A British professor who has claimed that aluminium in vaccines is linked to autism has raised more than £22,000 to support his work through a Keele University online donations portal, the Guardian can reveal.
Prof Chris Exley angered health experts for claiming that tiny amounts of aluminium in inactivated vaccines, such as the HPV and whooping cough inoculations, may cause “the more severe and disabling form of autism”.
In 2017, the professor of bioinorganic chemistry published a paper on aluminium found in the brain tissue of five autistic patients that has been shared tens of thousands of times by vaccine skeptics online – despite criticism from health experts over its lack of controls and small sample size.
The research was part-funded by a grant from the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute, a US-based organisation that challenges vaccine safety.
A Freedom of Information Act request by the Guardian has found that Exley received £22,173.88 in donations since October 2015 to help support his work, ranging from £2 to £5,000. More than £11,000 of contributions were made between January and April 2019. The majority of donations are less than £100.
Exley told the Guardian: “[The money is used to] support basic running costs of my lab and are not associated with any specific project. This is the nature of a donation as compared to a grant.”
Exley is group leader of the Birchall Centre at Keele University, which researches the role of metals in biology and materials science. Keele University said it did not support his claims about links between aluminium in vaccines and autism, adding: “The university emphatically supports the NHS policy of vaccination by recognising the importance current vaccines play in protecting childhood and adult health in the UK and globally.”
In April, the crowdfunding site GoFundMe took down a campaign started by Exley’s supporters to help fund his research because it reportedly violated the company’s policy against promoting misinformation about vaccines. No funds from the GoFundMe campaign were ever received by the professor. Keele University reviewed its own funding arrangements for Exley and has since created a new donation system with “a higher degree of transparency”.
When asked about the appropriateness of the University of Keele funding portal for Exley’s research, Paul A Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he was not concerned about the nature of the funding for a study, but only with its scientific quality.
Offit added: “If someone raises a hypothesis, for example, a parent is concerned because their child has received an aluminium-containing vaccine and they’re worried it has caused their child developmental delay or an autoimmune syndrome, that’s a fair question to ask. And it’s an answerable question. The public health and academic community responds by answering that question.
“What matters is the strength and the internal consistency of the study, robustness and reproducibility of the data. Period.”
Offit cited a 2017 study that examined the relationship between the aluminium levels found in the blood and hair of children aged nine to 13 months, their immunisation history and their cognitive development, finding no relationship.
Exley’s paper on aluminium in the brain tissue of five autistic patients in 2017 has been shared more than 50,000 times on Facebook.
Prof Heidi J Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said social media companies should partner with scientists to combat vaccine disinformation online.
“Social media companies have the expertise and access to adjust the algorithms to mitigate rather than amplify negative information, but identifying which content is inaccurate and potentially causing illness or death should be guided by health and scientific experts.
“The key issue is that the public health and scientific community needs to become more nimble and responsive and be far more present in the social media space. That’s where the public lives and we’re just not there in any compelling way.
In a statement, Keele University said: “Whilst we have processes to ensure that all university research is performed under strict ethical procedures, this does not necessarily mean that the personal views of academics when interpreting their research represent the views of the institution as a whole.”