Fact check: False claim that cancer has spiked as a result of COVID-19 vaccines

The claim: Cancer increased twentyfold among COVID-19 vaccinated due to suppressed T cells

As health systems across the country begin offering COVID-19 booster shots to those eligible under the CDC's Sept. 24 recommendation, an article circulating on social media claims the life-saving vaccines are creating more disease than they're fighting.

"Idaho doctor reports a '20 times increase' of cancer in vaccinated patients," reads the headline of the Sept. 13 article published by LifeSiteNews, a faith-themed website whose Facebook page was banned by Facebook in May for repeatedly violating the platform's COVID-19 policies concerning misinformation.

The Idaho doctor, Dr. Ryan Cole, says he observed a "20 times increase of endometrial cancers" since Jan. 1 over what he's seen on an annual basis, according to an Aug. 25 video shared to Twitter, which the LifeSiteNews article is based on. He also reported seeing a rash of "invasive melanomas in younger patients... skyrocketing in the last month or two" and an uptick in various autoimmune diseases.

Cole asserts the culprits behind this slew of health problems are none other than the COVID-19 vaccines, which he claims are instigating a "drop in your killer T cells," a type of immune cell.

The Sept. 13 article has been shared across Facebook and amassed nearly 10,000 likes, shares and comments within a week, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.

But it's nonsense.

The claim that the COVID-19 vaccines can cause autoimmune disease has been previously debunked by USA TODAY. Similarly, experts say Cole's claim of COVID-19 vaccines suppressing killer T cells has no basis in reality. And there's no evidence of a cancer surge since the vaccine rollout.

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Cole, owner and operator of his own medical laboratory chain, gained prominence this summer for his vocal opposition to COVID-19 vaccines – calling them "fake" and "needle rape." He also convinced Idaho school officials to scrap a mask mandate.

Cole did not reply to USA TODAY's request for comment. USA TODAY reached out to LifeSiteNews for comment.

T cells coordinate immune defense

Antibodies, immune molecules made in response to a foreign invader, have been well-publicized for their role in vaccine-induced immunity. But these Y-shaped proteins aren't the only ace up our immune system's sleeve.

T cells – the immune cells Cole mentions – are a type of white blood cell with many different functions but of two major types: helper T cells that coordinate an immune attack, and killer T cells that do the killing.

Typically during an immune response to a virus, helper T cells interact with and activate B cells – the white blood cell antibody makers – and killer T cells. Activated killer T cells go off hunting for any infected cells, killing them by triggering a self-destruct sequence programmed into all cells of the human body.

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T cell- and B cell-based defense appears a vital element in determining whether a patient survives COVID-19 infection, said Kristen Cohen, a senior staff scientist in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash.

"(Studies show) you did better in the context of severe disease in terms of survival if you had both arms of the immune system fending off the infection," she told USA TODAY.

However, with COVID-19, Cohen said it was unclear how much killer T cells specifically contribute to the cause.

"We know they're induced and we know they're highly functional... but we don't have clear, sort of causal data ... that they contribute to clearing the infection," she said.

COVID-19 vaccines encourage T cells

Cole's claim about a drop in killer T cells is exactly wrong, said E. John Wherry, director of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine's Institute for Immunology.

"There are dozens of studies at this point showing that these vaccines induce potent virus-specific T cells and that the rest of the T cell compartment is left essentially normal, essentially untouched," he told USA TODAY. "There's no logical way that (Cole's claim of killer T cells being affected) makes any sense."

In a recent study published in the journal Immunity, Wherry and colleagues found that in healthy people with no prior COVID-19 infection, helper T cells rose after the first dose and killer T cell counts rose after the second dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Vaccination appeared to boost a T cell immunity already present in previously infected, fully vaccinated people, although only after the first dose and not by that much.

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"In these cases, that the people who got COVID-19 first and then got their vaccination, the vaccination basically acted a little bit like you might predict a boost to do if we give people a (vaccine) boost," Wherry said.

Once the vaccines cajole these T cells into existence, both Cohen and Wherry said they can remain in our bodies for a pretty long time, likely up to six or seven months, much like some studies estimate for antibodies.

No recent spike in cancers

As for an uptick in cancer, there's no nationwide data available to know whether incidence rates have indeed increased since the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. But an increase in cancer treatment was expected in the wake of the pandemic.

Wherry said a rising incidence of cancer was more likely associated with delays in medical care during the pandemic than with the COVID-19 vaccines. One Harvard research study found one in five U.S. adults delayed or did not get medical care at all.

"The American Association of Cancer Research actually published some commentaries and white papers on this last year and early this year, sort of pointing out that we now clearly expect to see a rising incidence of cancer because of the delayed care that was delivered for the past year," he said. "And that rising incidence is probably going to last for several years."

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And such a quick increase in cancer wouldn't be realistic anyhow given the nature of the disease, said Dr. Laura Makaroff, senior vice president of prevention and early detection for The American Cancer Society.

"This story from Dr. Ryan Cole appears to be based on data from a single laboratory. Additional laboratory and population-based data would be necessary to confirm the finding," she wrote in an email to USA TODAY. "However, any increase in cancer incidence during this short time period since (the) COVID-19 vaccine rollout defies the natural history of cancer and years of epidemiological study, where we see over a decade between exposure and cancer occurrence."

A twenty-fold increase in any cancer was highly unlikely within this short timeframe, Makaroff said.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that cancer increased twentyfold among the COVID-19 vaccinated due to suppressed T cells. Studies have shown COVID-19 vaccines encourage, not suppress, T cells, including killer T cells. And there's no evidence for an increased incidence of cancer since the vaccine rollout. A rise in cancer is more likely associated with delays in medical care due to the pandemic.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: False claim of cancer rise since vaccine rollout