Recently, I was perusing some anti-vaccination pages on Facebook. I came across the page of Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, quite popular in the anti-vaccine movement. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and a specialization in osteopathic medicine.
Tenpenny posted a link to an article by Sayer Ji of greenmedinfo. The headline proclaims “Study Calls Into Question Primary Justification for Vaccines.” Tenpenny shared the article, saying “Did you know that the basic premise of vaccine effectiveness has been called into question?” The article states:
newly published research has revealed that in some cases no antibodies are required for immunity against some viruses.
This view, however, has been called into question by the new study: “Although this concept may apply to other viral infections, our findings with VSV turn this view upside down, indicating that during a primary infection with this cytopathic virus, innate immunity can be sterilizing without adaptive immune contributions.”
Does this strike a mortal blow to the antibody theory which underlies vaccinology, and constitutes the primary justification for the CDC’s focus on using vaccines to “boost” immunity?
The remainder of the article goes on to make a case that scientists have gotten it wrong, that vaccines are largely ineffective at providing immunity to diseases and that the entire basis for how vaccines are supposed to work is utterly wrong.
I must confess, I don’t have a background in biology and therefore I was not sure whether the arguments made by Sayer Ji had any validity. Being a good skeptic, I decided to dig up the original study and read it myself to see whether the representations made by Ji’s article were accurate. Again, my lack of expertise in this area made it difficult to understand the contents of the study itself.
Having no other recourse, I decided to contact the corresponding author of the study. This felt like a long shot; based on my own past experience, authors are sometimes difficult to get in touch with. In some cases, the author has moved on to another institution and ceased using their email address in the process.
The corresponding author for this study is Ulrich H. von Andrian, M.D. and Professor of Immunopathology at Harvard Medical School. The message I sent was the following:
I am a blogger and I stumbled upon a recent anti-vaccine article on greenmedinfo here:
The article is saying that your study “B Cell Maintenance of Subcapsular Sinus Macrophages Protects against a Fatal Viral Infection Independent of Adaptive Immunity” calls into question the entire premise upon which vaccines are founded. I am highly skeptical of course, but I confess that I am a physicist and the content of the paper is outside of my knowledge.
I was wondering if you could offer a general comment regarding the article on greenmedinfo.
I was pleasantly surprised when I received a response within two hours of this correspondence:
Hi Adam — The online article you referenced below misrepresents our paper. Our work in no way calls into question the utility of vaccines, which in my personal view are among the most impactful and cost-effective accomplishments of modern medicine. Our study had examined the immune response to a viral infection of mice that were immunologically naive, i.e. they had never ‘seen’ the virus before. The animals were able to survive the infection and clear the virus without requiring T or B cells. This per se is not a huge surprise; there are countless invertebrate species that don’t have T or B cells and survive infections every day. Our observation merely suggests that at least in some settings mammals can do the same.A key point is that although the mice in our study were able to deal with the infection, they did get infected (i.e. they got ‘sick’ so to speak). The purpose of vaccines is to prevent infections from occurring in the first place. Had we vaccinated our mice prior to using the virus, the infection would never have occurrred even if we exposed the animals to a lethal dose of the pathogen.
I hope this is helpful.Best, Uli
Basically, Sayer Ji’s article misrepresented the original paper and was being used to scare well-meaning parents that happened to stumble upon the article.
Given this information, I decided that it was my duty to share this response with the followers of Tenpenny’s Facebook page. Surely, if an article is said by the authors to misrepresent their study, this must be reliable.
What followed was a very revealing indication regarding the unreliability of Sherri Tenpenny’s page. I posted the authors’ response to the article.
Within 24 hours, my reply was deleted and I was banned from commenting on Tenpenny’s Facebook page. This begs the question: how reliable is this page as a source of information when all opposing viewpoints, no matter how valid, are deleted?
More comical was that some people still defended the article as if they somehow knew better than the study’s authors. Others accused me of making up the story and showed their inconsistent logic in the process. How do they know that Sayer Ji’s article was truthful? This is an example of confirmation bias, in which an individual favors a source of information that agrees with their own belief and they discredit other sources that go against their belief. In this case, Sayer Ji’s article is being favored as an accurate depiction of the research study and my contacting the authors is being discredited. If a third party wanted to know the truth, both Ji’s and my accounts should be taken with a grain of salt, since it is possible to get the truth directly from the study’s authors.
This exercise serves to highlight the unreliability of the information peddled by Sherri Tenpenny. This is a prime example of why skepticism is so important. Without it, claims are taken at face value and beliefs are formed based on inaccurate information.