On a chilly February evening, I found myself stepping across the threshold of one of Midtown Manhattan’s many brick high rises. I took the elevator to the sixteenth floor, home of the Meta Center, which describes itself as Manhattan’s “number one destination for Consciousness Raising, Cutting Edge Spiritual & Metaphysical Education, Healing and the Creative Arts.” A sign at the entrance to the conference room asked me to remove my shoes before entering sacred space. So I shucked my boots, tried to hide the hole in my left sock, and picked my way to the back of the room in search of an empty folding chair.
I had come to hear a lecture on vaccines. As a science writer and public health advocate, I’m a big proponent of vaccination. Study after study has shown that the benefits far outweigh the risks. The proof is incontrovertible. But I wanted to hear the alternative argument.
As I settled in I scanned the packed room. Many of the attendees were pregnant women and new mothers. Some had brought their babies. Finally Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a middle-aged pediatrician with brown hair and a cheery disposition, took the stage. He began by explaining his goal: empowerment. “How can I as a clinician empower you as a parent or practitioner to understand what the science is in this field so that you can go and make an empowered individual choice,” he asked.
But it soon became clear that Palevsky wasn’t about to present an unbiased review of the literature. “Do the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risk of disease?” he asked less than half an hour into his three-hour talk. “I used to think that was true. I can no longer say that that’s true. And if I’m abiding by the Hippocratic oath, I can no longer say with certainty or near certainty that vaccines are safer than the diseases that we vaccinate against.”
Palevsky’s lecture covered a lot of ground. He questioned the link between vaccines and the declines in mortality from diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio. He talked about the purported danger of aluminum and linked the adjuvant to autism. (It bears repeating that childhood vaccines protect kids from deadly diseases. The benefits of vaccination far outweigh the harms. And there is no evidence in support of a link between vaccines and autism.)
But it was Palevsky’s final argument that stuck with me. He noted that researchers have scanned the human genome and found viral genetic material. “So where are all the viruses that we’re concerned about? They’re probably in our own chromosomes already,” he said. “The viruses kick in from within, not from the outside. We all think that the virus comes from outside. Statistically we have hundreds of millions of viruses ready to be coded for inside our bodies. And you’re being told that the virus comes from outside.”
If I understood him correctly, his point was this: Vaccines do no good because the viruses that we’re trying to vaccinate against already exist within the human genome. You can’t protect against them. They’re already inside us.
“Poppycock!” I wanted to shout. It’s true that scientists have found sequences of ancient viruses within the human genome. However, Cedric Feschotte, a researcher at the University of Utah who has spent considerable time sifting through the genome in search fossil viruses, notes that none of the sequences scientists have uncovered are closely related to the viruses that plague humans. “I can assure you that we and others have looked VERY CAREFULLY for viral sequences integrated in the human (inheritable) genome that would be more closely related to viruses known to currently infect humans, but we came back empty,” he wrote in an email.
Feschotte continues, “Perhaps the most misleading point in what you quoted is this idea that ‘viruses kick in from within, not from the outside.’ This is plainly wrong. There is at present no reliable evidence that any of the viral sequences buried in the human genome can form infectious particles. Most of them are obviously defective, ancient relics of very ancient infections that must have plagued our distant primate or mammal ancestors.”
Palevsky also suggested that these viral sequences help us stay healthy by regulating metabolism and purging toxins and waste. “If these sequences in our genomes protected us, we would not have had these infections. If vaccines were bad, they would not have controlled infectious disease like they have,” wrote Columbia virologist Vincent Racaniello, who hosts one of my favorite podcasts – This Week in Virology. “Palevsky either does not understand virology, or he is bending the truth to support his reasons for not immunizing. I have never seen such a flagrant display of ignorance with respect to vaccine arguments,” he added.
I’m always in favor of a critical analysis of the evidence. But that’s not what Palevsky gave me. He seemed to cherry pick, misunderstand and misinterpret. He wove science together with anecdote and opinion. In a nation where just 28% of adults are science literate, the combination can be deadly.
I left the lecture dismayed. Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, tried to make me feel better. But it didn’t really work.
Update: I asked four scientists to comment on this idea that vaccines don’t work because viruses are already inside our DNA: Vincent Racaniello, John Coffin, Robert Gifford, and Cedric Feschotte. They ALL responded. For those who would like to see their full response, I’ve posted their comments on this Google doc.
Image credit: captaincinema on Flickr