Retracted anti-vaccine papers – ultimate list of pseudoscience and bias

Retracted anti-vaccine papers are a staple of my articles published here. Usually, they try to create some fake link between vaccines and autism, but these papers try to say anything that casts vaccines in a bad light.

As we know, real science has established that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Anti-vaccine papers generally try to show this link without epidemiological or clinical studies – they just try to make some specious biologically implausible claims trying to link something about vaccines to autism. 

Much of the anti-vaccine research is so bad, so poorly designed, that it’s relegated to low quality, predatory journals which have laughably poor peer-review systems. Even then, we can find the occasional retracted anti-vaccine papers, because they are often so bad that even these predatory publishers are embarrassed.

So, I present to you, the loyal reader, a list of retracted anti-vaccine papers (and I use that term very carefully). It’s not a comprehensive list, it’s just what I’ve seen over the past few years. If you know of a retracted paper that I missed, leave a citation in the comments.

retracted anti-vaccine papers
Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent legacy.

The mother of all retracted anti-vaccine papers

We cannot start this list without discussing the unprincipled anti-vaccine paper by the cunning fraud,  MrAndrew Wakefield. This horrible paper, published in a respected medical journal, The Lancet, tried to make a link between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

According to the paper, eight of the 12 children included in the study developed both irritable bowel syndrome and behavioral regression within 14 days of receiving the MMR vaccine. This suggested a link between the vaccination and the regression.

However, the paper had numerous issues:

  1. The”study” included a total of 12 children. That’s it. If I knew nothing about Mr. Wakefield, I’d be suspicious of any evidence that included a sample size of just 12. I ridicule legitimate studies all the time if they include fewer than a hundred patients (and even then, I don’t think it’s enough to draw a conclusion).
  2. The “study” had no controls. 
  3. The “study” provided no analysis of confounding factors.
  4. The “study” lacked any biological plausibility. 
  5. The “study” was biased in the sense that it appeared to choose children who had both early symptoms of ASD and had received the vaccine. That’s not science.

The retraction notice from The Lancet stated that:

Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.

It took over 10 years for the journal to retract this paper, despite a lot of misgivings about the quality of the paper. I cannot understand why The Lancet even published a horribly flawed paper, considering the fact that it is one of the most respected medical journals in the world. What were they thinking?

Eventually, BMJ, once known as the British Medical Journal, published a series of articles, written by Brian Deer, about Wakefield’s despicable deceit, you can read about it herehere, and here. Most of Wakefield’s co-authors deserted the sinking ship. 

Between Wakefield’s fraud and the astonishingly poor science in the article, it became one of the first of retracted anti-vaccine papers that hit our consciousness about vaccines. Sadly, because of this paper, many parents began to believe that vaccines “caused” autism. And vaccination rates have dropped to the point where we have a measles epidemic – all because of a lie from one of the most disreputable characters in the history of science. 

Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic

Shaw and Tomljenovic 

You can’t talk about retracted anti-vaccine papers without mentioning Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, who have several retractions to their resumes. These “scientists” have no background in any area of vaccine science (epidemiology, public health, immunology, or others fields), so it’s not surprising that they have a series of retractions.

In case you’re unfamiliar with these individuals, Shaw holds an academic appointment as a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Shaw does claim he’s a neuroscientist, but his research focus is on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the ALS-parkinsonism dementia complex. He appears to have done quality research in those areas.

Unfortunately, he used this research to move into the area of autism and vaccines (no real scientific evidence supporting a link). And that’s where he seemed to go off the rails.

On the other hand, Tomljenovic’s credentials and status at the University of British Columbia are somewhat unclear. She was a post-doctoral fellow (a position where a relatively new Ph.D. continues their research at an institution that allows them to continue their investigations) at UBC, but searches for staff members at UBC do not give any hits for her name.

It’s possible, as a postdoc, she isn’t paid or on staff with the university, but compensated by another source, so she wouldn’t show up on any staff directory. This is a rare, but not completely unfamiliar, method to keep postdocs working in a lab. In the latest, and ultimately retracted, article published by Shaw and Tomljenovic states that she is still at UBC.

Much of Shaw’s anti-vaccine “research” has been paid by the Dwoskin Family Foundation, one of the most profoundly anti-vaccine sponsors of research in the world. Claire Dwoskin is a board member of the anti-vaccine group, the National Vaccination Information Center, a vile anti-vaccine group that passes on misinformation as if they are facts about vaccines.

But there’s more. Tomljenovic and Shaw are strongly supported financially by other key anti-vaccine donors, very wealthy ones. Maybe that support doesn’t mean anything for their scientific credibility, but when you closely read their articles, they have an a priori belief that vaccines are dangerous, and they only pursue science pseudoscience to support that belief.

In addition, they have been hammered by respected scientific organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), who have categorically rejected their weak claims. WHO stated that Shaw and Tomljenovic provided no evidence for a causal relationship between aluminum in vaccines and autism. 

Shaw and Tomljenovic retraction #1

Shaw and Tomljenovic co-wrote an article,  published in one of the top journals in the field, Vaccine, that described observed behavioral issues in female mice following the injection of aluminum adjuvants and the HPV vaccine

After withering criticism across the field, especially since the article was published in a prestigious, high impact factor journal, the editors at Vaccine decided to withdraw the article:

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the Editor-in-Chief due to serious concerns regarding the scientific soundness of the article. Review by the Editor-in-Chief and evaluation by outside experts, confirmed that the methodology is seriously flawed, and the claims that the article makes are unjustified. As an international peer-reviewed journal we believe it is our duty to withdraw the article from further circulation, and to notify the community of this issue.

The paper no longer exists in chronicles of Vaccine – about the best outcome possible.

Orac skewered this junk science. After reading his critical review of the paper, I stand by my previous point that it smelled just like the awful GMO paper from Séralini that I have discussed previously.

Orac’s key points were:

  1. The author’s hypothesis that “claims that vaccine adjuvants and vaccines can cause autoimmune disease” are generally only pushed by those who are anti-vaccine in general.
  2. The researchers used a mouse model to use as a proxy for “behavior,” by putting them through some standardized tests for mice. The problem is that the authors have provided a hypothesis, which totally lacks biological plausibility, to harm mice (because they are killed at the end of the experiment).
  3. The researchers were not “blinded” when they observed the mice go through these tests. Well, at least they didn’t mention if they were blinded.
  4. Like Séralini, the authors must have flunked basic statistics. The used a type of statistical test, called Student’s t-test,  that was meant to determine the statistical significance of two independent groups of data. The authors used it to identify differences between FOUR groups of data. It doesn’t work in those cases.

Shaw and Tomljenovic retraction #2

Another article co-authored by Shaw and Tomljenvic, published in Inorganic Biochemistry, was also subject to some strong criticism from me and the frequently cited Orac. This paper tried to convince us that aluminum adjuvants in vaccines caused autism.

Predictably, according to Retraction Watch, Inorganic Biochemistry’s editor, John Dawson of the University of South Carolina, stated that:

The paper by Shaw and co-workers is being retracted jointly by the authors and the editor.

Although the editor did not make it clear as to the reasons, that doesn’t mean we don’t have good justifications for it. According to real scientists, like The Mad Virologist, who is also an expert on DNA analysis, and the Blood-Brain Barrier Scientist, who writes about the blood-brain barrier and heavy metal music, jointly analyzed the paper by Shaw and Tomljenovic. They did a masterful job in looking at some of the technical errors and other issues with the paper.

I won’t pretend to summarize what they write, so I’ll use their own summary:

Based on the methods that were used in this paper, Shaw et al. went too far in declaring that aluminum adjuvants cause autism. But there are six other key points that limit what conclusions can be drawn from this paper:

  1. 1. They selected genes based on old literature and ignored newer publications.
    2. The method for PCR quantification is imprecise and cannot be used as an absolute quantification of expression of the selected genes.
    3. They used inappropriate statistical tests that are more prone to giving significant results which is possibly why they were selected.
    4. Their dosing regime for the mice makes assumptions on the development of mice that are not correct.
    5. They gave the mice far more aluminum sooner than the vaccine schedule exposes children to.
    6. There are irregularities in both the semi-quantitative RT-PCR and Western blot data that strongly suggests that these images were fabricated. This is probably the most damning thing about the paper. 7. If the data were manipulated and images fabricated, then the paper needs to be retracted and UBC needs to do an investigation into research misconduct by the Shaw lab.

Taken together, we cannot trust Shaw’s work here and if we were the people funding this work, we’d be incredibly ticked off because they just threw away money that could have done some good but was instead wasted frivolously. Maybe there’s a benign explanation for the irregularities that we’ve observed, but until these concerns are addressed this paper cannot be trusted.

In other words, junk science.

Shaw and Tomljenovic retraction #3

This is one of the strangest stories of the Shaw and Tomljenovic history of retractions. Retraction Watch reported that a letter to the editor of the journal Toxicology, co-authored by Shaw, was recently retracted by the journal. To be honest, I’ve rarely heard of a retracted letter, but it must happen. 

So let’s set the story. In early 2017, Shaw co-authored (with 10 other individuals, including the equally notorious anti-vaccine “researcher,” Christopher Exley) an article in Toxicology that pushed the pseudoscience that subclinical doses of aluminum in vaccines were related to some neurological conditions.  It’s terrible research that was roundly criticized by real scientists.

Dr. David Hawkes, a molecular virologist at the University of Melbourne and Joanne Benhamu, a teaching associate in bioethics at Monash University, both in Australia, penned a letter to the editor of Toxicology, entitled “Questions about the methodological and ethical quality of a vaccine adjuvant critical paper.” As you can imagine, it was not a kind assessment of the article.

The original paper in Toxicology is barely different from other articles either authored or co-authored by Christopher Shaw – using questionable techniques in an attempt to convince themselves and their readers that large amounts of aluminum can cause neurological conditions in mice. First, the study did not provide us with any significant data supporting the hypothesis. The study included 36 subgroups of analysis, yet they only provided data for six of them, and the statistics for those six groups were underwhelming at best. My guess is that the other 30 groups had worse statistics.

Hawkes and Benhamu also included a strong commentary about ethics in their letter, discussing the lack of statements of conflicts of interest for Shaw and company (which we described above). I do not think that conflicts of interest, by themselves, negate the quality of research, but for transparency purposes, they should be open to all to view.

Now the story gets even weirder. Christopher Exley (another anti-vaccine “researcher” who recently had his funding pulled for bad science) and Shaw co-authored a letter to the editor in response to the Hawkes and Benhamu letter. It was an unprofessional letter that should never have been published. But of course, it was, and we get to mention it.

A posting at PubPeer, a website dedicated to scientific reviews of papers, highlights a few of the uncivil points from Shaw and Exley:

  1. A determination that the letter from Hawkes and Benhamu could never have passed peer-review. Ironically, Shaw is an expert on abusing the peer-review process.
  2. “Peer review would have established that the criticisms relating to our science were unfounded and only reflected the inexperience of the writers of this Letter in the field of aluminium adjuvants. We do not consider that we should now spend our time pointing out why the criticisms are either scientifically inept or simply ill-informed opinions.” Apparently, only Shaw and his gang know anything about aluminum.
  3. “…the authors are both administrators and activists on behalf of a lobby group (Stop Australia’s (anti) Vaccine Network, SAVN) and spend a considerable amount of time criticising in print (usually in non-peer-reviewed blogs such as The Conversation) anyone or any group that publishes excellent and peer-reviewed science criticising the safety record of human vaccines.” Fair enough, but Shaw and company are activists on the behalf of anti-vaccine lobby groups.
  4. An accusation that the critics have fabricated their qualifications. Of course, I spent about 32.478 nanoseconds on the internet to confirm the qualifications of both Hawkes and Benhamu.
  5. Finally, criticizing Toxicology for publishing the letter from Hawkes and Benhamu. “We welcome open and constructive criticism and we expect the journals that publish our research to treat it with the respect it deserves. Unfortunately through an apparent ‘editorial oversight’ such was not the case this time.”

Toxicology eventually retracted the letter from Shaw and his associates, by stating the following:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal.

This Letter to the Editor has been retracted at the request of the Managing Editor as it contains inappropriate statements about the affiliation of the authors of the earlier Letter to the Editor published by Toxicology. However, evidence has been provided to the Editor to support the affiliation of these authors. Apologies are offered to the readers for any inconvenience that this may cause.

This was an amusing episode in the world of Christopher Shaw’s retractions.

The retracted sheep study

Enough with Shaw and Tomljenovic. Let’s move on.

This sheep vaccine study, by Javier Asìn et al., published in Pharmacological Research, investigated cognitive and behavioral changes in lambs that had received repeated vaccination with aluminum-containing vaccines. And it was also retracted.

This was a study looking at aluminum adjuvants again, using sheep as a model. The authors concluded that the sheep that received aluminum adjuvants exhibited behavioral changes. 

My criticism of the article was harsh:

  1. The researchers only looked at a total of 21 sheep in 3 groups. Important clinical and epidemiological studies have thousands or even millions of data points. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine a causal link with such a tiny sample size.
  2. The animals in the two experimental groups, one vaccinated with the typical vaccines given to sheep and the other with just aluminum adjuvant. The animals received 16 vaccine doses within 12 months for a total of 70.861 mg of aluminum. These are the number of doses that a sheep receive over 6-7 years! Furthermore, if you’re prone to comparing sheep to humans, that’s 20X more aluminum adjuvant than a human receives over a year – of course, human infants are smaller. Nevertheless, even though I dismiss any link between injected aluminum and neurological issues, giving 6-7 years of vaccines over 12 months biases the results. In addition, I’m skeptical of the behavioral observations, but it is possible that the serum aluminum levels are so high that it exceeds the safe limit for aluminum.
  3. The study was not randomized or blinded (or they failed to mention it in the methods section). You might think that randomization on matters with humans, but the researchers could have biased the results by the way they treated the sheep.
  4. This study relied upon subjective observations of the sheep’s “behavior” post-vaccination. These are the type of issues that hinder many behavioral and neurological studies – a subjective analysis of change in behavior is almost impossible to quantify. And when there are just 21 animals, it’s almost impossible.
  5. Sheep are social animals and the process of vaccination itself, especially so many over a short period of time, may induce behavioral changes irrespective of any contents of the vaccine, although the control group did receive a placebo injection.
  6. This sheep vaccine study is a primary research article – that means it lacks any supporting data anywhere else. It’s like the old vaccines cause autism canard – one retracted study supported it. On the other hand, literally hundreds of clinical and epidemiological studies along with meta-reviews have debunked that claimed link. That’s why most real biomedical researchers ignore primary animal studies – they pique interest, but rarely form the foundations of science-based medicine. Since we have dozens of studies that show no behavioral changes post vaccination, how much does a very small, very poorly designed sheep study tell us? Next to nothing.
  7. In a 2013 study by the same research group, they observed that around 0.5-1.0% of animals of a flock exhibit the type of behavioral symptoms, irrespective of vaccination, described in the newer paper – yet they conveniently ignore it. Given the tiny sample size, the lack of randomization or blinding, and other issues, it’s impossible to tell if this is background noise.

It was a terrible study, without a doubt. It gave us no information, and it really appeared that they had a pre-conceived conclusion, that the so-called autoimmune syndrome induced by adjuvants (ASIA) is an adverse reaction of vaccines. ASIA is a belief, pushed by Israeli immunologist Yehuda Shoenfeld, that certain autoimmune conditions are caused by aluminum adjuvants in vaccines.

However, ASIA has been thoroughly debunked by most scientists and worldwide pharmaceutical regulatory agencies. Numerous large case-control and cohort studies, both near the top of the hierarchy of biomedical research, have found no evidence of a relationship between vaccines, especially the HPV vaccine, and any neurological conditions. ASIA, the pseudoscience not the continent, is simply ovine fecal material.

Eventually, it was retracted – it never existed.

The Japanese HPV vaccine article retraction

If you follow this blog, you’d know that Japan has had a difficult relationship with the HPV vaccine. There is an anti-vaccine trope that claims that Japan has banned the vaccine, which is not true. 

In fact, using really bad statistics, the Japanese Ministry of Health has withdrawn recommending the vaccine, putting millions of young Japanese at risk of cancers. Part of the myths about the HPV vaccine in Japan is an article that claimed that mice that were given a huge dose of the HPV vaccine (beyond what we would give to humans) along with a toxin to make the blood-brain barrier “leaky” to the HPV vaccine.

Of course, this is a good way to induce neurological changes, since generally, that barrier is impenetrable to anything that circulates in the blood, other than substances it actively transports into the brain. The toxin used by the researchers is simply not normal – it forcibly opened the blood-brain barrier to allow the extremely high dose of HPV vaccine to reach the brain.

The editors of Scientific Reports, an online, open-access journal published by The Nature Publishing Group, decided to retract the controversial paper that claimed to provide evidence that mice given the HPV vaccine showed symptoms of neurological damage. Setting aside the fact that animal studies are at the weaker end of the hierarchy of biomedical studies, a relatively low number of animal studies ever become clinically important to humans.

The fact that Scientific Reports published this article gave it some credibility. However, the quality of the research in the article was subject to withering criticism from scientists. According to a report in Science,

The paper was assailed by critics as being “pseudoscience” that could have “devastating” health consequences by undermining public confidence in a vaccine given to girls to prevent cervical cancer.

Shortly after the paper appeared, two groups separately wrote to Scientific Reports and its publisher, the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), pointing out problems with the experimental setup, the use of a dose proportionally far larger than what is normally given, the use of the toxin, and inconsistencies between the data presented and the descriptions of results, among other issues.

There was also concern about the strain of mice used, which make it less like that the experimental model could actually be applied to humans (overlooking the fact that the vast bulk of murine studies are ever applied to humans).

The retraction notice from Scientific Reports seems to side with the arguments presented by the critics of the Nakajima’s research. The retraction notice clearly states:

The Publisher is retracting this Article because the experimental approach does not support the objectives of the study. The study was designed to elucidate the maximum implication of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (Gardasil) in the central nervous system. However, the co-administration of pertussis toxin with high-levels of HPV vaccine is not an appropriate approach to determine neurological damage from HPV vaccine alone.

Unfortunately,  the damage was done. The HPV vaccine had a bad and undeserved reputation in Japan because of a garbage study.

Retracted anti-vaccine papers citations

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!