False claim: A COVID-19 vaccine will genetically modify humans.
Widely shared claims on social media link to a video alleging that a future vaccine against COVID-19 would “genetically modify” humans. This claim is scientifically untrue.
Most claims refer to a version of a now-deleted, widely shared YouTube video of Dr Andrew Kaufman, a “natural healing consultant” in an interview with Spiro Skouras, an online-personality and “independent researcher” with a popular YouTube channel.
In the video, Kaufman talks about how a future COVID-19 vaccine would provide a vessel to “inject genes” into humans, first by a procedure known as “electroporation”, in which an electric current “create[s] little holes in our cells that allow the DNA to go into our own cells” and then through the insertion of “foreign proteins that supposedly generate immunity”. Kaufman concludes that the vaccine, like the results of biotechnology in agriculture, will make humans “genetically modified organisms”.
There are multiple claims in the nearly one hour-long video, which are beyond the scope of this fact check. However, the main claim in these posts on social media that a COVID-19 vaccine will genetically modify humans (described in the headline of the video and by Kaufman) is false. While most headlines don’t mention DNA-based vaccines, Dr Kaufman talks about them in the video.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a DNA vaccine “involves the direct introduction into appropriate tissues of a plasmid containing the DNA sequence encoding the antigen(s) against which an immune response is sought, and relies on the in situ production of the target antigen.”
This means that, in contrast to the more widespread “conventional” vaccines which use a whole pathogen or fragment, a DNA vaccine involves the injection of a small part of the virus’s genetic code (DNA or RNA) to stimulate immune response in a patient without an infection.
This procedure does not create a genetically modified organism, which the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines as “an organism in which one or more genes (called transgenes) have been introduced into its genetic material from another organism using recombinant DNA technology.”
Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Alliance for Science group, debunked the idea that a DNA vaccine could genetically modify an organism. Lynas told Reuters that no vaccine can genetically modify human DNA.
“That’s just a myth, one often spread intentionally by anti-vaccination activists to deliberately generate confusion and mistrust,” he said. “Genetic modification would involve the deliberate insertion of foreign DNA into the nucleus of a human cell, and vaccines simply don’t do that. Vaccines work by training the immune system to recognize a pathogen when it attempts to infect the body - this is mostly done by the injection of viral antigens or weakened live viruses that stimulate an immune response through the production of antibodies.”
Dr Paul McCray, Professor of Pediatrics, Microbiology, and Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa further explained to Reuters via email how the COVID-19 vaccines being developed would work:
“For COVID-19, the main protein used to boost the immune system is the spike (S) protein from the virus. This can be given as a vaccine in many different forms: as inactivated (dead) virus, as expressed protein, in a DNA or RNA vector that will make cells make this protein, etc. So the only modification to the host is to stimulate them to make antibodies and T cells that will prevent infection with the virus or kill any infected cells to prevent or reduce disease severity. This is what happens if you get a virus infection naturally, but the vaccine takes the risk of serious disease out of the equation."