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Thimerosal Monkey Study Fuels Media Smugfest Despite Unanswered Questions

macaque monkey

Newsweek magazine published a lengthy article on October 2, 2015 titled “Anti-Vaxxers Accidentally Fund a Study Showing No Link Between Autism and Vaccines,” written by Jessica Firger.1  It’s about a study funded by SafeMinds, a 501(c)3 non-profit “grassroots organization comprised of parents, self-advocates, scientists, clinicians, government relations specialists, communications professionals and non-profit experts.” Its focus is to help resolve the autism epidemic and working to “prevent new cases and improve the lives of those who have autism today.”2

The Newsweek story was subsequently picked up by numerous other publications and websites. There was Forbes with its “No More Monkeying Around About Vaccines And Autism.”3 Medical Daily with “Anti-Vaxxers Ironically Fund Study That Finds No Link Between Vaccines And Autism.”4 The Daily Good magazine with “Anti-Vaxxer Group Funds Study That Finds Vaccinations to Be Safe.”5 The Blemish with “Anti-Vaxx Group Funds Vaccine Study, but It Doesn’t Go as Planned.”6 Something called alphr with “Anti-vaxxers are WRONG, says anti-vaxxer-funded report.”7 The Examiner with “Anti-vaccine group funds study to prove autism link, it backfires terrifically.”8

Over the next few weeks, there will probably be more articles about the study in newspapers and magazines, with similar headlines, and they will likely all be spin-offs of the Newsweek piece. They will either quote directly from Firger’s story or paraphrase from it. The crux of the piece is that during 2003-2013, SafeMinds, along with another organization, provided about $250,000 to several research institutions, including the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, the University of Washington, and the Johnson Center for Child Health & Development to “conduct a long-term investigation evaluating behavioral and brain changes of baby rhesus macaques that were administered a standard course of childhood vaccines.”1

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researcher who conducted the study concluded that the administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology.9 In fact, that’s the title of their paper. According to Firger:

The full study involved 79 infant male macaques, aged 12 to 18 months, broken into six groups. Two groups received thimerosal-containing vaccines for a child’s complete vaccine schedule; two were given the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine without TCVs; and two received saline injections as a control group. In each case, the monkeys were further split into subgroups: Half were on an accelerated vaccination schedule recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the 1990s, and half were on the recommended schedule from 2008.1

Firger continues:

The researchers then put the monkeys together in cages to see if they exhibited any new autistic-like social behaviors, such as fear, withdrawal, rocking, self-clasping and stereotypy (repetitive behavior). They reported that the monkeys’ behaviors remained unchanged.1

Then, after the monkeys had been euthanized, the researchers analyzed the condition of their brains. According to Firger:

The team looked for brain abnormalities, including those in the volume and density of the cerebellum, amygdala and hippocampus regions, all of which have been shown to have some variations in children with autism. They also looked at the numbers and size of certain types of brain cells, known as Purkinje cells; some studies have shown there are fewer Purkinje cells in the brains of children with autism. The researchers say they didn’t find any marked differences in the brains of monkeys in the vaccine groups compared with those in the control group.1

Firger, who interviewed SafeMinds president Sallie Bernard and vice-president Lyn Redwood by phone, noted that they said the study’s findings “contradict both an earlier pilot study and interim progress reports the organization received from the researchers.”1

In her piece, Firger points out that Bernard and Redwood believe that the researcher “may have cherry-picked their data.”1 Firger writes:

SafeMinds Director Lyn Redwood, a registered nurse, says she received an email in 2013 from the researchers reporting a ‘statistically significant’ 11 percent reduction in certain types of hippocampal cells in the vaccine groups. But she says the authors did not include these findings in the new paper.1

It’s an interesting point, particularly given ongoing allegations by whistleblower Dr. William Thompson of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the CDC purposely destroyed data from an epidemiological study linking the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine with higher rates of autism in African American boys, thereby manipulating the results of the study to show no correlation.10

On October 5, Redwood published a response to the Newsweek article on the SafeMinds website. She noted that the study was actually the second phase of a broader study that began in 2003. She writes:

Earlier findings of phase one of this study, which SafeMinds has been funding since 2003, were published in 2010 in Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis and the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Researchers then reported that the infant primates exposed to the vaccines displayed a different pattern of maturational changes in the brain and also evidence of greater total brain volume compared to the control group. And in the second publication that a single dose of hepatitis B vaccine routinely administered to human infants at birth resulted in significant delays in the development of root, snout, and suck reflexes compared to unexposed animals.11

Redwood continues:

In 2008 SafeMinds was approached to help support a second phase of the ongoing study. The researchers felt so certain about the connection between vaccines and brain abnormalities at that time that they were also planning to include a Phase 3 of research, which was to test treatments to help the primates recover from neurological damage.11

Then a few years later in 2012 SafeMinds was approached again to provide funding for an additional arm of the study that would expose the primates to the 1990s vaccine schedule that was not accelerated to account for difference between human babies and monkey infants. At that time the researchers reported a significant decrease in Purkinje cell number and CA1 hippocampal cell size in monkeys given the 1990s vaccination schedule at an accelerated rate based upon much more rapid brain development of the monkeys vs. human. They said they wanted to be sure the findings that “parallel those observed in post‐mortem autism brains” were not due to the accelerated schedule of vaccine administration (and to satisfy any reviewer concerns at publication).11

Redwood notes that “the part of the study that SafeMinds specifically was asked to fund was never conducted. The scientists chose not to look at the brains of the primates from this arm of the study.”11 According to Redwood, the researchers have been reluctant to explain the reason for this, and she was informed that they are not allowed to talk about the study’s findings or the “discrepancies” in what was reported to SafeMinds and what was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The insinuation here is that not all of the brains of the monkeys were examined.

Expanding on this point, Marcella Piper-Terry, founder of VaxTruth, writes:

In the final analysis of the brains of the sacrificed monkeys, there are a lot of missing subjects. One of the analyses compares two groups of only five subjects. In other analyses, 50% of control subjects are missing and 33% of those in the 2008 schedule group are missing.12

Given the unanswered questions about the study and the degree of seriousness of the autism epidemic, you would think the headlines would be measured and cautious sounding—at least until the full story is carefully constructed. Unfortunately, this has not been the approach taken by the media, which has opted instead for the dismissive, the mocking, and the bombastic.

The CDC has estimated that 1 in 50 children between 6 and 17 years of age has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).13 There are projections that, by 2025, half of American children will have autism.14 We’re not talking about a few cases of Disneyland measles. This is a real national crisis, and editors and reporters throughout the country, guided by their boardroom higher-ups who dictate editorial content, still seem oblivious.


1 Firger J. Anti-Vaxxers Accidentally Fund a Study Showing No Link Between Autism and Vaccines. Newsweek Oct. 2, 2015
2 SafeMinds. About SafeMinds.
3 Willingham E. No More Monkeying Around About Vaccines And Autism. Forbes Oct. 3, 2015.
4 Bushak L. Anti-Vaxxers Ironically Fund Study That Finds No Link Between Vaccines And Autism Medical Daily Oct. 7, 2015.
5 Perry T. Anti-Vaxxer Group Funds Study That Finds Vaccinations to Be Safe The Daily Good Oct. 7, 2015.
6 Liddle C. Anti-Vaxx Group Funds Vaccine Study, but It Doesn’t Go as Planned The Blemish Oct. 7, 2015.
7 Martin A. Will Anti-vaxxers are WRONG, says anti-vaxxer-funded reportalphr Oct. 7. 2015.
8 Knudsen B. Anti-vaccine group funds study to prove autism link, it backfires terrifically. Oct. 7. 2015.
9 Gadada BS ,  Lia W,  Yazdania U, Gradya S, Johnsona T, Hammonda J, Gunna H, Curtisb B, Englishb C, Yutucb V, Ferrierb C, Sackettb GP, Martid N, Younge K, Hewitsona L and German DC. Administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(40); Oct. 6, 2015.
10 Congressman Wants CDC Investigated for Tampering With MMR Study. The Vaccine Reaction Aug. 1, 2015.
11 Redwood L. Why Aren’t I Surprised that the Media Got it Wrong AGAIN? Oct. 5, 2015.
12 Piper-Terry M. Newest Macaque Study on Vaccines and Autism is Bunk. VaxTruth Oct. 5, 2015.
13 National Vaccine Information Center. CDC Reports 1 in 50 American Children Diagnosed with Autism. Apr. 10, 2013.
14 Scutti S. Autism Rates To Increase By 2025? Glyphosate Herbicide May Be Responsible For Future Half Of Children With Autism. Medical Daily. Jan. 5, 2015.

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