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Do COVID-19 vaccines cause “turbo cancer”?

Over the last several months, antivaxxers have been claiming that COVID-19 vaccines cause “turbo cancer”, cancers (or cancer recurrences) of a particularly aggressive and fast-growing variety diagnosed in younger and younger patients. “Turbo cancer” is not a thing, and the evidence cited is as weak as any antivax “evidence”, including anecdotes and misinterpretation of epidemiology.

Author: David Gorski

One of the oldest antivax tropes, one I recall encountering beginning soon after I started paying attention to the antivaccine movement, is that vaccines somehow cause cancer. As I wrote ten years ago, the original version of this claim derived from the observation that an early batche of the polio vaccine from the 1950s, particularly Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine, were contaminated with SV40, which led to a “cancer epidemic” over the coming decades. (SV40 is a monkey virus known as SV40, which stands for “Simian Vacuolating Virus 40” and was found to have contaminated some of the cells that the virus was grown in, specifically kidney cells derived from Asian rhesus monkeys.) The gory details aren’t important for purposes of what I’m about to discuss—and I’ve already written in depth about what happened and why this claim, although plausible because SV40 was one of the first oncogenic viruses ever discovered. (Oncogenes are genes that cause cancer in experimental animals and, in some cases, humans.)

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for antivaxxers to try to link COVID-19 vaccines to cancer as well, with attempts beginning even before the FDA granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer vaccine two years ago. First, they falsely claimed that the mRNA vaccines “permanently alter your DNA” even though basic molecular biology should have told them that mRNA in the vaccine can’t integrate into your genome, and that the mRNA vaccines were “gene therapy, not vaccines” complete with a conspiracy theory about the CDC having supposedly changed the definition of a vaccine to include them. Next came misrepresenting old studies to claim that mRNA causes cancer. More recently, long-time antivax lawyer Thomas Renz got access to the Defense Medical Epidemiology Database (DMED), a database tracking the health of military personnel, and used it to make claims that are, at best erroneous and at worst intentionally misleading, specifically that COVID-19 vaccines have resulted in an epidemic of cancer in military personnel, including a nearly 900% increase in esophageal cancer and a nearly 500% increase in breast and thyroid cancers since before the military imposed its vaccine mandate. As I explained at the time, the claims were incredible on their face just from a scientific plausibility standpoint given that we know from the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the cancers due to the most powerful carcinogen of all, large doses of ionizing radiation, take at least two years to begin showing up (leukemias) while most solid cancers don’t show up for around 10 years. Given that the vaccines were only introduced to the general population two years ago, even if the vaccines were as powerful a carcinogen as an ionizing radiation dose from being exposed when a nuclear bomb goes off, it would be only now that we might be beginning to see a glimmer of a cancer signal for leukemias, and even then most people didn’t receive the vaccine until months or even a year later, making too soon.

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