Anti-vaccination activists who have relevant credentials are vanishingly rare, especially if you discount one or two obviously dishonest frauds. John Bartholomew Classen, however, is an immunologist as well as an anti-vaccinationist. Whether he is deeply dishonest is a question we’ll not attempt to answer. That he is not completely well-hinged is pretty clear, however.
Classen is best known for publishing research claiming that vaccines, in particular the Hib vaccine, cause insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, based on experiments he conducted on mice in 1996. The claim is without scientific support, and his results have not been reproduced (yes, they have of course been tested). His claims have nevertheless been widely quoted by antivaccine organizations, like the National Vaccine Information Center. Said organizations do not mention the negative results (such as this one of over 100,000 children examined to test the hypothesized connection between Hib vaccines and diabetes, finding no association whatsoever) obtained by other researchers.
It’s not only diabetes, though. Classen has been claiming for years “that vaccines are causing an epidemic of inflammatory diseases including diabetes, obesity and autism”, none of which is remotely true or in accordance with any serious research on the topics (of which there is plenty). His fundamental idea is that vaccinations are overloading children’s immune systems (a claim duly picked up as axiomatic by antivaccine organizations), resulting in persistent inflammation and exacerbating disease, and the US is currently suffering under an apparent epidemic of chronic inflammation resulting in a comprehensive inhibitory response manifesting as obesity and metabolic syndrome. Yeah, not only do vaccines give you autism; they also make you fat. According to Classen, vaccines are worse than cigarettes for public health. His papers on the topic include a review article published in the Journal of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Obesity, a predatory journal, which looks at studies that, regardless of quality or publication venue, can be used to look like they support his claim (the articles are also mostly Classen’s own), and deliberately overlooks all the publications that can’t be made to fit, regardless of how sloppy you are. (He does, however, address the fact that research doesn’t find results similar to what he finds: “vaccine-induced immune overload may lead to different outcomes in different individuals” – i.e. any result is evidence for his claim, regardless of what it might possibly say; all studies are hence in reality superfluous).
Of course, Classen doesn’t like to be called “anti-vaccine”; he is pro-safe vaccines … but vaccines cause more or less every disease and misfortune known to us and are vastly riskier than infectious disease and, as mentioned, a worse threat to public health than cigarettes. Classen even runs his own company, Classen Immunotherapies, which “has developed and patented methods which create financial incentives for finding and disclosing adverse event information”; in other words: the company is devoted to showing that vaccines are dangerous (regardless of the fact that they’re not). And the grift? “These methods pertain to patenting the disclosure of adverse events.” Ah, yes, there we go.
Classen is probably most famous, however, for being the originator of the false claim that the mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 could cause prion diseases. The claim was, in particular, laid out in his paper “COVID-19 RNA based vaccines and the risk of prion disease” published in Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, a non-journal issued by SciVision Publisher, a noted publisher of predatory journals. The claim is completely false (that assessment is really not controversial), and Classen notably offered no description of his methodology and not a shred of evidence whatsoever for the core claims of his argument (that the sequence overlaps between the Pfizer vaccine are greater than what occurs with any randomly-selected stretch of RNA, or that the vaccine could cause zinc to be released or that doing so would affect its purported targets as Classen proposed); and the core claims are, indeed, in direct conflict with basic scientific knowledge. Instead of evidence, Classen basically encouraged the reader to take his word for the claims.
His false claims about vaccines are not Classen’s only notable claim about COVID-19. His website also states that “the current outbreak of COVID-19 is actually a bioweapon attack and may be linked to the US anthrax attack of 2001, which originated from the US army base Fort Detrick.” And his prion disease nonsense is not the only ridiculous conspiracy nonsense that Classen has published with SciVision; his publications also include a paper that is mostly a copy-paste effort of a previous paper (something that, needless to say, no serious journal would accept), one paper that speculates, with no discernible support, that the spate of e-vaping lung injuries reported in late 2019 was actually caused in part by COVID-19, and one paper that argues that the MMR vaccine may have been used to selectively inoculate people in 2018 and 2019 in anticipation of a purported COVID-19 bioweapon, a conspiracy theory that, according to Classen, was inspired by the arrest of Jeffery Epstein (surely a hint of Qanon here). It is safe to conclude that SciVision is not a respectable publishing company.
Diagnosis: Another deranged pseudoscientist and conspiracy theorist, but Classen’s got genuine credentials to lend his wild-eyed rants a sheen of legitimacy, as well as sufficient amounts of technobabble and references to serve the purposes various denialist organizations want served. Laughable but genuinely dangerous.