Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Snapshot of the Deep Pockets of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Research is expensive. Lab techs, study coordinators, grad students and post-docs have their salaries (often a pittance compared to the importance of their work and the skills required); primary investigators (PIs) have theirs. Then there are the costs for materials - drugs or other substances under investigation, reagents, etc., as needed. Statisticians, equipment. The expenditures add up.

And PIs spend a considerable amount of their time just seeking out grants to support their research. Many rely heavily on government entities like the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest funders of research in the United States. Some research funds come from industry sources, the results of which need somewhat greater levels of attention to suss out the valid results from the bias. Others find support from private donors and foundations.

This latter source is the bread and butter of cranks and pseudoscientists (well, with the addition of the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, but that's a whole other post). For example, Mark Geier (who has had his various medical licenses stripped for unethical conduct) and his son, David (who has no medical licenses and was found by the Maryland Board of Physicians to have practiced medicine without a license), essentially fund themselves through their non-profit corporations CoMeD, Inc. and Institute of Chronic Illnesses, Inc. Other anti-vaccine researchers, perhaps lacking their own wealth, rely on other individuals and families devoted to the "vaccines cause autism" myth who happen to have significant assets to fund their dubious research.

Such is the case with a new study by Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, titled Administration of aluminium to neonatal mice in vaccine-relevant amounts is associated with adverse long term neurological outcomes (back in December 2011, Orac pointed out the flaws of the study [Edited to add February 5, 2015: the study Orac discussed formed the basis for the 2013 study I discuss here.]). This study received significant funding from The Dwoskin Family Foundation and the Katlyn Fox Foundation, both of which have funded previous studies by one or both of this duo.

The Dwoskin Family Foundation

The Dwoskin Family Foundation is a philanthropic vehicle for Albert and Lisa Claire Dwoskin. They established it as a 501(c)3 non-profit foundation in 2001. The sole contributions to the foundation are from the Dwoskins themselves (not unusual for a family foundation) to the tune of $600,000 in 2010 and $750,000 in 2011. In addition, a significant portion of the foundation's assets are held in off-shore accounts and cash investments. The foundation's 990 form for 2011 (the latest available via, free registration and login required to view) lists net assets at $3.5 million. Needless to say, they have a lot of purchase power, as it were.

Claire Dwoskin is a board member of the anti-vaccine group National Vaccination Information Center. Her husband, Albert, is president and CEO of A.J. Dwoskin & Associates, Inc. Through their foundation, they funded The Greater Good Movie, giving $25,000 to the project in 2010. Two years ago, they made two donations to the American Foundation for University of British Columbia, academic home to Shaw and Tomljenovic. One contribution, for $10,000, was just for "general expenses". The more significant donation was for lab costs for the "Aluminum Toxicity Project", for which they donated $125,000. This is in addition to approximately $200,000 for NVIC.

In 2011, the Dwoskins also underwrote the anti-vaccine "safety" conference in Jamaica. As Matt Carey notes, the venue was not exactly a frugal choice. The family, along with several other organizations, paid out a fair bit of change to cover the costs of the conference. Speakers included the aforementioned Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, as well as several individuals that have been described as quacks or cranks: Dr. Russell Blaylock, Dr. Richard Deth, founder of the antivaccine NVIC, Barbara Loe Fisher, and the disgraced Andrew Wakefield.

And, if their financial support of anti-vaccine individuals and organizations doesn't illustrate their bias that vaccines are, unquestionably, bad, this 2010 quote from Claire Dwoskin in response to John Stossel's segment on vaccines is rather telling:
I just saw the show and am so sorry to hear that other than what Chris had to say, not a word of truth was spoken by Stossel or Offitt. What a travesty – I hope someday he will recognize the error of his ways and realize the fear and damage that he is contributing to by allowing falsehoods to rule the air. At least his daughter is alive, smiling, educated and enjoying life. That cannot be said for the hundreds of thousands of vaccine injured children in the US. What his daughter went through is NOTHING compared to what the families of autistic children go through every day of their lives. No disease can match this record of human devastation. Vaccines are a holocaust of poison on our children’s brains and immune systems. Shame on you all.
She accuses Dr. Offit of lying and says that no disease matches the "devastation" of autism. Mrs. Dwoskin apparently has not looked into the history of infectious diseases very much, at all. And what is it with anti-vaccine activists comparing vaccines to the Holocaust? How offensive is it to the survivors and their families and to individuals who have autism, to compare autism and vaccination to this:

Bodies in a mass grave, from
The Katlyn Fox Foundation

Although it lists itself on its web site as a not-for-profit charitable orgnization, the foundation is not registered with the Canada Revenue Agency. Since they are not registered as a charity, unlike the Dwoskin Family Foundation, their financial filings are not available. In addition to the latest article from Shaw and Tomljenovic, the Katlyn Fox Foundation has been supporting them since at least 2011.

Although I had difficulty finding why the Dwoskins got involved in the anti-vaccine movement, the Katlyn Fox Foundation makes it quite clear why they are anti-vaccine activists. From their "About" page:
On the afternoon of August 16th 2001, our precious little girl Katlyn passed away in her sleep. She was only 22 months old. After conversations with various medical professionals and through extensive personal research we believe that Katlyn passed away due to complications from vaccines.
I won't talk about their account, as I don't have any of the details. My heart does go out to them for the loss of their daughter. No parent should have to go through anything like that. I do think that their crusade against vaccines is misplaced, though, and how far they have gone down the anti-vaccine rabbit hole is evident from the posts on the foundation's site.

The foundation reproduces stories from such dubious sources as Natural News, NVIC, Suzanne Humphries and similar folk with established histories of playing fast and free with reality. Despite their mission to "provide parents with the best possible information about vaccines, so that they can make informed decisions on whether or not vaccines are suitable for their children", they instead promote myths and misinformation.

Follow the Money

Anti-vaccine activists make much of real or imagined conflicts of interest in studies examining the safety or efficacy of vaccines. Any study that receives funding from, well, just about any source that does not tout the anti-vaccine line is automatically written off as completely worthless and hopelessly biased in favor of vaccines. Funded or conducted by NIH or CDC? Biased, since the government, in the anti-vaccine mindset, is in bed with Big PharmaTM. Funded by a university? If the results favor vaccines, then it is biased, because the university, at some point in time, received funding from Big PharmaTM or the researchers have some other tenuous connection, clearly. If any financial link can possibly be found between the researchers and a pharmaceutical company, even if it's one of the researcher's brother's roommate's cousin's father's next-door-neighbor, that is sufficient reason to disregard anything the researchers have to say. The methods don't matter. The data doesn't matter.

But what happens if we apply their own reasoning to studies that they support? What about this latest study by Shaw and Tomljenovic? Well, it was funded by two organizations with well-established biases to finding fault with vaccines. If the source of funding is enough to hopelessly bias the results, then no matter the quality of the work done by Shaw and Tomljenovic, we should expect the results of their research to find vaccines or a vaccine component unsafe, that it causes some sort of injury.

It just so happens that the studies performed by Shaw and Tomljenovic that have been funded by the Dwoskin Family Foundation and the Katlyn Fox Foundation, including this most recent one, have, indeed, found that vaccines or their components cause injury and are likely unsafe.

The anti-vaccine approach to viewing conflicts of interest is not what I would call particularly productive or legitimate. While looking at the source of funding can be a flag that one should pay a bit closer attention to the details, it is not cause, in itself, to write off a study. Examine the claims more closely and pay attention to the methods used, certainly, but do not simply dismiss the study out of hand based only who funded it.

So What's the Point?

If the source of funding doesn't matter as much as anti-vaccine activists like to think it does, then you might be wondering what was the point of discussing the wealth and beliefs of the Dwoskins and the Katlyn Fox Foundation? It's two-fold, really.

First, while I disagree with the more extreme anti-vaccine activists in how much power to attribute to funding sources when it comes to evaluating the quality and conclusions of a study, it is important to understand the motivations of the funding source. If a study is funded by Merck, I will take its results with a bit of a grain of salt, especially if the results favor a Merck product. Likewise, if a study is funded by the Dwoskin Family Foundation, the Katlyn Fox Foundation or a similar group (e..g, NVIC), and the results favor the anti-vaccine stance, I won't just accept the results at face value. Knowing the motivations of the funding organization can serve as a signal to look for potential bias in the results. When a researcher appears to rely on funding from an organization or group with a very clear mission, they might design their study in such a way that they will find whatever results are favorable to their patron. The stronger the funder's convictions, the more likely it becomes a potential source of bias. It's not a sure thing, and it certainly is not a black-or-white metric, but it is a factor to consider and understand.

Second, I wanted to show that there are very, very wealthy individuals and groups behind the anti-vaccine movement. They have the resources to gin up studies that appear to support them, fund PR campaigns to spread their misinformation and lobbying legislators. I only highlighted two. There are plenty of others, like Barry Segal, Gary Kampothecras, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., businessman and founder of Generation Rescue J.B. Handley.

I may go into the actual science of the Shaw and Tomljenovic study later, if I have time (or let some actual scientists chime in on it), but the financial aspects of the anti-vaccine movement are what intrigued me. There is a lot of money there, and those of us who support vaccination based on the scientific evidence would be well-advised to keep that in mind. A lot of us don't have those resources (I certainly don't) and do our best with the limited resources we have.


  1. Many vaccines are probably beneficial for most recipients. Some vaccines are definitely harmful for some people. There have been far too many serious adverse reactions and deaths because of the HPV vaccine and much of the work done by Lucija and Chris focus on this. It only backs up what is actually happening to our children. Our daughter had an immediate reaction to the HPV vaccine, deteriorated daily over several weeks until she went into a coma-like sleep for 13 weeks. She has missed 2 years of school and life. The manufacturers actually state that their vaccine is not suitable for everybody, that their are contraindications and side effects which can be serious. In the UK there have been 7232 Yellow Card reports and acceptance that 1200 reports are considered serious and their have been 4 deaths. Yet the health authorities and pro-vaccine lobby tell parents it is safe!!!!

  2. Mr. Hinks: Some vaccines are definitely harmful for some people.

    Please post PubMed indexed studies by researchers not funded by either the Dwoskin or Fox families that show the relative risks of vaccines versus the diseases.

    There have been far too many serious adverse reactions and deaths because of the HPV vaccine and much of the work done by Lucija and Chris focus on this.

    Please provide a replication and note of those injuries that do not come from those two researchers, nor are financed by the Dwoskin and Fox families.

    Our daughter had an immediate reaction to the HPV vaccine,

    My sincerest condolences for your daughter. If you are in the USA are you going through the NVICP at the present? Is there a case file in VAERS? Our son had a terrible reaction (seizures) to an actual disease before the vaccine was available. I know it is stressful, though at least in the USA there is program for vaccine reactions. Obviously there is nothing for disease reactions, which actually occur more often (unless you have evidence to the contrary).

    In the UK there have been 7232 Yellow Card reports and acceptance that 1200 reports are considered serious and their have been 4 deaths.

    Citation needed. It also needs to show the followup of those cases, because in the USA many of the reports were things like auto accidence, overdose, etc.

  3. There is just one think I really do not understand yet and would be great if someone would provide some non-fanatic answer.
    In your article, you talk about doubtful funding sources of tha anti-vaccine movement, that supported the studies. Ok. It is understadable that you when you are trying to prrove something, you look for sources to cover your expenses in search for evidences. It works both ways. But for me, there is one difference between the pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine funding.
    If you sell vaccines, you make money of it, so it is good for you to prrove its safe.
    The think I do not understand is why would someone invest energy, money and possibly put own scientific reputation in risk, when there is no profit in the end, just some belief..? I am not favouring either side, I just started to doubt the flawlessness of vaccines after my little daughter got a pretty severe reaction to infanrix hexa and still searching for some non-fanatic answers.
    I have seen many discussions on this topic, most of them pretty flame-like and it makes me a little sad that many parents, that are desperatly searching for some reliable answers are treated as crazy fools...

  4. @Yenix

    You underestimate the power of belief. Fervently held beliefs can be great motivators to action. Think, for a moment, about those who are most vocal about how bad vaccines are. Typically, they have a story where they had their child vaccinated and after that, they noticed some change. The stories vary. Sometimes its within hours, sometimes days, weeks, months or even years. But invariably, the blame is put on vaccines. As they talk with others who are already invested in the "vaccines as cause" belief, their own are reinforced. They understandably want something to blame, and here is this perfect scapegoat. The reasons to affix blame to vaccines appear to sound: lots of anecdotes, research that, to someone who might not be well-versed in reading scientific studies, look like they are good, quality studies and so on. Finally, an answer. Something to explain why all these bad things happened to them! That is a very powerful motivator. Take that and couple it with the sense of community and emotional support provided by the anti-vaccine movement and the reason to continue pushing and promoting the belief is that much stronger. Take a look at what happens when a parent decides that vaccines maybe weren't the problem at all. They are quickly shunned and ostracized from the community, becoming pariahs. So breaking out can be a very difficult and frightening prospect.

    Then, of course, there are the reasons that have nothing to do with belief alone. Some actually do make money by promoting the anti-vaccine agenda. There are books to be sold, lecture fees to collect, sponsors to take money from, not to mention a small bit of fame and ego-stroking. Some may have "cures" or "treatments" to sell that depend on the anti-vaccine talking points being right. Some are involved in litigation the success of which, again, depends on vaccines being to blame.

    As I wrote above, my point in this post was not to point at the source of funding and say, "This is horribly corrupted and cannot be trusted" as many in the more extreme end of the anti-vaccine movement like to do with pharma-funded studies, but to point out that there are motivations that should be considered when reading a study. The families and organizations providing the money need science that supports and validates their belief that vaccines are bad. The researchers are ensured a steady funding stream if they produce results that their sponsors like. The more varied the funding sources, the less likely there will be bias from the sponsor. Not a guarantee, of course, but better.

    As to how heated many discussions get, I understand. A lot of the sharpest rhetoric comes when the extreme and well-known voices of the anti-vaccine movement crop up and when the same, tired arguments are trotted out. It can be difficult answering the same question countless times over the years, so the response can come across as unduly acerbic. But I find that those who keep their cool, even in the face of blunt responses, and seem willing to actually listen and think about what is said generally earn a measure of respect and more measured replies later on.

    Finally, bear in mind that no one on the pro-vaccine side believes that vaccines are "flawless". That is a trope that is often bandied about by those opposed to vaccines. Anyone on the pro- side will readily tell you that, as with everything in medicine and even life, there are risks. Those risks are small and rare, but they are there. The only ones promoting the illusion of some "perfect, flawless" vaccine are the anti-vaccination activists.

  5. @Yenix

    Here's a story you might be interested in reading: Leaving the Anti-Vaccine Movement. In particular, check out the third-to-last paragraph.

  6. I like that you're saying to follow the money, but what about the fact that most of the pro-vax studies are funded by big pharma?

    1. I recommend that you go back and read the bit under the heading "So What's The Point?"

    2. "Pro-vax" studies are funded by Big Pharma, because the burden of proof lies with the manufacturers. Just to get a drug or vaccine approved by the FDA, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions spent, on phase III and phase IV clinical trials just to get FDA approval, and then many post-market studies done to further prove safety and efficacy. Drugs and vaccines that are administered to pregnant women, infants and young children undergo the most thorough scrutiny of any market due to the potential negative outcomes and lifelong effects. Why do you think there are very few drugs actually studied in children and pregnant women? No one wants to take the risk of deleterious outcomes. It's the same reason Ob/Gyn's carry the highest medical malpractice insurance premiums out of any specialty of medicine. If something goes wrong with the fetus or neonate, they are potentially on the hook for at least 18 years, if not a lifetime of repercussions and damages. I'm certainly not defending "big pharma", but I'm trying to explain why most of the studies are funded by them. Who should pay for it? Anything funded by the NIH comes out of taxpayers dollars, and people already complain that their taxes are too high, so who wants to shell out millions more for even more studies? The NIH already spends millions funding grants and studies as it is. Shouldn't the people who stand to profit have to pay for the studies to prove that the drugs or vaccines are safe? There are numerous drugs in the pipeline for every single pharmaceutical manufacturer that they spend a lot of money on, which never make it to market. For every drug that's approved, there are 1-2 or more that are not approved after lots of research and development has already been done. Just keep in mind that everyone has something to gain, and anyone "pushing" anything, including the anti-vax movement, has a lot of has something to to be made. Look at the mercola website and all of the stuff they promote there. Books, supplements, herbs, essential oils. This is America, where everyone has an angle, and there is a sucker born every day. Every industry, every company, probably every family has someone, if not many people, who gladly take advantage of others and would do anything to make a buck.

    3. There's one incontrovertible argument that blows your argument out of the water. PhRMa CLAIMS that the sky-high prices of drugs are needed to fund "R&D". ....ok, *IF* that's true, then what explains the direct-to-consumer ads and marketing budget, and the FACT that marketing budgets are orders of magnitude larger than R&D budgets? I've never heard ANY good arguments from PhRMa apologists such as yourself to support PhRMa's financial actions....

  7. I'm starting to wonder if the Koch Bros or Big Coal are funding these groups. Since it is coal-fired power plants that produce 72% of deposited atmospheric mercury in this country, and it is generally the mercury in vaccines that anti-vaxxers blame for autism, they would have quite a stake in transferring responsibility to vaccines, thereby avoiding a huge class action law suit. Any evidence of this?

  8. >Such is the case with a new study by Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, titled Administration of aluminium to neonatal mice in vaccine-relevant amounts is associated with adverse long term neurological outcomes (back in December 2011, Orac pointed out the flaws of the study). This study received significant funding from The Dwoskin Family Foundation and the Katlyn Fox Foundation, both of which have funded previous studies by one or both of this duo.

    I think you might have put the wrong link there. The article was written two years before the study in question was published. The blog poster is talking about a different study.

    1. Thank you for pointing out that error. It's been quite a while since I wrote this, so I don't recall what I was intending there. However, I think I meant to reference Orac's analysis of their previous study, which is mentioned in the introduction to the paper I'm focusing on:

      "Recently,we compared the amount of Al in various national paediatric vaccine schedules with increasing rates of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and found a significant correlation that appeared to be dose-dependent[28]."

      Reference 28 is the study that Orac discussed:

      "[28] L. Tomljenovic, C.A. Shaw, J. Inorg. Biochem. 105 (2011) 1489–1499."

      I believe my intent was to show that the basis for the study I discussed was flawed. I will add a correction to the text to address this.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Or I made an editorial mistake when I was writing the post. As this is two years old, I don't recall what happened. I've added a note clarifying that Orac's post talks about the study that formed the basis of the study in my post.

      I don't particularly appreciate your implication that I was lying or basing my post on ideology rather than real evidence. I strive to be as accurate as possible in my posts, but I am human. I can make mistakes, but I correct them when they are pointed out to me.

  10. Not-for profit financing means vaccine-skeptics are LOSING money, not making it. What a flop!

  11. Can someone explain why the aluminum in vaccines is safe and what this doctor missed?

    1. I can tell you what doctor has not missed: an opportunity to raid more wallets.

      He is not a vaccine expert, and he just panders to the anti-science in order to get more to buy his books, plus his new venture of getting parents vaccine exemptions for a fee (especially since he does not take insurance).

      Funny how you asked that question on an article about "deep pockets."

    2. The aluminum in vaccines is safe because the dose makes the poison.

  12. Now all we need is someone to factually prove where the study and its results were flawed instead of blowing smoke about the funding. Perhaps THEN some progress will be made about what is really important, the effect of aluminum on the body.

  13. Now all we need is someone to address the real issue, the results of the study, by factually proving that the study and results were flawed.

    1. Try clicking on the link in this sentence in the article: "back in December 2011, Orac pointed out the flaws of the study [Edited to add February 5, 2015: the study Orac discussed formed the basis for the 2013 study I discuss here.])"

      Hint: the words in blue letters indicate a link to another article. You can also see several articles on the failures of Shaw's Dwoskin paid "research" at, just use the search box on that page.

  14. All this article seems to confirm is the current problems we have with peer reviewed science journals - work is often biased, results are often cherry picked

    This article makes me more suspicious of all peer reviewed science - and this is the problem

    People are losing faith in their doctors and regular medicine and often for quite justifiable reasons

    1. Now you understand why there is a "COI" (Conflict of Interest) disclaimer on scientific papers. Plus why we need to go with the consensus of many studies, not just a few (the cherry picking).

      "People are losing faith in their doctors and regular medicine and often for quite justifiable reasons"

      Citation needed. Make sure the survey you cite is not from someone trying to sell their special treatment or supplement.


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