Antonietta Gatti and Stefano Montanari: A strange antivaccine conspiracy theory from Italy

About a year ago, I wrote about yet another bit of bad science promoted by the antivaccine movement. Basically, it was a study by two Italian scientists, Antonietta Gatti and Stefano Montanari, published in the International Journal of Vaccines and Vaccination entitled New Quality-Control Investigations on Vaccines: Micro- and Nanocontamination. As I described at the time, it’s a study that misused electron microscopy and purported to find all sorts of horrific particulate contaminants in vaccines, but in reality, thanks to lax controls and poor overall experimental design, showed nothing of the sort.

Because the study came out of Italy, and virtually all the news about the story, other than that promoted by American antivaxers, came from Italian language sources, I had some difficulty writing much more about this study. It was, however, pretty amusing when one of the investigators, Stefano Montanari, was not happy with me—oh, no, not at all. Indeed, he attacked me, and I, as is my wont, responded with a dose of not-so-Respectful Insolence that was only mildly constrained by my inability to speak and write Italian and necessity to rely on the awkward English produced by Google Translate to understand what he was saying. In my response, I also took note of—shall we say?—additional scientific shortcomings in the paper that had somehow escaped my notice. Basically, The paper by Gatti and Montanari was yet another example of the alternative medicine trope that tries to blame nanoparticles as The One True Cause Of Disease.

In any event, that was over a year ago (how time flies when you’re having fun!), and I thought nothing more of Gatti and Montanari until I noted in passing that antivaccine quack James Lyons-Weiler’s “Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge” (IPAK) had recently invited them to submit a proposal to investigate where the microcontaminant nanoparticles found in vaccines go in the normal developing mouse. Other than that, I had mostly forgotten about the story.

During the time a one to two weeks ago, while I was buried in preparing to submit a grant and actually shut down the blog for a few days, I noticed a rumbling in the antivaccine blogosphere. I filed it away for later use, but somehow never got back to it again; that is, at least until I accidentally happened across a post on the antivaccine crank blog and otherwise wretched hive of scum and quackery, Age of Autism by John Stone, one of the most conspiracy mongering of the conspiracy mongers there, entitled Computers and Records Seized of Dr Gatti and Dr Montanari. It referenced a Facebook post by the anti-Gardasil antivax group SaneVax (whom I’ve discussed several times before):

Stone continues:

The website of vacciniinforma.it reproduces the facebook page of Dr Montanari with the comment “FINANCIAL GUARD VISIT THE LABORATORY OF DRS GATTI AND MONTANARI, MEDICINE IS OBSTRUCTED AS USUAL”.

No one, of course, challenges the pharmaceutical industry in order to make money but the cozy relationship of the industry to the Italian government is well documented, and this will be a contentious event in the forthcoming Italian national election.

A groundbreaking study “New Quality-Control Investigations on Vaccines: Micro and Nanocontamination” by Gatti and Montenari was published in the International Journal of Vaccines and Vaccination early last year:

I can’t help but note that the original study that I discussed a year ago was briefly removed from the journal website, leading to a flurry of antivaccine conspiracy theories, but it’s still there.

So what happened?

A little history is in order, and I admit to having some difficulty putting together exactly what happened, because, again, pretty much every source that isn’t an American antivaccine website or blog is an Italian language source. I noted a year ago that Gatti and Montanari have their very own electron microscope. Apparently in 2006, the University of Modena stopped them from using its electron microscope to study “toxic emissions.” So, via his blog, Beppo Grillo (yes, that very same Beppo Grillo who founded the Italian political party Five Star Movement that did so well in elections last week), launched a fundraising effort for the purchase of an environmental scanning microscope. Ultimately €378,000 was raised to purchase the microscope. I also noted that somehow this all went bad, with Montanari featuring a drawing of Grillo as literally a werewolf. However, more recent posts on Montanari’s blog seems to indicate some sort of reconciliation, as Montanari has been praising Grillo and the Five Star Movement, and the URL to the blog post showing Grillo as a werewolf now redirects to a post saying he supports “all the local lists of Beppe Grillo.”

The Five Star Movement, in case you don’t know, is quite a crank movement, full of antivaccine views and HIV/AIDS denialism, all in addition to its anti-immigrant right wing views. Paolo Vanoli, whom I’ve discussed before has claimed that vaccines can cause homosexuality and is a member of the Five Star Movement. It’s thus not at all surprising that Montanari and Gatti would be supportive of such a political party, given that they aren’t without a bit of crank tendencies themselves. For instance, they’ve co-authored a book called Vaccini: sì o no? (Vaccines: Yes or No?) In all my years in the biz, I know right away that any book that even asks this question in the title will be full of antivaccine misinformation, and I wasn’t wrong here.

On the other hand, in this interview, Montanari says he’s happy that the Five Star Movement did so well in the most recent elections, he’s not happy with Grillo:

No party has damaged me and, damaging me, Italy more than the grillini, and their hypocrisy was for years grotesquely obvious to those who did not feel like closing eyes, ears and brain. To their holy man we owe the subtraction of the microscope with a lot of enormous obstacles to the research of which, then, those claim results. To them we owe the closure of the non-profit organization that should have spread the results of our research. We owe them the mud avalanches I received.

But he’s hopeful:

Now that they’ve grown up, I’m sure they will repair the evil they’ve done. Those who parade following the flags of honesty, fairness, the good of the citizens and anything else that is laudable can not but be honest, correct and far from the good of the citizens. So, instead of continuing to tell folly, to escape by escaping every confrontation and to play with money, whether or not they actually returned that money, in one fell swoop they will buy the microscope that Grillo let take away and provide the means to keep it. Nothing would be enough.

So apparently, there was some sort of falling out that led the loss of his microscope.

Then, on February 22, there was this on the Facebook page of Gatti and Montanari’s :

Translation:

Another attack on the truth!

This morning from 8:30 pm the finance guard is searching Dr.’s apartment, Stefano Montanari and Dr. Antoinette Gatti. Then the nanodiagnostics lab will be searched, where all computers and documents in possession will be seized.
Therefore, at the moment, Montanari and Gatti are forced to suspend all activities related to their studies, including conferences, advice and analysis, and to refer on the date to be defined.

Please share this message to bring up this unexpected anyone who may be interested. Thanks.

Elsewhere:

It was about 8:30 when four financiers showed up at my house showing a document from the Reggio Emilia Public Prosecutor’s Office saying that in my charge there is a scam investigation still related to the electron microscope that we have not had available for a long time . My wife was not there, she was in Sardinia, where, at the Court of Lanusei, she had deposed about the seizure of the poligono di Quirra, each other for which we performed analysis and testing. The financiers have inspected every inch of the house, even looked in the cellar and in the refrigerator, then inside the car.

They took two computers away. In the meantime, other financiers had gone to the laboratory, where all the computers and all the documentation and data we had on all the analyzes and studies in progress and carried out, including computer copies, were seized. So, now, we have nothing left. How will my wife show the data to the Court of Lanusei where she should return? How will I carry on the teaching I have in Geneva with nothing more than my documentation? I even had to cancel conferences that I had planned because I do not even own one of our data anymore. Naturally we will send our legal representative to ask for the release of all the material. The accusations are absurd and we will challenge them, as already done on other occasions and locations, proving that we have not committed any crime.At this point it is questionable: how much our work bothers and to whom?

My first thought about this incident, oddly enough, was: Why didn’t they have copies of their data and documents in the cloud? I’m downright paranoid about my data. I have copies on my work computer. I have copies on the cancer center servers. I have copies on my personal computer, in the cloud, and on a portable hard drive. They’re in different locations. Offsite backups, they’re your friend.

Leaving that aside, what’s going on? Reports from news sites, rather than those associated with Montanari or antivaccine groups, are very vague. For instance, this news report notes:

The Emilian scientist is suspected of fraud: the investigation was born from the complaint of a non-profit organization claiming possession of a microscope purchased through a subscription and then entrusted to Dr. Gatti.

Elsewhere, there’s lots of conspiracy mongering among antivaxers about how this seizure was supposedly about Gatti and Montanari’s research into nanoparticles in vaccines and big pharma trying to “suppress” it, in reality the reason for the raid seems a lot more prosaic:

The scientist is investigated for fraud, with the investigation that revolves around the complaint of a non-profit organization on a microscope purchased with a popular subscription started by the blog of Beppe Grillo, entrusted to Gatti for his research and then donated by the non-profit organization Faenza. The non-profit organization accuses the professor of having used the tool for profit and not for scientific research, but there is a court ruling that authorizes Gatti and Montanari to be able to use the instrument and to be compensated for travel expenses. “Money that they never gave us,” explains the doctor, claiming she is not antivaccine and claims the anomaly of the times.

It sounds to me as though the microscope purchased by Grillo’s funds was donated to the nonprofit with some agreement that allows Gatti and Montanari to use it, but the terms of that use appear to be at the basis of the dispute. Again, it’s really hard to say in the absense of a more accessible account from sources that are not so obviously biased. John Stone is (of course) wildly speculating:

But it is also an unhappy coincidence that the former Italian health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, put herself forward in the recent Italian election as a candidate for Alternativa Popolare party in Gatti and Montanari’s home city of Modena, and has now been elected there. Lorenzin will be familiar to Age of Autism readers as the instigator under the Renzi government of Italy’s vaccine mandates following a deal with GSK.

Because, of course, it can’t possibly be just an issue of whether Gatti and Montanari broke the law or somehow committed fraud in their use of the microscope that was purchased using funds raised by Beppe Grillo. It has to be big pharma, through its government lackeys, “persecuting” a couple of Brave Maverick Scientists who have found that Vaccines Are Contaminated. (Never mind how bad their science purporting to show this is.) Their conspiracy mongering is vastly helped by the fact that this appears to be little more than a fairly local Italian story that hasn’t gotten much play outside of a relatively small area of Italy, with the resultant lack of English language sources. This allows conspiracy mongering cranks like John Stone to paint the narrative in any way he wishes, with little likelihood that he’ll be contradicted. I expect that antivaxers will flog this story for as long as they can, but that when the investigation is included, whatever charges are brought will not be due to the Italian government trying to shut Montanari and Gatti up. They will likely be very much more mundane. Whatever happens, though, you can be sure that antivaxers will milk it for all its worth, as Montanari is already trying to do with a fundraising campaign to purchase a new microscope and mentioning in every blog post that he writes that he’s using someone else’s computer because his is in the custody of the authorities.

In the meantime, if I have any readers in Italy, fill me in. What have I missed? What is going on, as far as you can ascertain?