By Rob Verkerk PhD, founder, executive & scientific director
There’s been increasing concern voiced by world-leading immunologists that we could soon witness a devastating super-epidemic of autoimmune diseases. Some think it’s our exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s the major concern. While others are more worried about the novel, still experimental vaccines, delivered at an unprecedented scale. But could it be both? In this piece, we aim to get under the covers of this complex area that’s been getting very little airtime in the mainstream media.
World-leading immunologists are concerned we may witness a super-epidemic of autoimmune disease linked to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as well as the vaccines designed to counter it
Our modern day lives put us at increased risk of developing autoimmune disease
Coronaviruses have the potential to trigger autoimmune disease in susceptible individuals
Israeli immunologist, Prof Yehuda Schoenfeld, often to referred to as the ‘father of autoimmunity’, has warned an adverse reaction to a vaccine could tip someone into autoimmune disease
The nano technology used in some covid vaccines bypasses our normal defence systems presenting yet another dimension of concern
Governments are not telling citizens about these potential issues
If you have a history or family history of autoimmune disease caution is required
Everyone benefits from using dietary and lifestyle strategies that optimise the resilience of your immune system.
Autoimmune diseases represent a diverse group of over 100 diseases including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, psoriasis, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Addison’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, pancreatitis, Graves disease, Hashimoto’s, fibromyalgia, and many other common diseases.
The underlying mechanism that links all these diseases is the loss of self-tolerance. As a result, the body starts to attack healthy cells or parts of itself, leading to the characteristic symptoms of one of the myriad autoimmune diseases.
The suggestion that we might face a super-epidemic isn’t a wild hypothesis. It’s a carefully considered judgment based on the fact we’re already amidst an autoimmune epidemic in the Western industrialised world. Anyone with any doubts about this should read science journalist and autoimmune sufferer Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s 2009 book on the subject, The Autoimmune Epidemic. that’s as relevant today as it was over a decade ago.
There’s a widely held view in immunological circles that a major driver of this epidemic is the decline of common infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, measles, mumps and rheumatic fever. That combined with the excessively hygienic environment that many children have grown up in in industrialised countries during the course of the last half century or so.
Underlying all of this is of course our genetics, which includes our blood group. Interesting evidence emerged mid-2020 that people with blood group O (as opposed to A, B or AB) had significantly lower risk of severe covid-19 disease. The reason for this is thought to be linked to the fact that blood group O individuals can develop natural antibodies that offer cross-resistance to other pathogens. This is likely a process that’s evolved through evolution to deal with the millions of gram-negative bacteria with pathogenic potential in the gut.
A Chinese study found the same trend with O individuals being more tolerant to SARS-CoV-2 infection, with the A group being the most susceptible (unlucky for me!).
Likely even more important than our actual genes – our ‘book of life’ that we are gifted when we come into this world – is how they are expressed. That of course depends on how our genes respond to our inner and external environments (i.e. epigenetics).
OK – so our our genes may not have changed very much since we were hunter-gatherers some 20,000 years ago, but the way they are expressed most certainly has. It’s becoming increasingly clear that it is these changes in the patterns of epigenetic expression caused by certain environmental triggers – such as pathogens, chemicals or nutrients – combined with the presence of leaky barriers (gut, skin, lungs, sinuses) – that makes predisposed individuals especially vulnerable to autoimmune diseases.
In her presentation in February 2020 at the Get Well Show in London, my colleague Meleni Aldridge, who has spent the last 30 years on her own recovery from a life-threatening autoimmune disease (Graves), referred to what she calls the ‘autoimmune trifactor’. She reminded us that a significant proportion of our body’s total energy is spent maintaining the integrity of our gut barrier. For those with a genetic predisposition, when that barrier starts to fail, giving rise to ‘leaky gut’, often because of chronic exposure to gluten and other allergens in our diets, the tripwire of the autoimmune disease spiral may be triggered.
We’ve known for a while that coronaviruses have the potential to induce autoimmune diseases. This was well demonstrated experimentally in a retinal autoimmunity mouse model almost 20 years ago.
But it’s not just mice which are affected. A Russian study following a series of post-mortems of patients who had died from severe covid-disease revealed a classic pattern of autoimmune damage in the lungs, kidneys, liver, adrenal gland and intestines. Humans have experienced serious infection by SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), but these never infected many people.
So what might the continued expansion of the host range of SARS-CoV-2 hold in store for us? The only answer we can give with any degree of certainty at this stage is: we honestly don’t know. But we can make educated guesses – particularly if we look at the emerging body of science on the subject and the views of some of the most respected scientists in the field of autoimmune disease.
Many of the views I’ll offer from here on have been informed by recent publications by Professor Yehuda Shoenfeld, the Israeli clinical immunologist who is widely credited as the ‘father of autoimmunity’. Shoenfeld's key focus is autoimmunity and he’s published over 1750 papers (yes, you read that right!) in leading journals such as Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the FASEB Journal. It would not be difficult to argue that Dr Shoenfeld may therefore be the most informed person on the planet on this topic.
In his many papers on the subject, some being referenced below, Shoenfeld points to clear evidence that SARS-CoV-2 triggers autoimmunity in some predisposed individuals.
Shoenfeld and colleagues have identified three common determinants that underlie the pattern of immune dysregulation that spirals into autoimmune disease in genetically susceptible individuals:
Cytokine storm associated with severe infection, coupled with high circulating levels of iron in the form of ferritin (hyperferritinemia) that’s often associated with severe disease
The production of disease-causing autoantibodies, these being specific types of protein produced by B cells of the adaptive immune system that attack particular (self) proteins (e.g. interferon, specific glycoproteins) that are needed for healthy function
Studies by Shoenfeld’s own research group at the Sheba Medical Centre in Israel, as well as others that are referenced, have also identified associations between particular types of autoimmune diseases developing after severe covid disease. These include immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), Guillian-Barrė syndrome (GBS), Miller Fisher syndrome (MFS), and, in children, Kawasaki-like disease.
There is also evidence that deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism and strokes may be triggered by autoimmune responses following the production of antiphospholipid antibodies (aPL).
“…one of the side effects of giving a MASS vaccine could be an emergence of autoimmune diseases especially in individuals who are genetically prone for autoimmunity.”- Professor Yehuda Shoenfeld (Autoimmunity Reviews 2020; 19: 102538)
Among the most well studied adjuvants in vaccines are aluminium and mercury (in thimerosal). Neither of these are in the frontrunner vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca. But they do contain other ingredients, such as those in the lipid nanoparticles that deliver vaccines into cells, such as the polyethylene glycol (PEG) derivatives (ALC-0159) and hexane-containing phospholipids (ALC-0315) in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
The more conventional, protein subunit Novavax vaccine is, in contrast, adjuvanted. The adjuvant goes under the trade name of Matrix-M1™, which contains saponins from the bark of the soap bark tree, Quillaja Saponaria, together with cholesterol and phospholipid (used in the food and beverage industry) and delivered as nanoparticles (40 nanometers in size). Even Novavax recognise the potential for an issue warning clinical triallists, in their own clinical study protocol, to be particularly on the watch for those with existing autoimmune conditions. The protocol states on page 102: “…it has been hypothesised that immunisations with or without adjuvant may be associated with autoimmunity.”
Molecular mimicry could come back to bite us
Before offering some concerns about the various environmental triggers that might be concealed in covid vaccines, let’s look at Prof Shoenfeld’s main concerns about the active part of the vaccines – the antigen – typically part of the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
This concern is just as relevant when the synthetic antigen is shipped into the body inside another cell or vehicle (e.g. AstraZeneca, Novavax) or it’s been instructed to be produced by the muscle cells after they receive instructions from the mRNA in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Shoenfeld’s primary concern boils down to what’s called molecular mimicry. There are a number of genetic sequences that are identical both in the human genome and that of SARS-CoV-2 – with Shoenfeld and colleagues identifying 26.
The immunologists go on to draw particular attention to the identical sequences in a specific group of proteins found deep in the lungs (the site of ARDS/covid pneumonia), the alveolar surfactant proteins, and the glycoprotein of SARS-CoV-2. This is a concern Shoenfeld along with co-author Darja Kanduc, from the University of Bari, Italy, shared in a paper in Clinical Immunology published last June.
It’s why Shoenfeld and colleagues have been banging on the drum during the vaccine development phase last year, arguing that peptide sequences used in the new vaccines should be unique and not be common to ones found in the body.
For a predisposed individual, an adverse reaction to the vaccine, Shoenfeld and colleagues argue, could be enough for them to be tipped over the edge – into autoimmune disease. One of the most obvious signals for predisposition is to already have one of the over 100 autoimmune diseases that are charging through industrialised societies. Yet, with the father of autoimmunity sounding the warnings of autoimmune risks, there is scarcely a word of caution being uttered by governments rolling out the mass vaccination programmes. Shame on them.
“Yet, with the father of autoimmunity sounding the warnings of autoimmune risk, there is scarcely a word of caution being uttered by governments rolling out the mass vaccination programmes. Shame on them.” - Robert Verkerk PhD, founder, executive & scientific director, ANH-Intl
Autoimmunity risks from infection and vaccines must also be considered in the context of vaccine hypersensitivity or antibody-enhancement of disease – an issue I wrote about last week.
As Dr Shoenfeld said himself in Autoimmunity Reviews last June not enough time has yet elapsed either in pre-market Phase 3 trials or since the mass roll-out of vaccines to know what kind of a ticking time bomb we might be dealing with.
Nanoscale synthetic biology
I need to throw into the mix one additional dimension, one that relates to the nano-scale delivery of the vaccines. There’s no doubt we are amidst a nanobiotechnology revolution, one that’s driving a huge amount of science. A lot of the science is beginning to show that many compounds that present no significant toxicity when delivered in non-nano sizes (i.e. particles, droplets or micelles greater than 100 nanometers in dimension), become appreciably toxic when delivered in nano sizes (less than 100 nanometers).
The arrival of the covid vaccines not only presents our species with the first time synthetic genetic material has been injected into the bodies of humans at mass scale, we are also witnessing the delivery into our bodies of nanoscale synthetic lipid compounds containing synthetic genetic material or nucleic acids. These injected compounds bypass the mucosa of our digestive or respiratory tracts that have evolved over eons to respond to foreign bodies or pathogens, discerning self from non-self.
Now this synthetic cocktail is bypassing the barriers of our innate immune system and being delivered directly into our cells. It remains to be seen what degree of autoimmunity might be triggered or exacerbated – especially among the millions who have had, presently have, or are predisposed to, autoimmunity.
Four take homes
I will leave you with a shortlist of the four most important things we can all do given the deafening silence around autoimmunity and the current pandemic. While there may be a magic bullet one day for autoimmune diseases, we don’t have one yet. The closest thing so far is eating worms (!), not any old worm, but particular parasitic helminths like whipworms or hookworms that are showing considerable promise for treatment of autoimmune diseases.
Worms aside, the reality is that we once again find ourselves in unchartered waters, and only time will reveal the extent of the problem. But with so many being exposed to both the virus and the vaccine, to ignore or deny the risk could be tantamount to gross medical and public health negligence.
Avoid severe disease. All steps should be taken to avoid severe disease – as it’s this severe pathology including covid pneumonia or ARDS that can trigger autoimmunity following infection. From a non-pharmaceutical perspective, that means shielding if you’re in a vulnerable group as well as doing what you can in terms of nutrition and lifestyle to optimise the function of your immune system.
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Treat disease early. It is essential that more is done to prevent severe disease. As many people as possible need to be made aware of protocols for prophylaxis, early outpatient treatment and critical care treatment. The critical care protocols in many hospitals are grossly inadequate. Among the most comprehensive protocols have been developed and compiled by the Frontline Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance in the USA led by Drs Paul Marik and Pierre Kory.
Informed choice of vaccination. If you’ve got a known history, or even a family history, of autoimmune disease, you should consider carefully whether the vaccine is appropriate, depending on your vulnerability to severe covid disease. If you’re in doubt, you may wish to seek the advice of an experienced functional medicine or other holistically-minded health professional
Let’s inspire a political and media wake-up call. It’s a travesty that politicians and the media who are driving the narrative around covid-19 are not aware of the autoimmune risks. Many of us are continuing to exercise our democratic rights and are forwarding information to our elected representatives. We know many have received standard, unhelpful and unsupportive responses, but please, don’t give up. The truth does have a habit of filtering through in the end. So please share this article as widely and in as many places as you can. Can you make it this week’s task to get the word out – as far and wide as you can – on the pandemic and autoimmunity?
I'd like to extend my thanks to Rufus Greenbaum who runs the website Vitamin D UK, amongst other things, who forwarded a large clutch of Prof Yehuda Shoenfeld's publications to me in response to some questions I had posed in an earlier article on covid vaccines. Having been aware of Prof Shoenfeld's work over many years, including hearing him keynote at one of the Institute for Functional Medicine conferences a few years ago, I also would like to acknowledge his tenacity, bravery and commitment to good science regardless of the political pressures to deviate.