National Post | 18 Feb 2016
A prestigious medical journal has suddenly withdrawn a Canadian co-authored study that cast doubt on the safety of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, amid concerns that questionable science is undermining an important public-health tool.
The paper concluded that mice injected with the Gardasil HPV vaccine exhibited behavioural abnormalities, and suggested putting a curb on mass programs to immunize girls against the cancer-causing virus.
The journal Vaccine has not indicated why the study was “temporarily” retracted from its website this week — after already being peer-reviewed — saying only that a replacement would appear soon, or “the article will be reinstated.”
A single dose of the controversial HPV vaccine.
But some critics say the methodology was seriously flawed and the findings counter to numerous, large studies showing the vaccine to be safe [AM editor’s note: none of the studies have been designed to detect adverse reactions such as auto-immune disease].
“It’s really a poor paper,” said Tania Watts, who holds the University of Toronto’s Sanofi Pasteur chair in human immunology. “I’m surprised this went through (the original peer review). It wouldn’t have got past me.”
The two University of British Columbia researchers who contributed to the paper — Christoper Shaw of UBC’s ophthalmology department and post-doctoral fellow Lucija Tomljenovic — are well known for work that has linked vaccines to neurological problems.
That science, focused on the aluminum “adjuvant” that increases the immune potency of vaccines, has also been criticized as misleading and biased.
The Canadian scientists — heavily funded by anti-vaccination foundations — say their latest study may have been pulled because of pressure from pharmaceutical companies or governments unhappy with their findings.
“Most certainly it was,” charged Tomljenovic.
“Sound research is being suppressed and (the) pharma-lobby has spread everywhere their propaganda like metastases,” she said in an email response to questions.
Dr. Gregory Poland, the Mayo Clinic immunization expert who is editor of Vaccine, could not be reached for comment.
The two types of HPV vaccine now on the market have been shown effective at preventing strains of the virus that cause 70% of cervical cancer, as well as some penis, anal, throat and vaginal cancers. About 1,500 Canadian women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually, and 380 die from it.
‘Bad science is corrected by better science, not by subtracting it from the literature as if it never existed’
Routine immunization of girls began in most provinces in the late 2000s, while studies of hundreds of thousands of recipients worldwide have found no sign of serious safety problems.
Yet the vaccine has attracted naysayers, among them a small coterie of scientists, the Catholic Church and the anti-vaccination movement.
Scholarly articles on immunization have had a potent effect in the past, with a small British study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism driving widespread distrust of the shot — before it was found to be fraudulent [AM editor’s note: that is not the full story; nor the end of it see here and here].
Most of the research on vaccines produced by Shaw and Tomljenovic has been published in relatively “low-impact” journals, but Vaccine is considered the leading international publication in the field.
The new study — spearheaded by a group in Israel headed by Dr. Yehuda Shoenfeld of Tel-Aviv University and funded by the anti-vaccination Dwoskin Foundation — divided mice into four groups of 19 each, receiving the vaccine, a placebo or just aluminum.
The researchers concluded those administered Gardasil and aluminum were more likely to float than swim in a “forced-swimming test” — considered a sign of depression — and behaved during a maze test in a way suggesting short-term memory loss.
Among the study’s problems: there is no indication the researchers blinded themselves to the different mouse groups, potentially allowing bias to creep in, said Watts, whose own research funding comes from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. They also make a “huge extrapolation” from a questionable animal study to human experience with a well-tested vaccine, she said.
And the statistical analysis the scientists used means differences between the mice groups might have been a result merely of “random chance,” says a detailed critique by David Gorski, a cancer surgeon at Michigan’s Wayne State University whose blog skewers allegedly bogus science.
“This study is worthless,” wrote Gorski. “I can see why Dr. Poland was probably horrified to discover that this paper was published in his journal.”
Shaw stood by the research, saying it is not “unfriendly” to the vaccine but points out behavioural effects already seen in humans. He decried what he said is a trend toward journals retracting some controversial papers, especially those critical of vaccines.
‘It’s really a poor paper. I’m surprised this went through’
“I don’t think the literature should be culled for something you don’t like,” he said. “Bad science is corrected by better science, not by subtracting it from the literature as if it never existed.”
While most HPV vaccine trials have been funded by the products’ manufacturers, Shaw’s lab at UBC has received $860,000 from the Dwoskin Foundation, $23,000 from the anti-vaccine Kaitlyn Fox Foundation, and $862,280 from the Luther Allyn Shourds Dean estate, another private fund that supports vaccine-critical research, since 2011.
Shaw and Tomljenovic are “relentless,” constantly trying to “incriminate vaccines,” said Dr. Eduardo Franco, head of cancer epidemiology at McGill University. A leading world authority on the link between cancer and HPV, Franco has received funding from vaccine manufacturers.