FactCheck Social Media

Vaccine being developed for COVID-19 won’t alter a person’s DNA

2020-08-31 13:10:20

The Statement

A Facebook post claims “a new vaccine for COVID-19” will alter a person’s DNA and result in them becoming “genetically modified”.

The post’s image is of a diagram comparing RNA and DNA with text which reads, “The new vaccine for Covid-19 will be the first of its kind EVER. It will be an mRNA vaccine which will literally alter your DNA. It will wrap itself into your system. You will essentially become a genetically modified human being.”

The August 21 post has attracted more than 360 shares and has been viewed more than 32,000 times.

A Facebook post
 A Facebook post claims that “a new vaccine for COVID-19” will alter a person’s DNA. 

The Analysis

It’s true that mRNA vaccines are among many being tested around the world by companies such as Moderna in the US and institutions like Oxford University and Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) in Seattle. However, the post’s primary claims that mRNA vaccines will alter a person’s DNA and genetically modify humans are false, experts told AAP FactCheck.

In addition, the post’s RNA and DNA diagram has been previously published to illustrate their differences and is unrelated to vaccines.

RNA (Ribonucleic acid) vaccines work by introducing an mRNA sequence into the body which instructs cells to produce disease-specific antigens, according to a University of Cambridge briefing. An article in The Lancet from July 2020 details how a potential COVID-19 RNA vaccine would instruct cells to produce proteins with specific spikes that are found on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The article says it’s “hoped these proteins will trigger an immune response that would then be able to kill the virus”.

Should an mRNA vaccine be approved for human use against COVID-19 it would be the first of its kind, according to Professor Isabelle Bekeredjian-Ding, head of the microbiology division of Germany’s Paul Ehrlich Institut.

Regarding the post’s claims, Dr Gaetan Burgio, a geneticist and infections researcher at the Australian National University in Camberra, told AAP FactCheck that mRNA sequences have a short lifespan in the body and are converted into disease-specific proteins for the immune system to target.

“MRNA encodes a piece of the virus but does not integrate into the human DNA, therefore it does not alter DNA whatsoever,” he said.

Dr Burgio said an mRNA vaccine won’t result in people becoming “genetically modified” as the MRNA sequence doesn’t integrate into the genome, an organism’s complete set of DNA.

Dr Kylie Quinn, an immunologist from RMIT University in Victoria, told AAP FactCheck: “MRNA vaccines are basically delivering instructions to the cells in our body to make that protein for us so we don’t have to make it in a vaccine production facility ourselves.”

Dr Quinn said genetic modification is an alteration to DNA which is not what a mRNA vaccine does.

“RNA is just expressed by the cell for a short period of time and then the cell degrades it, so it doesn’t become a permanent feature of the cell and doesn’t integrate into DNA, so it’s not genetic modification.”

Professor Dale Godfrey, head of immunology from the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne, agreed that mRNA vaccines do not incorporate into a person’s DNA.

“They work in a different part of the cell (cytoplasm rather than nucleus) and mRNA is eventually cleared,” he told AAP FactCheck. 

Claims that mRNA vaccines alter a person’s DNA have been previously debunked here, here and here.

A researcher works on a coronavirus vaccine
 An mRNA vaccine won’t result in people becoming genetically modified, a geneticist told AAP FactCheck.

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the claims in the Facebook post to be false. MRNA vaccines are among many being tested to protect against COVID-19 but claims they will alter a person’s DNA and genetically modify humans are false, experts told AAP FactCheck.

False – The claims in the post are factually inaccurate.

Updated August 31, 2020 – Amends verdict and clarifies scope of the check is to determine whether MRNA vaccines alter a person’s DNA and genetically modify humans.

* AAP FactCheck is accredited by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, which promotes best practice through a stringent and transparent Code of Principles. https://aap.com.au/