Another anti-vaccine article – bad journal, bad data

Here we go again. An anti-vaccine article was published in a journal, and now every vaccine denier will use it as absolute “proof” that vaccines are evil, bad, and useless. And that means one of the pro-science community has to provide a critical analysis so that those on the fence know what is supported and not supported by real science.

The article, “New Quality-Control Investigations on Vaccines: Micro- and Nanocontamination,” published in the International Journal of Vaccines and Vaccination on 23 January 2017. I want to examine this from the meta level, discussing the quality of the journal, down to the actual data. Spoiler alert – it’s bad.

The journal that published the anti-vaccine article

Let’s start right up at the top. The journal, International Journal of Vaccines and Vaccination, is published by MedCrave, which is included on  Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers, a list used by researchers and librarians across the world to distinguish between high quality and predatory journals.

What’s a predatory publisher? It is is an exploitative open-access publishing model that involves charging publication and other fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals (open access or not). Although predatory publishers occasionally use some sort of peer-review process, it is not as robust or unbiased as you would find with higher quality journals.

The International Journal of Vaccines and Vaccination charges authors of research papers from $589 to $989 to publish. So let’s be honest – are the “peer reviewers” actually going to reject a paper and forgo the publishing fee? This is why predatory publishers are under such scrutiny for the quality of their research.

The editorial board of the journal, which is an indicator of the quality and prestige of the journal, is made up of unknowns in the vaccine research field. It has a relatively large proportion of non-academic individuals which is a major concern to me.

The journal and it’s articles are not listed in PubMed, which is the database that includes nearly all biomedical research published across the world. This means that the journal, despite being around for 2 years, is so insignificant, it can’t get a spot in the database. Finally, the journal is so rarely cited that it doesn’t even have an impact factor, a measurement of the scientific respect for a journal.

Let me be clear – a research article published in a poor quality journal run by a predatory publisher is not an absolute reason to reject science presented therein, but it is a strong indicator. I always ask this question – if this data were so important, why wasn’t it published in a respected journal in the field, like Vaccine?

The article

First, let me state that if this article was “peer reviewed,” they failed on many levels. I found several misspellings, including “alluminum,” for aluminum, which is not even a non-standard English spelling of the element. These are basic things that indicate, to me, a lack of editorial and peer review. And if they couldn’t check the spelling, how can I trust that they checked the science.

The corresponding author, Antonietta Gatti, is a bioengineer whose background seems to be in materials science. She has absolutely no background in areas that would be germane to the claims made by this paper – toxicology, immunology, or other fields that would give the paper some credibility as to what the results mean.

And that leads to the most important issue – the results themselves. The researchers used an environmental scanning electron microscope to examine particles in, usually, biological materials. It can find relatively tiny amounts of inorganic or organic matter in something like vaccines. Despite the rather impressive looking photos and data, remember that microscopy has a substantial amount of subjective analysis attached to it. With this microscope, the researchers looked at 44 different vaccines, looking for particles and using a probe to identify the chemical makeup of those particles.

The authors claim that “this new investigation show the presence of micro- and nanosized particulate matter composed of inorganic elements in vaccines’ samples which is not declared among the components and whose unduly presence is, for the time being, inexplicable.”

But let’s assume the data is all gathered in an objective manner. What does it mean?

The data presented looks all scary. All these complicated chemical names in a list. Almost all of them are simple metal salts or ions that are common contaminants. Here’s the problem – if dose makes the poison, that is, anything can be a poison or not be a poison, depending on the dose, then what dose are we getting?

Therein lies the most problematic issue with the data. The numbers are well below the level of biological activity, if these various chemicals even have biological activity (most don’t). For example, the authors found 1569 particles or precipitates in one drop of Cervarix (an anti-HPV vaccine). Sounds horrific right? Except that one drop of vaccine contains around 1.39 X 10^21 individual molecules. This so called contamination approximately 0.0000000000000000000719% of these so called contaminants.

In that Cervarix sample, the researchers found aluminum hydroxide, one of those scary sounding compounds. Let’s say every one of those 1569 particles was aluminum hydroxide, it would mean that around 0.000000000001 ng of aluminum hydroxide in a vial of vaccine. That is simply biologically irrelevant. Even if the aluminum hydroxide was found, it’s level is so low, that the human body wouldn’t notice it. You breathe in more aluminum on a normal day than you would ever find in a vial of vaccine.

This is a ridiculous exercise in scare tactics by the anti-vaccine crowd. These researchers tried to find contaminants at non-biological levels in an attempt to say “hey, these vaccines are contaminated by junk.” Well they aren’t. Vaccine manufacturers are fastidious in the design and running of their manufacturing plants. But unless you believe in unicorns, which I don’t, there is no to get perfectly “clean” manufacturing.

Let me put it another way. If this research is accurate, it tells me that vaccine manufacturing is about as close to “pure” as one can get. These contaminants are so low as they are only detectable by the most sensitive pieces of equipment (if I were to buy into this being a valid method of detecting contaminants). The numbers are so low, that they’re not even close to being biologically active, and more potent sources for these contaminants can be found in food, water and air.

Which leads me to another point. Where are the controls? What is the contamination in ultra pure water in a glass vial sealed with a cap? You’d probably find the same data if not worse, but I can only speculate because the researchers didn’t give me a comparison point, one of the basic standards for good scientific research.

Note of irony – not a single contaminant was identified as mercury. Not a one.

Of course, the anti-vaccine forces jumped all over this research. The Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), which is a new one to me, jumped in with a press release, “Dirty Vaccines: New study reveals prevalence of contaminants,” that pontificates:

Researchers examining 44 samples of 30 different vaccines found dangerous contaminants, including red blood cells in one vaccine and metal toxicants in every single sample tested – except in one animal vaccine.

Using extremely sensitive new technologies not used in vaccine manufacturing, Italian scientists reported they were “baffled” by their discoveries which included single particles and aggregates of organic debris including red cells of human or possibly animal origin and metals including lead, tungsten, gold, and chromium, that have been linked to autoimmune disease and leukemia.

Baffled? Only if you don’t understand toxicology. Linked to autoimmune disease? Only if you receive thousands of trillions of doses of these vaccines, since the levels are simply so far below biologically active that I’d wear out my “0” key showing the level found in these vaccines.

By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with CMSRI, let’s take a look at the scientific advisory board (shout out to Dr. David Gorski for pointing this out first). Three of them are notorious anti-vaccine researchers, who publish, generally, in predatory or low impact factor journals, using the lamest of non-scientific methodology to make their point:

Dr. Christopher Shaw – I have written about this ophthalmologist (not an immunologist, virologist, epidemiologist, or anything related to vaccines) numerous times. One of his articles, written with his partner in junk medicine, Lucija Tomljenovic, was recently retracted. He often uses methods that use population level data from non medical sources to try to link vaccines to various adverse effects.

Dr. Yehuda Shoenfeld – another anti-vaccine “researcher” who actually has reasonable credentials in vaccine research. However, he has gone off the rails, becoming anti-Gardasil by claiming that it (and other vaccines) causes “Autoimmune Syndrome Induced by Adjuvants (ASIA),” which has been thoroughly debunked by real scientists. As the loquacious Orac said about him, “Shoenfeld is best known for coining the term ‘ASIA.’ Did I say ‘coin the term?’ Really, I should have said ‘pulled the term out of his nether regions, leaving a coating of what one’s nether regions generally expels all over it.’ Because ASIA is a made-up syndrome with no compelling evidence that it’s real. Basically, as I’ve described before, its criteria are so vague as to be able to be applied to almost anything.” Note to self – learn to write like that.

Dr. Stephanie Seneff – one of the popular “go to fake researchers,” who has absolutely no background in anything to do with vaccines. None. She also uses population level studies, which don’t have medical value, to make all kinds of wild correlations between diseases and populations, without a scintilla of evidence of causation. She also is in love with predatory and low impact factor journals. Once again, turning to the wordy, but colorful, Orac, who reviewed a paper from her – “Seneff et al, do, torture epidemiology to try to blame autism on not just aluminum adjuvants but, as the title advertises, acetaminophen, and, as the title doesn’t advertise, mercury. In fact, now that I read it, I almost have to doff my cap in tribute. Rarely have I seen so much antivaccine pseudoscience packed into a single paper.” Note to self – give it up, no way I can turn a phrase like that.

There are others on the scientific advisory board of various qualifications, but these three are leaders of the pseudoscience based anti-vaccine movement. If there ever was a definition of a “shill,” I’d be hard pressed to find three more likely candidates for that moniker.

Look, if you see this anti-vaccine article being tossed about by the usual suspects in the anti-vaccine movement, be aware that it actually doesn’t say what they think it says. From a scientifically unbiased point of view, all I see is how pure vaccines are, and the contaminants are so minor as to be biologically irrelevant. And some of the “contaminants” are just not that serious, even if they were in high enough levels to matter.

Oh well. At least you got some good quotes from Orac.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!