Today, many of us fear the effects of the virus COVID-19, but in the middle of the 20th century, it was polio that was one of the most feared viral diseases.
As with COVID-19 today, frantic research took place to develop a vaccine against polio, with success arriving in 1955. The polio vaccine was considered one of the great triumphs of medicine.
But a problem emerged. Early versions of the vaccine were contaminated. They contained a virus that may be linked to numerous forms of cancer including several rare and deadly forms. Let’s take a closer look at the story and explore why millions of Americans may still be at risk today.
In just one single year—the year 1952— almost 60,000 children became infected with polio, thousands were paralyzed by it, and over 3,000 lost their lives.
The disease didn’t discriminate. Kids from wealthy and poor families alike were struck down.
So when Jonas Salk, from the University of Pittsburgh, developed the first successful vaccine, he was hailed as a hero. By 1979, the vaccine completely eliminated the disease in the U.S.
But there were risks.
The Cutter incident
The most serious complication was known as “The Cutter Incident”.
Although the Salk polio vaccine used inactivated (killed) viruses, the polio viruses in one batch prepared by the Cutter laboratory in California had not been adequately killed. This mistake resulted in 200 cases of paralysis and ten deaths.
Another risk was contamination.
Although scientists won the Nobel Prize for first growing poliovirus in a culture of human tissue, Dr. Salk used minced up monkey kidneys because they were more efficient for growing the poliovirus. The thinking at that time was that monkeys were so different from humans there was little risk of any problem. (Today, scientists know better.)
The kidneys from tens of thousands of rhesus macaque monkeys were used to grow the vaccine, with lab technicians relying on formaldehyde to kill off all the viruses – at least 26 different types – in the monkey kidneys.
One virus, later called simian-40 (SV40), based on a weakened (or attenuated) live virus, was not killed in either the Salk injectable vaccine or the oral polio vaccine– which was developed by Albert Sabin from the University of Cincinnati. This oral polio immunization came into use in 1961.
A National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study estimates that 98 million Americans were exposed to polio vaccines contaminated with SV40 between 1955 and 1963.
It’s also possible that hundreds of millions of eastern Europeans, Asians, and Africans were exposed to SV40 in Soviet-made polio vaccines, and that these vaccines could have remained contaminated until as late as the 1980s.
Sadly, Italy used contaminated polio vaccines until as late as 1999, and was the only country in the Western world to do so for so long.
The first anyone knew about a link between the polio vaccine and cancer was in 1959.
The SV40 cancer connection
Bernice Eddy, an NIH researcher, tested the rhesus monkey kidney substrate used to make polio vaccine. She injected 154 newborn hamsters with extracts of the cell cultures, and 109 developed tumors. However she was unable to isolate the suspected virus.
As reported in an editorial in the journal Lancet, “Eddy tried to get word out to colleagues but was muzzled…” When she presented her data at a cancer conference in New York, she was “stripped of her vaccine regulatory duties and her laboratory.” (Charming people, those mainstream scientists.)
However, two Merck researchers, Benjamin Sweet and Maurice Hilleman, repeated her work. They identified the rhesus virus carcinogen as SV40.
“It was the first case where we know of a monkey virus which produces a cancer in a rodent and that was a big surprise,” said Dr. Sweet, because it was a case of a virus crossing species.
“The question of whether it causes cancer in humans” the researchers wrote in their 1960 paper, “especially when administered to babies, must await the outcomes of experiments which may be decades in process.”
Since 1960, further animal experiments have shown that SV40 induces mesothelioma (a type of lung cancer linked to asbestos), lymphomas (blood cancers), brain and bone tumors, and sarcomas (connective tissue cancers), including osteosarcomas (bone cancers).
It was some years later that research linked SV40 to human cancers.
SV40 found in rare human tumors
In the early 1990s, pediatric oncologist John Bergsagal and his research team in Atlanta examined slides from children who had died of rare brain tumors. They discovered something which shocked them: traces of SV40.
“It was believed that SV40 only infected monkeys,” he explained, “and shouldn’t be found in humans in any circumstance, let alone associated with tumors.” When he found it he said, “I almost fell out of my chair. I was very surprised.”
Dr. Bergsagal and his colleagues went on to study tumors from 31 children diagnosed with two types of brain cancer, publishing their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1992.
Half the cases of one type of cancer and almost all of the second type “contained and expressed a segment of T-antigen gene related to SV40,” Dr. Bergsagal wrote. “These results suggest that SV40 or a closely related virus may have an etiologic role in the development of these neoplasms during childhood, as in animal models.”
Michele Carbone, an Italian scientist working at the NIH, was also studying how SV40 induces cancer. To do so Dr. Carbone tested human tumor biopsies and found traces of SV40 in a third of rare bone cancer samples.
In mesothelioma samples he discovered that 60 percent contained SV40 DNA. In most, the monkey virus was alive, active and producing proteins.
“We always thought that asbestos was the cause of mesothelioma and there was no reason to look for viruses. I was very surprised to find the DNA tumor virus.”
Evidence suggests SV40 may be a
“cofactor” in cancer, not a primary cause
In 2011, Dr. Carbone joined an expert review panel which concluded that it “appears unlikely that SV40 infection alone is sufficient to cause human malignancy, as we did not observe an epidemic of cancers following the administration of SV40-contaminated vaccines. However, it seems possible that SV40 may act as a cofactor in the pathogenesis of some tumors.”
Their review found that SV40 has been detected in human tumors in over 40 different laboratories worldwide. Researchers mainly found the virus in bone cancer and mesothelioma, but also discovered it in lymphomas, breast and colon cancers.
A research team from Baylor College, Houston, writing in the Lancet in 2002, concluded that “SV40 is significantly associated with some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma…These observations suggest that polyomavirus SV40 might be causing infections in human beings long after the use of the contaminated vaccines.”
An updated review was carried out by molecular virologists from Baylor in 2004. They wrote, “Persuasive evidence now indicates that SV40 is causing infections in humans today and represents an emerging pathogen.”
The Vaccine Safety Committee of the Institute of Medicine in their review concluded that “1. the evidence is strong that SV40 is a transforming virus; 2. the evidence is of moderate strength that SV40 exposure could lead to cancer in humans under natural conditions.”
The most recent review was conducted by European scientists and published in the journal Frontiers in Oncology in 2019.
In addition to the cancer types already mentioned, their review picked up findings of SV40-like sequences in human thyroid tumors, parotid (salivary) tumors, bladder cancer and in benign pituitary growths. SV40 DNA sequences were also detected in normal tissues and blood.
Reviewing all the data, they wrote that science “cumulatively demonstrates that SV40 is circulating in the human population.”
While all of the above probably sounds conclusive to the layperson, it’s actually not. With hundreds of millions of people having been injected with the SV40 virus, it was bound to turn up in all kinds of places, including cancer patients. At the same time, not all cancer patients have SV40. For example, in one of the studies mentioned, 60% of mesothelioma patients also had SV40, but from the data it sounds like more than half of all Americans alive during 1955-63 were injected with SV40, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that more than half of cancer patients – or half of any group of people – showed evidence of SV40 a few decades further on.
The studies have found SV40 existing side-by-side with cancer cells, but this is not quite a enough to show one caused the other, because SV40 is nearly ubiquitous among people of a certain age.
But the whole story does show how careless and irresponsible the medical establishment can be. 60,000 children killed or disabled by polio may have made it worth rushing through a vaccine with some risks – that’s a discussion. But the fact is, we never had that discussion.
Safety concerns ignored
An editorial in the Lancet in 2004 pointed out that there were safety concerns about wild simian viruses at the time of the polio vaccine’s creation which led to “…grudging approval by sceptical government regulators,” after which “free Salk shots were made available throughout the USA.”
The editorial stated that “By 1960, scientists and vaccine manufacturers knew that monkey kidneys were sewers of simian viruses.”
In fact, Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center, confirmed this saying, “Sadly, the American people were not told the truth about this in 1960. The SV40 contaminated stocks of Salk polio vaccine were never withdrawn from the market but continued to be given to American children until early 1963 with full knowledge of federal health agencies.”
The same thing was happening in other countries as well, and not just with the Salk polio vaccine, but with the Sabin oral vaccine, too.
For example, J.K. Ferguson, medical director of Connaught in Canada, a lab that made the oral vaccine back in 1960, “saw no reason why the present supplies should not be used” even though SV40 was assumed to be inside the vaccine.
Around the same time, Canada’s Health Council wrote, “…it will be necessary for the vaccine to be tested for safety…by the feeding of humans.”
So, in early 1961, 25,000 Canadians, including infants and pregnant women, were given the new oral vaccine to make sure it prevented polio and that it was safe. None of the recipients were informed that they were part of an experiment and that the vaccine might be contaminated.
Lessons for today and the new COVID-19 vaccines
Today, steps are taken to ensure vaccines don’t contain known viruses, but vaccines can’t be screened for viruses and other infections that we don’t yet know about.
Just as in the 1950s, huge pressures were put on scientists to come up with a vaccine for COVID-19.
The mRNA technology used for the coronavirus vaccine, while it has been used for other medical applications, has never been used in vaccines before, and the vaccine has been brought into use in record time.
Is this experimental new type of vaccine safe, or are concerns being put aside as they were when the polio vaccine was approved?
Richard Halvorsen is the medical director of a unique dedicated children’s immunization service in London. Although clearly pro-vaccine, he is deeply disturbed by the vested interests in the vaccine industry.
In his book, The Truth About Vaccines – How We Are Used as Guinea Pigs Without Knowing It, he writes, “The perception of the idea of immunization as the blockbuster protective choice is a deception. It creates expectations that cannot be met by vaccines or health officials.
“Whenever this gap in effectiveness is found out, a cover up is likely to follow, with the government showing extreme economy with the truth.” (A polite way of saying they lie or withhold essential information.)
He goes on to write that to justify mass immunization of the whole population, the illness must be serious, be widespread, and the vaccine must be shown to work and be safe.
“All this should be uncontroversial, but that appears not to be the case. Many of those promoting vaccines have a rigid belief system that will allow no criticism.
“Those within the government or the medical profession who have dared to express concerns in public are pressured not to talk,” and if they do they are told “their jobs or pensions would be at risk.”
- https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-67360416746-9/fulltext# Monkeys, viruses and vaccines
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZ4syUfvf9A SV40 1997 Part 1
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAjAODo0qeU SV40 1997 Part 2
- https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199204093261504 DNA Sequences Similar to Those of Simian Virus 40 in Ependymomas and Choroid Plexus Tumors of Childhood
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8760294/ SV40-like sequences in human bone tumors
- https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(02)07950-3/fulltext Association between simian virus 40 and non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15258090/ Emergent human pathogen simian virus 40 and its role in cancer
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6669359/ Association Between Simian Virus 40 and Human Tumors
- The Truth About Vaccines by Richard Halvorsen, Gibson Square 2007