US Military Psychics

The incredible tale of how the CIA and American military spent $20 million trying to read people's minds.


November 23, 2009


[Read it on the Maisonneuve site here.]

Spies and psychics. They are as different as chocolate and peanut butter, and conspiracy theorists love them both. Throw them together, however, into the same story, and you've got a whole new level of fun and insanity—Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup on a millennial, almost Biblical scale.
So when word got out in 1995 that US military intelligence had been funding efforts to read people's minds for more than twenty years, the strange news inspired all sorts of excitement and derision—particularly when some of these same psychics expressed their belief in UFOs, time travel and alien-human hybrids.
One of the first military mentalists to disclose details of the program was David Morehouse. In his 1996 book Psychic Warrior, he recounts how, as a soldier, he started to have strange visions and out-of-body experiences after a stray bullet hit his helmet during a training exercise. Instead of getting psychiatric treatment, Morehouse, a decorated Ranger and airborne captain, was enrolled in the military’s highly secretive Stargate program.
Stargate had begun at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the early 1970s, in conjunction with a couple of laser scientists from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a body affiliated with Stanford University that did a lot of research for the U.S. government. One of the SRI scientists, Hal Puthoff, had already been dabbling in parapsychology when he was approached by CIA agents looking for a lab that could handle “a quiet, low-profile, classified investigation” outside normal academic lines.
According to Puthoff, the boys from Langley believed that the Russkies might be getting ahead in psychic experiments and felt that the CIA, too, needed to get involved—if only to figure out if the Soviets were capable of mind-controlling American generals.
Puthoff, a high-level Scientologist, claimed that he could “remotely view” things that he couldn’t physically see—such as information on a building directory inside a locked building. The boys at Langley grew interested and, in 1972, the CIA started funding Puthoff and his “empaths” (often fellow Scientologists).
These were heady, psychedelic times. The previous year, a US Army intelligence official, quoting an astrologer, had warned that “there is great danger that within the next 10 years the Soviets will be able to steal our top secrets by using out-of-body spies.” Soviet efforts at mind-reading would later be largely discredited as hoaxes, but fears of a psychic cold war had a receptive audience in the fringes of the US national security establishment. Stargate possessed a veneer of science as well as the possibility of gaining formidable advantage over the enemy.
The military’s foray into crystal-ballism was also part of a broader attempt by US spies and solders to reinvent themselves in the dog days after Vietnam. Within the CIA, there had always been tension between factions accustomed to more hard-edged tactics (such as the Phoenix program, which tortured and assassinated suspected Vietnamese peasant leaders) and those staff who favoured softer techniques—such as dusting Fidel Castro’s shoes with poisonous thallium to make his beard fall off. Now, in the earlier 1970s, the kooky coalition seemed to gain the upper edge.
One of the gurus of this rethink was Jim Channon, an army lieutenant-colonel assigned to study ways of creating a more “spiritual” army. According to Jon Ronson in The Men Who Stare at Goats, Channon attended a retreat at the Esalen Institute for the Advancement of Human Potential in Big Sur. Led by mentor Michael Murphy, a founder of the New Age movement, Channon engaged there in Reichian rebirthing, primal arm wrestling (regular arm wrestling combined with guttural screaming) and naked hot-tub encounter sessions. When he emerged, Channon wrote a confidential report in 1979 that started: “The U.S. army doesn’t really have any serious alternative than to be wonderful.”
Channon’s report proposed the creation of a First Earth Battalion of Zen-master super soldiers with telepathic powers. These “warrior monks” would carry ginseng regulators in their uniforms, divining tools and a loudspeaker to play indigenous music and words. They would also give their enemies “an automatic hug” and carry lambs into hostile countries, a symbol of their peaceful intent. They would learn how to fast, sense plant auras, pass through walls and “stop using mindless clichés.” “It is America’s role to lead the world to paradise,” he wrote.
(Channon’s idea of using loud music to confuse the enemy was tested out a few years later on Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega. In 2003, in Iraq, US Army soldiers forced detainees to listen to children’s songs like “I Love You” from Barney and Friends. The technique continues to be used on al-Qaeda prisoners today—some of them, according to Ronson, locked blindfolded in burning hot metal shipping containers, forced into crouching positions and surrounded by barbed wire while the music plays loudly non-stop for days.)
Far from being ridiculed, Channon’s report deeply moved a group of senior army officers, some brought nearly to tears, writes Ronson, because they held so many pent-up emotions from Vietnam. Channon’s report also would serve as a vision for Stargate.
Mind-reading by psychics was, in a sense, a logical extension of earlier and more invasive mind-control experiments that had been going on since World War Two. The MKULTRA project, started in 1953, attempted to emulate mind-control techniques used on U.S. prisoners by the Soviets, Chinese and North Koreans during the Korean War. Under the MKULTRA aegis, pregnant women were blasted with radiation, US army soldiers were dosed with LSD to study panic, US Navy sailors were exposed to sub-aural frequency blasts to erase memory, and a group of Oregon prison inmates had their testicles irradiated—invariably without full knowledge or consent by the subjects. In all, more than 150 individually funded research sub-projects—most of which, due to deliberately destroyed records, we know nothing about—existed within MKULTRA and related CIA programs.
Soon after being founded, the Stargate remote viewing program was cancelled by the CIA and ended up in the hands of the US military. The transfer was prompted by the 1975 Watergate scandal and ensuing Congressional investigation of the CIA, which scuttled many of its more controversial programs (including MKULTRA).
Many at the CIA were happy to see Stargate go. According to The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, one CIA man tells author Jeffrey Richelson that the official who had approved the program had been “out of his mind.” As a means of intelligence, he felt, Stargate was “useless” and “absolute bullshit.”
Indeed, those early experiments had led to mixed results for spying purposes, Richelson reports. The psychics had some accurate visions, but a very large percentage of what they envisioned was vague or plain wrong. In one operation, the early program’s leading psychic, Pat Price, was given coordinates of a Soviet military base in Kazakhstan, which Air Force intel thought could be a centre for particle-beam research. In four sessions spanning four days, Price gave what an evaluator judged to be “an almost perfect description of someone’s first look at the Operations Area” of the facility—low one-storey buildings partially dug into the ground, with a large crane. But other specifics given by Price—a 500-foot antenna, an outdoor pool, a nearby airstrip—were completely inaccurate.
Puthoff later touted the experiment as a success by pointing to the description of the large crane. But CIA officials didn’t agree, saying it amounted to lucky guessing. When Puthoff published some of his unclassified results in the journal Nature in 1974, an accompanying editorial comment called the paper “weak in design and presentation” and “disconcertingly vague” on details about the research methodology. A consistent problem was a lack of controls to ensure there had been no fraud.
The psychic research was a “dumb exercise” that produced “lots of laughing,” according to a senior CIA scientist quoted by Richelson, but it was justified because of the psychic research gap with the Soviets. When the Washington Post reported on CIA support for paranormal research in 1977, Richelson reports CIA director Stansfield Turner acknowledged the agency had had a man gifted with “visio-perception” of places he had never seen—a reference to Pat Price—but, Turner said with a smile, the man had died two years earlier, “and we haven’t heard from him since.”
Stargate’s new master, the US Air Force and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), quietly chipped in funds to keep the experiments going in the mid-1970s and eventually set up its own in-house psychic spying unit, funded by the US Army Intelligence and Security Command. Stargate’s headquarters was a run-down block of buildings at the Fort Meade Army base in Maryland.
By the 1980s, remote viewers had participated in dozens of intelligence-finding missions. Military sessions usually involved five to ten viewers with months of training all focusing on the same target in several sessions in order to make up for the limited accuracy of each viewer. The focus of viewing attempts included foreign buildings, Soviet submarines, Americans held hostage in Iran during the crisis of 1979-80, and in 1981, Brigadier General James Dozier, who had recently been kidnapped in Italy. The unit was praised by President Jimmy Carter for finding a downed Soviet bomber in Africa in 1979 after other spies had failed. Other missions of the psychic unit, according to a 1995 story in the Washington Post, include attempts to locate plutonium in North Korea and Muammar Gaddafi before the US raid on Libya in 1986.
Viewers also apparently tried their hand at some spacier stuff. One psychic took to trying to find the Loch Ness monster when there wasn’t any military work to do. (He determined that Nessie was actually a dinosaur’s ghost.) Another claimed to have killed a goat and his pet hamster by staring at them for days on end. And according to Ronson, a general in the program kept trying to walk through walls.
But members of the program tended to belie the stereotyped image of flaky New Agers. One psychic, Paul Smith, was a young US Army intelligence officer, Arab linguist and a devout Mormon. Analytical and clipped in both his writing and personal manner, Smith had no previous interest in extrasensory perception. As he writes in Reading the Enemy’s Mind: Inside Star Gate, America’s Psychic Espionage Program, Smith was recruited into Stargate in 1983 in part because of his skepticism about remote viewing. The program apparently didn’t want the true believers. Early research had also uncovered something surprising: “remote viewing” (a fancy military term for clairvoyance, or sending your “mind’s eye” to see things far away) wasn’t the exclusive domain of a few gifted psychics. Anybody could learn how to do it.
Although initially dubious, Smith says over the next seven years he became one of the army’s premier “remote viewers” and the main author of its extrasensory training manual. He would later serve as a tactical intelligence officer in the 101st Airborne Division in Operation Desert Storm/Shield. (David Morehouse, also a Mormon, entered the program in 1988 and trained under Smith.)
“My success rate was around 28 percent,” said one spy, Joe McMoneagle, to the Daily Mail newspaper this past January. “That may not sound very good, but we were brought in to deal with the hopeless cases. Our information was then cross-checked with any other available intelligence to build up an overall picture.” McMoneagle’s work eventually earned him the Legion of Merit, America’s highest military non-combat medal.
By one tally, of eighty-one projects between 1979 and 1982, twenty-one produced positive results, six were mixed, another six were terminated or not completed, and twelve were unsuccessful. The remaining thirty-eight received no evaluation or the results were not disclosed, according to Smith in Reading the Enemy’s Mind.
Even investigative journalist Jack Anderson, one of the first reporters to expose Stargate in a Washington Post column as a misuse of government funds, became a believer in the program’s value. “In concept if not always in execution, it was worth taxpayers’ dollars,” he wrote in the foreword to Smith’s book.
But many in the military remained skeptical. Fundamentalist Christians in the Army considered Stargate the Devil’s work. Nor was Stargate a well-supported program: lack of funds for renovations meant staff relied on scrap furniture to furbish much of their office. When one senator toured the program at Fort Meade, he apparently asked “where all the winos were” as he ascended the rickety steps.
In 1995, the program’s enemies finally won. In the throes of downsizing after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the DIA decided to kill Stargate. But remote viewing had a few friends in Congress, who pressed the CIA to take back the program it had started 20 years earlier. Urged on by supporters like Senator Claiborne Pell—sometimes referred to as “The Senator from Outer Space”—Congress mandated the CIA to review the usefulness of the 20-year psychic program, which had cost $20 million. The CIA, unhappy at the prospect of welcoming home the controversial mentalists, contracted out the study to the nonprofit American Institutes of Research (AIR), which in turn brought in two outside experts, statistician Jessica Utts and psychology professor Ray Hyman.
As a visiting scientist in the SRI program in the 1980s, Utts was a true believer in remote viewing, while Hyman was a longstanding debunker of all things paranormal, and a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. They had butted heads over remote viewing before and this study would ultimately only reinforce their positions.
Utts reviewed 26,000 remote viewing trials done in 154 experiments at SRI. Her conclusion: “The statistical results were so overwhelming that results that extreme or more so would occur only about once in every 10 to the 20th such instances if chance alone is the explanation… Obviously some explanation other than chance must be found.”
Utts also studied 445 other trials in six more recent remote viewing experiments overseen by an internationally reputed panel of scientists (including a Nobel winner for physics) at Science Applications International Corporation. She claims to have found statistically significant results supporting psychic phenomena in four of the six experiments and calls the evidence for remote viewing “a lot stronger than for many effects we accept in everyday life. It’s on par with the effect of aspirin in preventing heart attacks.”
Hyman was less charitable to Stargate than Utts. He admitted that the case for psychic functioning seemed better than ever, and conceded that the data was puzzling—“I do not have a ready explanation for these observed effects”—but remained unconvinced, primarily because “it is impossible in principle to say that any particular experiment or experimental series is completely free from possible flaws… especially [ones] that have not yet been discovered.”
English psychologist Richard Wiseman summed up the problem nicely in a recent article in the Daily Mail: “If I said that there is a red car outside my house, you would probably believe me. But if I said that a UFO had just landed, you’d probably want a lot more evidence. Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionize the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions. Right now we don’t have that evidence.”
Hyman also noted a practical issue: remote viewers were said to be accurate about 20 percent of the time, but this wasn’t good enough for intel purposes. “Without any way to tell which statements of the views are reliable and which are not, the use of this information may make matters worse rather than better.”
The final report submitted by AIR to the CIA was damning and recommended against pursuing the program. Remote viewing had “failed to produce the concrete, specific information valued in intelligence reporting,” it said. The CIA pulled the plug in 1995.
But far from dying a quiet death, remote viewing gained a new life. Shutting down Stargate meant that formerly employed military psychics could now go public with their knowledge of the program itself—at length and in best-selling books—and set up private practices to continue their experiments.
Paul Smith and David Morehouse have both started private remote viewing training businesses. Remote Viewing Instructional Services, Inc. in Austin, Texas, founded by Smith, offers a 50-hour Basic Remote Viewing Course ($2,000) that includes a lecture from Hal Puthoff, the guy who helped kick off the whole thing back in the seventies.
In San Diego and San Marcos (north of San Diego), David Morehouse Productions offers a series of classes, from two to five days in length ($495 to $1,290). Classes are co-taught by Morehouse’s wife, Patty, and fellow psychic Jason Appleby. Students include police officers, border guards and medical professionals interested in becoming more perceptive about people they deal with on the job. Practising their techniques “heightens your intuition almost immediately. Once you do it more, you start to notice it more in a waking state too, learning to trust your gut more,” Appleby said.
What about using remote viewing for evil—cheating at cards or figuring out a bank’s layout? Appleby says some students start off wanting to use it to make money, but quickly drop the notion because remote viewing has significant limitations and is hard work.
Besides, Appleby said, students are quickly awakened to a spiritual side of remote viewing. “There’s something really profound about looking at the paper record of a session, having proof that there is more than just the physical body. People spend their entire lives in different faiths looking for just a glimpse of something like that, and here it is. It’s really something extraordinary. I think it’s the most profound story of history.”
(Reprinted from Issue 28, Summer 2008)

What’s in Your H1N1 Flu Vaccine?

By Alex Roslin
November 19, 2009
The Georgia Straight
[see the story at the Straight website]

Chris Shaw wasn’t always skeptical about vaccines. The neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia had his teenage son vaccinated with most of the recommended shots. But then he started studying some of the ingredients commonly found in vaccines.
What he discovered caused him to go cold turkey on all shots for his six-year-old daughter. And that includes the vaccine for the H1N1 flu.
“I am not convinced H1N1 is sufficiently hazardous to most people to risk the potential downside of the vaccine,” Shaw said over the phone from his office in the research pavilion at the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.
Shaw isn’t an easily dismissed vaccine conspiracy theorist. He is a leading expert on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Parkinson’s disease. While investigating unusually high rates of ALS and other neurological disorders among veterans who have Gulf War syndrome, he found evidence that the cause may have been aluminum salt, an ingredient in the cocktail of vaccines given to soldiers before deployment [see sidebar, below].
Although aluminum salt isn’t present in the H1N1 vaccine, Shaw’s discovery made him concerned about other vaccines, including the swine-flu shot. He isn’t alone in his thoughts.
Despite a full frontal assault of news about the dangers of the flu and the importance of vaccination, a survey in late October revealed that only 36 percent of Canadians said they would get the shot. Lack of trust in the vaccine was cited as the main reason for vaccine opposition. Another poll in November found that 65 percent of Canadians believe the media has overreacted to the threat of swine flu.
Even many health workers aren’t convinced. In two separate surveys, in the U.K. (Pulse) and Hong Kong (British Medical Journal), published in August, half of health-care professionals said they didn’t intend to get the vaccine.
Canadian health officials and some newspaper columnists have reacted by accusing vaccine opponents of being conspiracy mongers or just plain irresponsible.
Who is right? Is the cure really worse than the disease? Let’s look at some numbers.
First, the disease. Swine flu had killed 161 Canadians as of November 12. That works out to one death per 200,000 Canadians in the past six-and-a-half months. Over the same period of time, major cardiovascular diseases typically claim 240 times more Canadian lives (about 39,000), cancer claims 230 times more (37,000 deaths), pneumonia kills 18 times more (2,800), and accidental falls claim eight times more (1,260), according to calculations based on 2005 Statistics Canada figures.
H1N1 has about the same death rate as hernias. But we don’t see scary front-page headlines for months on end about hernias, pneumonia, or falling down.
“It’s really not causing—and is not going to cause and nowhere has caused—significant levels of illness or death,” Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health, told the CBC on November 12.
Schabas said H1N1 “has ultimately turned out to be, from a pandemic perspective, a dud”.
What about the vaccine? Is it safe? Despite the onslaught of confident pronouncements from health officials and doctors, Shaw says he hasn’t seen enough information on the safety of the vaccine. “If the science were there, we could make a rational decision. But it’s a coin toss.”
Looking for answers, Shaw turned to the 24-page product-information leaflet on the vaccine released by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline. Health Canada used this document in approving the shot.
The leaflet leaves Shaw cold. “You couldn’t turn this in as a master’s thesis anywhere I know of and get a passing grade,” he said, calling the leaflet a “shocking document”.
Shaw said the material lacks basic information. For example, there is no safety data at all for several groups of people—pregnant women, people aged over 60, kids aged 10 to 17, and children under three. For kids three to nine years old, there is only “very limited” data.
“Where is the safety data that the government used to license the vaccine?” Shaw asked.
Health Canada would not talk to the Straight, and the Public Health Agency of Canada did not respond to a request for an interview.
The H1N1 vaccine includes a component called an adjuvant—which is used to boost the drug’s effectiveness—that has raised a lot of questions.
GlaxoSmithKline says the adjuvant has been tested on 45,000 people worldwide and that clinical trials are now being done on children. In an e-mail, spokesperson Melanie Spoore said the company is planning 25 trials of its various H1N1 vaccines before November 2010.
She also said a different but closely related vaccine made by the company, for the H5N1 flu, includes the same adjuvant and “is generally well-tolerated and has an acceptable safety profile” in both kids and adults.
But Shaw has concerns about the company’s trial results for the H5N1 vaccine. The product leaflet mentions a study in which the company injected the vaccine into pregnant rats. It found “an increased incidence of fetal malformations” and “delayed neurobehavioural maturation”. Another study did not produce the same outcome.
But Shaw says the rat results deserve more study. “Anytime you observe such outcomes, it is a concern,” he said.
The leaflet also mentions a study on ferrets. The animals were given adjuvanted and nonadjuvanted H5N1 vaccines and then exposed to the flu. The ferrets that got the adjuvanted vaccine were protected by the vaccine. But those that got the nonadjuvanted vaccine all died.
This result could be a concern, Shaw said, because Canadian authorities are telling pregnant women to get the nonadjuvanted H1N1 vaccine since the adjuvanted version hasn’t ever been tested on pregnant women. Shaw also said the animal-study information in the leaflet lacks many important details and would be “unpublishable” as presented. “Any [medical-journal] referee would kick this out the window.”
The company’s leaflet also paints a picture of the vaccine’s side effects in humans somewhat different than the usual line from health authorities. The Public Health Agency of Canada says on its Web site that the adjuvanted vaccine is as safe as the nonadjuvanted shot. It also says the rate of “serious adverse events” from vaccination is extremely low—typically “about one for every 100,000 doses of vaccine”.
What we don’t often hear is that the adjuvanted vaccine caused dramatically more side effects than the nonadjuvanted version. Ninety percent of 62 subjects reported pain (versus 37 percent of 62 people for the nonadjuvanted vaccine), 34 percent had muscle soreness (compared to 8 percent with the nonadjuvanted shot), and 14 percent experienced a headache (as opposed to 8 percent for the nonadjuvanted shot), according to the product-information sheet.
Although these reactions are minor, the leaflet also says four of 253 people studied experienced “severe adverse reactions”. Three of the four were deemed to be unrelated to the vaccine, but one case of hypersensitivity (which can mean anything from an allergic reaction to autoimmune disease) was determined “to be related to vaccination”.
That one serious reaction might not sound like a lot, but it actually translates into a rate of 395 cases per 100,000 people. That’s more than 50 times the rate of hospitalization due to H1N1 itself: 7.3 per 100,000 Canadians.
Sucharit Bhakdi is concerned some serious vaccine reactions could go unnoticed. He is a professor of medical microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany. In October—in a coauthored paper in the journal Medical Microbiology—he warned of a possible increase in the risk in heart problems due to mass H1N1 vaccination.
Speaking by phone from his office, Bhakdi cited the higher rate of heart problems when 1.4 million U.S. soldiers were vaccinated for smallpox before the 2003 Iraq war.
Soldiers who received the vaccine had almost 7.5 times the rate of heart inflammation of nonvaccinated personnel, according to a study by U.S. military medical researchers in 2004 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
“Unexpected serious adverse effects thus may follow in the wake of a general vaccination program,” Bhakdi’s paper said.
Yet health authorities and doctors are urging people with heart problems to get the H1N1 vaccine on a priority basis and do not appear to be monitoring them for possibly elevated risks, he said.
Shaw is also concerned about Canada’s monitoring of the side effects of vaccinations, calling the system “flimsy”.
What especially worries Shaw is the possibility of longer-term side effects from the vaccine. Most vaccine safety studies monitor patients for a few days or, at most, several months.
That isn’t enough, Shaw says. With some vaccines, the most serious reactions have taken years to surface. “Neurological problems don’t happen overnight,” he said. “It took five to 10 years to see the bulk of the Gulf War–syndrome outcomes.”
One of the best examples involves a controversial ingredient present in the H1N1 vaccine: thimerosal. Thimerosal is a form of mercury used in some vaccines as a preservative. Drug makers agreed to phase it out of most vaccines after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found in 1999 that mercury levels in children who had gotten multiple shots often exceeded safety levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nonetheless, thimerosal still remains in many flu vaccines.
Controversy has raged for years about whether or not thimerosal is behind soaring childhood autism rates. While that debate continues, a 2008 study in the U.K. journal Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry found that boys who were given a vaccine containing thimerosal were nine times more likely to have developmental problems than unvaccinated boys.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says on its Web site that thimerosal is safe and that the amount in the H1N1 vaccine is below Health Canada’s daily safety limit set for mercury. “There’s significantly less mercury in the vaccine than you would find in a can of tuna fish,” the site states.
In fact, the amount of mercury in the nonadjuvanted H1N1 vaccine does actually exceed the daily safety level for pregnant women. Health Canada has established the safe dietary level of mercury for pregnant women at 0.2 micrograms (millionths of a gram) per kilo of body weight. The nonadjuvanted H1N1 vaccine contains 25 micrograms of mercury.
Simple math tells us an average Canadian pregnant woman—weighing 80 kilograms at term—gets about 56 percent more than the daily safe level of mercury when given a dose of the nonadjuvanted vaccine. By the EPA’s stricter standards, that same dose is actually triple its daily safe level.
What’s more, Shaw notes, those daily safety levels were set for consumption of mercury in food, not for injection directly into the body. Injecting a neurotoxin like mercury has much more impact than eating it, he said.
Squalene is another controversial component of the swine-flu vaccine. It’s an oil found in animal livers and is used as an adjuvant in vaccines and also as a moisturizer in cosmetic products. It is primarily gotten from shark livers—a fact that has upset conservation groups worried about endangered shark populations. Some companies, like Unilever and L’Oréal, have agreed to stop using squalene in cosmetic products.
Debate has raged for years about whether or not squalene is responsible for Gulf War syndrome. Most research suggests that’s not the case, but in recent years much more solid evidence [see here, here, here and here] has found squalene can cause autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis in animals.
Still other questions have been raised about polysorbate 80, another component of the H1N1 vaccine adjuvant. Studies have found it can cause severe allergic reactions and hypersensitivity [see here, here and here].
In the end, we might only get a good picture of the vaccine’s side effects long after swine flu has run its course. Then again, with Canada’s lax monitoring system for side effects, we may never know which was worse.

Chris Shaw's Key Findings
UBC neuroscientist Chris Shaw’s research raises serious questions about a substance used in many vaccines for decades and long thought to be safe—aluminum salt.
Shaw started out looking for an explanation for high rates of ALS among soldiers with Gulf War syndrome.
He found that mice injected with aluminum salt showed symptoms similar to ALS—motor-neuron loss and neuroinflammation in parts of the spinal chord.
His studies [see here and here] conclude the soldiers may have gotten ALS from the aluminum present in the cocktail of vaccines they were given before being deployed to the Mideast in 1991.
Aluminum salt isn’t present in the H1N1 vaccine, but it is present in nearly half of all vaccines licensed in Canada.
Yet, Shaw said no one has followed up on his study to his knowledge. “It’s one of those topics that’s seen as problematic,” he said. “The lack of official curiosity is kind of disturbing.”

Creeping Desert

Will climate change push fertile prairie to desolate wasteland?

By Alex Roslin
Canadian Wildlife, September/October 2009

Water is the lifeblood of the Canadian Prairies—essential for its ecosystems, drinking and economy. But water experts say life could be turned upside down there as climate change brings severe drought, dried-up rivers and near-desertification to the Prairies in coming decades. Some of the impacts are already well underway.
“There is going to be tremendous stress on ecosystems,” says James Byrne, chair of the geography department at the University of Lethbridge. “It’s going to require substantial adjustment.”
“There will be a fair amount of problems in terms of agricultural production,” says Suren Kulshreshtha, an agricultural economist at the University of Saskatchewan. Impacts could include a 10 to 30 per cent drop in crop yields across the Prairies, according to Environment Canada.
Temperatures across the Prairies have already gone up by between one and four degrees Celsius in the past century, depending on the region. By 2100, they’re expected to go up a further 6.5 degrees under a median climate-change forecast in a landmark study coauthored by University of Alberta biologist David Schindler in 2006. He found that temperatures in northern Fort McMurray will be warmer than they are now in Lethbridge, 1,000 kilometres to the south.
Warmer temperatures, in turn, are behind a few parallel trends that are combining to imperil the Prairie water supply: melting glaciers and diminishing snowpacks in the Rocky Mountains, and increased evaporation of soil moisture.
Some of the hardest hit glaciers are in Montana’s Glacier National Park, which also sprawls into British Columbia and Alberta. Ice fields there help feed the South Saskatchewan River, whose waters meander across the Prairies and ultimately drain into Lake Winnipeg. This watershed is the main source of freshwater in a vast expanse of the southern Prairies.
But high up in the Rockies, rising temperatures over the past century have slowly melted 67 per cent of Glacier National Park’s icesheet. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey now estimate the last glaciers there will disappear by 2020—a decade earlier than initial estimates because warming is happening faster than expected.
“All of a sudden the park needs to be renamed because there are no glaciers,” says Stefan Kienzle, a University of Lethbridge hydrologist who studies climate-change impacts in the Prairies and in the mountain headwaters of the region’s rivers. Kienzle worked with other leading Canadian scientists to coauthor a landmark review of those impacts for Natural Resources Canada in 2007. They concluded that rising temperatures will bring widespread drought to the Prairies, especially in late summer, and that there will also be more frequent severe droughts.
Many rivers and streams will dry up, and wildlife that depends on them will be devastated. “A large number of Prairie aquatic species are at risk of extirpation,” the review said.
Byrne, who was one of the lead authors of the study, says the Prairies will eventually turn into an arid tropical zone like Arizona, especially in summertime, with near-desert conditions in some areas. “Overall, the biggest concern is we’re going to see a big increase in variability (of the Prairie climate),” he says.
River flows in the three Prairie provinces are already down substantially. A severe drought in 2001 and 2002 caused an estimated $5.8-billion drop in Canada’s gross domestic product and 41,000 lost jobs, mostly in the Prairies. A study commissioned for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada tied it to climate change and called for better preparedness to counter “the increasing threat of drought risk."
One of the key unanswered questions is the fate of the massive Columbia Icefield straddling the Alberta and B.C. border. This 365-metre-thick chain of glaciers is the largest mass of ice and snow in the Rockies and helps feed a watershed that spans the central and northern Prairies.
But this icefield is also retreating. One of its main components, the Saskatchewan Glacier, which is the primary water source for the North Saskatchewan River, has retreated 1.4 kilometres in the last 100 years. Another component, the Athabaska Glacier, has lost half its volume.
Low river flow in the late summer will have significant implications for wildlife in the watershed, says Kienzle. “It will put more stress on the ecosystem and on all species that depend on the rivers.”


Climate change is already affecting rivers in the Canadian Prairies. Summer river flows are 20 to 84 per cent lower than 100 years ago, according to a 2006 study coauthored by University of Alberta biologist David Schindler, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We were shocked by how extreme the changes in river flows had been,” a profile of Schindler in the journal quoted him saying. He added that the decline of Canada’s freshwater “might be the largest crisis facing that nation in the upcoming century,” the article said.

Free Lunches Come at a Price

In the end, “it’s the patient who pays”
Critics say doctors should be forced to disclose goodies they receive from drug company reps

Alex Roslin
Saturday, September 12, 2009
The Montreal Gazette

Adam Hofmann is used to getting teased about his lunch. It’s not because his mom gave him something uncool to eat. It’s because he paid for it.
Hofmann is a doctor and fifth-year medical resident at McGill University. Lunchtime is often when residents attend talks on medical topics organized by various disciplines in the three teaching hospitals where Hofmann works—the Montreal General, Royal Victoria Hospital and the Jewish General.
Sales reps from pharmaceutical and medical-equipment companies provide the food and sponsor the speaker at many of the talks, he said.
The sessions, known as “rounds” among doctors, occur two to four times a month within any given hospital discipline like cardiology or internal medicine, Hofmann said.
Drug reps also frequently provide food and sponsor speakers at monthly “grand rounds”—talks to entire hospital departments like pediatrics or family medicine—and “journal clubs,” meetings at restaurants or doctors’ homes at which medical papers are discussed, he said.
While his coworkers partake in sushi takeout or a catered spread, Hofmann sticks to cafeteria fare and braces for the funny looks. He is virtually always the only attendee to pay for his meal. “I have occasionally gotten sarcastic remarks. I’ve been called a ‘pinko’ and a ‘communist’,” he said with a laugh.
With 10 to 20 rounds taking place each day in an academic hospital, Hofmann said staff are able to eat lunch for free all week if they want to, and some do. “A few residents have made it a game to never pay for lunch if at all possible, even going to the length of seeking out lectures they would not otherwise be interested in,” he said.
He estimated that the average resident in academic hospitals eats for free two or three times a week.
For Hofmann, brown-bagging it is a small price to pay to avoid the cozy interactions that many medical professionals have with pharmaceutical sales reps.
Questions about drug marketing practices are coming under growing scrutiny in Canada and the U.S. In August, McGill professor Barbara Sherwin was embroiled in questions about a journal article that was ghostwritten for her by a company working on behalf of a pharmaceutical firm.
Last week, the drug giant Pfizer Inc. agreed to pay $2.3 billion U.S. to settle criminal and civil allegations that it had illegally marketed several drugs for unapproved uses and rewarded doctors with kickbacks. It was the largest criminal fine in history and was Pfizer’s fourth settlement for illegal marketing in the U.S. since 2002.
Little data exists on the extent of the marketing activities in Quebec. One of the few Canadian studies found, in 2006, that 42 per cent of general practitioners in B.C. got visits from drug sales reps several times a week. Two-thirds saw them at least once a month.
The visits are part of vast, multi-billion-dollar marketing campaigns that include food brought to doctors’ offices, restaurant meals, trips, high-paying gigs as consultants and speakers, drug samples, research grants and continuing-education talks that doctors attend to maintain their licences.
Critics say the marketing is poorly regulated and that a growing pile of studies shows the perks sway doctors to prescribe costlier drugs that aren’t necessarily the best ones for their patients—a major reason for soaring health-care costs.
“The gross majority of interactions that physicians have with pharmaceutical companies are unnecessary and problematic,” said Hofmann.
Pushing pills involves fantastic amounts of money. In a study in 2008 in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine, two Canadian academics, Joel Lexchin and Marc-André Gagnon, calculated that pharmaceutical companies spent $57.5 billion on marketing in the U.S. in 2004. That was nearly double the $32 billion spent on researching and developing drugs.
The marketing budget included $20.4 billion for an army of 100,000 “detailers,” as the sales reps are known in the business. That worked out to about one detailer for every nine doctors; their numbers had swelled by nearly three times since 1995.
In Canada, there were 5,190 detailers in 2002, or one for each 11.4 doctors, according to a 2006 study by the University of Victoria’s Drug Policy Futures research group.
All those detailers and marketing bucks have big impacts on medical decisions of doctors, according to one of the most comprehensive scientific reviews of the question, done by Dr. Ashley Wazana, now a psychiatrist at the Jewish General.
In a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000, he reported that doctors who accepted funding for a trip to a company-sponsored conference prescribed that company’s drugs 80- to 190-percent more often than those who hadn’t.

Those who “occasionally” ate pharma-sponsored meals were 2.7 times more likely to request that the sponsor’s drug be added to a hospital formulary (a hospital-approved list of drugs). Doctors who “often” ate the meals were 14 times more likely to do so.
The review also noted that hearing a drug salesman at a talk led doctors to recommend “inappropriate treatment” more often than other doctors, including treatment that cost more and was more invasive.
Wazana also found that just one in five doctors agreed that pharma reps “fairly portray their product.” Three-quarters of residents said the reps “may use unethical practice.”
Despite this, most doctors have some interaction with detailers. Four in five residents attended industry-paid meals, with the average resident eating on the corporate dime 14 to 15 times a year, Wazana found. Interns did so 31 times a year.
Among doctors, 85 to 87 per cent said they had some interaction with detailers, with an average of three to four encounters a month. Eighty-six per cent accepted free drug samples, and half got research grants.
The interactions start right in med school. A survey of 826 U.S. medical students published in 2005 found that 97 per cent had received some form of gift from pharma reps. Students got gifts or attended a sponsored activity an average of once a week, and they ranged from lunch to parties, trips and candy. More than two-thirds said the gifts would never influence their prescribing practices.
In fact, many doctors rely on detailers more than any other source for information about new drugs. U.K. doctors said drug reps were their most important source of initial information in a third of the cases when they prescribed new medicines, with pharmaceutical marketing accounting for another 15 per cent, according to a 2003 study in the journal Family Practice.
That study also reviewed 616 prescriptions the doctors had written. The doctors cited pharma reps more often than any other factor as influencing their prescription choice. The reps were cited 39 per cent of the time, far more than concern about the drug’s side effects (17 per cent) or prescribing guidelines developed by the medical community (15 per cent).
The marketing has paid off in spades for the pharmaceutical industry, according to a 2002 study by Yale University marketing professor Dick Wittink. He found that each dollar spent lobbying doctors through sales reps and pharma-sponsored events returned nearly $12 in increased prescriptions for brand-name drugs.
At the Quebec Medical Association, which represents 9,000 doctors and medical students, an official said the research is news to him. “We are not aware of that. We haven’t studied this question,” said Robert Nadon, the association’s director of professional affairs.
“We think doctors are professionals and that they will respect their ethics code.”
Russell Williams, president of Rx&D, the Canadian lobby group for brand-name drug companies, said member companies follow an ethics code, which says product information given to medical professional must be “accurate and fair” and that gifts to doctors can’t be “excessive” and must be limited to “modest meals and/or refreshments.”
The code adds, “Hospitality should not be utilized as the primary access to meet with health care professionals, but as an opportunity to expand the business discussions.”
“I believe our industry is dealing with this issue in an upfront way,” said Williams. “We’re not selling shoes here. These are complex molecules. We need to have dialogue with doctors.
“There is a significant engagement from our side to make sure that the relationship is of the highest ethical standards. It is working quite well.”
Officials at the McGill University Health Centre, the Jewish General and the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal couldn’t be reached for comment.
The body that represents Quebec hospitals and CLSCs has no policy on staff interactions with pharma reps, said Eric Côté, spokesman for the Association québécoise d’établissements de santé et de services sociaux. “Technically, doctors are autonomous workers.”
Côté referred calls to the Quebec College of Physicians. The college said it expects doctors to abide by its ethics code, which says continuing education classes must be “balanced” and that doctors should avoid conflicts of interest. Doctors can’t accept commissions or benefits for having prescribed a drug, but they can accept “customary presents and gifts of modest value.”
But critics say the rules are nebulous. “It’s so vague as to be completely useless,” Hofmann said.
“Also, there are generally minimal and infrequent repercussions associated with these kinds of ethics code violations.”
“Drug companies would not be detailing physicians if they didn’t have a huge return on investment. They’re in the business of making money,” said Jeff Connell, spokesman for the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association.
Connell said his association’s members lose business and patients pay more when detailers steer doctors to more expensive brand-name drugs that aren’t necessarily more effective than similar generic versions. When a drug’s patent is about to expire, he said, brand-name pharmaceutical companies often make minor changes so they can patent the medicine anew and then get doctors onside with aggressive marketing campaigns.
Indeed, of 177 new drugs approved in Canada since 2001, federal regulators deemed that 156 (or 88 per cent) fell in a category of drugs that show “moderate, little or no therapeutic advantage over comparable medicines.” Just 19 of the drugs were considered “a breakthrough or substantial improvement,” according to data from the federal Patented Medicine Prices Review Board.
Rx&D’s Williams disputed the board’s data, calling it “inadequate in reflecting serious, incremental innovation. It’s not telling the real story.”
When Shahram Ahari was hired as a detailer in New York City by a major U.S. pharmaceutical firm, he was surprised when he met his co-workers. At the company’s intensive, six-week boot camp for detailers, he said he met hundreds of fellow college grads, mostly in their mid-20s, perhaps two-thirds of them women—the vast majority beautiful. He was the only one in his class of 22 with a science degree.
“They were 200 or 300 of the most attractive people I had ever seen. The physical appeal was only part of it. They were vivacious, well-coiffured, well-dressed, engaging people,” he said.
The training was part CIA, part Freud. Ahari learned to quickly scan a doctor’s office and spot anything that could be used to strike up a personal conversation and, with luck, friendship—golf paraphernalia, photos of trips or kids, religious items. The information would later be entered into the company’s file on the doctor and analyzed for future approaches.
“It was analogous to training in spy agencies. You instantly suss up the person’s personality and look for points of entry. You capitalize on sexual appeal. My more attractive colleagues would say, ‘I’m going to wear my short skirt today,’ or ‘I’m going to wear my low-cleavage top. He (the doctor) seems to get a kick out of that,’” he said.
His in with many doctors was their belly. “Food is a pretty powerful catalyst for sales. I sometimes saw myself as a glorified caterer,” he said.
Food would often have a greater impact than his best arguments about a drug’s merits. “I would argue with doctors until I was blue in the face (about a drug). Then I’d take them out to dinner and see their (prescription) numbers rise,” he said.
Ahari often provided food at hospital “rounds,” and he was also careful not to neglect the staff at doctors’ offices; they could be useful for scheduling appointments with doctors and putting in a good word about his company’s drugs.
“There’s almost a sub-art to figuring out which food people will like. How successful and delicious your lunch is has a sway in terms of how quickly you can get meetings (with the doctor),” he said.
He rewarded high prescribers with an invitation to join the company’s “speaker’s bureau.” That meant lucrative gigs addressing other doctors at company-sponsored lunch and dinner meetings and medical symposiums. Speakers typically earned $100 to $500 for a lunch or dinner presentation and up to $10,000 for a major conference talk.
“We’re constantly monitoring our return on investment. We’re not a charity,” Ahari said. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s the patient who pays.”
The revelations about drug marketing practices have pushed a few U.S. states to ban gifts to doctors, limit their value or require them to be disclosed publicly.
In Canada, there has been less scrutiny and less action. Some provinces, including Ontario and B.C., have sent out small numbers of so-called “academic detailers” in an effort to counter the pharma message and provide independent drug information to doctors.
But critics say a handful of academic detailers can’t possibly counter the huge numbers of pharma reps and that doctors have shown they can’t police themselves.
Ahari and Hofmann both said doctors should be forced to publicly disclose any benefits they receive. Another measure, said Hofmann, would be for revenue authorities to require doctors to include free drug samples and meals as income and to tax it.
Ahari said he eventually quit his job as a detailer because of his rising ethical concerns. “Not only are you fooling your (doctor) clients, you’re fooling yourself that you’re doing something good,” he said. “I felt I had become such a calculating social manipulator I would be thinking like a chess game in every social encounter with my girlfriend and family. It was horribly disconcerting.”
Ahari has since spoken before Congress, at medical schools and to the American Medical Association about detailing and conflict of interest. He is now attending medical school himself at the University of California at Davis.
Back at McGill, Hofmann hopes his cafeteria lunches will get a colleague or two to question the price of the food they’re enjoying.
“It’s an obvious stance that physicians should take. Getting gifts from an industry that seeks to manipulate your prescribing practices and may adversely affect your patients is unethical.”

Alex Roslin is vice-president of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting.