Turbocancer Isn’t Real and Can’t Hurt You

I know that this channel is focused primarily on correcting egregious misinformation in the public eye, but it brings me no satisfaction to address today’s topic: turbo cancer. I’ve danced around it, addressing many similar anti-vaccine conspiracy theories that have cropped up in the years since the COVID vaccine first dropped, but I’ve stayed away from turbo cancer for one reason: no, not because it’s real, but because it’s an awesome name and I’m sad that antivaxxers took it. The first time I heard it, I knew I was in love: when I eventually get cancer, genetics and luck-willing, I don’t want it to be “aggressive” or “stage 4.” No, I want it to be “turbo.” Because putting “turbo” in front of anything automatically makes it rad. It’s the reason I chose a Mini Cooper S for my first car. Because it had a turbocharger that went “vroom vroom” when I wanted to impress hot chicks at stoplights. The only thing “turbo” couldn’t make cooler is “Turbotax,” which is evil and should be banished from the planet. Or at least renamed to “Regular Tax.”

In a way, “turbo cancer” really is a way cooler variation of a cancer that you can get, because it doesn’t exist. It’s a term made up by anti-vaxxers who were sure that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine would lead to a domino effect of immune suppression and cellular malfunction resulting in a horrifically deadly form of cancer. There is, of course, negative data for this, in that there was no evidence that this was happening in early trials, there is no known mechanism for it happening without COVID-19 itself also being a carcinogen (which it is not), and in the years since a worldwide vaccination campaign, there has been no noticeable increase in cancer rates.

And yet! In the past few weeks I’ve seen a noticeable increase in people with blue checks on Xitter proclaiming that there is now ample evidence to conclude that mRNA vaccines DO cause turbocancer, and as someone who has received like a dozen vaccines and boosters at this point it’s only a matter of time before my wish is granted and I, too, succumb to that raddest of diseases, turbocancer.

This is all based on a study published a few weeks ago in the journal Cureus. If you think you know how that journal is spelled, no you do not. Cureus is a journal known for taking a fast and loose approach to preprint peer review, preferring to approve them in a day or so and then have people evaluate their studies after they’re published, which is why they are just constantly retracting shit. Like the time they had to retract 56 papers that all came from the students of one Saudi Arabian university that required medical interns to publish anything, anywhere, before getting into a postgrad residency. It took them two years to retract the papers. At least two of the “authors” had no idea they were even published.

This shouldn’t be surprising: Cureus published their first issue before they even had a peer review their name for spelling and not looking dumb as hell.

Anyway, this new study is called Increased Age-Adjusted Cancer Mortality After the Third mRNA-Lipid Nanoparticle Vaccine Dose During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Japan, and the good news is that the entire thing is available in full online for anyone to read and critique. After all, that’s the point of Cureus: throw the spaghetti at the wall and let everyone else see what sticks. In this case, open access means that we can all clearly see a pile of limp, undercooked pasta lying on the floor in a sad pile.

The authors write:

“(In Japan) No significant excess mortality was observed during the first year of the pandemic (2020). However, some excess cancer mortalities were observed in 2021 after mass vaccination with the first and second vaccine doses, and significant excess mortalities were observed for all cancers and some specific types of cancer (including ovarian cancer, leukemia, prostate cancer, lip/oral/pharyngeal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and breast cancer) after mass vaccination with the third dose in 2022.”

Okay, so because you are a subscribed fan of this channel and therefore are very smart and good looking, you immediately realize that this paper presents a correlation between deaths from cancer and vaccine timing, but no evidence of causation. 

For every US presidential election between 1940 and 2000, every time the Washington, DC football team won its final home game of the season, the incumbent won the presidency and when the team lost, so did the incumbent. This is an example of a very strong correlation which has absolutely no evidence of causation. Hell, there’s not even a really good candidate for a confounding factor that might be impacting each of these outcomes, though I would absolutely love to read your hypotheses in the comments.

In this turbocancer study – okay, the authors never refer to turbocancer but I just like saying it and the obvious end goal of the authors is to support the turbocancer conspiracy theory – in this turbocancer study, there IS a pretty obvious confounding factor: the fucking pandemic??? People who have cancer are pretty famously unhealthy and at the hospital a lot where there are lots of people with communicable diseases like COVID-19, so it’s not exactly crazy to suspect that more people with cancer are going to die during a global pandemic than when there is no global pandemic, right? And the lack of excess deaths in the first year of the pandemic might be easily explained by the fact that Japan locked down when the pandemic started and didn’t open back up until vaccines were available, meaning that the pandemic didn’t hit them until 2021, and thanks to the vaccines transmission didn’t even spike until omicron hit in 2022.

So we have a pretty good explanation for this correlation that doesn’t involve a magical means of mRNA vaccines causing turbocancer. But I’ve gone and buried the lede here because…in reality, this study didn’t even find a correlation.

I know, I know, that excerpt from the abstract sure makes it sound like they found a correlation, but when we look at the actual data they used, you’ll notice some funny stuff. For instance, there IS no excess cancer mortality year over year in Japan during the pandemic. The age-adjusted number of cancer deaths has been steadily dropping for many years now, and during the pandemic that continued. The researchers’ own data show that this number leveled off between 2020 and 2021 before continuing to drop in 2022.

Those are their own numbers, but over on Dr. Susan Oliver’s channel Back to the Science, she points out something I didn’t know – other researchers have taken the same exact data and found very different results.

I recommend you watch her entire video if this topic interests you because she goes into more detail on some of the shenanigans these researchers used, AND she tears an anti-vaccine YouTuber a new asshole, AND she pets an adorable dog, so it’s a win win win in my opinion.

Back in early 2020 I was confident that by 2024 we’d have the excess mortality data for scientists to examine, to adjust for confounding factors, and to then use to know with some degree of certainty how many people have died because of COVID-19. And I was right, we do! I was also right that this data would show that COVID caused a great amount of damage, and that the numbers would also show that the eventual vaccine worked to save lives. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that we’d have anti-vaxx scientists who would manipulate that data to show the opposite, and publish it in predatory, poorly managed journals for COVID denying anti-vaccine laypeople to take as gospel. 

Trust the science, but make sure it’s actually science, first. Like…turboscience?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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