By Flora Carmichael
‘Altered DNA’ claims
A White House correspondent for a pro-Trump website, Newsmax, told her 264,000 followers on Twitter to “beware” the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Emerald Robinson claimed in the Tweet: “It tampers with your DNA.”
The fear that a vaccine will somehow change your DNA is another one we’ve seen aired regularly on Facebook posts.
The BBC asked three independent scientists about this. They said that the coronavirus vaccine would not alter human DNA.
It appears the people spreading such claims have a fundamental misunderstanding of genetics.
The vaccine contains a fragment of the virus’s genetic material – or RNA.
“Injecting RNA into a person doesn’t do anything to the DNA of a human cell,” said Prof Jeffrey Almond of Oxford University.
Pfizer spokesperson Andrew Widger said the company’s vaccine “does not alter the DNA sequence of a human body. It only presents the body with the instructions to build immunity”.
This isn’t the first time we’ve looked into claims that a coronavirus vaccine will alter DNA. We investigated a popular video spreading the theory back in May.
Part of the misunderstanding seems to stem from the type of vaccine being developed. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA, or “mRNA”, technology.
It works by giving the body instructions to produce a protein which is present on the surface of the coronavirus.
The immune system then learns to recognise and produce antibodies against the protein.
Ms Robinson’s tweet included the assertion that mRNA vaccine technology “has never been tested or approved before”.
It is true that no mRNA vaccine has been approved before, but multiple studies of mRNA vaccines in humans have taken place over the last few years.
Prof Almond says that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the first to show the efficacy that would be needed in order to be considered for licensing.
Just because it’s a new technology, he says, “it doesn’t mean we should be afraid of it”.
New vaccines undergo rigorous safety checks before they can be recommended for widespread use.
In Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials, vaccines are tested in small numbers of volunteers to check they are safe and to determine the right dose. In Phase 3 trials they are tested in thousands of people to see how effective they are. The group who received the vaccine and a control group who have received a placebo are closely monitored for any adverse reactions – side-effects. Safety monitoring continues even after a vaccine is licensed.
- What are vaccines, how do they work and why are people sceptical?
- Is the Covid vaccine safe for me? And other questions
Claire Wardle, author of a recent report about vaccine myths on social media, says there is a “data deficit” around topics like mRNA technology – a situation where there is high demand for information, but credible information is in low supply.
“This leaves people vulnerable to misinformation, which rushes in to fill the gap,” says Ms Wardle, executive director of anti-misinformation non-profit organisation First Draft.
“While credible information struggles to meet the demand, unreliable individual accounts and alternative news outlets are able to drive down confidence in vaccines,” she says.