The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was caused by an experimental vaccine? A conspiracy theory I hadn’t heard of before…

It’s been a hundred years since the beginning of the great influenza pandemic of 1918. It was truly a monumental and horrific pandemic, lasting two years, infecting a half a billion people, and killing at least 50 million people worldwide, roughly 700,000 in the US, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. Known colloquially as the “Spanish flu,” the strain of influenza responsible for the pandemic was an H1N1 virus. The CDC notes that the pandemic was so severe that from 1917 to 1918, life expectancy in the United States fell by about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women, also noting that there were high death rates in previously healthy people, including those between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, which was unusual because influenza typically attacks the very young and the very old more than it does young adults.

Not surprisingly, such a monumental loss of life due to influenza is an “inconvenient” fact of history to antivaxers who don’t like the flu vaccine and argue that the flu is not a serious disease. Not surprisingly, they do everything they can to downplay the role of the influenza virus and blame those tens of millions of deaths on something other than the Spanish Flu. Alternatively, there are the oft-cited claims (by homeopaths) that homeopaths were much more successful at treating the flu during the pandemic than conventional doctors, a claim that is utter nonsense, but sure did pop up a lot during the last H1N1 pandemic in 2009, and that natural is better when it comes to influenza. After 2009, I thought I had heard all the Spanish Flu pandemic myths and conspiracy theories, but I was wrong.

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918: Not due to the influenza virus?

There is, however, one claim, one conspiracy theory, about the 1918 influenza pandemic that I had never heard before, or, if I had heard it, failed to remember it and have never blogged about it as far as I can tell. It’s a claim I learned bout when I got up earlier than usual this morning to be greeted with a post on that wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery, Age of Autism (AoA). It’s by Kevin Barry, a lawyer who’s helped promote the quacktastic “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory. Apparently now he’s running something called First Freedoms, Inc., which advertises itself as being about “human rights, civil rights, and religious freedoms,” but, upon closer inspection, appears to be mostly about “vaccine freedom,” or the “freedom” for antivaxers to refuse vaccinations for their children. If you look at its menu (and look at your peril, as the website appears to have a misconfigured security certificate that will produce an warning message in your browser—the things I do for my readers!), you’ll see that it’s about the Italian “human rights” complaint about vaccines, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory, the challenge to the law banning nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates in California, and the like. In any case, Barry’s article is entitled Did A Vaccine Experiment on US Soldiers Cause “The Spanish Flu” Epidemic?

I had two questions upon reading that title. First, how is it that I haven’t heard of or don’t remember this conspiracy theory before? Second, Betteridge’s law of headlines surely applies here. In any event, the AoA link only has the first half of Barry’s quacktastic post; the rest can be found on his First Freedoms, Inc. website (FirstFreedoms.org, again, go there at your peril and only if you know what you’re doing). I’ll quote liberally as needed from the section on the actual website.

The article starts with this question:

The “Spanish Flu” killed an estimated 50-100 million people during a pandemic 1918-19. What if the story we have been told about this pandemic isn’t true? What if, instead, the killer infection was neither the flu nor Spanish in origin? Newly analyzed documents reveal that the “Spanish Flu” may have been a military vaccine experiment gone awry. In looking back on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, we need to delve deeper to solve this mystery.

No. Actually we don’t. This is utter nonsense. But it’s nonsense that’s useful to unpack, because to those not versed in influenza and the history of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, it can sound plausible, convincing even. Let’s take at the absolute dumbest bit of the conspiracy theory first. It’s not the first thing that Barry mentions. Perhaps he realizes that it’s so dumb that only true believers would accept it as the opening gambit and that it could only sound even partially plausible after other elements of the conspiracy theory were woven. First, he starts with something that is factual, but presented…oddly:

While watching an episode of American Experience on PBS a few months ago, I was surprised to hear that the first cases of “Spanish Flu” occurred at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918. I thought, how is it possible this historically important event could be so badly misnamed 100 years ago and never corrected?

Why “Spanish”? Spain was one of a few countries not involved in World War I. Most of the countries involved in the war censored their press. Free from censorship concerns, the earliest press reports of people dying from disease in large numbers came from Spain. The warring countries did not want to additionally frighten the troops, so they were content to scapegoat Spain. Soldiers on all sides would be asked to cross no man’s land into machine gun fire, which was frightening enough without knowing that the trenches were a disease breeding ground.

This is more or less correct. The pandemic started as World War I was entering its final phases. You can even go to Wikipedia and it will tell you that wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Papers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, including the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII. This selective reporting created a false impression of Spain as having been especially hard hit, thereby giving rise to the pandemic’s nickname, “Spanish Flu”. If you don’t trust Wikipedia, here’s a good timeline from Popular Mechanics:

Though dubbed the Spanish flu, after millions of early deaths in Spain, the geographic origin of the disease remains unknown. Some hypothesize that it may have been circulating around the world for a few years before developing into a pandemic in 1918. The first confirmed outbreak in the United States, if not the world, was at an army base in northeastern Kansas on March 11, 1918. Just hours after the first soldier reported sick, dozens more began pouring into the infirmary. By the end of the day, hundreds of soldiers had fallen ill. Within a week 500 had come down with the fever.

The flu quickly spread across the country, where 2 million troops were mobilizing for the war in Europe. The soldiers carried the flu with them when they shipped out, introducing the virus to France, England, Germany and Spain. “King George’s Grand Fleet could not even put to sea for three weeks in May, with 10,313 men sick,” reports Gina Kolata in her book Flu. The virus jumped to China, India, Japan and the rest of Asia. By summer it seemed to have played itself out.

Other sources note that the disease appears to have been circulating in Europe as early as 1917. In any event, what is described above was the first wave. Beginning in September, there was a second wave that appeared at Camp Devens, a US Army training camp near Boston, and at a naval base in Boston. This wave was worse than the first peaking from September through November and killing over 100,000 Americans in October alone. The third and final wave began in early 1919 but, while serious, wasn’t as lethal as the second wave. In the US at least, the pandemic finally subsided in the summer of 1919.

Of course, to Barry the reason that the Spanish Flu is still often called the Spanish Flu has more to do with the powers-that-be misleading the sheeple as to the true cause of the disease:

It is possible that one of the reasons the Spanish Flu has never been corrected is that it helps disguise the origin of the pandemic. If the origin of the pandemic involved a vaccine experiment on US soldiers, then the US may prefer calling it Spanish Flu instead of The Fort Riley Bacteria of 1918, or something similar. The Spanish Flu started at the location this experimental bacterial vaccine was given making it the prime suspect as the source of the bacterial infections which killed so many.

It would be much more difficult to maintain the marketing mantra of “vaccines save lives” if a vaccine experiment originating in the United States during the years of primitive manufacturing caused the deaths of 50-100 million people.

“Vaccines save lives … except we may have killed 50-100 million people in 1918-19” is a far less effective sales slogan than the overly simplistic “vaccines save lives.”

This, of course, brings us to Kevin Barry’s conspiracy theory, which is that a vaccine for meningitis being tested at the time was the real cause of the pandemic disease (which, he claims, was not influenza, much less the H1N1 strain) that swept through the world and killed tens of millions in less than two years. Before Barry really gets going with his conspiracy theory, he trots out several of the usual antivaccine tropes, such as that mortality was decreasing from various vaccine-preventable diseases, thanks to clean water and sanitation. Of course, no one, least of all public health officials, downplays the importance of sanitation and clean, potable water in reducing the incidence of a number of diseases. For preventing the spread of diseases like cholera, for instance, clean water is essential. But many other vaccine-preventable diseases have little to do with sanitation. Measles, for instance, is primarily spread through air droplets from the respiration and coughing of infected individuals and is incredibly contagious. Only a vaccine can block the spread of measles through a population.

Spanish Flu: Of course it had to be a vaccine!

Be that as it may, let’s delve into Barry’s conspiracy theory further, where first he asserts that the disease that killed so many was not the flu or a virus, but bacterial. Adding to that, Barry next dives into a vat of burning stupid so intense and deep that we’d better hope that global warming doesn’t cause its levels to rise any more than they already have:

Capitalizing on the “flu” part of Spanish flu helped vaccine manufacturers procure billion dollar checks from governments, even though scientists knew at the time that bacterial pneumonia was the real killer. It is not my opinion that bacterial pneumonia was the real killer – thousands of autopsies confirm this fact. According to a 2008 National Institute of Health paper, bacterial pneumonia was the killer in a minimum of 92.7% of the 1918-19 autopsies reviewed. It is likely higher than 92.7%. The researchers looked at more than 9000 autopsies, and “there were no negative (bacterial) lung culture results”.

“… In the 68 higher-quality autopsy series, in which the possibility of unreported negative cultures could be excluded, 92.7% of autopsy lung cultures were positive for ≥1 bacterium. … in one study of approximately 9000 subjects who were followed from clinical presentation with influenza to resolution or autopsy, researchers obtained, with sterile technique, cultures of either pneumococci or streptococci from 164 of 167 lung tissue samples. There were 89 pure cultures of pneumococci; 19 cultures from which only streptococci were recovered; 34 that yielded mixtures of pneumococci and/or streptococci; 22 that yielded a mixture of pneumococci, streptococci, and other organisms (prominently pneumococci and nonhemolytic streptococci); and 3 that yielded nonhemolytic streptococci alone. There were no negative lung culture results.” (3)

Pneumococci or streptococci were found in “164 of (the) 167 lung tissue samples” autopsied. That is 98.2%. Bacteria was the killer.

Barry seems unaware that bacterial pneumonia is often the secondary cause of death in influenza; indeed, the majority of individuals who died of influenza during the pandemic succumbed to secondary bacterial infection with Streptococcus pneumoniae, Streptococcus pyogenes, H. influenzae, Staphylococcus aureus, and other organisms That’s because influenza weakens the lung’s defenses against pathogenic bacteria, which then superinfect the lungs, leading to pneumonia. Indeed, scientists have pointed out many times that bacterial pneumonia complicating influenza is a well-recognized severe manifestation of influenza and that it counted for many deaths in the 1918 influenza pandemic.

In any event, particular review of the subject notes that in the 1918 pandemic:

Experts now support the sequential infection hypothesis and believe that bacteria were secondary invaders to pulmo- nary tissues weakened by the influenza virus. They suggest that the scale and range of bacterial invaders was random, and in the case of large group outbreaks, depended on the occurrence of particular bacteria in the respiratory tract of persons at the time of infection and on their occurrence in contacts. The fatal outcome of influenza pneumonia was therefore determined partly by virally depressed local and general pulmonary resistance and partly by the virulence and nature of the invading bacteria.12 Brundage explains the high transmission rates in military camps and other crowded settings as due to ‘cloud adults’ – affected persons who increased the aerosolisation of colonising strains of bacteria to other susceptible persons. Military personnel were deemed to be highly susceptible because of their closed community style living and their physically weakened state. In American civilian populations, attack rates and deaths were similar among younger adults and overall were approximately 28% for influenza with 30% of associated pneumonias being fatal.

Also remember that, at the time, it was not yet known which organism caused influenza, as the flu virus wasn’t identified until 1933. However, influenza had a distinct clinical course that allowed doctors to identify it with high probability in infected individuals, and it’s not as though nothing was known about influenza even 100 years ago. Quite a bit was. Indeed, by the end of 1918, scientists had discovered that influenza was not due to a strain of bacteria, as physician/bacteriologist Richard Friedrich Johannes Pfeiffer had reported two decades prior, but likely to viruses. They did this using the technique of the day, which involved filtering sputum from infected individuals with filters small enough to exclude bacteria but allow smaller viruses to pass and then testing that fluid by infecting volunteers. (Yes, that’s how they did it.) Also, in 2005 the 1918 virus was identified from old clinical samples and completely sequenced.

So where do vaccines come into this conspiracy theory? Barry is more than happy to elaborate:

When the United States declared war in April 1917, the fledgling Pharmaceutical industry had something they had never had before – a large supply of human test subjects in the form of the US military’s first draft. Pre-war in 1917, the US Army was 286,000 men. Post-war in 1920, the US army disbanded, and had 296,000 men. During the war years 1918-19, the US Army ballooned to 6,000,000 men, with 2,000,000 men being sent overseas. The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research took advantage of this new pool of human guinea pigs to conduct vaccine experiments.

And:

Between January 21st and June 4th of 1918, Dr. Gates reports on an experiment where soldiers were given 3 doses of a bacterial meningitis vaccine. Those conducting the experiment on the soldiers were just spitballing dosages of a vaccine serum made in horses.

The vaccination regime was designed to be 3 doses. 4,792 men received the first dose, but only 4,257 got the 2nd dose (down 11%), and only 3702 received all three doses (down 22.7%). A total of 1,090 men were not there for the 3rd dose. What happened to these soldiers? Were they shipped East by train from Kansas to board a ship to Europe? Were they in the Fort Riley hospital? Dr. Gates’ report doesn’t tell us.

An article accompanying the American Experience broadcast I watched sheds some light on where these 1,090 men might be. Gates began his experiments in January 1918. By March of that year, “100 men a day” were entering the infirmary at Fort Riley. Are some of these the men missing from Dr. Gates’ report – the ones who did not get the 2nd or 3rd dose?

“… Shortly before breakfast on Monday, March 11, the first domino would fall signaling the commencement of the first wave of the 1918 influenza. Company cook Albert Gitchell reported to the camp infirmary with complaints of a “bad cold.” Right behind him came Corporal Lee W. Drake voicing similar complaints. By noon, camp surgeon Edward R. Schreiner had over 100 sick men on his hands, all apparently suffering from the same malady…” (5)

Gates does report that several of the men in the experiment had flu-like symptoms: coughs, vomiting and diarrhea after receiving the vaccine. These symptoms are a disaster for men living in barracks, travelling on trains to the Atlantic coast, sailing to Europe, and living and fighting in trenches. The unsanitary conditions at each step of the journey are an ideal environment for a contagious disease like bacterial pneumonia to spread.

Holy confusing correlation with causation, Batman! Yes, it was in March when the “Spanish Flu” first hit the recruits in Fort Riley. So why didn’t it start to happen in late January, when this vaccine was first administered, if the vaccine was the cause of the disease? Did it also ever occur to Barry that the reason the soldiers who didn’t get their second and third course of the vaccination became ill was because that was right when the flu was roaring through the barracks at Fort Riley?

But, you say, what about all the outbreaks in Europe? Even if Barry’s fantastical conspiracy theory were true, this would only account for how the “Spanish Flu” disease arose in the US and spread through the military rapidly, before making the jump to the civilian population. Of course, Barry has an explanation:

The United States was not the only country in possession of the Rockefeller Institute’s experimental bacterial vaccine. A 1919 report from the Institute states: “Reference should be made that before the United States entered the war (in April 1917) the Institute had resumed the preparation of antimeningococcic serum, in order to meet the requests of England, France, Belgium Italy and other countries.” The same report states: “In order to meet the suddenly increased demand for the curative serums worked out at the Institute, a special stable for horses was quickly erected …” (8)

Yep. Conveniently enough, an antimeningococcal serum was being sent to Europe. Of course, I can’t help but note that this was a serum raised in horses and was thus not a vaccine. Barry can’t even tell the difference between a serum and a vaccine!. As for the experimental meningococcal vaccine itself, the paper to which Barry refers (and whose experiments the scientifically clueless Barry describes as “careless”) shows quite clearly that the serum used for the vaccine was heated to 65°C for 30 minutes to kill the bacteria and inactivate the autolytic ferment, noting that “this temperature does not impair the antigenic properties of the organism and the intact cocci are less toxic than their autolyzed products. In other words, unless these scientists were utterly incompetent, there’s no way for there to have been living bacteria in the serum. Even if there were, it’s unlikely that every lot would have living bacteria in it. Barry also conveniently forgets that several species of bacteria were associated with secondary bacterial pneumonia complicating influenza, with meningococci being fairly uncommon. Heck, the very reference that Barry cited regarding secondary bacterial infections in the context of the flu didn’t even mention meningococcus!

Add to that American troops arriving in the trenches and living in cramped quarters with close contact with each other (or so Barry continues to argue), and you have the perfect environment for influenza to spread. It’s just that Barry argues that it’s also the perfect environment for bacterial pneumonia to spread, which is true but rather irrelevant. Doctors knew enough at the time to figure out by early 1919 at the latest that it wasn’t bacterial pneumonia causing the pandemic, and, even if they hadn’t, we now know enough about influenza from further studies, later pandemics, and from sequencing the damned genome of the influenza virus responsible for the Spanish Flu pandemic that it was the H1N1 strain of influenza virus that caused the pandemic. Barry is, quite simply, so wrong that he’s not even wrong.

Conspiracy piled on conspiracy

As I neared the end of his epic bit of conspiracy mongering, Barry actually made me laugh out loud at his nonsensical silliness as I read the final passages of his take. Let’s unpack his last few claims:

In 1918-19, the vaccine industry experimented on soldiers, likely with disastrous results. In 2018, the vaccine industry experiments on infants every day. The vaccine schedule has never been tested as it is given. The results of the experiment are in: 1 in 7 American children is in some form of special education and over 50% have some form of chronic illness. (12)

Yes, the vaccine industry used soldiers as experimental subjects for vaccines in 1918. No, the results were not disastrous, as the vaccine did not cause the Spanish Flu, no matter how much Barry might want to argue otherwise. Note his pivot, though, to falsely represent the current vaccine schedule, which is evidence-based, with experimentation on soldiers 100 years ago, and to falsely link that “experimentation” to an “epidemic” of neurodevelopmental disorders and chronic illness, a standard antivax trope.

In 1918-19, there was no safety follow up after vaccines were delivered. In 2018, there is virtually no safety follow up after a vaccine is delivered. Who exactly gave you that flu shot at Rite Aid? Do you have their cell number of the store employee if something goes wrong?

This is, of course, a fetid load of dingo’s kidneys. There are both passive and active surveillance systems to detect adverse events due to vaccines, as I’ve discussed many times.

Next up:

1n 1918-19, there was no liability to the manufacturer for injuries or death caused by vaccines. In 2018, there is no liability for vaccine manufacturers for injuries or death caused by vaccines, which was formalized in 1986. (13)

This is an even more fetid load of dingo’s kidneys. It’s also rather silly. After all, he’s claiming that “no liability” for vaccine manufacturers was formalized in 1986 with the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act but that before that there was no liability. Neither are true. All the NCVIA did was require that those who think they are victims of vaccine injury use a special Vaccine Court first. They can still sue in federal court if they are unsuccessful.

Next up:

In 1918-19, there was no independent investigative follow up challenging the official story that “Spanish Flu” was some mystery illness which dropped from the sky. I suspect that many of those at the Rockefeller Institute knew what happened, and that many of the doctors who administered the vaccines to the troops knew what happened, but those people are long dead. In 2018, the Pharmaceutical industry is the largest campaign donor to politicians and the largest advertiser in all forms of media, so not much has changed over 100 years. This story will likely be ignored by mainstream media because their salaries are paid by pharmaceutical advertising.

This is paranoid conspiracy mongering at its most loony. Start with the strawman that the “Spanish Flu” was some mystery illness that dropped from the sky. It might have felt that way when the flu first hit in 1918, but there has been a century of investigation since then, including the identification sequencing of the H1N1 influenza virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic. The reason Barry’s “story” is being ignored by mainstream media is that the media tend to recognize a crackpot when they see one.

Finally:

The next time you hear someone say “vaccines save lives” please remember that the true story of the cost/benefit of vaccines is much more complicated than their three word slogan. Also remember that vaccines may have killed 50-100 million people in 1918-19. If true, those costs greatly outweighed any benefit, especially considering that plumbers, electricians, sandhogs and engineers did, and continue to do, the real work which reduces mortality from disease.

No, no, no, no, no. Vaccines did not kill 50-100 million people a hundred years ago. As I’ve explained above, Barry is peddling a truly quacky conspiracy theory in the service of his antivaccine beliefs. No one is denying that sanitation and clean water contribute greatly to public health. However, vaccines also contribute mightily and are arguably the single greatest public health intervention that has saved the greatest number of human lives of any medical or public health intervention. Barry is nothing more than an antivaccine conspiracy crank.