A zombie meme rises from the grave: Maurice Hilleman, the polio vaccine, SV40, and cancer


The Internet has produced a revolution with respect to information. Now, people anywhere, any time, can find almost any information that they want, as long as they have a connection to the global network and aren’t unfortunate enough to live in a country that heavily censors the Internet connections coming in. In addition, anyone any time can put his or her opinion out on the Internet and it might be read by people on the other side of the planet. For example, it continually amazes me that my blatherings here are read by people in Australia and New Zealand, as well as Europe and pretty much every other continent. Before the Internet, there was no way I would ever have achieved my current measure of minor celebrity status (and I do mean minor). Now, with enough good (I hope) writing and some links from some popular sources, and I can make my opinion known worldwide.

The dark side of this is that cranks can also make their opinions known worldwide, and, all too frequently, they are much better at it than skeptics are. For example, this very blog used a generic, vanilla WordPress template for the longest time, only updating it a few months ago. Meanwhile crank websites like NaturalNews.com are decked out in the latest, greatest web accoutrements, complete with video. One other problem with the democratization of information is that there now exist what I like to call “zombie memes.” In the world of quackery and pseudoscience, these are pseudoscientific claims on the Internet that never die, no matter how often they are refuted. Generally, such memes/claims pop up, make a fuss, are refuted, and then disappear. Then a few months (or even a year or two) later, something will happen to resurrect them. Maybe it’s a clueless mortician cremating the remains of such a zombie meme during a rainstorm and letting the vile chemical that resurrected the corpse of the meme in the first place permeate the soil of a graveyard of dead memes, resurrecting them all. Maybe it involved injecting a glowing fluid into the corpse of the meme. Who knows? Who cares that much? All I know is that these zombie memes keep popping up again and again as though they were new.


Now that the World Wide Web (at least as we know it, in its graphically browsable form) is approaching its twentieth birthday, we now have enough perspective to see these things. Just three weeks ago, one such antivaccine meme popped up like a rotting Whac-A-Mole. Just this weekend, I noticed another of these zombie memes arising from the dead yet again to feast on the brains of the living and thus make them cranks too. This one popped up at that online repository of all things quackery, NaturalNews.com, in a post by Mike Adams himself entitled Merck vaccine developer admits vaccines routinely contain hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys. Other versions of this meme pop up from time to time with titles like CDC Admits 98 Million Americans Received Polio Vaccine In An 8-Year Span When It Was Contaminated With Cancer Virus.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Maurice R. Hilleman is a little-known giant in the history of vaccines in the 20th century, having developed 36 vaccines, more than any other scientist in history, of which eight are still used today. So successful was he that he has been credited with saving more lives than any other medical scientist of the 20th century. Consequently, it’s rather strange to see his name be such a critical part of the first antivaccine zombie meme I’m going to discuss, which Mike Adams promoted just yesterday. As a companion piece on NaturalNewsTV, he has a video, with text superimposed that says, “All vaccines contain foreign DNA, RNA, and proteins that may prompt allergies and autoimmune diseases from bacteria, fungi, yeast, bovine fetal serum, monkey kidney tissues, toxic metals, mercury, and aluminum, MSG, and corpse preservatives formaldehyde and formalin.” One can’t help but chuckle and note that formalin is formaldehyde in a neutral buffered solution. They’re basically the same thing.

Be that as it may, let’s see what Adams claims, along with many other cranks:

If you haven’t yet realized the truth about how vaccines contain hidden cancer viruses, prepare yourself to be shocked by the admission you’re about to hear. Decades ago, one of the most prominent vaccine scientists in the history of the vaccine industry — a Merck scientist — made a recording where he openly admitted that vaccines given to Americans were contaminated with leukemia and cancer viruses.

In hearing this admission, his colleagues (who are also recorded here) break into laughter and seem to think it’s hilarious. They then suggest that because these vaccines are first tested in Russia, their side effects will help the U.S. win the Olympics because the Russian athletes will all be “loaded down with tumors.”

For the record, this is the same vaccine that was given to tens of millions of Americans and promoted by the government. To this day, people still carry these hidden cancer viruses which have proven to be a boon to the cancer industry.

One notes that this most recent article by Adams is close to a verbatim republication of an article from two years ago by Adams. It regurgitates a claim that SV40 that contaminated some early batches of the polio vaccine in the late 1950s were the cause of the “cancer epidemic.” Other variants of this claim are that the polio vaccine was responsible for creating AIDS. The first is a distortion and exaggeration; the second is even worse.


Before I discuss the actual content of the interview, I must note that it was apparently found by a man named Leonard Horowitz, who is quoted on Whale.to as having said, “The greatest lie ever told is that vaccines are safe and effective.” On a Whale.to page devoted to Horowitz, we learn that Horowitz is a world class conspiracy theorist who has written articles like Big Pharma/Lancet Scam: Vaccine-Autism Link Denied (coauthored with Mike Adams himself!), Watchdog Groups Say Death Toll From Vaccines Amounts to “Genocide” Surgeon General’s Letter in USA Today Assailed, and Emerging Viruses: AIDS & Ebola. Nature, Accident or Intentional? (a credulous interview with Gary Null). His website, Tetrahedron Publishing Group, is replete with similar articles and hawks colloidal silver as well, while his own website bills him as a “Humanitarian, Clinician, Prophet, Scholar and Natural Healer Advances Global Healing.” On his other website, American Red Double Cross, Horowitz attacks the Red Cross and bills himself thusly:

Dr. Len Horowitz, internationally known authority in public health and emerging diseases, and the nationally syndicated radio talk show host of “The Insight Hour,” delves into the darkest side of drug-based medicine, including the mass killing and poisoning of people for profit and politics.

This led me to The Insight Hour with Dr. Leonard Horowitz and Stacy Kane and an effort by him called LOVE528, which he represents as central to the “musical mathematical matrix of creation.” Horowitz even has a hallowed entry in the Encyclopedia of American Loons, which describes the full breadth of his woo, as does his Wikipedia entry. He’s also known for publishing an article in Medical Hypotheses entitled Polio, hepatitis B and AIDS: an integrative theory on a possible vaccine induced pandemic.

First of all, it would help to know when this interview was done. Obviously, it had to be before 2005, because that’s the year Hilleman died at the age of 85. I did a bit of Googling, and this footage is allegedly footage cut from a production by medical historian Dr. Edward Shorter done for PBS WGBH in Boston. I can’t find the video online, but there is a book by Shorter entitled The Health Century: A Companion to the PBS Television Series, which was published in 1987. So presumably this interview with Hilleman likely took place sometime in the year or two before that, which is informative in that it tells us that the conspiracy theory that the polio vaccine was the origin of AIDS is at least 25 years old. No wonder it keeps popping up again and again. The jokes about cancer causation by the vaccine indicate that, similarly, the idea that the early batches of polio vaccines were contaminated with SV40 were around in the 1980s. In any case, this found footage was taken by Horowitz and woven into a conspiracy magnum opus of a film entitled In Lies We Trust: The CIA, Hollywood and Bioterrorism. (The complete segment begins just after the 2 hour mark.)

In any case, this appears to be the “money quote” that the antivaccine movement likes to cite:

Dr Edward Shorter: Tell me how you found SV40 and the polio vaccine.

Dr Maurice Hilleman: Well, that was at Merck. Yeah, I came to Merck. And uh, I was going to develop vaccines. And we had wild viruses in those days. You remember the wild monkey kidney viruses and so forth? And I finally after 6 months gave up and said that you cannot develop vaccines with these damn monkeys, we’re finished and if I can’t do something I’m going to quit, I’m not going to try it. So I went down to see Bill Mann at the zoo in Washington DC and I told Bill Mann, I said “look, I got a problem and I don’t know what the hell to do.” Bill Mann is a real bright guy. I said that these lousy monkeys are picking it up while being stored in the airports in transit, loading, offloading. He said, very simply, you go ahead and get your monkeys out of West Africa and get the African Green, bring them into Madrid unload them there, there is no other traffic there for animals, fly them into Philadelphia and pick them up. Or fly them into New York and pick them up, right off the airplane. So we brought African Greens in and I didn’t know we were importing the AIDS virus at the time.

Miscellaneous background voices:…(laughter)… it was you who introduced the AIDS virus into the country. Now we know! (laughter) This is the real story! (laughter) What Merck won’t do to develop a vaccine! (laughter).

If you listen to the actual interview (at around 2:15 in), you’ll see that it’s very clear that Hilleman, obviously aware of the conspiracy theories claiming that the AIDS virus derived from the virus used to make the early polio vaccine, was making a joke and that the people in the room during the interview realized it was a joke. That’s why they laughed. They were laughing at the conspiracy theorists. Those claims were clearly floating around in the mid-1980s, right at the height of the AIDS epidemic, before there was much in the way of effective treatment. So this part of the interview was cut from the show. One wonders how much else was cut from the show, given that generally only fractions of total footage make it into any documentary. (Remember Dr. Jay Gordon whining about how his extensive interview had been cut altogether from the PBS documentary The Vaccine War?) In any case, Shorter, hardly “hiding” the footage, deposited it all in the National Library of Medicine, where it is available to all. That’s how Horowitz found it and decided that Hilleman making jokes was “evidence” that he really did “bring the AIDS virus to the US,” as this post claims.


So what’s the real story? It is indeed true that back in the late 1950s, batches of polio vaccine were contaminated with a monkey virus known as SV40, which stands for “Simian Vacuolating Virus 40” (hence Hilleman’s mention of that “damn vaculating agent that we have”) or “Simian Virus 40.” It was the 40th simian virus that Hilleman had discovered, hence the name. The polio vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin in the 1950s were made by growing the polio virus in kidney cells derived from Asian rhesus monkeys (hence the reference to monkey kidney cells). Salk’s polio vaccine was a killed vaccine, in which the viral particles were inactivated with formaldehyde and the killed virus injected to produce an antibody response against the polio virus that could prevent infection with live polio virus. It contained very little SV40, because the formaldehyde also inactivated SV40. Sabin’s virus, on the other hand, was a live virus vaccine and was more heavily contaminated with SV40.

In 1959, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health named Bernice Eddy noticed that monkey kidney cells were dying without obvious cause. (Note that she was also a critical player in the Cutter incident, in which she discovered that the vaccines manufactured by Cutter Laboratories had live polio virus in them.) She made extracts of the cells and injected them under the skin of 23 newborn hamsters; within nine months 20 of them developed large tumors. Meanwhile, Hilleman and his collaborator Ben Sweet isolated the virus responsible and found SV40 was found in both the Sabin and Salk vaccines. It didn’t help that Eddy had brought her findings to Dr. Joseph Smadel, chief of the NIH’s biologics division, who made a huge mistake and dismissed the tumors as harmless “lumps.”

By 1961, there was significant concern among U.S. Public Health Service officials, as it has been found that as many as one-third of polio vaccines were tainted. As a result, although there was no evidence at the time that SV40 was harmful to humans, it was ordered that manufacturers find a way to eliminate SV40 from all future vaccines, which they promptly did. New procedures were developed to neutralize any SV40 and SV40-free African green monkeys were then used to produce the bulk of the vaccine instead of rhesus monkeys (hence Hilleman’s reference to green monkeys in his interview). Showing that no good deed goes unpunished, conspiracy theorists latched on to the African green monkeys as the vector through which the AIDS virus was brought into the U.S. via the new polio vaccines (hence Hilleman’s joke about “importing the AIDS virus”). These actions were all well and good, but the government didn’t recall the contaminated vaccine stocks and did not notify the public, because, as Hilleman later recounted, government officials were worried about a panic that might jeopardize the vaccine program. In any case, by 1963, SV40 had been eliminated from the nation’s polio vaccine stock. However, millions of people had received the vaccine.

But does SV40 cause cancer in humans? In a word, as far as we can tell, no.

Even early on, there were indications that this was unlikely. First of all, followup studies demonstrated that while injecting SV40 would produce tumors, ingesting it did not. Other studies showed that children receiving Sabin’s oral polio vaccine did not develop antibodies to SV40, as one would expect if they were being exposed. SV40 apparently passed through children’s GI tracts without ever causing an SV40 infection.

As the years went by, there were studies that reported finding SV40 in human tumor samples, which was obviously worrisome. The most prominent of these studies were by Michael Carbone at the NIH. In the late 1980s, he tested 48 human mesotheliomas and found SV40 by PCR in 28 of them. In 1990s, PCR “unleashed a wave of SV40” discoveries, including a variety of bone, brain, and hematopoietic malignancies, so much so that in 1997 the National Cancer Institute set up an SV40 working group, as described by ERV. The report stated:

In order to resolve why some laboratories detect traces of SV40 in mesothelioma while others do not, an International SV40 Working Group, which included the majority of laboratories studying SV40 in human tissues, was formed in 1997. Nine laboratories from the working group agreed to participate in a study, funded and organized by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Each group was given 25 paired-duplicate samples of human mesotheliomas, a single set of 25 normal lung tissue samples, and positive and negative control samples. All the samples were blinded (labeled so that the human tumors and controls could not be distinguished) and each laboratory used its particular assay for detecting SV40, many of which had been used to detect SV40 previously. The results, published in the May 2001 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention (36), showed that none of the mesothelioma specimens was consistently positive for SV40.

That would be this paper.

For example, after Carbone had presented his evidence linking SV40 to mesothelioma, Howard Strickler, an epidemiologist at the NCI, and Joseph Fraumeni, director of NCI’s Division on Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics presented other evidence. For instance, PCR on 50 mesotheliomas from Armed Forces hospitals across the country found no SV40. Another study compared cancer rates in people born between 1947 and 1963, who were likely to have been exposed to contaminated polio vaccine, to people born after 1963, who were highly unlikely to have been exposed. There was no difference in cancer rates. This is a result that has held up, as studies performed eight years, fifteen years, and thirty years after SV40-contaminated vaccines had been given to children found that they had the same cancer incidence as groups not exposed to contaminated vaccine (for example, this study, this study, this study, and this study).

This story reminds me a bit of the Andrew Wakefield story in that these false positive results were most likely due to contamination with plasmid sequence. The SV40 and CMV promoters are very commonly used as a strong promoter to drive the expression of genes by plasmids, while the SV40 large T-antigen is commonly used to immortalize cell lines. Pretty much any molecular biology laboratory is likely to be swimming in contamination with SV40 and CMV sequences, much as the laboratory that was used to test Andrew Wakefield’s gut biopsy samples from autistic children was swimming in measles sequences. So very rigorous measures need to be taken if you’re going to look for these sequences to make sure the controls are all appropriate. As those of us who’ve ever done extensive PCR work know as well, even that isn’t always enough. Even the most careful scientist can occasionally be fooled by contamination problems when using PCR.

But what about the claim that the polio vaccine provided us not only with cancer-causing SV40 but with AIDS? This one is a lot easier to deal with because, unlike the SV40 fear mongering, which was built on a grain of truth, this particular myth is, as we say, right out:

In the 1990s, certain critics began to blame the testing of a live, weakened polio vaccine in Africa in the 1950s for the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Those behind the accusation argued that chimpanzee cells were used to create the vaccine, and that those cells had been contaminated with a virus that sometimes affects chimps: simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV. When the vaccine was given to children in Africa, they argued, SIV mutated to become human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS.

The accusations, however, were demonstrably false for a variety of reasons. Most notably, the weakened polio vaccine was not made with chimpanzee cells, but with monkey cells. The vaccine was later tested using a technique that can detect viral DNA (the PCR technique, or polymerase chain reaction); it did not contain SIV or HIV.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in Alabama demonstrated in 2006 that while HIV was in fact a derivative of SIV, chimpanzees in Cameroon that had been infected with SIV in the 1930s were the most likely source of the AIDS epidemic—decades before the weakened polio vaccine was tested in Africa.

So wait a minute. Was it the switch to green monkeys in wake of the SV40 contamination problem or was it the testing of live attenuated polio virus in Africa that created the AIDS virus? I just can’t keep the stories straight.

Whatever the case, the SV40 conspiracy theory can easily be looked at as a case of no good deed going unpunished. After all, for all the castigation of the “sloppy science” that led to the polio vaccine by quacks and cranks, scientists back then used the best tools they had at the time, and quacks tend to fall into the trap of looking at those times through the lens of the scientific techniques that are available to us today. Scientists didn’t have PCR to look for sequences of contaminating viruses; that technique didn’t become widely available until more than 25 years later. Think of it this way: Watson and Crick’s original paper demonstrating the double helical structure of DNA was only published in 1953, which is around the time the polio vaccine was being developed, and Marshall Nirenberg didn’t publish his paper in which he “cracked the genetic code” until 1961. (I used the paper as part of a journal club-style class I taught for graduate students. It’s a really clever paper.)

In a way, it’s astounding to me that scientists could accomplish what they did then, that Eddy could detect the contaminating virus in 1959, and that Hilleman could identify it as a distinct virus in 1960. Even if the SV40 contaminating the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines really did cause cancer (and the evidence thus far is that it did not), the government moved pretty quickly to fix the problem. Sure, you can criticize the NCI for not taking Eddy’s results as seriously as they deserved or officials responsible for the vaccine program for not recalling the contaminated vaccines. Those are legitimate criticisms, but, even in spite of those missteps, in less than two years the contaminated polio vaccines were gone, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Then, over the next few decades, scientists did periodic studies to try to determine whether there had been any ill effects from the SV40 contamination, particularly in terms of an increased incidence of cancer in people who had received the contaminated vaccine. They failed to find any.

It’s time to move on, but we all know that the antivaccine cranks and quacks won’t, except temporarily. Once zombie memes are established, be they about vaccines, quackery, 9/11 conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, or involving other demonstrably bogus assertions, they are nigh-impossible to kill once and for all. Indeed, maybe “zombie” is the wrong word for them. After all, even in The Return of the Living Dead (in which they were the most indestructible), zombies could still be destroyed by reducing them to fine ash using a crematorium. (At least in The Walking Dead, all it takes to kill a zombie is a good head shot.) I rather suspect that antivaccine zombie memes would only be made stronger and more widely dispersed by such utter destruction. On second thought, that is a lot like the zombies in The Return of the Living Dead.

In any event, I fully expect that this particular meme will continue for the rest of my life, with the same few articles evolving only slightly, showing up periodically, being Tweeted all over the Internet, and spread all over Facebook, being refuted, and disappearing for a while, only to show up again later. Zombie memes never die. They always rise again. If readers of this post share it in response to seeing this particular zombie meme, perhaps this post can become a zombie meme too, but as a force for good. And I promise you that I will never, ever eat your brains.

Unless I’m really hungry, that is.


“Mooore braaains!”