In stoking fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines, antivaxxers frequently try to induce disgust and revulsion. There have been many examples of this technique over the years, such as trying to portray vaccines as laden with horrific toxins (such as formaldehyde and mercury), ranting about the use of “monkey cells” or cells from other animals to make them, and claiming that they contain “fetal tissue” (or cells or DNA), with Mike Adams, for instance, going so far as to portray vaccines as child sacrifice in which doctors are “injecting the child with foreign DNA extracted from other children sacrificed at abortion centers”. (I can always count on Adams to provide me with examples of the most over-the-top version of any antivax tropes that I wish to discuss.) Over the years, I’ve seen antivaxxers demonize mercury, aluminum adjuvants, all manner of vaccine ingredients (as long as they can be made to sound scary to people without much knowledge of chemistry), technologies used to make the vaccines, and basically anything about vaccines that can make vaccines seem “dirty,” “contaminated,” and dangerous. The latest example bubbled up over the last couple of weeks over the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine, which was granted emergency use approval (EUA) earlier this month, which was soon portrayed in a similar light, with special attention being paid to the moth cells used to produce the protein antigen for the vaccine and, to a lesser extent, the choice of adjuvant for the vaccine.
Antivaxxers versus mRNA- and adenovirus based COVID-19 vaccines
Before discussing the misinformation about Novavax, I will briefly—for me!—recount how the latest version of antivax rhetoric portraying vaccines as toxin-laden and horrific had already been successfully employed against existing COVID-19 vaccines. In this case, the key tool that antivaxxers have used to spread FUD about COVID-19 vaccines has been the newness of the technologies used to develop them. Although introducing mRNA into muscle cells in order to provide them with the template to make a specific protein—in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which stimulates an immune response that also targets the virus—is an old technology, dating back more than three decades, the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based vaccines represent the first successful use of mRNA encased in lipid nanoparticles as a vaccine administered to hundreds of millions of people. This has led to the repurposing of old antivax fear mongering about how vaccines “alter your DNA” or are “transhumanism” to result in antivax claims about COVID-19 vaccines that they “permanently alter your DNA“—contaminating it with that deadly spike protein!—and, like attenuated live virus vaccines, lead to “shedding“. The same fears were expressed about the adenovirus-based COVID-19 vaccines, like Johnson & Johnson‘s. None of this is true and, as is almost always the case, the claims were based on distortions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of research and biology. However, such misinformation can seem believable to those without the background in molecular biology to recognize it as the BS that it is, which brings me to the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine.
The FDA grants an EUA for Novavax, and antivaxxers react
The Novavax COVID-19 vaccine was granted emergency use approval (EUA) a couple of weeks ago. This particular vaccine has long been viewed with hope because, instead of being an mRNA-based vaccine (like Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) or a viral vector-based vaccine (like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), Novavax is a subunit protein vaccine. For instance, this article about the EUA in Politico noted:
The vaccine, a two-dose series administered three weeks apart, is manufactured using a lab-made spike protein produced in insect cells and an adjuvant obtained from the bark of a tree native to Chile, offering a different and older vaccine technology than is used in the messenger RNA vaccines and Johnson & Johnson shot. It is authorized for people ages 18 and older as a primary series, meaning the shot is intended for the roughly 10 percent of adults who have not yet received a Covid-19 vaccine.
Novavax executives have said they hope the shot will see uptake in individuals who have expressed hesitancy toward other Covid-19 vaccines or are allergic to components of the others’ ingredients.
“Today’s authorization offers adults in the United States who have not yet received a Covid-19 vaccine another option that meets the FDA’s rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality needed to support emergency use authorization,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement.
While I welcome new vaccines against COVID-19 (and Novavax appears to be a decent one), I’ve long been very skeptical of the Pollyannish hope expressed by public health officials and Novavax executives that this vaccine will somehow so reassure the vaccine-hesitant that they’ll finally—finally!—after more than a year and a half get vaccinated against COVID-19 because an “old school” vaccine that’s just protein and an adjuvant has been made available. Unfortunately, the history of the antivaccine movement and antivax fear mongering should have made it obvious that this would not happen. I expect that there might be some people for whom Novavax could possibly be the final development that reassures them enough to be vaccinated, but, as anyone who’s dealt with the antivaccine movement knows, it’s probably going to be a small number, nowhere near enough to have the seemingly “game changing” effect that I’ve seen predicted on occasion, for example:
I think everyone that’s already been vaccinated has been waiting for this option so we can all laugh at those that finding new excuses not to vaccinate
— disappointed by uk child vaccine policies (@simon_gordon_) July 14, 2022
I’m not going to be as sarcastic as the person who responded to Dr. Griffin, but he’s correct. Only those utterly unaware of the history of the antivaccine movement could think that the introduction of Novavax will have an effect on vaccine hesitancy other than at the margins.
Those who follow my not-so-super-secret other blog will realize that I’ve already written about Novavax and the fear mongering that’s started about it. (Actually, the fear mongering started in 2020, when the project was first announced.) Although there will be overlap between this post and what I wrote last week, over the weekend I had an idea for a take that I wish I had included; so I’m going to discuss that take here. Also, I found out more about a certain purveyor of antivax misinformation and wanted to include that as well. So there’s overlap, but there’s also a lot more.
First, though, let’s recount what happened soon after the news that Novavax had been granted an EUA broke. Company executives and some public health officials had expressed hope that this recombinant protein-based vaccine will be more palatable to the vaccine-hesitant than existing vaccines using new (and therefore scarier) mRNA and adenovirus platforms, but the reaction to two aspects of the vaccine demonstrated that, for antivaxxers, it’s the vaccine, not any platform or ingredient, that’s scary, and unfortunately they have become very skilled at transmitting that fear to the vaccine-hesitant. This is a long-standing technique that needs to be addressed.
How Novavax is using baculovirus and moth cells
Before I discuss the antivaccine misinformation being used to stoke FUD about Novavax, I’ll start by describing the technology that is actually used to make the Novavax vaccine. Oddly enough, I found a good source for this on an antivax website, specifically the official website of Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center, where they posted a link to an old Washington Post video about Novavax under the title “How the Novavax Coronavirus Vaccine Uses Moth Cells“. I’ll include the video and a link to the original WaPo article for your information:
The video notes that the use of moth cells is nothing more than another technique to produce large quantities of recombinant protein to be used as the antigen in a vaccine, further pointing out that recombinant proteins produced by various techniques (like the use of baculovirus in moth cells) have long been used as antigens in vaccines against diseases like influenza, human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, and hepatitis B. Referring back to the Pollyannish optimism about such “old school” vaccines, I can’t help but mention that, of course, we’ve long known that antivaxxers never, ever, ever portray vaccines like these using recombinant proteins as their antigens as toxic ineffective sludge, right? I think you know the answer to that question if you’ve been reading this blog.
Of course, the baculovirus/insect cell expression system is nothing new. Baculovirus is a viral vector (like adenovirus, lentivirus, and a lot of other viruses commonly used in molecular biology) that’s long been recognized as a versatile system for expressing recombinant proteins in the lab. It’s mainly used to infect insect cells and, like other viral vectors, induce them to produce whatever protein is encoded by the DNA sequence inserted into them. Baculovirus-insect cell systems as a means of generating recombinant protein used to be fairly tedious in that it was difficult to engineer the virus and to isolate the proteins produced from the cells, but a lot of advancements in biochemistry and technology have made it much more feasible to use this system to generate the large amounts of high-quality recombinant protein needed to manufacture a vaccine like Novavax. Baculovirus systems are also in wide use in research for purposes like cell-based assays, gene function studies, and, of course, production of recombinant proteins. As an aside, one other advantage of baculovirus and insect cells is that they allow for the generation of recombinant protein at a much lower temperature. Mammalian cells are generally grown at 37°C; insect cells are often grown at 27°C. One way to look at the baculovirus-“moth cell” system is that it’s just another method for using viruses to produce recombinant proteins in eukaryotic cells.
In brief, this is how Novavax scientists make their vaccine:
- Scientists selected the desired genes that code for the desired antigen, in this case as for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
- They then put the genes into a baculovirus, an insect virus.
- The baculovirus infects moth cells and replicates inside them.
- These moth cells manufacture lots of spike protein.
- The spike protein is then extracted and purified for use in the Novavax vaccine.
Again, one notes that baculovirus/insect cell expression systems have long been used to produce the protein antigen used in influenza vaccines. Indeed, a review article from 2006 shows the various methods by which baculovirus systems can be used to produce vaccines:
As you can see, the baculovirus expression system is indeed versatile, which is why baculovirus expression systems have been used to make vaccines for nearly two decades. Like all such systems, it has its advantages and disadvantages, one disadvantage being that it doesn’t always attach the right sugars to glycoproteins because insects don’t always attach the same sugars to their glycoproteins as mammals, but in many cases it can be an excellent choice to use to express recombinant protein. In the case being discussed, Novavax scientists inserted the genetic sequence encoding the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein into a baculovirus vector and then used this vector to infect ovary cells from the fall armyworm moth to produce large quantities of antigen for their vaccine. The scientific name for the species is Spodoptera frugiperda, which is why the cell line used with this particular baculovirus system is called Sf9. This cell line is a derivative of a cell line that has been around since the 1970s.
Novavax: Moth cells and DNA!
I’ll begin with the misinformation about Novavax based on the portrayal of the baculovirus/Sf9 expression system as “moth cells” that contaminate the vaccine with “moth DNA”. After the announcement of the EUA for Novavax, in a counterpoint to Dr. Griffin’s optimism it didn’t take long for me to start encountering Tweets like these:
so novavax uses GE moth cells which produce antibodies and will be better tolerated, but what are they fed? mRNA so not making real viral antibodies (no-one has been able to do that) you also get genetically engineered cell products but no passive immunity
— jay tay science (@JTayScience) July 16, 2022
This one was actually not quite so bad, simply claiming that Novavax is “genetically engineered” (and therefore presumably “unnatural”) and falsely stating that it won’t result in the production of “real viral antibodies” (whatever he means by that).
Others were a bit more…”critical”:
I’ll discuss the moth DNA angle in more detail shortly and conclude by comparing it to an example that more than a decade ago I used to write about quite a bit. In the meantime, let’s move on to this one:
— TheSportsNut!🏈🏀🇺🇸 (@nutsports62) July 13, 2022
Let’s just say that that video is…quite something. For one thing, if the blurb for the video is any indication, Dr. Jane Ruby appears not to know the difference between DNA and mRNA. Also, WTF? Ruby refers to Novavax as a “deadly moth DNA spike protein”? What did she do? Throw a bunch of random antivax words into a blender? In any case, Dr. Ruby has not been featured on SBM before, although she was once mentioned as being part of a lineup of speakers targeting the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn with COVID-19 misinformation. Elsewhere, I note that she is one of the prime sources of the myth that COVID-19 vaccines cause “self-assembling” clots with “nanowires” that kill; she also promotes the false claim that COVID-19 vaccines are laden with graphene oxide.
Who is Dr. Ruby, though? Here’s what she claims on her website:
Dr. Jane Ruby is a medical professional and a pharmaceutical drug development expert with over 20 years of experience in regulatory processes for drug approval with the FDA and the EMA. She is also a published international health economist who has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows across America. Dr. Ruby worked on the human research studies to launch some of the most famous compounds in the world in Depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Addiction, and Cardio-pulmonary diseases.
If all that’s true (doubtful), where did Dr. Ruby go so wrong that she would spew such idiocy as in the video? It’s a hopeless question, I guess, given the long and depressing litany of health care professionals with advanced degrees who have become COVID-19 misinformation grifters since the pandemic started, a litany that includes, among many others, Peter McCullough, Robert Malone, Simone Gold, Stella Immanuel, the entire cast of the quack group America’s Frontline Doctors, and more doctors than I care to list here. However, as we will see later, Dr. Ruby is not actually a physician at all.
I must confess that I really struggled to get through the whole 18 minutes of Dr. Ruby’s video, because there was so much repetitive antivax nonsense in it that it actually made my brain, which has nearly 25 years of experience dealing with nonsense like this, hurt. Early in the video, Dr. Ruby mentions that she’s gotten lots of emails and questions about Novavax from people who refuse to take mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines who ask her if they should take Novavax instead, given that it’s not an mRNA vaccine, but rather a potentially more “acceptable” recombinant protein-based vaccine. On the surface, this would seem to support the idea that Novavax might entice those afraid of new mRNA technology in vaccines to accept an “old school” vaccine. It doesn’t. Predictably, Dr. Ruby’s answer is not only just a “No,” but an “Oh, hell no!” After that, she starts listing every antivax trope you can imagine about the vaccine, starting out by claiming that Novavax is no more a “vaccine” than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which, as you’ll recall, were falsely characterized as “gene therapy” and not vaccines.
After I finished facepalming over Dr. Ruby’s claim that Novavax uses the same mRNA technology as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, I was curious how someone claiming to knowledgeable about COVID-19 could say something so utterly at odds with molecular biology. So I kept watching. To explain what she means, Dr. Ruby references this illustration. I took a screenshot:
I just kept facepalming. Dr. Ruby went on and on and on about how supposedly Novavax is using “synthetic” codes for proteins “never before seen in nature”—she even uses the term “in silico”—to “stimulate moths” to make billions of copies of the “toxic spike protein” that they then extract noting that your body isn’t making the evil toxic spike protein (as is the case in mRNA vaccines) but that the moth cells are. This explanation, while technically correct (barely) deceptively conflates the use of a baculovirus containing the specific cDNA code to serve as the template for moth cells to make spike protein, which is later extracted, isolated, and used to make a more traditional protein-based vaccine, and the mRNA technology that induces the cells of the recipient of the vaccine to produce spike protein. Yes, mRNA serves as the final template for protein manufacture in both systems, but it’s not as though the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines involve harvesting cells from your deltoid muscle and isolating the spike protein being made by them due to the mRNA vaccine. This explanation is so deeply stupid that there are only two possible explanations. Either Dr. Ruby is deeply ignorant of some very basic molecular biology that was basic three decades ago when I first studied biochemistry and molecular biology, or she’s lying, knowing that her audience is deeply ignorant of very basic molecular biology. Take your pick. (I suspect the latter, but will concede that the former is quite possible.)
Dr. Ruby also describes how the spike protein is isolated with “moth DNA” that’s included in the nanoparticles, so that you still have a problem with a “genetic code that is going to embed in your cells and God knows what it’s going to create from the moths” and then you have “directly injected billions of these toxic spike proteins”, which will supposedly wreak havoc in your body, including causing infertility.
Dr. Ruby goes beyond that, though. In her world, apparently, those rendered infertile by Novavax will be the lucky ones. Why? Well, let her explain, as I suggest that I deserve hazard pay for taking the time to transcribe this passage:
If you are lucky enough to conceive—and this goes for all of these shots—the next generation through recombination of mom and dad’s genetic material can have offspring that will suffer and be damaged and freak—freak manifestations. We don’t even know what those are going to look like yet. So stop looking at Novavax as a possible safer alternative. To what? To tyranny? To a sick, psychopathic cabal that wants to damage God-given DNA forever and say, “Wooo, we’re better than God”?
She expands on this theme in other videos, such as “Ask Dr. Jane: If The Jab Changes Your DNA, Will It Show In Your Offspring“, but I will spare you the pain. (I couldn’t get through the video, even though it’s only 12 minutes long, because it was so bad that it made my brain hurt.)
This is very much like the idea of “purebloods” that antivaxxers co-opted from the Harry Potter novels, the idea being that, like the magical purebloods in the story, who are untainted by “muggle” (nonmagical) blood, those who are unvaccinated have “pure blood”. As I’ve long pointed out, a huge part of alternative medicine relies on the concept that “contamination” (these days more frequently referred to as “toxins”) cause most, if not all, disease, and various “detoxification” regimens that make up so much of alternative medicine (and, not coincidentally, the basis of many treatments for many conditions—like autism—that antivaxxers used to attribute to vaccines) have more in common with religious purification rituals than they do with science or medicine. The concept is so pervasive in antivax circles that sometimes antivaxxers would rather risk death than “contamination”. For example, Del Bigtree came dangerously close to death from bleeding hemorrhoids because he refused a transfusion with “vaccinated blood”. (I kid you not. Read the details if you don’t believe me.)
This concept of “purity” versus “contamination” (implied to be with evil) also has a lot to do with the idea that “natural immunity” to a disease and has so infected the discourse over COVID-19 vaccines that one of my go-to video clips when discussing this topic is of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper from one of my favorite movies of all time, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb explaining how fluoridation is a Communist plot to “sap and impurify” the “precious bodily fluids” of real Americans, mainly because anti-fluoridation, antivaccine, and anti-GMO pseudoscience all tap into the alternative medicine fear of “contamination” as a cause of ill health and “purity of essence” (again, from Dr. Strangelove) as key to good health. In this case, Dr. Ruby is portraying the vaccines as tampering with God-given purity and setting humans up as “better than God”.
In a truly facepalm-worth bit, Dr. Ruby then goes on to claim that Novavax “uses the mRNA technology” and that “it doesn’t make it safer and it doesn’t make it better” than mRNA vaccines, while repeating yet again that Novavax is “not a vaccine.” Rather, to Dr. Ruby, Novavax is a “toxic poison designed to change your DNA forever”, which, she notes, is the “long game” and the “endgame.” She then disingenuously claims that she’s not trying to “scare you”, just to scare you out of taking any more shots.
Then she moves on to the adjuvant, because of course she does.
“Deadly tree bark toxins”
Consistent with old antivax narratives, Dr. Ruby also complains about the use of “lipid nanoparticles” in the vaccine, just like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do! Specifically, she refers to the use of “tree bark toxins” as an adjuvant, as it turns out that, instead of using the aluminum-containing adjuvants that many older vaccines do, the Novavax vaccine uses a lipid adjuvant. This is a theme that has arisen about Novavax in antivaxland. Here’s an example from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense claiming that the “nanoparticle adjuvant” (which Novavax calls “Matrix-M”) is horrifically harmful:
Nevertheless, in pre-COVID-19 studies of experimental vaccines containing Novavax’s Matrix-M, researchers waxed enthusiastic about the nanoparticle-based adjuvant’s “significant” and “potent” action — including its strong “immunostimulatory properties” even without any accompanying antigen.
And, where nanoparticles are concerned, the Novavax COVID-19 shot actually delivers a double whammy, combining Matrix-M with genetically engineered spike protein nanoparticles.
As Novavax explains it (for some reason putting the word “adjuvant” in quotes), “The spike protein is the ‘signal,’ but … we want your immune system to hear that signal loud and clear [and] that signal boost comes from our Matrix-M ‘adjuvant.'”
Matrix-M has been around a long time; for instance, here’s a study from a decade ago showing its immunostimulatory properties. Adjuvants, of course, have long been used to increase the immune reaction triggered by an antigen in a vaccine, thus allowing the use of much less protein; the most commonly used adjuvant is, as most of you know, aluminum. (And we all now that antivaxxers trust aluminum adjuvants, right? Just kidding! They hate aluminum adjuvants as much as they hate mRNA in vaccines!)
Where, however, did the bit about “tree bark” come from? It turns out that Matrix-M is a natural product, specifically a saponin derived from the soapbark tree (Quillaja saponaria), so-named because its bark contains saponins, which can be made into soap.
As noted in this study:
Saponins, particularly those obtained from Quillaja saponaria Molina, are known potent adjuvants and Quillaja saponins (QS) have for long been used in animal vaccines. Saponin-based adjuvants can be formulated in different ways; in free form , with aluminium hydroxide , in ISCOMs (immunostimulating complex)  or in ISCOM-Matrix/Matrix structures . QS constitute a heterogeneous mixture of related but different chemical structures with various immunostimulatory activities, safety profiles and particle forming properties. By purification of the QS raw material, distinctive fractions with different characteristics can be defined.
The ISCOM, a potent adjuvant formulation first described in 1984 by Morein and co-workers , consist of stable complexes composed of saponin, cholesterol, phospholipid and incorporated antigen(s). The hallmarks of the ISCOM technology are the dose-sparing potential , induction of high and long-lasting antibody titers and potent T cell responses . However, later it was shown that antigen incorporation is not critical for these immune properties. Antigen and empty ISCOMs i.e. ISCOM-Matrix/Matrix could simply be mixed with sustained vaccine efficacy . In this study we use a novel adjuvant formulation based on two different Matrix particles made from two separate purified fractions of saponins, yielding Matrix-A™ and Matrix-C™ . These Matrix particles, approximately 40 nm large, are subsequently mixed at defined ratios to get the Matrix-M™ adjuvant.
And there you have it! The dreaded nanoparticles! Recall how antivaxxers fear mongered about the lipid nanoparticles used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to encapsulate the mRNAs used and assist their entry into cells. Again, fear mongering about lipid nanoparticles is nothing more than the “toxins” gambit reborn and retooled for COVID-19 vaccines, sometimes with some truly off-the-wall versions. Given that Matrix-M is a form of lipid nanoparticle as well, the antivax attacks on the Novavax COVID-19 are very predictable. You’d think that antivaxxers, being all about “natural immunity” and “natural medicine”, would be more accepting of an adjuvant that is a natural product, the story of whose repurposing and sustainable production is actually quite fascinating.
Dr. Ruby spends several minutes basically saying the same sorts of things that RFK Jr.’s minions said, while bragging that “no one else” is warning about Matrix-M, even though RFK Jr. is spreading the same misinformation about it. In any case, the claim that vaccines cause autoimmune disorders, by whatever proposed mechanism (whether sort of plausible or completely fantastical), is an old antivax trope. In this case, RFK Jr. references antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), an autoimmune disorder characterized by recurring blood clots as well as fetal loss, fetal growth retardation and other obstetric complications. I might have to address this “hypothesis” (if you can call it that) in more detail in the future, as the same claims pop up over the lipid nanoparticles used in mRNA-based vaccines. Until then, I’ll just refer you to Yehuda Shoenfeld and ASIA as examples of how the false claim that vaccines have caused a massive increase in incidence of autoimmune disease started and persists.
And, of course, to Dr. Ruby and other antivaxxers like RFK Jr., because Novavax uses lipid nanoparticles, even though they are quite different from the lipid nanoparticles used by Pfizer and Moderna to encapsulate their vaccines, the Novavax vaccine must also cause infertility and all the other bad things that antivaxxers have been falsely blaming on lipid nanoparticles since the mRNA-based vaccines were first approved for use.
After suffering through her video, I started wondering: Who the heck is Dr. Ruby? The last time I wrote about this over at my not-so-super-secret other blog I didn’t really look too hard into this. I assumed that she was just some physician who used to work for pharmaceutical companies who somehow got into COVID-19 disinformation grift. While I was correct that Dr. Ruby is into disinformation grift, I was wrong to assume that she is a physician. I rather suspect that’s the whole point behind her shtick, as you will see.
Who is “Dr. Ruby”?
A search of PubMed for Dr. Ruby does show that at one point she worked for Medical Affairs at Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Malvern, PA. She does appear to have 23 publications dating back to the 1990s, although most of them appear to be about outcomes of opioid treatment or concerning healthcare costs, not, as she claims, clinical trials of groundbreaking drugs. (If she did indeed do such work, it isn’t reflected in her PubMed record.) She also appears to have worked at various times for other pharmaceutical companies (SK Life Science, Pear Pharmaceuticals, Indivior, and Forest Laboratories, which is now Allergan) in HEOR (health economics and outcomes research). Before that she was a nurse and nurse practitioner/advanced practice nurse, not a physician, having gotten a masters in nursing at the University of Rochester. Now don’t get me wrong. I love NPs. I’ve defended them on many occasions against outlandish attacks by my fellow physicians. However, “Dr. Ruby” does not appear to have a doctorate even in nursing. What she does have are a PhD in psychology from Kennedy Western University in Psychology and a Doctor of Education (EdD) from the University of Rochester, as well as masters degrees in nursing and International Health Economics. One can’t help but conclude that Dr. Ruby is definitely trying to give the impression that she is a physician, complete with her frequently appearing with a stethoscope and lab coat. I’d be willing to bet that her audience thinks she’s a physician. She isn’t, and if her CV is any indication she hasn’t even practiced nursing for over 20 years.
These days, Dr. Ruby lists as her position President at Ruby Health Consulting – HEOR (again!), and, of course, she has her own show hosted on the Stew Peters Network, for which she made the video above. Just a perusal of this show, which is on Rumble, of course, shows that it’s a full-on right wing conspiracy and medical misinformation show. Don’t believe me? Just peruse the list of videos for yourself. Also, note how her sponsors include lots of companies marketing quackery and supplements, including her own “superfoods” line of products.
Again, one of the hallmarks of science denial is fake experts, often with credential inflation, and that’s what we have here. Not only does it appear that it’s been over two decades since Ruby has practiced nursing, advanced practice or otherwise, but there’s nothing that I’ve been able to find about Ruby’s history to suggest that she has any special expertise in the relevant fields of infectious disease, virology, molecular biology, epidemiology, immunology, or, well, any field relevant to commenting authoritatively on the safety and efficacy of vaccines other than—maybe, judging from her publication record—a bit of epidemiology in unrelated fields.
Her “credentials,” such as they are, do appear to be unfortunately more than adequate to provide a veneer of scientific expertise good enough to fool her audience.
It’s always the vaccines. Always.
None of the reaction to Novavax is a surprise to any of us who’ve been combatting antivaccine misinformation for a long time. It was entirely predictable that antivaxxers would latch onto the use of a moth cell line to portray the vaccine as “dirty”, foreign, and “contaminated”. As I like to point out, the idea that the animal used in the process of making vaccines dates back all the way to Edward Jenner’s time, as shown in this classic cartoon from the early 1800s portraying the fear of antivaxxers that the “cow pock” used to vaccinate against smallpox would turn people into cows:
Going back to the NVIC article citing the WaPo article with the video describing the use of moth cells to make spike protein. In the comments, a commenter named Pam observed:
I am not an entomologist but I do garden a lot and see many moths. Since the video only talked about proteins and mRNA, I wanted to know more about what moths can do to a human in general. Moths are of the paraphyletic group meaning many have a common ancestor. Does that suggest what affects one species genetically may affect other species? Not sure. Did they say what species of moth they used in the Novavax? I did some online research and found some moth caterpillar species cause lepidopterism (caterpillar dermatitis) if touched. Lymantria dispar, the spongy moth (has black and red spots in caterpillar stage) carries the NPV (spongy moth virus). Could this NPV make its way into moth vaccines? Would make a great sci-fi novel plot–every vaccinated person grows antennae and makes coccoons [sic]. The comment about “Mothman cometh” brought all sorts of sci-fi musings to mind. Have not gotten a vaccine since 2006 and won’t be wanting ANY soon. Adjuvants are on my no-list since the allergist said this may be what I react badly to when getting a vaccine. Being out in natural settings with Nature is wonderful. Science should stop messing with the genetic make-up of any living being. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.
Is Pam joking about Novavax turning its recipients into moths? My interpretation is that she was only partially joking. She is, however, echoing a very old antivax trope, namely the idea that vaccines somehow change your very essence to be more like the vaccine. In the 1800s, it was cows because cow pox lesions were used to vaccinate against smallpox. Now? It’s moths. The NVIC article, of course, is nothing new, just a resurrection of the same fear mongering about moth cells that had been going on ever since antivaxxers had discovered that spike protein to be used to manufacture Novavax was to be produced using a Baculovirus system and moth cells.
There are other examples, of course. For instance, you might remember how about a decade ago antivaxxers were making a big deal out of the use of monkey kidney cells to produce polio virus for the oral polio vaccine in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which Mike Adams, for instance, described as vaccines “routinely” containing “hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys”. While it is true that the oral polio vaccine was contaminated with a monkey cancer virus (SV40) during that time period, even though there is no good evidence that this contamination resulted in an increase in cancer.
A more direct predecessor to the claim that moth DNA from Novavax will somehow corrupt your DNA to the point that your offspring afterwards will be “freaks” is less obvious. The claim that moth DNA from Novavax will somehow wreak havoc in your body is very much of a piece with old antivax claims that the HPV vaccine will “contaminate” your DNA with stray fragments of DNA leftover from the production of other vaccines could “permanently alter your DNA” and wreak havoc in your body. For instance, one favorite antivax talking point before the pandemic was that there was sufficient resemblance between nucleotide sequences in HPV and some human genes that when HPV sequence got into human cells, it could result in “molecular mimicry” that would target the recipients for attack by the immune system and produce autoimmunity. (There’s no good evidence that this actually happens, as the amount of HPV DNA in HPV vaccines is truly minuscule.)
Another favorite antivax “mechanism” for vaccine-induced harm was the concept that human DNA from the cell lines (you know, those awful “fetal cells”) could get into cells in the central nervous system, recombine with the DNA in those cells, and produce proteins that the immune system “saw” as “altered self”, resulting in an autoimmune reaction that “damaged” the brain to cause autism. This particular idea provoked a lot of laughter among molecular biologists because of how antivax reporter Sharyl Attkisson (who’s since gone on to become an all-purpose conspiracy “reporter”) quoted the author of an antivax review article proposing this idea thusly:
Why could human DNA potentially cause brain damage? The way Ratajczak explained it to me: “Because it’s human DNA and recipients are humans, there’s homologous recombinaltion tiniker. That DNA is incorporated into the host DNA. Now it’s changed, altered self and body kills it. Where is this most expressed? The neurons of the brain. Now you have body killing the brain cells and it’s an ongoing inflammation. It doesn’t stop, it continues through the life of that individual.”
“Homologous recombinaltion tiniker” instead of homologous recombination (the actual process by which very similar pieces of DNA can integrate themselves into a genome) will never not be funny to me. It’s an idea that persists until today and has been applied to fear mongering about mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines. As much as the misspelling echoes through a very specific segment of those who oppose antivax disinformation even 11 years later, it’s the same idea, that vaccines somehow “contaminate you”.
Then there are adjuvants. It was easily predictable that any adjuvant used in a COVID-19 vaccine would be targeted by antivaxxers to be portrayed as horrific sludge that will kill you or, failing that, cause autoimmune disease. After all, aluminum adjuvants have long been a target of antivaxxers, who falsely describe it as “poison” that kills.
Of course, fear mongering about adjuvants, moth cells and DNA, fetal cells and DNA, HPV DNA, spike mRNA, lipid nanoparticles, and other vaccine ingredients, is just a subset of a larger antivaccine narrative, one that I like to refer to as the “toxins gambit“. It’s a narrative that seeks to portray vaccines as so riddled with horrific toxins and awful substances—aborted babies!—that you’d be crazy to inject them into your body. Two decades ago it was the mercury in the thimerosal preservative used in several childhood vaccines that was falsely blamed for autism, with evidence continuing to accumulate showing no link. Then it was the formaldehyde used to inactivate viruses used in vaccines – never mind that the body makes formaldehyde as a byproduct of metabolism and that the amount in vaccines is much smaller than the small amount that the body routinely makes. Then there’s the claim that there’s antifreeze in vaccines. There’s not. This claim was based on the confusion between ethylene glycol (which is in antifreeze) and polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer used in many topical and medical products. Basically, PEGylated drugs have been around a very long time.
I could go on and on, but I think that I’ve described enough examples. You get the idea. For antivaxxers, it’s all about the vaccines, not the ingredients, the adjuvants, the cells used to produce the antigen, or the platform used to make the vaccine. Prove that one of these is safe, and they’ll move the goalposts, effortlessly shifting to another. You could produce a vaccine that’s nothing other than protein antigen and buffered saline, and antivaxxers would find a way to blame the antigen and/or the saline. That’s because it’s vaccines and vaccination that frighten antivaxxers. The rest is just window dressing, made-up reasons antivaxxers find to justify their fears. Unfortunately, these antivaxxers then transmit those fears to those predisposed to distrust pharmaceutical companies, doctors, drugs, and all that is associated with them.
We have little choice but to play Whack-A-Mole to refute fear mongering about individual vaccine ingredients, but we shouldn’t forget that these are just distractions from the real issue: Vaccination itself. A common narrative among antivaxxers is that vaccines are “disease matter” injected “unnaturally” into the body. It is a potent narrative designed to cause revulsion, and it’s unfortunately very effective at that. It’s also the narrative that we most need to overcome far more than obviously ridiculous claims about “moth DNA” turning people into insects. It doesn’t matter if it’s recombinant protein and not whole virus that is used. It doesn’t matter if the antigen is produced by injected mRNA or just injected as protein. It’s the vaccines. It’s always been the vaccines. It will always be the vaccines.