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COVID-19 vaccines, prion disease, and Alzheimer’s: Another old antivax lie is new again

Antivax immunologist J. Bart Classen recently published a paper claiming that mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines can cause prion disease leading to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s dementia. What are prions, and can these vaccines cause prion disease? Unsurprisingly, Classen is just wildly speculating based on highly implausible biology.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began and antivaxxers made common cause with COVID-19 cranks, deniers, and conspiracy theorists, I’ve been repeating a simple message: Everything old is new again. The pandemic has resulted in a lot of scientists and other people paying attention to the antivaccine movement in a way that they never have before. Many of these newbies have been amazed at some of the antivaccine misinformation and disinformation that have been spread about the new COVID-19 vaccines. False antivax claims about these vaccines include a veritable antivax “greatest hits” of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and distortions, a veritable playbook of claims that COVID-19 vaccines kill, cause miscarriages and/or infertility, cause autoimmune disease, “permanently alter your DNA“, are unnecessary because COVID-19 is not dangerous, that the number of cases are exaggerated, and that the vaccines are filled with “toxins” (in the case of the mRNA vaccines, the lipid nanoparticles used to encapsulate the mRNA coding for COVID-19 spike protein). Now two more famous antivax claims from the past are popping up in my social media feeds, and they are related. I’m referring to the false claim that the COVID-19 vaccines cause prion disease and that they cause Alzheimer’s disease. We have “immunologist” Dr. J. Bart Classen to thank for this disinformation and antivaxxers like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for spreading it.

First, let’s show how his claim is yet another example of my adage regarding disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine that “everything old is new again”.

Vaccines and Alzheimer’s disease: A brief history

One of the earliest antivaccine claims that I ever dealt with was a rather specific claim about the influenza vaccine. I first encountered it when Bill Maher parroted it in an interview with Larry King on Larry King Live, way back in December 2005. (Yes, you read that correctly, 2005.) I think it’s useful to recount what Maher said in this exchange:

MAHER: I’m not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic. It just shows you, you can…

KING: You mean you don’t get a — you don’t get a flu shot?

MAHER: A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.

KING: Why? MAHER: Because it’s got — it’s got mercury. KING: It prevents flu.

MAHER: It doesn’t prevent. First of all, that’s…

KING: I haven’t had the flu in 25 years since I’ve been taking a flu shot.

MAHER: Well, I hate to tell you, Larry, but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there’s ten times the likelihood that you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease. I would stop getting your…

KING: What did you say?

MAHER: That went better in rehearsal but it was still good. Absolutely, no the defense against disease is to have a strong immune system. A flu shot just compromises your immune system.

Where did the claim that getting a flu shot more than five years in a row increases your risk of someday developing Alzheimer’s disease originate? While I’m not sure where the claim that the flu shot predisposes to Alzheimer’s disease truly originated, I’m pretty sure I know where the specific claim about five years’ worth of flu shots increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by ten-fold came from. At the time, a search on that hoary old crank and conspiracy theory website Whale.to quickly revealed this gem from a conference held by the antivaccine group National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) in 1997:

According to Hugh Fudenberg, MD (http://members.aol.com/nitrf), the world’s leading immunogeneticist and 13th most quoted biologist of our times (nearly 850 papers in peer review journals), if an individual has had five consecutive flu shots between 1970 and 1980 (the years studied) his/her chances of getting Alzheimer’s Disease is ten times higher than if they had one, two or no shots. I asked Dr. Fudenberg why this was so and he said it was due to the mercury and aluminum that is in every flu shot (and most childhood shots). The gradual mercury and aluminum buildup in the brain causes cognitive dysfunction. Is that why Alzheimer’s is expected to quadruple? Notes: Recorded from Dr. Fudenberg’s speech at the NVIC International Vaccine Conference, Arlington, VA September, 1997. Quoted with permission. Alzheimer’s to quadruple statement is from John’s Hopkins Newsletter Nov 1998. —-Ted Koren, D. C. http://www.odyssee.net/~expodome/autism.htm#Top Koren Publications (800-537-3001).

A chiropractor. Of course, the presentation at NVIC had to be recorded by a chiropractor:

Flu vaccine and Alzheimer's. What's next, prions?

And here’s a more recent addition since 2005, dated 2006:

Vancouver neuroscientist Chris Shaw shows a link between the aluminum hydroxide used in vaccines, and symptoms associated with Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), and Alzheimer’s…..”This is suspicious,” he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from his lab near Heather Street and West 12th Avenue. “Either this [link] is known by industry and it was never made public, or industry was never made to do these studies by Health Canada. I’m not sure which is scarier.” Similar adjuvants are used in the following vaccines, according to Shaw’s paper: hepatitis A and B, and the Pentacel cocktail, which vaccinates against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, and a type of meningitis….”No one in my lab wants to get vaccinated,” he said. “This totally creeped us out. We weren’t out there to poke holes in vaccines. But all of a sudden, oh my God—we’ve got neuron death!” —[Media 3/2006 Aluminium adjuvant] Vaccines show sinister side.

Over the years, I frequently saw the claim that the flu vaccine or aluminum adjuvants in flu vaccines cause Alzheimer’s disease popping up on antivaccine websites and social media. It has basically become an article of faith among antivaxxers that flu vaccine, if not aluminum adjuvants in vaccines in general, predispose to or even cause Alzheimer’s disease, with Christopher Shaw being one of the main adherents of this viewpoint. As for Fudenberg, he was a real quack back in the day.

Here’s what I mean. Hugh Fudenberg was a collaborator and co-inventor with the disgraced antivaccine physician Andrew Wakefield, who committed research fraud in his “study” published in The Lancet in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine to autism and ultimately had his medical license revoked in the UK over his misconduct.

Dr. Fudenberg also happens to have been involved in some very dubious “treatments” for autism that led to some problems with his medical license. In November 1995, the South Carolina Medical Board concluded that Fudenberg was “guilty of engaging in dishonorable, unethical, or unprofessional conduct”, and he was fined $10,000 and ordered to surrender his license to prescribe controlled substances (narcotic drugs). His medical license was also placed on suspension. In March 1996, he was permitted to resume practice under terms of probation that did not permit him to prescribe any drugs. His medical license expired in January 2004; and in March 2004, he applied to have it reinstated. However, after a hearing in which the Board considered a neuropsychiatric report issued in 2003, Fudenberg agreed to remain in a “retired” status and withdrew his application for reactivation of his license.

Later, Dr. Fudenberg ran a nonprofit “research” organization called Neuro Immunotherapeutics Research Foundation that sold dubious remedies for autism. He also charged $750 per hour for “review of past medical records”, $750 per hour for “determining what new tests need to be ordered; ordering of new tests; evaluation of new tests”, and $750 per hour for “determining which therapy will work and which will not; discussing this with patient along with an in-depth study of past medical history to determine what makes a patient better or worse”. The specific dubious autism treatment with which Dr. Fudenberg was involved is the use of something called “transfer factor” to make a combined measles vaccine and autism “cure”. The method of making these so-called “transfer factors” is bizarre in the extreme and involves injecting mice with measles, extracting and processing white blood cells, injecting the result into pregnant goats, milking the goats after kid-birth and turning the product into capsules for autistic children. In a patent application (based in part on the infamous Lancet paper) obtained by Brian Deer, Wakefield represented a vaccine/therapy for “MMR-based” autism using transfer factor as potentially a “complete cure” for autism or for “alleviation of symptoms”.

And, to repeat, Fudenberg liked to claim that the flu vaccine causes Alzheimer’s disease, even though there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that the flu vaccine predisposes to autism; indeed, there is evidence for the opposite. (There’s even evidence in a mouse model that repeated vaccination against influenza is neuroprotective.)

But what about prion disease? And what are prion diseases, anyway?

Vaccines and prion disease

Before I discuss all these claims, I have to answer the question: What are prions? Prion diseases are more properly referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) and represent a rare form of progressive neurodegenerative disorders that can affect both humans and animals. The most famous prion diseases in animals are bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as “Mad Cow Disease”), scrapie, and chronic wasting disease; in humans, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) and kuru. These diseases have a long incubation period and produce in the brain characteristic spongiform changes associated with loss of neurons with no inflammatory response. The causative agents for these diseases are prions. According to the CDC:

The term “prions” refers to abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible and are able to induce abnormal folding of specific normal cellular proteins called prion proteins that are found most abundantly in the brain. The functions of these normal prion proteins are still not completely understood. The abnormal folding of the prion proteins leads to brain damage and the characteristic signs and symptoms of the disease. Prion diseases are usually rapidly progressive and always fatal.

Basically, prions are believed to be misfolded proteins that can transmit their misfolded shape onto normal variants of the same protein. I don’t need to go into the details for you to understand the very basics of prion disease, other than to note that the protein that makes up prions (PrP) is found in many places in the body in healthy people and animals, and its normal function in biology and physiology is poorly understood.

The claim by antivaxxers that vaccines can result in prion disease is one that I’ve seen far less frequently than the claim that they cause Alzheimer’s disease, although it was a claim that appeared as long ago as in Dr. Bob Sears’ book touting his “alternative” vaccine schedule. The origin of the claim appears to derive from the observation that the media used to support the growth of some of the cell lines used to grow virus stock from which vaccines are made contains fetal bovine serum (FBS), a common ingredient in cell culture media. Antivaxxers use that observation to claim a risk of “prion contamination” of vaccines. Never mind that such contamination of a vaccine has never been demonstrated.

Like many antivaccine myths, the myth that vaccines might become contaminated with prions originates from a grain of truth. Decades ago, during the height of the mad cow disease outbreak in the UK, there was indeed concern about using FBS from British herds of cattle to manufacture vaccines. A news article in Nature from 2000 reported on the findings of an inquiry into Britain’s BSE epidemic and even specifically asked the question: “Were some CJD victims infected by vaccines?” The report basically concluded that the answer to that question was unknown, but:

The BSE inquiry’s report (see above) calls for vaccines to be investigated as a possible route of transmission. But it concedes that this will be hampered by the fact that “systematic records of the action taken in response to BSE in respect of individual medical products are lacking”.

And:

Alarmingly, vaccines produced after the point at which the BSE epidemic had been identified — possibly using British bovine material — were still in use as recently as November 1993. According to the inquiry’s report, the chief medical officer of the day, Donald Acheson, decided to phase out the existing stocks because new batches of vaccines take time to grow, and medical experts considered that the benefit of maintaining a continuous national immunization programme outweighed the risk of interrupting it.

An article in MPR from 2010 by pediatrician Dr. Gary S. Marshall, author of The Vaccine Handbook: A Practical Guide for Clinicians (The Purple Book), is more reassuring. Noting that the FDA convened a meeting in 2000 to discuss the very question of whether vaccines could transmit BSE, Dr. Marshall characterizes the conclusions of the FDA thusly:

Although the risk of transmission of vCJD to humans from such vaccines was considered theoretic and remote, the recommendation was made that vaccines use bovine materials originating from countries without endogenous MCD. Mathematical models suggest that the agent of MCD first entered cattle feed in the United Kingdom around 1980; since the vast majority of initial cases of vCJD were born well before then, childhood vaccines were not likely to be the cause.

And:

Maternal-fetal transmission of prions has never been documented in animals and fetal blood is not known to contain prions. Moreover, the fetal bovine serum used in vaccine manufacture is highly diluted and eventually removed from cells during purification of vaccine viruses. It should be pointed out as well that prions propagate in mammalian brain but not in cell culture.

And:

Final reassurance comes from the fact that transmission of prions occurs from eating the brains of infected animals or from directly inoculating preparations of brains of infected animals into the brains of experimental animals. Transmission of prions has not been documented after inoculation into the muscles or under the skin, which are the routes used for vaccination. Taken together, the chances that currently licensed vaccines contain prions and represent a risk to humans is essentially zero.

So, basically, although the claim that vaccines could transmit prions entered the antivaccine lexicon of disinformation in the 1990s, after billions upon billions of doses of vaccines for which the viral stock was grown in FBS-containing media, there remains no good evidence that vaccines have ever been contaminated with prions or ever caused a single case of prion disease in humans or animals.

Enter J. Bart Classen and prion disease

You might wonder why I spent so much time going over the history of (and lack of evidence for) the claims that vaccines can cause Alzheimer’s disease or transmit prion diseases. My answer is simple and involves repeating my mantras with respect to the antivaccine movement and COVID-19. There is nothing new under the sun (in the antivaccine movement), and everything old is new again (when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines). Now that you know that there is no evidence to support these claims and that they are totally antivaccine disinformation, you know that J. Bart Classen’s claims about the COVID-19 vaccine are likely, similarly, to be nonsense. You can reflect back on the information I’ve imparted as I discuss Classen’s claims in a paper, even as I bring in the twist that Classen adds to try to make these claims seem plausible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Predictably, the twist is the claim that the mRNA in vaccines is what causes prion disease and results in Alzheimer’s disease.

So let’s look at the paper, which was published in an online journal, Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, and entitled “COVID-19 RNA Based Vaccines and the Risk of Prion Disease“. Unsurprisingly, it’s an open access journal not indexed in PubMed that’s published by SciVision Publishers, which shows up in Beall’s list of predatory publishers. Is this a predatory publisher? I don’t know, as there is apparently not strong agreement whether it should be classified as such, but the fact that it’s not indexed in PubMed certainly suggests that, at the very least, it’s not very likely to be a quality journal.

Deceptively, Classen writes this paper as though it were a real research paper, complete with hypothesis, experimental approach, results, and conclusions, starting with this fine bit of handwaving in the introduction:

The advent of new vaccine technology creates new potential mechanisms of vaccine adverse events. For example, the first killed polio vaccine actually caused polio in recipients because the up scaled manufacturing process did not effectively kill the polio virus before it was injected into patients. RNA based vaccines offers special risks of inducing specific adverse events. One such potential adverse event is prion based diseases caused by activation of intrinsic proteins to form prions. A wealth of knowledge has been published on a class of RNA binding proteins shown to [sic] participating in causing a number of neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and ALS. TDP-43 and FUS are among the best studied of these proteins [2].

The Pfizer RNA based COVID-19 vaccine was approved by the US FDA under an emergency use authorization without long term safety data. Because of concerns about the safety of this vaccine a study was performed to determine if the vaccine could potentially induce prion based disease.

The first rule of reading an introduction like this is simple: Always look up the reference cited, in this case, this article. In this case, the article is a review article that looks at RNA binding proteins (not mRNAs or RNAs) that have prion-like domains found in neurodegenerative diseases:

Scouring the human genome with this algorithm enriches a select group of RNA-binding proteins harboring a canonical RNA recognition motif (RRM) and a putative prion domain. Indeed, of 210 human RRM-bearing proteins, 29 have a putative prion domain, and 12 of these are in the top 60 prion candidates in the entire genome. Startlingly, these RNA-binding prion candidates are inexorably emerging, one by one, in the pathology and genetics of devastating neurodegenerative disorders, including: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), frontotemporal lobar degeneration with ubiquitin-positive inclusions (FTLD-U), Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease. For example, FUS and TDP-43, which rank 1st and 10th among RRM-bearing prion candidates, form cytoplasmic inclusions in the degenerating motor neurons of ALS patients and mutations in TDP-43 and FUS cause familial ALS.

So right off the bat, I know that Classen’s rationale for making the claim that the COVID-19 vaccine can induce prion disease is very weak. He’s pointing to RNA binding proteins, not mRNAs or RNAs, and he’s using that as a rationale to imply that a vaccine that contains only lipid nanoparticles and mRNA can cause prion disease. How, you might wonder, did he do this?

Let’s look at the methods section:

Pfizer’s RNA based vaccine against COVID-19 was evaluated for the potential to convert TDP-43 and or FUS to their prion based disease causing states. The vaccine RNA was analyzed for the presence of sequences that can activate TDP-43 and FUS. The interaction of the transcribed spike protein with its target was analyzed to determine if this action could also activate TDP-43 and FUS.

Wait, what?

How did Classen “evaluate the potential to convert TDP-43 and or FUS to their prion based disease causing states.” No, seriously, exactly how did he do that? He doesn’t say. Sure, he claims to have “analyzed” the mRNA sequence encoding the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that was used in the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to induce cells to encode the protein to be used as the vaccine’s antigen, but he didn’t say how he did that. Classen appears to be leading readers to believe that he did some sort of bioinformatics analysis of the nucleotide sequence of the mRNA used in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, but details matter. Nowhere is there a figure showing the alignments of the sequences that he allegedly found that can “activate” TDP-43 and FUS. Nowhere in the paper is a description of the specific algorithms used to produce these claimed “alignments”. Nowhere is there a description of the methodology used or the analysis of the “goodness of fit” for the sequences that he claims to have identified that align with prion “activating” proteins. Nowhere is there a description of the controls, such as normal RNA sequences that contain the relevant sequences, which are common, so common as to be ubiquitous.

Instead, he engages in this bit of handwaving:

Analysis of the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 identified two potential risk factors for inducing prion disease is [sic] humans. The RNA sequence in the vaccine [3] contains sequences believed to induce TDP-43 and FUS to aggregate in their prion based conformation leading to the development of common neurodegerative diseases. In particular it has been shown that RNA sequences GGUA [4], UG rich sequences [5], UG tandem repeats [6], and G Quadruplex sequences [7], have increased affinity to bind TDP-43 and or FUS and may cause TDP-43 or FUS to take their pathologic configurations in the cytoplasm. In the current analysis a total of sixteen UG tandem repeats (ΨGΨG) were identified and additional UG (ΨG) rich sequences were identified. Two GGΨA sequences were found. G Quadruplex sequences are possibly present but sophisticated computer programs are needed to verify these.

Unfortunately, some of the papers cited by Classen show that what he is claiming, namely that the mRNA in the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine can induce TDP-43 and FUS to “go prion,” is basically impossible. For example, this paper points out that TDP-43 is an RBP that exists predominantly in the nucleus. As I pointed out the last time I took on the antivaccine claim that mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines can “reprogram your DNA”, the mRNA from the vaccine never makes it into the nucleus. Guess what? FUS is a nuclear RBP as well!

So what we have here is a whole heck of a lot of speculation, with the finding of an obscure connection based on methodology that is not explained with anywhere near the level of rigor that a real molecular biologist or bioinformatics scientist would require to be convinced. Basically, Classen points to the mRNA sequence in the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and finds sequences associated with the “prionization” of these proteins, while completely ignoring the known fact that these are nuclear proteins and that the mRNA in the COVID-19 vaccine remains in the cytoplasm. In fact, the whole idea that there are mRNAs that can behave like prions and induce misfolded proteins appears, if this recent review arguing for an expansion of the definition of prion is any indication, to be largely speculative and not yet firmly demonstrated at this time.

Amusingly, Classen can’t resist adding one more layer to his speculation:

The spike protein encoded by the vaccine binds angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), an enzyme which contains zinc molecules [8]. The binding of spike protein to ACE2 has the potential to release the zinc molecule, an ion that causes TDP-43 to assume its pathologic prion transformation [9].

First, it’s a zinc ion that binds ACE2, not a “molecule”. “Dr.” Classen should really get some basic chemical terminology right if he wants to be taken seriously. Second, this is the purest speculation to claim that the spike protein will somehow result in the release of zinc from ACE2 that will then cause TDP-43 to “go prion”. Again, all you have to know to realize how much handwaving is involved here is to know that ACE2 is a cell surface receptor and TDP-43 is a nuclear protein. The two proteins aren’t even in the same compartment of the cell. Truly, Classen’s handwaving here is achieving sufficient velocity for him to lift off and fly like a bird!

Of course, in his discussion, Classen also can’t resist the JAQing off (if you don’t know what that means, click here) portion of his handwaving speculation:

Another related concern is that the Pfizer vaccine uses a unique RNA nucleoside 1-methyl-3′-pseudouridylyl (Ψ). According to FDA briefing documents, this nucleoside was chosen to reduce activation of the innate immune system [12]. RNA molecules containing this nucleoside will undoubtedly have altered binding [13]. Unfortunately, the effect on TDP-43, FUS and other RNA binding proteins is not published. The use of this nucleoside in a vaccine can potentially enhance the binding affinity of RNA sequences capable of causing TDP-43 and FUS to assume toxic configurations.

Again, none of this matters because these proteins are not even in the same cellular compartment that the COVID-19 vaccine mRNA enters. That’s not all, though. Prion diseases are diseases of the central nervous system. These vaccines are injected into the muscle, and, even if Classen’s ideas were anything other than speculation pulled out of his nether regions about highly tenuous and, yes, speculative associations, COVID-19 vaccines aren’t injected into the central nervous system.

Who is J. Bart Classen?

It turns out that he’s been a subject on this particular blog before, primarily as scientist who gave antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. ammunition for his false claim that vaccines are responsible for the obesity epidemic. According to Wikipedia, Dr. Classen received his MD from the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 1988 and also has an MBA from Columbia University. Unsurprisingly, he’s been quoted by Sharyl Attkisson, a reporter who’s become an antivaccine activist and conspiracy theorist in her own right. Classen’s website, Vaccines.net, is pretty rudimentary but does proclaim:

The content of this site is not intended to be anti-immunization but instead to promote the concept that the goal of immunization is to promote health not eradicate infections. It is hoped that through the collection and dissemination of information about the chronic effects of vaccines, safer immunization practices will become available for those who choose to be immunized.

There it is, the “I’m not ‘antivaccine’; I’m a pro-safe vaccine” gambit, beloved of antivaxxers going back at least to Jenny McCarthy 14 years ago. Naturally, after proclaiming himself a “vaccine safety advocate”, Dr. Classen then goes on to spout antivaccine misinformation:

There is growing evidence that immunization causes a large number of other chronic diseases including autism, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, cancers, and Gulf War Syndrome. Data linking these diseases to vaccines includes human and animal data. In many cases, the increased risk of developing these diseases following immunization exceeds the risk of infectious complications prevented by immunization.

In other words, “I’m not antivaccine, but I believe that vaccines cause every disease under the sun and are riskier than infectious disease”. (Actually, that’s the very definition of being antivaccine.) It turns out that Classen originally made his name in the 1990s claiming that vaccines cause diabetes. Ultimately, he ended up forming an antivaccine company, Classen Immunotherapies, which is the organization that appears on his paper. Unsurprisingly, of late, Classen Immunotherapeutics has been proclaiming how “concerned” it has become about the “safety of vaccines for COVID-19” and how it “believes all the risks are not known and have not been discussed with the public”.

Just for amusement, I perused the list of publications on Classen’s website. Unsurprisingly, he believes the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is a bioweapon that was initially spread clandestinely and a new one on me, namely that the 2019 epidemic of E-vaping acute lung injury was caused in part by COVID-19, never mind that the first case of COVID-19 wasn’t identified as a new disease in China until very late in 2019 and the disease didn’t become widespread outside of China until early 2020.

And now he thinks that mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines can cause prion disease leading to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. With zero evidence to support his idea and very close to zero biological plausibility. Of course.

Variations on a theme

I return to my mantras about the antivaccine movement in the age of COVID-19: There is nothing new under the sun (in antivaccine circles), and everything old is new again (when it comes to antivaccine conspiracy theories and disinformation). Even the most obscure antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories are being resurrected, dusted off, tweaked a bit, and repurposed to use to attack COVID-19 vaccines. There doesn’t need to be any evidence or even biological plausibility, just science-y speculation that sounds impressive to people without a background in the relevant sciences. Classen’s claim that mRNA vaccines can cause prion disease leading to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease is just another example of this.

With Classen’s claim, I’m hard pressed to think of an old antivaccine trope that hasn’t yet been weaponized against COVID-19 vaccines, with one exception. No one, to my knowledge, has yet claimed that COVID-19 vaccines cause autism. The reason for that omission is simple, however. As of today, no COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized for use in children. As soon as a COVID-19 vaccine is authorized or approved for use in children, antivaxxers will claim it causes autism. It’s coming. You know it is.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

56 replies on “COVID-19 vaccines, prion disease, and Alzheimer’s: Another old antivax lie is new again”

A. To add an interesting detail to your Alzheimer’s discussion, fly vaccines don’t contain aluminum adjuvants, so the flu vaccines cause Alzheimer’s crowd and the aluminum adjuvants cause Alzheimer’s crowd are actually saying contradicting things. Not that it would stop them.

B. Vaccine court has repeatedly found Dr. Classen’s testimony to be problematic, too. Here is one of many such cases.
http://www.uscfc.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/Millman.cook.redacted.dec.pdf

There’s nothing that says “legit” like a publisher with a Gmail contact address. I wonder what Classen was charged — the most promising links on their site don’t seem to work.

Another related concern is that the Pfizer vaccine uses a unique RNA nucleoside 1-methyl-3′-pseudouridylyl (Ψ).

^ Also, possibly a bit wide of the mark.

Why does not the immune system, possibly enhanced by an inflammation-inducing vaccine, be able to handle these zombifying things? Is it because if the pertinent leukocytes eats them then they will get mad cow’d also?

ok. I don’t eat brains or spinal cord but I hear that dental instruments might also be a risk and that very high temperatures does not make it go away.

Again, the whole deal just reminds me of an Ice-9 scenario.

https://youtu.be/eyVWQH7jIg8?t=1

” Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature and acts as a seed crystal upon contact with ordinary liquid water, causing that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine. ”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice-nine#Plot_summary

This is one of the things that make me believe that the ‘science’ arm of the anti-vax movement is a con (as opposed to good willed but blinkered, arrogant and wrong).

If you want your science to be taken seriously but can’t even present a well designed study then maybe you don’t really care what the facts are. Maybe convincing the army of AV minions is all you are aiming for. Another bullet in the gish gallop magazine. Or maybe its just to earn kudos in the AV world. Gotta stay afloat and be seen if you want to end up on a panel with the big wigs.

Any vaccines given to an aging (in neurodegeneration) person can cause Alzheimer’s, just like any vaccines can cause autism in the developing (in neurodevelopment) person. The flu vaccine is just being blamed because it is the vaccine most likely to be taken by older people, like the MMR + Dtap is most likely to be given to a toddler.

Alzheimer’s is the autism in an aging brain. The process results from the same thing; disabled microglia cells. Instead of failing to prune synapses in the toddler; they fail to prune the plaques in seniors.

If the garden of the autistic brain resembles Sleeping Beauty’s castle, where the gardeners (microglia) are under a spell (vaccines) & have fallen asleep & the brain becomes tangled in rose briar thorns (synapses); then the garden of the Alzheimer’s brain resembles the abandoned Ta Prohm temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where the tree roots have grown into the remnants of the 12th century structures. Alzheimer’s is immune-mediated & so is autism. So is Schizophrenia but that happens if there is an atypical immune response during the adulting phase of the brain (late adolescence-early 20s). In Schizophrenia, the microglia cells become hyper-activated & prune too much; the exact opposite of autism & Alzheimer’s. Maybe the garden of the Schizophrenic brain resembles the hedge maze from the Overlook Hotel, seen in the 1980 film version of The Shining. All precise & over-manicured. All three disorders show atypical microglia activity resulting from from an abnormal immune response, in post mortem studies.

I’ll show myself out, for a moment anyway …

Alzheimer’s is the autism in an aging brain. The process results from the same thing; disabled microglia cells. Instead of failing to prune synapses in the toddler; they fail to prune the plaques in seniors.

Murine studies suggest the opposite.

@ Narad,

That is very interesting. Apparently, microglia ablation is preferable to the continued presence of dysfunctional microglia in the brain (mouse model).

Christine makes me miss one of my college professors. In response to endless speculation by students trying to sound super wise and profound and show their predecided upon results were correct, they’d tell the student “You can’t talk. You make things up.”

It reminds me more of Wolfgang Pauli’s attributed “Nicht einmal Falsch!” (“Not even wrong!”) rebuke to a student.

Robert F Kennedy Jr is not an anti vaxxer. He has stated so repeatedly. He is against the untested unwarranted and reckless administration of vaccines and the legislation that protects their parent companies from responsibility.

Robert F Kennedy Jr is not an anti vaxxer. He has stated so repeatedly.

And racists frequently state that they’re not racist.
Kennedy has been called out by his own family for being antivaxx. He has exaggerated the risks of vaccines, downplayed their effectiveness, and even tried to suggest that an outbreak of measles in Samoa was due to the vacine.
Details here.
He is antivaccine through and through.

Robert F. Kennedy is not an anti-vaxxer, because he says he is not an anti-vaxxer. And every criminal who states he is innocent didn’t commit a crime.
Let’s judge mister Kennedy for what he says about vaccines and his actions and judge him for that and not just take his word if he says he is not anti-vaccine, expecially not if his actions show otherwise.

I’m amazed. If CK can know all this from the comfort of her armchair laboratory then think of the money to be saved. Just give all researchers a comfy chair and a decent ISP. Pretty soon the web of supposition will be so tangled that it won’t matter that it’s foundations are made of blancmange. A tumbleweed of knowledge, drifting here are there as the fashionable winds blow.

Fuck off. Just, fuck off. Go back and infest the last thread if you must, you brain-damaged monomaniac witch. But FUCK OFF RGHT NOW.

I lost two grandparents to Alzheimers, and my own now-elderly parents are living in that shadow, haunted by those years still. And you fucking child killers aren’t satisfied just torturing and murdering your own kids; you want to come for my family too? DON’T. YOU. FUCKING. DARE.

I don’t know if anyone has researched it but I wonder how many older people reject flu vaccines because of fear of Alzheimer’s due to alt med ideas?
When they should be afraid of flu, Covid and pneumonia instead,.

Although anecdotes are not data, my father lived to a really advanced age, got flu and pneumonia vaccines during his last 10 years, never had Alzheimer’s and died of ventricular tachycardia.

@Denice: More anecdata: My old man’s been getting his flu jab for many years now, and my mum finally got hers this last year too (nurses are the most stubborn patients). Both are pretty grounded though, and would regard any future dementia as most likely due to years and genes (the 3 of their parents who reached old age all developed it), so probably not representative.

But, yeah, definitely not the year to be acquiring lung infections of any sort.

@ has,

Sorry about your grandparents; I lost a grandmother to Alzheimer’s. She is likely who I inherited my vaccine-risk genotypes from. Your parents will probably be spared; it seems to skip generations. I’m not “coming for your family” but the vaccines may be.

@Narad: “Dude, even I have limits.”

So do I, and the bitch just boundary-smashed them all. Deliberately.

Projecting ill on my parents because they behave like grown-ups and get their COVID jabs without drama. Yeah, no. Both are pretty healthy, but they’re pushing 80 and my old mum has scarred lungs from the time she worked in India as a young nurse. (As a retired nurse who’s spent her entire adult life helping others less lucky, she is everything that Kincaid is not.) Contracting COVID would likely kill her; possibly both of them.

Let’s be clear: in unloading both barrels I’m only giving Kincaid exactly what she wants. She is a narcissist, of the “Woe Is Me” grand drama manufacturing class. Setting herself up to be “persecuted” by folks here is 100% a calculated premeditated act. She might claim to be “not as cognitively advanced” as us, but she’s a serial liar and absolutely the top of her game at pressing our buttons.

I’m fully aware she’s baiting me to get a reaction. Being a bastard myself, I’m happy to oblige with a full middle finger. Just as I’m happy to chum the water now and again and armchair-dissect anything dumb enough to bite. I may be a bastard, but I’m a bastard who saves my evil shit for those who’ve fully earned it. Takes one to know one, as they say, even if I am a bit slow at first.

Cos there was I time early on when I thought Kincaid was sincere if misguided, an honest parent struggling with personal tragedy unlucky enough to be ensnared, misinformed, and manipulated by the cold sociopathic abusers that run the antivax cult. But suspicions have formed as I’ve observed her behavior, and something about it repeatedly rings false.

I may not be a psychologist, but I’d place good money on calling it: Christine Kincaid is a covert narcissist. And she feeds on us because we enable her to do it. Her dead kid she doesn’t give a shit about, except as a means to generate attention for herself. Her disabled kid, the same. Her other kids, I hope for their sakes as adults they free themselves of her control and move as far away as possible, because I’ve read how narc parents abuse their children and their stories’d make even a Catholic priest blush. Anyone else’s kids, she will kill,indirectly, with zero remorse. Narcs are masters of psychological manipulation, and their appetite is bottomless. The worst can and do drive their victims to suicide all in pursuit of feeding themselves. Nobody deserves those vampires around.

Do I do hope Christine found my “fsck you” gratifyingly tasty, because that’s the last one it will ever get from me. And if y’all had a lick of sense, you’d starve it too. Because if there’s one thing narcs can’t stand, it’s everyone else on the planet paying them ZERO attention.

So next time you feel sore tempted to feed a Gerg or a Kincaid, ask yourself this: who’s playing who here, and am I the real rube? And then go live your life without those parasites in it.

@ has:

I agree with you. By directly responding to trolls, we make them feel important and give them another opportunity to “instruct” readers, enabling their nasty ways..

So SBM advocates need to find a way to talk around them: when they insist upon egregious BS, we can point out the real research .Many RI readers may not be well-schooled in the actual evidence-based consensus in detail about topics like vaccines or autism. Listening to trolls, unsophisticated readers might imagine that their objections/ analyses are meaningful HOWEVER most of us respond with settled science – even decades old

Some examples:
a scoffer comments authoritatively about what happens in the brains of children in response to vaccines: yet, we know for decades that this is impossible because the architecture of the brain that determines abilities associated with ASDs occurs very early: prenatally ( second-third trimester) and differences in how these kids/ their brains behave can be detected before vaccines with the right tools. Thus, I list the most relevant, most well-known researchers and ways to find their work.
Another troll, keeps asking questions and complains about how detailed the response is or how long the answers are because he knows little about the complexity of the issue.

I have called RI an informal, RW lab that demonstrates how altie believers think and resist information thus they are serving as ( poor) examples to enlighten regulars and silent lurkers of varying ability although perhaps they first appeared here to “educate” Orac and us! HAH! SRSLY!

-btw- sceptics’ anger and curse words do not upset me.
. ….,

@has. You’re most likely correct. Christine has made it clear that the only thing she cares about is her martyr complex. Just look at her story to justify her comments about calling other disabilities “disability lite.” She describes her son showing obvious signs of distress, and then wants our sympathy because she can’t go buy groceries. Like, sorry, I’m too busy having sympathy for the kid whose mother sees meeting his needs is an inconvenience.

@Christine Kincaid. They were normal microglia. Microglia have in this case neurotoxic effect:
Maezawa I, Zimin PI, Wulff H, Jin LW. Amyloid-beta protein oligomer at low nanomolar concentrations activates microglia and induces microglial neurotoxicity. J Biol Chem. 2011 Feb 4;286(5):3693-706. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M110.135244. Epub 2010 Oct 22. PMID: 20971854; PMCID: PMC3030372.
As for autism, there is again an old paper:
Courchesne E. Brainstem, cerebellar and limbic neuroanatomical abnormalities in autism. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 1997 Apr;7(2):269-78. doi: 10.1016/s0959-4388(97)80016-5. Erratum in: Curr Opin Neurobiol 1997 Aug;7(4):568. PMID: 9142760.
Autistic brains and neurotypical ones have many differences. It is not just pruning, microglial or otherwise.

Regarding 1st study; beta amyloid results from innate immune system activation. Live bacterial or viral vaccines activate the innate immune system.

Regarding 2nd study; yes it is old. 1997. More recent studies following the donation of post mortem brain tissues by AutismBrainNet in 2014, provided tissue from autistic children & adults & found the changes start around the age of 2, develop rapidly until around the age of 5, then resume during puberty & again in early 20’s. More changes then occur during aging. These are not prenatal changes, they happen along the development-aging spectrum.

@ Aarno,

the other reply from 10:38 was to you, I forgot to start it “@ Aarno”

It is other way round. Beta amyloid deposits appear, and microglia try to remove them. This causes plaques, and neurotoxicity:
Grathwohl, S., Kälin, R., Bolmont, T. et al. Formation and maintenance of Alzheimer’s disease β-amyloid plaques in the absence of microglia. Nat Neurosci 12, 1361–1363 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2432
Point of my autopsy article was that autistic and neurotypical brains have many differences. Results of old articles could still be correct. Of course, it is possible that somebody has proven them wrong.
Cite articles you mentioned. Plus, articles proving that claims made in article I cited are wrong.

@ Aarno:

Eric Courchesne has continued his research for over 30 years: that article is only one amongst many of his group.. His lectures and interviews are available and easy to find. A 19 minute long one discusses prenatal changes ( second trimester) associated with autism and their genetic roots. I think Joel also wrote a long comment about this 6 months or so ago. Autism is not linked to any one gene or any one area of the brain and subjects’ possible disabilities – like language deficits- and enhanced abilities- like focus- are not the same in every individual because their development follows different, individual paths..

Other research investigates early indicators of autism which anti-vaxxers hate ( ” a waste of money” Rossi, Wright) : Ozonoff bases her research on observable results as early as 6 months and there are EEG/ MRI differences before that. Many other diverse indicators occur prior to the vaccines anti-vaxxers implicate such as patterns of gaze, movements as illustrated by videos, head size ( including pre-natal scans), facial structure ( Aldridge), as well as prenatal exposure to meds, vitamin deficiency or infection. The evidence originates from multiple sources not a solitary study and scattershot speculation Anti-vaxxers disregard all of these researchers’ important work….

You’re doing a great job informing SB readers but nothing can affect obsessive anti-vaxxers.I give up on them.. they make me sick..

Any vaccines given to an aging (in neurodegeneration) person can cause Alzheimer’s, just like any vaccines can cause autism in the developing (in neurodevelopment) person.

Class, when people complain about us meanies giving too freely the antivax label, here is an easy reference.
If it is “any vaccine”, regardless of composition, mode of action, mode of injection, attenuated/kiled/fragments of pathogens, etc., this is an antivaxer.
Cherry on the cake: if the vitamin K injection if thrown in. Not even a vaccine by any definition.

@ Athiac,

Because it’s vaccination, not “a” vaccine. I’m not concerned about the “Vitamin” K.

Missing my point, Christine.
But you wouldn’t be antivaxer if you didn’t.

(rare picture: a French person resisting temptation)

@Christine Kincaid. What part of vaccination itself you mean ? Needle work or intent to vaccinate ? Or something else ?
Why scare quotes around vitamin K? This is name everybody uses.

@ Terrie:

I don’t even want to get started about the aetiology of schizophrenia: let’s just say that it has been studied and no one ever mentions vaccines There are books, courses, websites devoted to this topic, my commentary would be unnecessary. Not a deficiency of niacin, either..

But if you magically know the cause of all these vastly different conditions, you don’t actually have to do anything to help improve the quality of life of those who have them, or even treat them like actual people.

or even treat them like actual people

I always got along fine with Jerry the Schizophrenic back when I was on the east side of Hyde Park, although I demurred when he offered to let me live with him in his mom’s house. He and I and some other fellow would sit in the park drinking beer, smoking/vaping, and shooting the breeze. He said his voices were mostly benign, but did sometimes ramble. There was a bit of an issue over his refusing to put his styrofoam coffee, though. He preferred the Sun-Times.

RI decided to host a Christine Dunning-Krugerfest, and no one thought to invite me? 🙁

@DB: Every day is frigging Christine Dunning-Krugerfest here at RI. Right now she’s giving Gerg and Tim combined a real run for offensiveness.

Personally I’m done feeding it. Either it’s a fixed belief, in which case nothing will fix it short of a psychiatric hold, or it’s covert narcissism, in which case nothing will fix it period. It exists only to serve itself, not anyone else, and the best public treatment for that is social ostracism, before they make the rest of us crazy as they are.

I’m leaning towards narcissism. It would explain why she avoids groups like AoA. She’s just one among many there, not a special suffering martyr like she gets to play at here. I pity her kid.

On the other thread, has said something which I’ll elaborate ( on sharks/ minnows)

Following alt med / anti-vax illustrates that leaders train disciples as proselytisers/ preachers of their gospel to outsiders, sometimes explicitly.. Many stories of anti-vax mothers ( AoA, TMR etc) teaching young mothers/ pregnant women they encounter in stores, leaving anti-vax material in doctors’ offices, speaking publicly, instructing their own children in anti-vax, frequenting/ starting facebook pages and other social media to give advice and spread the Word. Many followers imagine themselves creating a new career writing books ( Skyhorse) or lecturing at conferences

Major alties who sell products also encourage this activity- followers can imagine themselves as ‘instructors’ who ‘enlighten’ the ‘uneducated’ ** in the oncoming paradigm shift giving insider information about the latest research and treatments.. Especially since the social media shutdown of their outreach/ adverts/ PR, leaders enlist followers to work without pay to reach the unschooled via social media..

And where are the most unschooled in the ways of anti-vax/ woo? Right here. Followers are primed to regard SBM advocates like Orac and his minions as servants of the great dark lords of SBM/ Pharma. Anti-vaxxers come here to prove their superiority both morally and intellectually thus even when they are told OVER and OVER how wrong they are, it rewards them because it shows the world the face of evil and their valiant struggle against it. They are heroes, saving the children or humanity, banding together. They can’t realise how their leaders operate because they are focused on the crimes of medicine or the lies of Wicked Wikipedia.

Some of the alties i survey provide daily lessons and outside reading/ videos so that indoctrination proceeds seamlessly….
..
** I’ll dispense with the quotes now.

.

@Denice, I feel like you just described a MLM. Which should probably not shock me. Similar demographic. Similar belief in having “the secret solution.” Similar need for validation. Similar obnoxiousness.

Personally, I have zero interest in being recruited for their downline.

Eh, screw Burroughs. It took decades for my ex-wife to find a stable med regime, and only once was I so overwhelmed as to take the Empire Builder for two weeks to unwind.

@ Terrie:

Two of them tried to set up selling schemes amongst their followers either organic foods; supplements/ videos ( PRN) or specific products like NZ green lipped mussels (NN).. More recently, they focus on educating about nutrients/ foods and then selling those very products. Both branch out into lifestyle advice, survivalism and hawking particular locales for re-location to avoid the oncoming storm. Adams had been associated with selling real estate in Ecuador where he lived for a while. I don’t know if they are involved with selling land in places they now advocate ( Texas) but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Watching these charlatans since the early 2000s I’ve seen many business plans initiated and later discarded.. Rational Wiki discusses some of their activities.

@Denice: “Watching these charlatans since the early 2000s I’ve seen many business plans initiated and later discarded.”

Yep, and this is the thing: you don’t even need to test their specific claims using science and whatnot; you just have to observe their general behavior.

Common patterns of scammy behaviors should be obvious to anyone not born yesterday, even a million miles off. That the victims don’t see it is not because Adams, Wakefield, and Amway have fooled them, it’s because they’ve already chosen to fool themselves.

Good con artists already know this, of course, which is how they spot their marks and play them like a fiddle. Hell, I might even admit a slight grudging respect for such talent—inbetween hoping they choke on fishbones for the rest of eternity, of course.

@MSmith: perhaps you’d do well to enter “Seneff” into the searchbox in the upper right-hand corner for some insight into the first author. The second author is a naturopath. If you don’t know why that’s problematic, enter “naturopath” in the search box.

IMO, it’s a speculative exercise in JAQing off over implausible mechanisms, in what amounts to a journal-shaped. self-published pseudoscience ‘zine. Seneff is an editor, amongst other antivaccine luminaries, 2 of whose articles are also “peer-reviewed” in the same issue. (Both “Shaw” and “Lyons-Weiller” will return search results here, too. Most recently, for retractions.)

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