Over the last month or two, I noticed that an antivax claim about COVID-19 vaccines from last year had made a reappearance on social media in a big way. I’m referring to the false claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause what antivaxxers last year termed “turbo cancer“. It’s a term that antivaxxers have never really defined other than vaguely, but it is scary sounding. It seems to mean cancers that are either far more aggressive than the average cancer of the same type being seen in younger people than usual. Alternatively, it means the rapid recurrence of a successfully treated cancer previously in remission. Whatever antivaxxers mean by “turbo cancer,” they know it’s bad, and they “know” that COVID-19 vaccines are causing it. The claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause cancer appeared very soon after the vaccines rolled out, starting with the misrepresentation of old in vitro studies and of a Department of Defense database, and then later progressed to doing incredible contortions of science and reason, in essence twisting them into pretzels, to blame SV40 promoter sequences in “DNA contamination” of the mRNA vaccines, an echo of very old antivax claims that SV40 virus in polio vaccines in the early 1960s had led to a wave of cancer decades later.
Of course, there was a problem with all these narratives, besides the fact that there was no good evidence that any of the claims oncologists were seeing a wave of aggressive untreatable cancers in young people starting after COVID-19 vaccines. That problem is, as I emphasized when the first wave of false claims that COVID-19 vaccines cause cancer arose in mid-2021, that even the very strongest carcinogens—for example, ionizing radiation from the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—take several years to manifest their effects in the form of an increased incidence of cancer in the population exposed to the carcinogen. It is currently less than three years since the vaccines first rolled out and a lot less than three years since most of the population received the vaccine, which is, from a biological standpoint, not nearly enough time to see most carcinogenic effects. Moreover, contrary to all the bizarre biological mechanisms cited by antivaxxers to support their claims of the vaccines causing cancer, there really is no credible mechanism by which the vaccines could cause cancer. Mechanisms, of course, are meaningless to antivaxxers other than as what I like to call “biobabble” created to make their claim sound credible to those without a scientific background, but the timing remains a significant problem for antivaxxers when claiming a wave of cancer.
Enter the term “turbo cancer”.
I don’t recall having seen the term “turbo cancer” before about a year ago, which is when I first discussed the claim and why it is nonsense supported by no evidence. A year later (as in a few weeks ago) the claim started bubbling up on antivax social media yet again, thanks apparently to a latecomer to it named Dr. William Makis, a nuclear medicine doctor falsely representing himself as an “oncologist,” and I discussed it again last week. Unfortunately, because it’s not just Dr. Makis making this claim, I have to address the “flavor” of “turbo cancer” misinformation being promoted by an epidemiologist named Harvey Risch, whom we first met over three years ago, when he was citing some incredibly bad evidence to claim that hydroxychloroquine was a highly effective treatment for COVID-19. First, however, let’s discuss why I think the term “turbo cancer” first arose, as I’ve been thinking about this since my last post.
Although antivaxxers will never admit it, the term likely arose as a means of getting around long-understood principles of carcinogenesis based on evidence that even the strongest carcinogens take several years to do their harm. As an article I cited relates, the shortest interval between exposure and cancer is around two years for leukemias but ten years for solid cancers (e.g., colorectal, breast, etc.). Since we are not seeing the beginning of a wave of hematologic malignancies now and it’s way too early for an increase in solid cancers to manifest itself, antivaxxers needed a term that got around this little “problem” for them, and “turbo cancer” fit the bill. Apparently, to them, it’s way scarier to posit that the vaccines are such powerful carcinogens, that they “permanently alter your DNA” so horrifically, that they can produce cancers way more horrific—and much faster—than those produced by actual ionizing radiation from events such as the nuclear bombings in Japan at the end of World War II or the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the 1980s.
Harvey Risch, being an epidemiologist, should know these principles of cancer caused by exposure to environmental carcinogens, but apparently he either has forgotten—or, more likely, conveniently chosen to have forgotten—the basics of epidemiology with respect to his claims of “turbo cancer.”
Harvey Risch and “turbo cancer”
I was reminded that Risch has been making claims of “turbo cancer” when I came across a Substack post by antivax quack Dr. Peter McCullough titled “The Emperor of All Maladies” Accelerated, in which he begins with a bit of science-fiction in order to lay the groundwork to scare you:
In the 2007 film I Am Legend, an attempt to genetically re-engineer the measles virus to cure cancer becomes lethal and wipes out most of mankind. Those who do not die of the genetically re-engineered virus become mutant vampires. For the most part, the film is garbage entertainment, though I found it an interesting iteration of the main theme of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Three years later, Siddhartha Mukherjee published his magisterial book, The Emperor of All Maladies, about the history of cancer and mankind’s efforts to understand and treat it, going all the way to the ancient Egyptians. A major theme in the book is that the causes of cancer have always, to some degree, been a mystery. The “Emperor of All Maladies” seems to originate in the same mysterious substrate as life itself.
For over a century, modern science has labored to find ways to reduce the terrible disease burden of cancer, and much progress has been made. It would therefore be harder to image a more singularly idiotic action that to produce—and to insist that everyone receive—an experimental vaccine for a respiratory virus that may cause cancer. Surely this could never happen. Right?
Nice abuse of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s fantastic book about cancer there, Dr. McCullough. I will also admit that, although of the movie adaptations of Richard Matheson’s postapocalyptic novel I Am Legend I much prefer the 1971 film The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, this was a clever linkage of a virus meant to cure cancer in a science fiction film ending up turning people into nocturnal monsters that attack humans to the speculation that COVID-19 vaccines cause “turbo cancer.” Unsurprisingly, Dr. McCullough’s speculation is based on an interview that Harvey Risch did for—what else?—the conspiracy publication The Epoch Times titled Cancers Appearing in Ways Never Before Seen After COVID Vaccinations: Dr. Harvey Risch.
Let’s see what he’s claiming on this premier conspiracy theory and disinformation site:
There is evidence that cancers are occurring in excess after people receive COVID-19 vaccinations, according to Dr. Harvey Risch.
Dr. Risch is professor emeritus of epidemiology in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale School of Medicine. His research has focused extensively on the causes of cancer as well as prevention and early diagnosis.
Notice the appeal to authority right away. Not only is Prof. Risch an epidemiologist, but he’s a Yale epidemiologist. (Our poor fearless leader must be cringing as much as he did over David Katz and his appeal to a “more fluid concept of evidence.”) I also note that Prof. Risch is a professor emeritus, which means that he could well be either retired or semi-retired. It also means that he had a long, distinguished career at Yale because emeritus professors are generally freed from their mandatory teaching duties to do whatever. Some retire; some go into semi-retirement. Some keep plugging away. Whatever Prof. Risch still does for the Yale School of Public Health, a perusal at his social media feeds, in particular on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) and on Telegram will quickly reveal that he’s now all-in on COVID-19 conspiracy mongering. He’s even been interviewing Naomi Wolf about “turbo cancers” which is as good an indication that you are a conspiracy theorist as I can think of given Wolf’s apparent belief that COVID-19 vaccines can time travel to do their damage.
Great discussion on "turbo cancers" with Dr. Naomi Wolf: https://t.co/NXNezZF0Ui
— Harvey Risch (@DrHarveyRisch) September 26, 2023
Naomi Wolf also believes vaccines are Apple products that allow time travel and that vaccines can be transmitted through air. So it’s not hard to say she’s wrong. https://t.co/KICl5zEs4C pic.twitter.com/Q46MpI7MEi
— Ryan Marino, MD (@RyanMarino) October 5, 2023
Let’s just say that this is not a good look for any scientist who wants to be taken seriously. On the other hand, over three years ago Prof. Risch was claiming that hydroxychloroquine was a highly effective treatment for COVID-19 based on some truly awful studies, even going so far as to cite case series by COVID-19 crank and grifter Didier Raoult.
So what is he claiming about “turbo cancers” now? Back to The Epoch Times, which includes a video of an interview with him:
In an interview for EpochTV’s “American Thought Leaders,” Dr. Risch said patients must now wait months, not weeks, to get an appointment at an oncology clinic in New York.
I do not know if the experience in New York, even if accurately relayed by Prof. Risch, is representative of the rest of the country, and neither does Prof. Risch. Moreover, even if that is true, it could equally well be explained by a shortage of physicians and staff at cancer centers, something my own cancer center has experienced during the pandemic that actually was quite severe in 2021 and early 2022. (Thankfully, the situation has since improved enormously, although we are, like many hospitals, not back up to full staffing yet.) Naturally, Prof. Risch wants you to think that the reason for this wait (if there even is a wait) is that there are so many “turbo cancers,” although at least he admitted (sort of) that attributing these cancers to vaccines is difficult:
There is difficulty in observing whether a vaccine can cause cancer, because cancer usually takes time to develop, Dr. Risch said. It can take anywhere from two years to 30 years, depending on the different types of cancer, from leukemia to colon cancer.
“What clinicians have been seeing,” said Dr. Risch, “is very strange things: For example, 25-year-olds with colon cancer, who don’t have family histories of the disease—that’s basically impossible along the known paradigm for how colon cancer works—and other long-latency cancers that they’re seeing in very young people.”
He said this is not how cancer normally develops.
“There has to be some initiating stimulus to why this happens,” he said.
Because of course there does. Never mind that he doesn’t present any evidence that there is actually some sort of massive increase in cancers among young people. To be fair, there is indeed evidence that the incidence of pediatric brain cancer has been increasing, but the increase dates to long before the pandemic and has been relatively slow; moreover, there is no evidence of a large spike since COVID-19 vaccines were recommended for children. Similarly, there has been an increase in the incidence of cancer, particularly gastrointestinal cancer, among people under 50. However, the increasing trend dates back 30 years, and the most commonly cited recent paper to back up the claim of “turbo cancer” only covers the years 1990 to 2019, before the pandemic, a simple fact that antivaxxers posting this study on social media often fail to mention. Antivaxxers who do mention it often simply assume that COVID-19 vaccines will make the situation so much worse:
I would like to point out that every article about the increasing rates of cancer among young people refers to studies and data from up to 2019.
We haven’t even BEGUN to see Covid’s effects and that’s absolutely terrifying. https://t.co/y089Hc3Iwe
— Laura Miers (@LauraMiers) September 29, 2023
Longtime readers know that I rarely watch videos because I consider debunking videos to be a highly inefficient use of my time, but I made an exception for this one, which is under a half hour in length. I was amused to see that within the first minute, right after the introductions, Prof. Risch openly admitted, again, that he has no proof that COVID-19 vaccines are causing cancer:
The reality is that there’s indications that cancers are occurring in excess in people post-vaccination. Now, do we have proof of that? Not really, but there’s data and observations that are consistent with that.
It’s right after this that he asserted that he’s “heard” from various people—shades of Donald Trump!—that it takes a long time to get an oncology appointment in major metropolitan areas. (It doesn’t take months to get such an appointment in my major metropolitan area or at my cancer center. Just sayin’ that two can play the anecdote game.) From this claim, Prof. Risch inferred that the cause must be a lot more cancer out there, rather than more boring potential reasons, like the aforementioned shortages of staffing and oncologists. Other reasons often speculated about include a delay in cancer screenings from when clinics were shut down during the early months of the pandemic leading to delayed diagnoses showing up now. My point is that there are number of possible reasons to explain more difficulty getting oncology appointments now—again, assuming for the moment that Prof. Risch’s vague anecdote is accurate, which is a huge assumption—that do not involve “turbo cancer.”
Indeed, Prof. Risch’s “logic,” such as it is, entirely escapes me. Up front, he reiterated what I just said above, namely that it is the hematologic malignancies that appear first after an exposure to a strong carcinogen, with the solid malignancies coming much later, as many as 30 years later. Then he basically implicitly admitted that no such increase in hematologic malignancies is being observed. That didn’t stop him from pivoting to make the claim quoted in the article that I cited above about 25-year-olds without a family history or predisposing genetic mutation supposedly getting colon cancer and then declaring that to be “impossible” based on the “known paradigms” of cancer.
It’s clear to me from this claim alone that Prof. Risch is not a surgeon or an oncologist, because over my time training before I subspecialized in breast cancer, I recall a number of patients in their 20s with colorectal cancer and even a 19 year old with gastric cancer. Yes, it was very uncommon because these are malignancies associated with aging and I probably saw these patients because I trained at a tertiary care hospital, but it was not nonexistent, nor was it “impossible.” I suspect that Prof. Risch knows this, but also thinks that his audience will be impressed with this claim. Basically, he was either being dishonest or he’s ignorant, and, given that he is a professor emeritus of epidemiology who specialized in cancer epidemiology the latter possibility strikes me as much less likely than the former. However, I have to give him the benefit of the doubt and consider the possibility that he is ignorant and not dishonest.
Maybe it is ignorance, because in the interview Prof. Risch then claimed:
Dr. Risch said that in his opinion, cancer is something a healthy human body can fight and disable, as the non-normal cancerous cells are gobbled up when detected in a body with a functional immune system. If the immune system is compromised, however, it cannot cope with the task of neutralizing cancerous cells, and cancerous cells are left to multiply and grow, leading to symptoms of cancer.
“That’s the mechanism I think is most likely here,” Dr. Risch said. “We know that the COVID vaccines have done various degrees of damage to the immune system in a fraction of people who have taken them.”
That damage could translate to getting COVID more often, getting other infectious diseases, or getting cancer.
It is correct that surveillance by the immune system is a key mechanism by which the body prevents the growth of cancer. Basically, the immune system is very good at identifying abnormal cells that might be becoming cancerous and then eliminating them. However, obviously the system is far from foolproof given that cancer is the second leading cause of death after cardiovascular disease. Also, once again, even Prof. Risch concedes that if COVID-19 vaccines were causing “turbo cancer,” what we should see first (and would just be at the very beginning of seeing) is a wave of hematologic malignancies, the leukemias and lymphomas. Even he concedes implicitly that we are not seeing that. Think about it. If he could cite any evidence whatsoever that we were seeing something consistent with what we know about which cancers appear first in a population exposed to a strong carcinogen, he’d be trumpeting that evidence. He’s not. It’s a very nice bait-and-switch for the rubes.
Here’s another example where I was wondering if Prof. Risch was being ignorant or dishonest:
Another example Dr. Risch gave was breast cancer, which normally, if there is a remanifestation after surgical removal, the remanifestation occurs after two decades. However, vaccinated women are now seen to remanifest breast cancers in much shorter periods of time.
“Those are the initial signals that we’ve been seeing, and because these cancers have been occurring to people who were too young to get them, basically, compared to the normal way it works, they’ve been designated as turbo cancers,” Dr. Risch said.
In the interview on video, Prof. Risch did indeed say that typically breast cancers don’t recur for 20 years after an apparently successful treatment. He’s in my wheelhouse now, and my reaction to this statement was:
Seriously, while there is an element of truth to this claim, it leaves out so much. First of all, not all breast cancer is created equal. The sort of great cancer that Prof. Risch appears to be talking about are the ones most typical of older patients. They make estrogen receptor and/or progesterone receptor—referred to as ER(+) and PR(+)—but do not exhibit amplification of an oncogene called HER2, referred to as HER2(-). These ER(+)/PR(+)/HER2(-) breast cancers are the ones that tend to grow and progress more slowly and can recur decades after treatment, although typically most recur long before 20 years.
There are, however, varieties of breast cancer that grow much more rapidly, metastasize earlier, and, when they recur, tend to recur much more rapidly after treatment, almost always within the stereotypical five year window that we use for other forms of cancer as a marker of likely cure if you make it that long without a recurrence. One of these varieties is called “triple-negative,” which means that it makes neither ER, PR, nor HER2. Moreover, triple negative cancer is more common in premenopausal black women, meaning that more younger women tend to get it. The other variety of breast cancer is any cancer expressing HER2, which also tends to grow more rapidly, spread faster, and recur faster after surgical excision. (I also know that there will be the breast cancer experts out there who will take me to task for not using terms based on molecular profiling, such as luminal, basal-like, etc., but in reality clinicians still use the good, old-fashioned, and thus far reliable ER, PR, and HER2 to characterize breast cancer.)
I will also point out to Prof. Risch that I personally have seen one triple-negative cancer in a young patient that recurred within weeks after surgery, and I saw this more than a decade ago. It was a case that alarmed me and everyone associated with treating the patient. As for breast cancer in young patients, I personally have treated several women in their 20s with breast cancer, and my youngest breast cancer patient ever, whom I treated something like 20 years ago, was 19. A colleague of mine has even seen a girl of 14 who developed breast cancer. I’m not saying that it’s common—because it’s definitely not—but it did and does happen. Again, surely Prof. Risch knows these simple facts about breast cancer biology and epidemiology. If he doesn’t, he’s being ignorant. If he does, he’s intentionally providing only one slanted side of the story. Take your pick as you read what he said next about breast and colorectal cancer:
That [vaccinated women’s breast cancers recurring] could be in the realm of the possible, like the blood cancers, in the timeframe of two or three years after the vaccines. So those are the initial signals that we’ve been seeing, and because these cancers have been occurring in people who are too young to get them, basically, compared to the normal way it works, they’ve been designated as “turbo cancers.” Some of these cancers are so aggressive that, between the time that they’re first seen and when they come back for treatment after a few weeks, they’ve grown dramatically compared to what oncologists would have expected for the way cancer normally progresses, and so that’s part of the motivation for calling it “turbo cancer.”
I can’t help but react to Prof. Risch’s frequent invocation of the word “impossible” by thinking of The Princess Bride:
The meme is even more appropriate here than my usual use of it given the similarity of meaning of the word “impossible” to “inconceivable.” Indeed, I would posit that Prof. Risch really means “inconceivable” to him, as his entire argument is the logical fallacy known as an appeal to incredulity. Just because he can’t believe or accept that cancer sometimes behaves like “turbo cancer” (and always has), he has to invoke highly dubious anecdotal evidence and the concept of “turbo cancer” to explain something that he personally can’t believe. I actually laughed out loud when he went on to say that “we don’t know how big a problem it is,” that it’s “not universal,” but that he nonetheless thinks that it’s a real problem. Based on what evidence? I thought. Because I sure haven’t heard you cite any.
Indeed, the interviewer, Jan Jekielek even asked Prof. Risch if there’s any population-level data to support his assertions—an amazingly reasonable question for The Epoch Times!—to which Risch responded that the problem was connecting the vaccination to the cancer because vaccination status is often unknown, which is true, and it is difficult to link cancer to something that happened two or more years ago, which on an epidemiological level is less true. Mr. Jekielek also brought up the issue of what effect the months-long pause in mammography and other cancer screening tests might have had, which is, of course, an amazingly reasonable question. To this Prof. Risch had a pat response that we wouldn’t expect to see a surge in aggressive “turbo cancers” after patients started getting screened again after the “lockdowns” were lifted. Of course, that is based on the claim that we are even seeing a surge in “turbo cancers,” which is, as they say in the courtroom, assuming facts not in evidence.
The Gish gallop moves on from “turbo cancer”
Around this point, the interview started to move on from just “turbo cancer” into other antivax claims, and I noted the US-centric nature of the interview. Mr. Jekielek asked Prof. Risch about how we know the vaccination status of a given cancer patient for assessment of whether the vaccination might be related to cancer, leading him to go into a discussion of how it’s not so easy to determine if someone has been vaccinated against COVID-19 as the medical record will only record it if the vaccination occurred at the hospital or in a facility associated with the hospital system. This is, of course, true in the US, with its fragmented healthcare system, but there are a number of nations with universal health insurance that use a single electronic health record system for which all health data on all of its citizens can be accessed no matter where they received their care. So, while it is true that correlating vaccination status and when a person was vaccinated against COVID-19 would be very difficult in the US, there are a number of European countries where it would be much more feasible.
Finally, I started to tune out when Prof. Risch made this frankly nonsensical claim:
Dr. Risch also talked about the aspect of official medical agencies not recognizing someone as being vaccinated inside the first two weeks of vaccination. This happens, he said, because the medical agencies say that the effects of the vaccine need two weeks to start manifesting. Adverse effects occurring a few days after vaccinations were officially counted as health conditions manifesting in unvaccinated people, he said.
However, serious adverse events after receiving the vaccine have occurred within the first four days, Dr. Risch said. He said three-quarters of adverse effects are being recorded as happening to unvaccinated people.
The decision makers who were in charge during the pandemic “threw out the principles of public health six days into the pandemic and did the opposite of everything that we knew should be done for respiratory viruses,” he said.
I was seriously wondering exactly where Prof. Risch was getting this from. After all, if this were true, then how would we know that myocarditis after COVID-19 vaccination can occur within as little as a day of vaccination? I would also point out that reactions like fever, injection site reactions, and the like happen fast. Similarly, serious allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis, after vaccination occur very rapidly and are counted as adverse events. Maybe someone could help me out here, because I was seriously tempted to find another facepalm meme to use here. The closest thing that I can think of is that, yes, for purposes of efficacy in prevention disease subjects weren’t considered fully vaccinated until 3 weeks after their second dose of vaccine because it is true that it takes that much time for the vaccine to induce immunity. However, I am hard pressed to see where any study did this for adverse events. Prof. Risch is correct that adverse effects can happen very soon after vaccination, but he seems to be conflating immune status after vaccination (which does take a few weeks) with just vaccinated status. If you don’t believe me, look at the original randomized clinical trials for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and see for yourself.
As the interview went on, Prof. Risch cited very bad autopsy studies purporting to support the “died suddenly” conspiracy theory that blames COVID-19 vaccines for a wave of sudden deaths of young people—and even athletes—supposedly due to the vaccines. Basically, he is antivax to the core:
One example was the denial of effective early treatment and unnecessary vaccinations, which show a “colossal failure of public health through this period,” he said.
Dr. Risch said that a lot of people are now less likely to be “propagandized” regarding COVID, and that news reports about a new variant that is going to take over the world in the next month are “propaganda to sell the next batch of vaccines coming out in a few weeks.”
He even spun a conspiracy theory as to why epidemiological studies, such as case-control studies, looking at COVID-19 vaccines and cancer aren’t funded by doing what all “brave mavericks” do when it is pointed out that they have no systematic evidence from either randomized trials or well-designed epidemiological studies to cite. He basically ranted about how NIH study sections won’t fund “political” studies, studies that have no known biological mechanism behind them, and studies that go against current dogma.
There was one claim that Harvey Risch made that made me think that he had to know that what he was saying was deceptive. He pointed to the Pfizer trial and noted that all-cause mortality was the same in the vaccine group and the placebo group. Surely, as an epidemiologist knowledgeable about statistics and clinical trial design, Prof. Risch knows that the original RCTs for the vaccines were not designed with all-cause mortality as their primary endpoint. Symptomatic disease due to COVID-19 was the primary endpoint. The reason for that is simple. For a disease that only kills well under 1% of those whom it infects, to look for differences in all-cause mortality would have required many times the number of subjects that it takes to see significant differences in symptomatic disease. Prof. Risch surely knows this. That he chose to cite this old antivax chestnut and say that there was “no signal that the vaccines were reducing mortality” without explaining that all-cause mortality was not a primary endpoint, as well as that all-cause mortality is almost never an endpoint in a vaccine trial for exactly the same reason, that it is impractical to do the massive study required should tell you what you need to know about Prof. Risch. He’s just parroting antivax disinformation. Once again, he’s being either ignorant or dishonest, take your pick.
When Prof. Risch first started promoting hydroxychloroquine in 2020 on the basis of highly dubious studies and evidence, I wondered what had happened to lead a formerly respected epidemiologist to promote misinformation about COVID-19. This was before the vaccines were approved, and at the time the main contingent of COVID-19 minimizers were generally claiming that the disease was not dangerous and/or that they had highly effective “early treatment” protocols involving hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, zinc, and a witches’ brew of supplements and other repurposed drugs, prominent among them America’s Frontline Doctors. Unfortunately, Prof. Risch has become part of the same network of right wing doctors and scientists who started out promoting unproven and ineffective “early treatment” protocols early in the pandemic, before there was a vaccine for COVID-19, and have since gone all-in on antivax conspiracy mongering. Sadly, his full embrace of the concept of “turbo cancer” caused by COVID-19 vaccines is simply part of the same phenomenon.