Last week, there was a story that, one would think, would be custom made for a heaping helping of not-so-Respectful Insolence. Unfortunately, life being life and with all the other affronts to science going on at the time, somehow I never got around to looking into the story, other than a brief mention in another post in my not-so-secret other blog. I must admit that it bothered me. Then a reader emailed me with information that adds background to the story and shows the harm prominent quacks, antimaskers, and antivaxxers can do behind the scenes, thus giving me an excuse to discuss the story, even if I’m over a week late doing it. I’m referring to the Centner Academy in Miami, which was in the news a lot a week and a half ago:
From the story the New York Times Tweeted by Del Bigtree:
A private school in the fashionable Design District of Miami sent its faculty and staff a letter last week about getting vaccinated against Covid-19. But unlike institutions that have encouraged and even facilitated vaccination for teachers, the school, Centner Academy, did the opposite: One of its co-founders, Leila Centner, informed employees “with a very heavy heart” that if they chose to get a shot, they would have to stay away from students.
Just wait, it gets worse. Much worse:
“Even among our own population, we have at least three women with menstrual cycles impacted after having spent time with a vaccinated person,” she wrote, repeating a false claim that vaccinated people can somehow pass the vaccine to others and thereby affect their reproductive systems. (They can do neither.) In the letter, Ms. Centner gave employees three options:
Teachers who get the vaccine over the summer will not be allowed to return, the letter said, until clinical trials on the vaccine are completed, and then only “if a position is still available at that time” — effectively making teachers’ employment contingent on avoiding the vaccine.
- Inform the school if they had already been vaccinated, so they could be kept physically distanced from students;
- Let the school know if they get the vaccine before the end of the school year, “as we cannot allow recently vaccinated people to be near our students until more information is known”;
- Wait until the school year is over to get vaccinated.
And here is a followup that Centner posted to Instagram after the news stories about her first letter started garnering attention:
Ms. Centner does have a point about one thing. We do live in a bizarro world, but not for the reasons she thinks. It is indeed bizarre that wealthy antivaxxers can run a school in which they basically threaten their teachers with losing their jobs if they get vaccinated against a potentially deadly disease.
Leila Centner is promoting the antivaccine myth of “shedding”
Regular readers will know right away what Leila Centner was referring to: The antivaccine myth of “shedding.” It’s an old myth, now repurposed for COVID-19 vaccines, spread by antivax pediatrician Larry Palevsky. I deconstructed the myth in a highly “insolent” fashion, although there is a less “insolent” deconstruction as well. The Cliffs Notes version of this antivax trope is the claim that those vaccinated COVID-19 vaccines “shed” spike protein, the protein that gives coronaviruses their characteristic “crown” of “spikes” and facilitates the entry of the virus into the cell by binding to a receptor called ACE2.
Both mRNA-based vaccines (e.g., the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines) and adenovirus-based vaccines (e.g., the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines) enter cells and provide the template for them to synthesize spike protein. (The specific modifications of the coding sequences for spike protein produced varies somewhat according to the specific vaccine, but the details are not important to understand the basic concept of how these vaccines work.) Antivaxxers claim that the recently vaccinated can shed this protein, which then can make unvaccinated people who come into contact with the vaccinated sick and, in the case of women, mess up their menstrual periods or even cause miscarriages. Basically, it’s an attempt to “flip the script” and shift the onus of being contagious or a danger to others from the unvaccinated to the vaccinated. That the whole claim is utter BS matters not at all to antivaxxers, as the “shedding” narrative helps them view the vaccinated, not themselves, as the source of the problem that sickens people.
So the Centner Academy’s founders have basically bought into this nonsense completely, to the point of threatening teachers who had the temerity to be vaccinated against COVID-19 with the potential loss of their jobs, even if they wait until the school year is over to do so. Indeed, Leila Centner even doubled down when the news broke:
Ms. Centner directed questions about the matter to her publicist, who said in a statement that the school’s top priority throughout the pandemic has been to keep students safe. The statement repeated false claims that vaccinated people “may be transmitting something from their bodies” leading to adverse reproductive issues among women.
“We are not 100 percent sure the Covid injections are safe and there are too many unknown variables for us to feel comfortable at this current time,” the statement said.
The Centners were clearly echoing the classic denialist trope of the false appeal to the unknown as a reason not to do something, and it’s clear that Leila Center is deep into antivaccine pseudoscience.
The Centner Academy’s world of woo
If you want to see how deep into quackery, COVID-19 denial/minimization, antimask, and antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories she is, a quick perusal of Leila Centner’s Instagram feed shows it to be chock full of antivaccine and antimask memes and propaganda, for example:
Yes, this is a reposting of the myth that “shedding” of the spike protein from COVID-19 vaccines cause menstrual problems in women who come near those vaccinated against COVID-19.
Yes, that’s Sayer Ji, husband of antivaxxer and all around quack Kelly Brogan and someone whom I’ve written about before. I’ll get back to this quackery power couple later in the post. These are far from the only quacks and grifters with whom the Centners consort, though:
Consistent with its leaders being steeped in woo, the Centner Academy promotes itself as a a “happiness school” focused on children’s mindfulness and emotional intelligence, and its website reveals a world of woo, as does this followup story in the NYT about what happened soon after Leila Centner took over the running of the school:
Ms. Centner once remarked that children should be kept away from windows, for fear of radiation from 5G cell towers, another baseless conspiracy theory. (The windows at the preschool now have electromagnetic frequency “shielding blockers,” Mr. Centner said in response to a question about the school’s 5G concerns.) The school opposed feeding children sugar and gluten, and required that students have different shoes for indoors and outdoors. Some parents said they thought such ideas odd but inoffensive — unlike what began to happen with the school’s response to the coronavirus.
A more recent article in the Miami Herald reveals the full depth of the quackery, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories behind the Centner Academy:
It began with the academy’s first open house when David and Leila Centner asked guests not just to wipe their feet but to swaddle the soles of their shoes in Saran wrap. And it continued with an impassioned pledge to mold students into “emotional ninjas,” and with the coverings over the windows to ward off potential radiation from 5G cell towers. (“No adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies,” according to the World Health Organization.) Then there were the non-disclosure agreements required of employees who wanted to quit or parents who wanted to withdraw their kids. And the efforts to persuade staff how to vote in the presidential election. And the invitation to anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to address the school community. And the constant exhortations against wearing masks.
Through it all, Leila Centner, who runs the school’s day-to-day operations, was omnipresent, and teachers feared she was watching them over an expansive camera system, one current and three former employees said.
It all sounds rather cult-like, doesn’t it? Indeed, if you read the news stories about the Centner Academy, one thing that will strike you right away is the fear, specifically the fear of teachers, current and former, as well as parents, to speak out. Few would go on the record. Several expressed fear of legal retaliation. (Remember the nondisclosure agreements?) Then there was this report about the parents and teachers:
They said they felt pressured into joining a WhatsApp group chat called “Knowledge is Key” where Centner shared conspiracy theory videos and social media links to bunk science, like a video by anti-vaccine advocate Rashid Buttar. (David Centner denied anyone was pressured to join the group.)
One teacher said Leila Centner told staffers to vote for Trump because “Biden wants to vaccinate everyone.”\
Rashid Buttar? Now that’s a blast from the past, the long past. I was writing about Rashid Buttar and his autism quackery very early in the history of this blog (as in 2005!). Does anyone remember Buttar’s butter, for instance? It was an ointment billed as a transdermal form of “chelation therapy,” a treatment common among autism quacks back in the day when the belief that mercury in the thimerosal preservative used in several childhood vaccines caused autism. (It does not, and thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines two decades ago.) Buttar, as you might recall, was (and still is) also very influential politically in North Carolina. When the North Carolina State Medical Baord tried to take away his medical license, he referred to its members as a “rabid dog” and got, in essence, a slap on the wrist. Indeed, he was instrumental in getting a law passed that prevented the state medical board from disciplining a physician for using non-traditional or experimental treatments unless it can prove they are ineffective or more harmful that prevailing treatments. He was (and is) a cancer quack, too, a very influential cancer quack. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about Buttar recently, as he seemed to have faded into the background of all the other antivaxxers, quacks, and grifters (but I repeat myself), but apparently in the era of the pandemic he’s resurrected his career in grift.
But that’s not all. Leila Centner brought in other antivaxxers and quacks to discuss their antivaccine views and quackery:
In February, the Centners welcomed a special guest to speak to students: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the prominent antivaccine activist. (Mr. Kennedy was suspended from Instagram a few days later for promoting Covid-19 vaccine misinformation.) This month, the school hosted a Zoom talk with Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a New York pediatrician frequently cited by anti-vaccination activists.
Dr. Palevsky, as you might recall, is an antivaccine pediatrician and a rising star in the antivaccine movement. He’s also one of the most prominent promoters of the whole “shedding” myth about COVID-19 vaccines, as I described last week. The connections go beyond just this, though:
The new documentary, Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, is co-produced by Children’s Health Defense (CHD), Centner Productions, Kevin Jenkins of the Urban Global Health Alliance, Rev. Tony Muhammed and author/historian Curtis Cost.
Directed by Academy Award nominee David Massey, the film chronicles the medical cartel’s long history of targeting minorities for unethical experiments, the acquiescence of regulatory agencies and medical ethicists, and the silence of physicians who allow these atrocities to continue.
Yes, you saw that correctly! David Centner’s company produced Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s new antivaccine propaganda movie that is cynically disguised as a documentary on medical racism. I haven’t watched the movie itself (I refuse to enrich RFK Jr and will wait until I find it streamed for free), but the trailer makes it very clear that this is a movie designed specifically to spread fear, uncertainty, doubt, and conspiracy theories regarding vaccines among Black people. In fact, David Centner himself served as executive producer for the movie:
And there was more:
“She was always talking about doctors that seemed fringey. And there were all these weird emails: Are masks really good for youth’s mental progress?” said Greg Tatar, the parent of a first-grader. “They screamed Republican, Trump, anti-COVID. All the weird news that you would see between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Fox.
And the school itself makes its antivaccine views a selling point that it brags about on its website:
While vaccine regulations were established to help protect all children, the unknown risks associated with vaccinations might have you seriously considering whether these regulations should be upheld. There is a popular sentiment in the United States that the excessive mandatory vaccines are potentially damaging to children’s health. In the past 20 years, U.S. statistics demonstrate that children are experiencing doubled rates of Attention Deficit Disorder and learning disabilities, doubled rates of asthma, tripled rates of diabetes, and a rise in autism in every U.S. state at the rate of 600 percent.
Yes, and we’ve also seen a massive rise in Internet, cell phone, and social media use during that time, too, not to mention childhood obesity. Funny how antivaxxers rarely, if ever, think to try to correlate those with the increases in prevalance of these health issues among children. To them, it’s always about the vaccines. Always. And:
Before we, as a Miami-based international school, mandate anything that could possibly harm your children, studies need to be conclusive as to whether vaccinations lead to various health disorders. Families and children should have medical freedom. Students should not be forced to endure these immunizations until there are more significant long-term studies and examinations of the various implications and side effects of these drugs.
Leaving aside the new COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccines in the current recommended childhood vaccination schedule have been extensively tested in clinical trials and epidemiological studies. The fact that the Centner Academy would make this part of its marketing tells me that there is no amount of evidence that would convince her that vaccines are safe. The above paragraph is straight-up antivaccine rhetoric of the sort I’ve been dealing with for two decades.
Many are the times I’ve received criticism for my longstanding antipathy towards so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more commonly referred to as “integrative medicine,” that “integrates” pseudoscience and quackery with science-based medicine. A common thread in the pushback against criticism of CAM is a simple question, “What’s the harm?” Indeed, some of the parents, even those who were uncomfortable with many aspects of the Centner Academy, expressed a version of the same sort of viewpoint:
Despite Centner’s eccentricities, Tatar had been pleased with the education his son was getting, with chiropractors, mindfulness coaches and a personal chef preparing organic, gluten- and sugar-free meals. Yelling and time-outs were banned. The school prioritized emotional well-being, language immersion — in Mandarin, French, Spanish, Italian and German — and physical health and nutrition.
This is Greg Tatar, the same man who expressed concern about some of the “fringey doctors.” I’ll give him credit mainly for drawing a line in the sand when Leila Centner started using the antivaccine myth of “shedding” to prevent the teachers at her school from being vaccinated against the deadly disease causing a pandemic that’s killed millions, nearly 600K in the US alone. I have a hard time giving him a lot of credit for much else.
The point is that alternative medicine is very much associated with antivaccine views. I’ve written time and time and time again how, for instance, naturopathy, homeopathy, and chiropractic tend to be antivaccine to the core. Indeed, even the “respectable” form of alternative medicine, “integrative medicine,” in which modalities like naturopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic, and all manner of woo are “integrated” with conventional medicine are prone to tolerating antivaccine views, as was demonstrated at the Cleveland Clinic a few years ago. Basically, when you tolerate quackery, antivaccine views almost inevitably find their way in as well, even in “respectable” academic circles, no matter how much the academics who embrace “integrating” alternative medicine modalities into their practices try to deny it. The Centner Academy is just one more example of this phenomenon.
The quacks strike back to defend the letter
I’ll finish this post by relating a bit of what my reader told me, as this reader appears to have knowledge of the situation. (Don’t worry, I didn’t post anything here that I couldn’t verify independently.) Basically, the quack power couple of Sayer Ji and Kelly Brogan, whom I mentioned above, are very much supporters of the Centner Academy. I hadn’t been aware that the Ji-Brogan quackery duo lived in Miami, but it all makes sense now. (Where else would they live other than Florida, except maybe in Texas or California?) In any event, I’m guessing that these two are the main source of the disinformation that is flowing from Leila Centner to the faculty and students of her school and from David Centner through his movie with RFK Jr.
Indeed, Sayer Ji is strongly defending the Centner Academy on his website GreenMedInfo, with a panoply of antivaccine tropes, both “classics” and “classics” repurposed for COVID-19. For example, there’s the Nuremberg gambit:
Whereas the mainstream media and government health authorities have been dogmatically pushing the unequivocal narrative that the Covid-19 (and all) vaccines are “safe and effective” a priori, it is undeniable that the Covid-19 vaccines are presently only approved for distribution to the public under an Emergency Use Authorization, in lieu of proper clinical safety and efficacy trial data being available, and which are not estimated to be completed until April 2023 for the Pfizer vaccine.2
This makes Covid-19 vaccines, by definition, experimental, as Leila Centner has repeatedly offered as an explanation for her precautionary stance as to their unintended, adverse effects they may have to the health and well-being of her school staff, faculty, children and larger community.
Human medical experimentation, as defined by the Nuremberg code of medical ethics (1947), must not only be voluntary, but the participant needs to be fully informed of both the risks and benefits, in order to be able to give their full legal consent. Also, if the medical experimenter has reason to believe an intervention may cause harm, disability, or death he or she must suspend the experiment immediately.
No, this does not “by definition” make COVID-19 vaccines “experimental,” unless you mean by legal definition. Scientifically, they are no longer experimental, having been tested in phase 1, 2, and 3 studies involving tens of thousands of people and administered to nearly a quarter of a billion people in the US alone. Antivaxxers do so love to conflate legal concepts with scientific concepts in order to spread fear about vaccines, such as falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. Unsurprisingly, Ji also trots out VAERS reports, implying causation where none has bene shown. (Come to think of it, antivaxxers have been ramping up their pointing to VAERS so much lately that I think I might need to write an update to my post from February about the misuse of VAERS by antivaxxers to attack COVID-19 vaccines.)
Next up, Ji adds a wrinkle to the “shedding” claim, a new conspiracy theory recently promoted by antivaxxers. It’s a conspiracy theory based on a cherry picked and misunderstood (or lied about) passage in the the clinical protocol for the phase 3 trial of the Pfizer vaccine, specifically this passage:
8.3.5. Exposure During Pregnancy or Breastfeeding, and Occupational Exposure
Exposure to the study intervention under study during pregnancy or breastfeeding and occupational exposure are reportable to Pfizer Safety within 24 hours of investigator awareness.
184.108.40.206. Exposure During Pregnancy
An EDP occurs if:
- A female participant is found to be pregnant while receiving or after discontinuing study intervention.
- A male participant who is receiving or has discontinued study intervention exposes a female partner prior to or around the time of conception.
- A female is found to be pregnant while being exposed or having been exposed to study intervention due to environmental exposure. Below are examples of environmental exposure during pregnancy:
- A female family member or healthcare provider reports that she is pregnant after having been exposed to the study intervention by inhalation or skin contact.
- A male family member or healthcare provider who has been exposed to the study intervention by inhalation or skin contact then exposes his female partner prior to or around the time of conception.
About which Ji claims:
Clearly, the Pfizer mRNA vaccine protocol design reveals that concerns for how the vaccinated may adversely affect the health, and even reproductive outcomes, of the unvaccinated simply by being within physical proximity, are being taken extremely seriously by the manufacturer of the vaccine itself. In light of this, Leila Centner’s expressed concerns quoted at the beginning of this article are, in fact, backed by the most authoritative document we have on the experimental vaccine, and the nature of the human experiments being conducted on their behalf.
No. The protocol shows nothing of the sort, and Leila Centner’s expressed concerned are not backed by the “most authoritative document we have on the experimental vaccine.” I’m tempted at this point to ask why, then, we do not see similar passages in the clinical trial protocol for the Moderna, J&J, or other COVID-19 vaccines. You know that if such passages existed and could be misrepresented as supporting the claim that the vaccine developers were concerned about “shedding,” antivaxxers would be quitting them too.
Those who read clinical trial protocols all the time will recognize this as fairly standard verbiage found in many clinical trials of investigational agents. It must also be understood that the “study intervention” means the vaccine, not “shed” spike protein, as this convenient Twitter thread explains:
Dr. Vincent Iannelli also has a good explanation about how antivaxxers are misrepresenting this passage in the Pfizer clinical trial protocol.
Now here’s where Ji actually interested me a little. He’s come up with yet one more scientifically nonsensical biological “mechanism” by which spike proteins can “shed”:
The third major substantiating factor behind identifying the potential harm the vaccinated may have on the unvaccinated concerns the discovery of so-called horizontal information transfer within biological systems mediated by extracellular vesicles (EVs), which include a virus-like phenomenon known as microvessicle shedding and/or exosome-mediated transfer of nucleic acids. This falls within the category of epigenetics, which the apologists and shills for the mRNA vaccines’ purported safety and efficacy conveniently ignore in order to make their claim that was debunked in 1970 with the discovery of the enzyme reverse transcriptase.
Ah, yes, exosomes. First germ theory denying antivaxxers falsely invoked them as a means of claiming that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, doesn’t actually exist. (Exosomes were being mistaken for the virus, don’t you know?) Now Sayer Ji is claiming that exosomes are the means by which mRNA-based vaccines can either permanently alter your DNA by transferring nucleic acids from cell to cell or allow you to “shed” viral components:
For instance, it is theoretically feasible that a vaccine recipient’s cells expressing COVID-19 spike protein as a result of transfection with mRNA from a Covid-19 vaccine may secrete microvesicles containing components “originally alien to the cell, such as proteins and nucleic acids that are transiently or constitutively expressed via plasmid or viral vector. “7 These microvessicles, like viruses, and other extracellular vessicles known as exosomes, can be transmitted to other individuals (inter-individual transmission) through both normal or diseased physiological processes.8
Whenever a quack like Sayer Ji or Kelly Brogan cites an article, always go to the source. The first paper was published in 2013 and discusses exosomes in the context of parasite-host relationships. It is about parasites exchanging proteins and genetic materials with the cells of their hosts through exosomes, while the second paper reviews how exosomes can participate in infection through infected cells communicating with uninfected cells via exosomes. Let’s just say that the word “theoretical” in Ji’s article does one hell of a lot of heavy lifting here, as neither paper really supports the notion that spike protein made by recipient cells through COVID-19 vaccines can be extruded in exosomes that can find their way to other people. Remember what exosomes are! They’re nothing more than tiny lipid bilayers derived from cell membrane. They need an aqueous, buffered solution to continue to exist, just like cells. Here’s an example passage:
It is currently believed that exosomes can act as transmitters of pathogen-related molecules that help spread the infection in body microenvironments. Regarding bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus-derived exosomes have been reported to contain the bacterial pore forming molecule α-toxin, therefore delivering this bacterial virulence factor to distant cells (42).
See the word “microenvironment”? That means small areas within the organism that’s infected, nothing more. Even if mRNA-based vaccines did lead to exosomes transporting mRNA and/or spike protein outside of cells to fuse with other cells, that would not provide a mechanism for “shedding.” Seriously, either Sayer Ji needs a remedial course in basic cell and molecular biology, or he is intentionally deceiving, knowing that his audience will be very impressed by his science-y-sounding verbiage. (That is, after all, his shtick.) Take your pick.
It all jibes now, though. The reason that Leila Centner wrote that letter warning her staff about being vaccinated is because she has drunk deeply of the quackery, COVID-19 denial, and antimask and antivaccine pseudoscience promoted by Sayer Ji, Kelly Brogan, Larry Palevsky, RFK Jr., Christiana Northrup (whom I forgot to mention), and no doubt several others.
I will conclude with a bit of delicious irony from the Miami Herald story:
Mark Richard, an attorney who represents the United Teachers of Dade and United Faculty of Miami Dade College, said a policy that bars employees from taking the vaccine could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it interferes with the right to get medical treatment, especially for employees who are at higher risk.
“It would be like a cancer patient not getting chemotherapy,” he said.
Remember a tactic by antimaskers last summer in which they claimed that they could not be forced to wear a mask in stores, restaurants, and other buildings open to the public because of a combination of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which, or so they claimed, meant that business owners had to let them in without a mask, and HIPAA, the health privacy law, which (or so antivaxxers claimed) meant that business owners could not even ask antimaskers what their “supposed medical condition” was that precluded mask wearing? It was a trope based on an utter misunderstanding of the ADA, a law that states that “reasonable accommodations” need to be made, which most shopkeepers were doing anyway through providing, for example, curbside pickup. (Also, HIPAA only covers specific health care providing entities, such as clinics, doctors, pharmacies, medical device companies, etc., not restaurants and other non-healthcare-related businesses.) I just find it delicious that antimask antivaxxers might be “hoist with their own petard,” so to speak, through lawsuits based on the ADA.
My amusement aside about that one tidbit, I do remain alarmed at how easily utter conspiracy cranks can basically do what they want, as long as they are rich and politically connected. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), the Centners are friends with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis:
Because of course they are. As the great Charles Pierce would say, “This is your democracy, America. Cherish it.”