ICAN | 29 Nov 2022

When CDC authors conducted a study showing that vaccinated individuals could still spread SARS-CoV-2, they could not get it published, even in the CDC’s own MMWR!

Background of the Study

In January 2022, ICAN, through its attorneys, filed legal requests with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Health for all communications of the CDC-affiliated authors of a pre-print study titled, “Shedding of Infectious SARS-CoV-2 Despite Vaccination.”  The study, which appeared in medRXiv on August 24, 2021, found that “vaccinated persons can spread Delta.”  Because at least one of the authors of this study was a CDC employee, and because the outcome cut against the CDC’s narrative, ICAN wanted to investigate.

In late March 2022, the University of Wisconsin-Madison produced 730 pages of records in response to ICAN’s request.  Later, in April 2022, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services produced 70 pages of records regarding the same study.  These documents show that the study’s authors, despite being employees of the CDC and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, struggled mightily to get their study published, likely because it highlighted that, as one of the authors put it, “fully vaccinated individuals are capable of shedding high viral loads.”

Attempts at Publishing

Nature Medicine declined to publish the study because “the insights provided by the new data do not offer a sufficient translational or clinical advance over the recently published literature in this area that would appeal to the broad readership of Nature Medicine.”  It is, of course, patently ridiculous to claim that a novel finding that the COVID-19 vaccine does not prevent infection was not clinically noteworthy.

Another journal, PLOS Medicine, declined to publish the study because it was “looking for papers of wide general interest which would lead to a substantial advance in clinical management or public health policy, or which provide a substantial new insight into the pathogenesis of disease, with a clear path toward clinical application,” and PLOS Medicine did not feel the study met “editorial criteria.”  Again, stating the paper’s novel finding of increased viral load in the vaccinated versus unvaccinated would not “lead to a substantial advance in clinical management” is insane.

This study had the potential to massively affect the biggest single public health policy at that time and that may have ever existed in this country because it showed that, per the CDC’s approach for unvaccinated individuals, vaccinated individuals should also be masking and testing in the workplace, public facilities, etc. Yet, even the New England Journal of Medicine and the CDC’s own Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) declined to publish the paper. 

The Authors’ Reaction

One of the study’s authors, Thomas Friedrich, Ph.D., expressed his understandable frustration with CDC’s MMWR, stating, “Mostly I am pissed off at CDC’s inane clearance policy and retrograde policy on preprints, as well as at NEJM for sitting on the paper for 6 weeks.”  The “policy on preprints” he refers to is the MMWR’s policy against publishing any paper that has been published elsewhere, even a pre-print.  

Dr. Friedrich added, “I would not do any new experiments now to satisfy MMWR requirements, because they have already burned us once. There is no guarantee they will take it, or that they will move with any speed faster than glacial, even if they agree to consider it.”  Another of the study’s authors, David O’Connor, Ph.D., referred to the CDC’s policy as “backwards and nonsensical.”

In another email exchange, author Katarina Grande, MPH, stated, “Notably, CDC mentioned on a call yesterday … that they were seeing similar patterns of Ct [cycle threshold] values in this cluster – the same Ct values for breakthroughs and non-breakthroughs.  CDC called the Ct finding ‘alarming’ and that they are studying how transmissible these breakthroughs with low Ct values are.”  That same week, the CDC revised its mask guidance to urge vaccinated individuals to wear masks, since, as Dr. Rochelle Walensky put it,

“…vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus.  This finding is concerning and was a pivotal discovery leading to CDC’s updated mask recommendation.  The masking recommendation was updated to ensure the vaccinated public would not unknowingly transmit virus to others, including their unvaccinated or immunocompromised loved ones.” 

The Broken “Research” Industry’s Real-World Implications

Since the CDC was very much aware of, and concerned about, this issue one must wonder why it declined to publish the study in the MMWR. 

Equally confusing is why the results of the study were not taken into consideration when it came to other policy decisions.  In early September 2021, President Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a rule requiring private sector employers with 100 or more employees to require their employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine or produce a negative test on a weekly basis.  Of course, this was inconsistent with the CDC’s admission a little more than a month prior, as was acknowledged by the study’s authors. 

As Dr. O’Connor noted, “What I’d also like to see is an end to the ‘get vaccinated or be frequently tested’ dichotomy.  I think this will ultimately do more harm than good.  Why?  Because we *will* need vaccinated people to get tested too…viral loads aren’t different between unvaccinated and breakthrough infections.”  Dr. Friedrich agreed saying, “I agree completely that the data showing high viral loads/low Cts in vaccine breakthrough infections is quite concerning, and indicates that there would be value in testing even vaccinated people in circumstances including congregate settings.”

It is still unclear why public health officials ignored scientific data, but Dr. O’Connor may have solved the mystery regarding why they couldn’t get the research published: “A bit of insight: I spoke to a journalist who told me how our paper is being weaponized by the far right.  It might be that journals don’t want to publish it and deal with the potential backlash.”  Another author, Katarina Grande, MPH, responded, “Ok, that’s helpful context! Unfortunate! Wonder if there is a different frame we could build out in a submission that would help with this. Or is it a lost cause at this point[?]”  Dr. O’Connor responded, “Probably a ‘lost’ cause, but I’m not sure I’d welcome the term ‘lost.’  A paper that has been seen by more than 100,000 people is arguably the most impactful thing I’ve ever been involved with.  Even if it means that it just becomes an opportunity to educate about what the data says and why the weaponization is wrong.”

The saga of this study perfectly encapsulates just how broken the system of research and journal publication is in this country.  If CDC and state department of health employees cannot get their valid research published, even if it is accurate, timely, and highly relevant to topics of crucial importance to the world during a pandemic, unless it contains categorical and unadulterated praise for vaccination, imagine what other crucial research on the issue of immunization and disease go unpublished.  Perhaps even more disturbing is that, not only is the research not getting published, but the results are categorically ignored by public health agencies (and the President!) and, as a result, the best science is shunned when they are imposing sweeping policies that affect the lives of millions of Americans.  ICAN will continue to shine a light on and fight against these problematic issues.

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