion of the deltoid and overlying the triceps. Still, this is an odd case report, with no causality.
In any event, the authors concluded:
Currently, it is unclear whether there is a true association between novel vaccinations and the development of malignancy. A review of the literature does not show any other case reports demonstrating malignancy after receiving the Moderna vaccine. This should be further investigated to see if there is an association and, if so, the mechanism thereof.
I also didn’t see any immunohistochemical stains for spike protein or in situ hybridization for the spike mRNA from the vaccine reported. I found that very odd indeed. Surely, if the vaccine had caused this, we’d expect to find evidence of it in the pathology specimen itself. I would have at least looked for it, anyway. It was, after all, less than a week after the booster and therefore one of the rare cases where this sort of investigation would have been possible.
The third case is one of lymphoma:
An 80-year-old Japanese woman presented with a right temporal mass that appeared the morning after she was administered her first mRNA COVID-19 vaccination (BNT162b2). The mass gradually decreased in size but persisted over 6 weeks after her first vaccination (3 weeks after her second vaccination). At her first visit to our hospital, ultrasound revealed the size of the mass to be 28.5 × 5.7mm, and computed tomography revealed multiple lymphadenopathies in the right parotid, submandibular, jugular, and supraclavicular regions. Initially, we suspected head-and-neck benign lymphadenopathy as a side effect of vaccination. Nine weeks later, the number of swollen submandibular and parotid glands increased, and the lymph nodes further enlarged. Finally, the right temporal mass was diagnosed as marginal zone B-cell lymphoma based on immunohistochemical and flow cytometry findings of biopsy specimens. Our findings suggest that although 4–6 weeks of observation for lymph node inflammation after the second vaccination is recommended, malignancy should also be considered in the differential diagnosis of lymphadenopathy following vaccination.
This is a rather odd case, too. She received the vaccine in her left deltoid muscle but developed the swelling on her right temple less than a day later. It grew and then slowly decreased in size but did not disappear. She received her second dose of vaccine without an effect. The reason she was referred for evaluation was because after six weeks the mass had not disappeared. Again, this seems rather too quick to have been caused by the vaccine. Is it possible that an immune response promoted a preexisting cancer? Of course. It is, however, probably not likely and at worst very rare, even if it does happen at all, because if it were common there would be huge case series describing such events now, rather than the odd case report here. Also, I couldn’t help but note this part:
This patient wanted to notify the possibility of neoplastic lymphadenopathy mimicking lymphadenopathy following the mRNA COVID-19 vaccinations as a caution. Moreover, she wanted to utilize our therapeutic experience for other patients with COVID-19 vaccine-related lymphadenopathies to prevent negligence or delayed diagnoses.
So the patient wanted her case publicized.
Case 1: A female patient was admitted with a suspicious cervical mass that emerged within one week after the administration of second dose of the BNT162b2 COVID-19 vaccine. Surgical removal followed by pathology assessment of the specimen confirmed the diagnosis of diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Case 2: A male patient was admitted with multiple ulcerative oral lesions arising on the third day after the initial dose of the BNT162b2 COVID-19 vaccine. These lesions had a progressive character and during the following months were complicated with repetitive episodes of heavy oral bleeding, requiring blood transfusions. The incisional biopsy of the lesions and pathological assessment of the specimens confirmed the diagnosis of T/NK-cell lymphoma.
The cases could be suggestive of accelerated growth after vaccination, but they could also be coincidence. Indeed, the contrarian in me—yes, there is some—can’t help but suggest that, given the billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered thus farm, by random chance alone I’d have expected to see a lot more case reports of cancers diagnosed soon after vaccination, using the same reasoning that leads to thousands of cases of autism being first diagnosed after childhood vaccinations.
Be that as it may, it was pointed out:
Basically, all “turbo cancer” advocates—or, like Prof. El-Deiry, those who find the concept plausible or even compelling—have is a handful of anecdotes out of billions of doses of vaccine, while much larger studies have failed to find a hint of a signal for vaccine-associated cancers. Nor do they have a plausible biological mechanism.
Also, as a friend of the blog and regular commenter noted:
Later in the interview:
DEMASI: Yes, this replicated the work of Kevin McKernan….What was it about Buckhaults’ Senate testimony that got your attention?
EL-DEIRY: Phillip has shown there are billions of DNA fragments contaminating the mRNA vaccine. He’s been doing this for a long time. The fragments may get into cells with the help of lipid nanoparticles, and into the nucleus and may even get integrated in the genome. This may lead to something, or it may lead to nothing. But I think we should find out.
It’s possible that lipid nanoparticles could get into locally recruited immune cells or muscle stem cells or endothelial cells and then cause lymphoma, sarcoma, or angiosarcoma.
“Billions of DNA fragments”? Not this again. Do I need to go all Avogadro on Prof. El-Deiry, as I did with Buckhaults and the antivaxxers promoting McKernan and Buckhaults’ narrative? Oh, why not? I’ll be a bit nicer, though, than I was with them. “Billions” is not a large number when we are talking about molecules. Why not? Let’s take two billion, for instance: (2 x 109)/(6.023 x 1023/mole) = 3.3 x 10-15mole or 3.3 femtomole, an incredibly tiny amount. Even 100 times that—200 billion!—would only be 3.3 x 10-13 mole, or 0.33 picomole, again a very small quantity. Certainly, expressing the quantity of DNA fragments claimed to have been found as femtomole or picomole quantities would not have sounded nearly as scary as “billions and billions” of fragments.
As for the lipid nanoparticles, apparently they can go anywhere and do magical things. Maybe. Or maybe it’s the dreaded pseudouridine:
The Nobel Prize was just won recently for the discovery that pseudouridine stabilises the mRNA from immune attack. How long does it last in the body and how much variation is there in the population? Different people may have different abilities to metabolise and get rid of it.
This is basically a rehash of William Makis’ fear mongering about pseudouridine in a “just asking questions” format:
There could be immune effects, there’s been some talk about IgG4 switching [see article for explanation], or it could be with the contamination of DNA which gets into the genome because that could disrupt tumour suppressor genes.
Dr. Makis loves to cite work showing that pseudouridine-containing RNA can decrease the activity of proteins known as Toll-like receptors, which is in part how these modified mRNAs escape degradation by the immune system. Dr. Makis, of course, claims without evidence that the mRNA vaccines damage cancer surveillance. It’s all hand-waving, of course, based on papers that did find this but have shown no link to cancer. In brief, there is no evidence that modified mRNA “dampens the immune response” to cancer, including the 2005 paper by Kariko et al that found that the modified mRNA did dampen the immune response to…RNA!
The COVID-19 pandemic has bene a real education for me not just in the science directly related to coronaviruses, mRNA vaccines, and public health, but also a lesson about how no one—and I mean no one, myself included—is immune to being attracted to ideas not rooted in science, even scientists who should know better, like oncologists and cancer biologists who are experts in tumor suppressor genes and immunotherapy of cancer, like Prof. El-Deiry. It is also a reminder of how pride is not your friend when you start to go wrong. (See also, Prasad, Vinay.)
If Prof. El-Deiry had responded to criticism by saying something along the lines, “I still think there might be something to this turbo cancer thing worth investigating further, but I had no idea who people like Del Bigtree and Maryanne Demasi were, what they do, or that they are basically professional antivaccine influencers, and that is why I will be more careful in the future,” no one on “our side,” least of all I, would have batted an eye, “attacked” or “harassed” Prof. El-Deiry, or held his mistake against him. After all, antivax influencers like Bigtree and Demasi are very slick. They’re really good at convincing scientists previously unaware of the antivaccine propaganda machine that they are honest journalists just wanting to learn more, taking advantage of the generally open and trusting nature of scientific culture. Prof. El-Deiry can take comfort, if he sees this, in the knowledge that he is far from the first legitimate scientist to have been taken in by antivaxxers. Nor will he be the last, I fear.
Unfortunately, I also fear that he has not learned from this experience, which is sad. By Saturday night, he had blocked nearly all critics on X/Twitter, including Debunk the Funk, Dorit Reiss, and me. (I sadly unblocked him back, because I make no exceptions in my policy of blocking those who’ve blocked me.) More’s the pity.