The “toxin gambit” on steroids and more

I had a really busy grant writing day today, and my brain is fried. What that means is that, even though there are some things that I could write about that would be really cool (as in studies), I’m just too tired to do it as I write this. So, as I settle down to my nightly ritual, I wondered what I could write about. Certainly, it had to be something amusing and something that doesn’t take too much effort for me to take on. Given that blogging is a marathon and not a sprint, there are times for really applying myself and times for slumming.

This is a time for slumming. Tomorrow might be too.

A couple of days ago, I found one of the silliest, most ridiculous, most brain-meltingly stupid invocations of the anti-vaccine canard that I like to call the “toxin gambit.” Basically, you can tell that an anti-vaccine propagandist is invoking the toxin gambit when he or she starts pointing to all sorts of scary-sounding chemicals in vaccines, even though those chemicals are in general present in only trace amounts that are more than safe at the levels present in vaccines. Sometimes, these chemicals will be normal products of metabolism, like formaldehyde, that sound really poisonous. Often, anti-vaccine propagandists will intentionally conflate hazards of chemical exposure due to high levels with the tiny amount of exposure that comes from vaccines. Sometimes they’ll choose a scarier-sounding term for a chemical based on a misunderstanding, such as when they claim that there is antifreeze in vaccines. It’s all designed to scare parents into thinking that vaccines are a toxic “witches’ brew” (and, yes, I’ve seen that term used) too horrible to inject into–gasp!–innocent babies. In any case, the silly example I found a couple of days ago did ramp up the stupid to 11, invoking the potassium chloride buffer in some vaccines as being something horrible because KCl can cause cardiac arrest and they use it for lethal injections. Never mind the multiple orders of magnitude difference in the amount of KCl in vaccines and what is necessary to kill. Forget about how it’s not uncommon to inject significant quantities of KCl directly into patients’ veins when using solutions like half normal saline with 20 mEq/L KCl.

The horror. The horror.

I thought that bit of idiocy from the Vaccine Resistance Movement was the most brain dead version of the toxin gambit I had seen, so much so that I figured I probably wouldn’t see its like again for a while. I didn’t even figure that, after a couple of vaccine posts, I’d be back on the topic again today. How wrong I was! Leave it to one source of pure quackery to outdo even the VRM. Yes, it’s hard to believe that it was possible, but it is. On the other hand, if there’s any website where you might find such a screed, it’s, which is exactly where I found it. True, it wasn’t Mike Adams, the Grand Poobah of Quackery himself, but in this case one of his minions stepped up to the plate quite nicely, in this case a woman by the name of Kaitlyn Moore, who entitled her homage to vaccine wingnuttery How vaccines are made: Monkey kidneys, spinal material, animal pus and more.

All I can say is: Wow.

After discussing how Edward Jenner developed the concept of inoculation from the pus from cow pox lesions, Moore really gets started. Of course, the reason Jenner used that is because it worked and because it was hundreds of years ago, before one could isolate antigens from the infectious agent. Heck, it was before anyone actually knew what caused smallpox, long before Pasteur was even born. So, yes, using pus from cow pox to inoculate people to prevent smallpox was a little bit disgusting, but it worked, and it worked well, even in a time when very little was actually known about what caused infectious disease. Yet, according to Moore, vaccines are even more disgusting now:

Tragically, even with all of the strides made in modern medicine, vaccination preparation has actually gotten worse. Original vaccinations were contrived by using the infected matter from another human being and introducing it into the body.

Trouble began once animals began to be used as hosts. Enter Dr. Jonas Salk and the race to develop a commercially viable polio vaccine. Salk and his peers concocted from a mad scientist brew of ingredients including the minced up spinal cord from a 9-year-old deceased patient, water, blood, flies, feces, and human cell matter. This mixture was injected into the brains of monkeys, most of which died instantly or became paralyzed.

Undaunted, Salk plugged away eventually creating the commercial version of the polio vaccine, developed in part from “the feces of three healthy children in Cleveland.”

Here’s the funny thing. If you Google “feces of three healthy children in Cleveland,” what you’ll find is a lot of anti-vaccine sites, one of which promotes the idea that SV40 viral contamination in the oral polio virus caused a child’s medulloblastoma. I note that it was very difficult to find a citation for this claim. It seems to be the sort of phrase that floats around the Internet without attribution. Finally, I did find an attribution:

A.B. Sabin, A.B. & L. Boulger, History of Sabin Attenuated Poliovirus Oral Live Vaccine Strains. 1 J. Biol. Stand. 115, 115-18 (1973).

Unfortunately, I can’t find this reference. I don’t know whether Salk actually did this or not, particularly given that it would make a lot more sense to try to isolate polio virus not from healthy children but rather from children with polio. I do know that, even if that’s how they isolated the virus, who cares? Yes, it sounds gross. Yes, it sounds disgusting that the sorts of broths and cells that viruses are sometimes grown in animal cells, most often tissue culture, which is a lot different than growing them in actual animal tissue or organs. Also remember that back in 1941 scientists were making it up as they were going along. Trying to find what sorts of cells and what sorts of medium were necessary to support the growth of the polio virus was an exercise in empiricism. It was pure trial and error until scientists found something that worked. To some extent, it’s still fairly empirical to find what works to support the growth of viral stocks.

As for the issue of SV40, it is true that in 1960 it was discovered that the rhesus monkey cells used to prepare some polio virus for vaccins were infected with the SV40 virus. SV40 was famous in the history of cancer in that it was the source of one of the early oncogenes. Thus, one anti-vaccine claim is that SV40-contaminated polio vaccine caused cancer; the problem is that several studies have failed to find any evidence that there is an increased incidence of cancer in people who received the contaminated vaccine (for example, this one). Yet, it’s the conspiracy theory that won’t die.

None of this stops Moore:

Cell matter is extracted from these hosts, combined with toxic chemicals like Thimerosol (mercury), formaldehyde, aluminum hydroxide and a variety of other substances, before being injected into our bodies (… and The side effects are autism, diabetes, asthma, MS, SIDS, and more.

No, they are not. There is no compelling evidence connecting vaccines with autism, diabetes, asthma, or any of the other conditions listed above and a lot of evidence suggesting that they are not.

Then there’s this gem:

Award winning journalist Janine Roberts, author of Fear of the Invisible and a host of other papers developing into the truth behind vaccine development, discovered that “vaccines are not filtered clean, but suspension from the manufacturers incubation tanks in which the viruses are produced from substrates of mashed bird embryo, minced monkey kidneys, or the infamous cloned human diploid cells only scanned for a few known contaminates – while the unknowns remain just that — unknown.”

Even worse, the government has provided legal protection to the vaccine industry and their polluted products via FDA regulations, more specifically 21 CFR.

“Virus interaction can’t be controlled — by their very nature they are mutating organisms. There is a well-founded concern that these animal viruses are able to cross species lines and adapt to their new host environment.”

Except that these days we have very powerful tools (such as PCR) for detecting vaccine contamination and mutation in vaccine strains, and these tools are used. This theoretical concern is not one that is backed by any solid evidence, the fear mongering of Kaitlyn Moore notwithstanding.

On the other hand, minced monkey kidney and mashed bird embryo sure do sound tasty.

The bottom line is that it’s very easy to cause fear of vaccines using the toxin gambit because most people are pretty ignorant from a scientific standpoint. Even if they learned some science in high school or college, if they don’t use it they lose it. They rapidly forget, just as I’ve forgotten a lot of subjects that I took in college but don’t use now. Antivaccinationists know this and take advantage of it by finding scary-sounding names of chemicals and strange or disgusting-sounding cells, animal extracts, or whatever and making them sound even more disgusting.

Oh, well, I suppose I should be grateful Moore didn’t pull the “aborted fetal tissue” gambit.