It’s becoming increasingly common to see social media posts claiming that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, which include those made by Pfizer and Moderna, could alter a person’s DNA. Some posts even suggest that nano-machines are being injected into the body.
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Is there any truth to these rumours? Could an mRNA vaccine be modifying your DNA?
mRNA vaccines are made from synthetically designed genetic ‘photocopies’ of DNA known as messenger RNA (mRNA). Our cells use mRNA as the recipe for building proteins. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contain the mRNA for the COVID-19 spike protein, which is fed to our cells so that they can identify and attack COVID-19 if it enters the body.
So why might people be concerned that this mRNA could somehow alter our DNA?
In an AusSMC Expert Reaction, Professor Nigel McMillan from Griffith University suggests that the process of RNA being inserted into human DNA does happen in the case of some other viruses.
“We know that certain viruses such as HIV are able to insert their RNA into the human genome, but only after they have converted it into DNA,” he says. “This is accomplished via a virus enzyme called reverse transcriptase – an enzyme humans don’t have.”
In other words, without the existence of the enzyme, there’s no way for a similar thing to happen with the COVID-19 vaccine. “The upshot is we don’t have a way for mRNA vaccines to be inserted into our genomes, so, current vaccines are safe,” McMillan says.
Professor Thomas Preiss from the Australian National University is also confident that the COVID-19 vaccine couldn’t end up spliced into the human genome.
“There is, at present, no evidence that it’s plausible for mRNA from the COVID-19 vaccines to be integrated into human DNA,” he says, “at least not in the sense that it would represent a significant medical problem with mRNA vaccines.”
Preiss adds that, even if by some rare chance a fragment of the mRNA vaccine was able to splice itself into human DNA, it would most likely not be much of a problem anyway.
“Even if such events did rarely occur, the chances of it having a detrimental effect on the individual are extremely low,” he says. “Thus, this issue will likely be of negligible consequence to human health, whether on the individual or population level, especially in contrast to the very real harm done by the global pandemic.”
McMillan and Preiss both referenced a controversial paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) claiming that it was possible for COVID-19 mRNA to be implanted in human DNA. However, neither expert felt the paper stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.
“The scientific consensus is that this work is preliminary, not proven, and likely an artefact of the experimental process rather than a real finding,” says McMillan.
Preiss references two more papers, one from the American Society for Microbiology and the other a non-peer reviewed pre-print, which independently test the findings of the PNAS paper.
“There have now been at least two studies presenting evidence that the very detection technology used could be to blame for the generation of hybrid human-viral sequences during the analysis, rather than events that had occurred in the cells,” he says.
And what about the implication that nano-machines are included in mRNA vaccines to artificially alter human DNA? Preiss says it’s all to do with a misunderstanding of the terms used to describe the size of tiny molecules included in the vaccines.
“The origin of this concern, as circulating on social media, seems to have been in part a broader suspicion against nanotechnology,” he says. “However, in the mRNA vaccine context, the term ‘nano’ simply refers to the tiny size of fat-like droplets that the mRNA is encapsulated in for delivery into cells.”
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Steven Mew is a media officer at the Australian Science Media Centre.
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