Storm in a teacup

15 May

A piece from the Philadelphia Inquirer demonstrates how various vaccine scares begin.

Using powerful new DNA technology, Delwart’s San Francisco team detected fragments of a pig virus in GlaxoSmithKline’s Rotarix, which protects babies from a diarrhea-causing infection. The pig virus is common in pork products and is not known to cause disease in animals or humans.

We expected to reassure; we ended up not reassuring,” Delwart, a virologist with the Blood Systems Research Institute, said this week. “We ended up creating quite a bit of a storm.

Yet of course the usual suspects used this total non-entity of a story to further their own anti-vaccine agenda:

This “is an important wake-up call for industry and government,” said Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center.

How exactly isn’t explained. This is after all a story where a vaccine carries a component that *is not known to cause disease* . Neither the FDA or the European Health Agency said the vaccines containing the component shouldn’t be used. As Paul Offit said:

“You could apply this new technology to things gummed by a 6-month-old – a Cheeto, a piece of apple – and find much worse” microbes than the pig virus, Offit said. “How does it help to find things that are not known to be harmful? It’s like taking thimerosal out of vaccines. Has that made vaccines safer? No.”

Or more dangerous.

We *have* to start getting over our collective heebie-jeebies every time something perfectly safe is found in a vaccine and start realising that the people who are advocating that we _do_ have an attack of the heebie-jeebies are those who have a single item agenda – promoting anti-vaccineism.

13 Responses to “Storm in a teacup”

  1. David N. Brown May 15, 2010 at 19:11 #

    “We expected to reassure; we ended up not reassuring”

    This reminds me of an annecdote I put into my book about this: Florida wildlife management officials responded to a series of heavily publicized alligator attacks by explaining that the number was actually below average for the given period of time.
    Needless to say, the public was NOT reassured.

  2. Ian MacGregor May 16, 2010 at 00:29 #

    Is the presence of the pig virus fragments a normal for the vaccine; i.e is it a benign by product of the vaccine manufacturing process, or did something go wrong with the quality control of a certain batch or batches which were contaminated by the pig virus fragments?

  3. brian May 16, 2010 at 01:41 #

    First, off, the tests that have identified “fragments” of porcine circoviruses in Rotarix and Rotateq vaccine preparations can’t definitively detect anything more than fragments–they do not test for the complete viral genome or for infectious virus. However, it seems that for Rotarix the PCV1 is present in the cultures used pretty far back in the manufacturing process, and thus the amount of virus seems likely to be higher than for Rotateq. The situation might be different for Rotateq, as the contaminating virus (PCV 1 and PCV 2) is apparently suspected of coming from preparations of trypsin, a digestive enzyme secreted by the pancrease (as trypsinogen) that is frequently used to loosen cultured cells from the growth substrate; Merck apparently uses porcine trypsin, and the particular way that the enzyme is prepared may influence the possibility of it containing infectious virus.

    As indicated in the original post, though, the real question is whether or not a small oral dose of a porcine virus is of concern. It’s worth noting that PCV 1 and PCV 2 seemed unable to cause a productive infection in culture of human cells when the viruses were studied as possible contaminants in xenotransplantation. However, now that the problem has been identified, it should be possible to produce PCV-negative vaccines.

    FWIW, porcine circoviruses have been detected in the stool of adults in the US, as well as in most pork products intended for human consumption in the US. (Don’t know about the UK . . . )

  4. Science Mom May 16, 2010 at 02:48 #

    Ian, The presence of PCV-1 and 2 are not a by-product of vaccine production per se, although both viruses are present in pigs to a high degree. It is thought that the source is porcine trypsin used for cell culture propagation. It doesn’t appear as though there were intact PCV virions but more extensive testing and reporting would be required to confirm that. So at this juncture, DNA fragments found are highly unlikely to cause any pathology in vaccine recipients.

  5. Ian MacGregor May 16, 2010 at 16:50 #

    Science Mom, I did not mean to imply that the presence of the fragments could lead to infection. I was concerned, if it was a matter of quality control, that something which is harmful be introduced by the same means. I knew the fragments had been evaluated as harmless, I did not know until Brian’s reply their likely origin

  6. Paul May 17, 2010 at 07:44 #

    When is the last time you have heard of a child in the US dying of diarrhea, to say nothing of the relatively mild rotavirus diarrheal illness. There are now documented xenoviruses in the vaccine. Where is the regulatory concern of the FDA, where is their commonsense? Irregardless of questions of efficacy or other safety concerns there is a documented health risk in the vaccine, of course it needs to be pulled, all previous batches destroyed and the vaccine kept off the market until the problem is demonstrably rectified. However, this won’t happen as the FDA is a pig with its snout in the trough of big pharmaceutical companies largess.

    • Sullivan May 17, 2010 at 19:53 #


      there is a documented health risk in the vaccine

      Do these porcine viruses infect humans and do they cause diseases in humans. Do virus fragments of any virus lead to infections? Since the health risk is “documented”, you should be able to provide answers to those questions. (So far, the documentation is that, no, these viruses do not infect humans or cause diseases).

      Could I ask a simple question of you: Are you aware if the secretin injected into autistic children–especially in the early years when it was derived from pig pancreases–are free of PCV-1 and PCV-2? Not fragments, mind you, but of the actual viruses? It would strike this reader as very highly likely that DAN doctors and their brethren were injecting these viruses into children. Should we investigate all those children and compensate them for any possible injury caused by those secretin injections?

      As to the question of the value of a rotavirus vaccine: Could I ask you this–what about children with metabolic disorders? For example, mitochondrial disorders. Do you feel that they will survive rotavirus infections without permanent injury? If so, could you tell me how you come to that conclusion? You see, death is not the only measure of a vaccine’s usefulness.

      I would like to see the same technology applied to the Rotavirus vaccines applied to the supplements commonly given to autistic children. One company has already been caught with heavy metal contamination in their products. What else might we find? I would expect we would find a lot of things that sound scary and that many of them will not be.

    • Kev May 17, 2010 at 20:20 #


      Each year in the United States in the pre-vaccine period [2006], rotavirus was responsible for more than 400,000 doctor visits; more than 200,000 emergency room visits; 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations; and between *20 and 60 deaths in children* less than 5 years of age

  7. Chris May 17, 2010 at 21:33 #

    Paul, as a toddler my son ended up in the hospital after seizures due to dehydration from a rotavirus infection (part of the 200,000 emergency room visits statistic). We’ll never know if those seizures caused his permanent learning disabilities.

    In short: you do not know what you are pontificating about.

    Unless you can present real and verifiable evidence that either of the approved rotavirus vaccines pose a health risk greater than the actual infection, you and your little website should be ignored.

  8. Prometheus May 19, 2010 at 02:29 #

    “Paul” is concerned:

    When is the last time you have heard of a child in the US dying of diarrhea, to say nothing of the relatively mild rotavirus diarrheal illness. There are now documented xenoviruses in the vaccine. [emphasis added]

    To begin with, rotavirus is not “relatively mild”, unless you are comparing it to, say, cholera. My child had it and passed it to me (in those blissful pre-vaccine days) and I spent the better part of a day parked in the loo, not sure whether to sit or kneel.

    “Relatively mild” – yeah.

    As was mentioned above, prior to the introduction of the vaccine, rotavirus killed 20 to 60 children in the US each year. Not a huge number compared to the number influenza carries off every year, but still impressive in a country with advanced medical treatment available.

    Finally, the “xenoviruses” found in the vaccine are also found in pork products destined for human consumption. Since both the vaccine and the pork chops are taken orally, how is this a “documented health risk”?

    The rotavirus vaccine is given in only three small doses and pork products are eaten – by most people in the US – more than three times in a lifetime, so which poses the greater risk of exposure to porcine viruses: rotavirus vaccine or bacon?

    In short, try to think things through before you panic, Paul.


  9. Chris May 19, 2010 at 08:29 #


    Finally, the “xenoviruses” found in the vaccine are also found in pork products destined for human consumption. Since both the vaccine and the pork chops are taken orally, how is this a “documented health risk”?

    …rotavirus vaccine or bacon?

    Bacon? Everything is better with bacon!

    I recently went to a restaurant that served Bacon Chive Popcorn. This was popcorn tossed with bacon and a bit of token chive for an attractive bit of green. Oh, yummy!

    It is obviously the extra pork DNA are the wee bits of bacon that make both rotavirus vaccines extra good.

    Disclaimer: I had a child taken by ambulance to the hospital due to a rotavirus infection… which, like Prometheus’s experience, was passed to me. I actually had to use some of my kid’s diapers in order to not have to do even more extra laundry.

    Trust me, I’ll take the wee bits of pork in a vaccine (bacon!) over that experience any day!

    PS: I did a quick Google for Bacon Popcorn, it seems to be very popular (About 14,600,000 results). The results for “rotavirus” are only “About 1,290,000 results.” That obviously proves that the world’s population prefers bacon popcorn over rotavirus. :-p


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