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Preliminary study disseminated by anti-vaccine groups

The American Heart Association (AHA), a nongovernmental organization that funds and publishes research on heart diseases, hosted an online meeting between November 13 and 15 where hundreds of doctors and scientists gave brief presentations of their current research—a compilation of the summaries of these studies was published in the journal Circulation. In early December, one of the abstracts was subject to an “expression of concern,” suggesting there is an issue with the study and its results are being reconsidered.

The study was presented by Steven Gundry, a heart surgeon who claimed that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, like those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, increase inflammatory markers in blood vessels and the risk of heart attacks. According to the expression of concern, mistakes and omissions were identified in the abstract: “Specifically, there are several typographical errors, there is no data in the abstract regarding myocardial T-cell infiltration, there are no statistical analyses for significance provided, and the author is not clear that only anecdotal data was used.”

Despite how swiftly the alert was issued, the paper was widely shared on social media by antivaccine groups—there were 63,000 posts about the abstract on Twitter alone. Gundry is known for his diet books in which he claims that foods rich in a protein called lectin, such as grains and dairy, have a high inflammatory potential and should be avoided. This recommendation is disputed by nutrition experts. The surgeon, who has a clinic in California, USA, also sells dietary supplements online that supposedly protect the body from the harmful effects of lectin.

The episode drew criticism from the AHA on the lack of requirements for publishing abstract. AHA spokeswoman Michelle Kirkwood told Retraction Watch that a panel of experts screened the abstracts, but its role is to analyze the potential to spark discussion among researchers rather than a study’s validity. “Abstracts are considered preliminary research and represent the beginning of a scientific conversation on the findings, which may then, ultimately, result in a full manuscript published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal,” she said. “The Association regrets any confusion regarding COVID-19 vaccines, especially among the lay public who may be unfamiliar with scientific meetings.”