Could the mRNA Vaccines Permanently Alter DNA?

No.

An article from The Defender, a news website that describes itself as “an online news site to evade official censorship, to report fact-based news and sponsor the kind of honest debate that terrifies the new generation of corporate and government commissars,” claims that scientific research suggests that coronavirus mRNA vaccines might “permanently alter DNA.”

The Defender piece cites an “analysis” by “scientists at Harvard and MIT who sought to find why some individuals continue to test positive for coronavirus even after the infection has passed.” The scientists’ analysis hypothesizes that these positive tests are caused by coronavirus mRNA being “reverse transcribed” into the human genome. The Defender article goes further, using this as evidence that mRNA vaccines, which utilize a more stable and longer-lasting form of mRNA than found naturally, may cause the virus mRNA  to be transformed into DNA. 

For context, The Defender is the news website of the nonprofit Children’s Health Defense, which has a history of promoting anti-vaccine rhetoric. The organization has claimed conditions such as autism, asthma, and diabetes are linked to vaccinations, as well as environmental toxins and pesticides, per the New York Times. The group’s founder and chairman of the board is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In February, Instagram removed Kennedy’s account for sharing false information about COVID-19 and vaccines, the BBC reported. In December 2020, Kennedy’s niece and a physician, Kerry Kennedy Meltzer, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled: “Vaccines Are Safe, No Matter What Robert Kennedy Jr. Says.” She writes: “ I stopped following my uncle Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—a noted anti-vaccination activist—on social media in 2019, when he was posting misinformation about the dangers of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in the midst of an outbreak.”

The Center for Disease Control has labeled the claims a “myth,” saying that “COVID-19 vaccines do not change or interact with your DNA in any way.” More specifically, the CDC explained that both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNtech vaccines, which are mRNA vaccines, are designed to train cells to create a protein to trigger an immune response. As the CDC explains, the mRNA from the vaccine does not enter the nucleus of the cell, which houses the DNA, so the mRNA cannot impact a recipient’s DNA in any way. 

The “analysis” referred to by The Defender is a “preprint,” which is noted in the article. Dr. Sanjay Mishra, study coordinator and staff scientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told The Dispatch Fact Check via email that “[T]he study referred is a preprint, has not yet been peer reviewed or even submitted for publication.”

Mishra said that The Defender article is attempting to create the fear that “the mRNA given in the COVID-19 vaccines can be converted into DNA through the process called reverse transcription, which can permanently alter genomic DNA.”

The “analysis” looked into “continued PCR-positive tests for some patients who could be non-infectious,” said Mishra. The analysis provides a “likely scenario by showing that in test tubes, when they overexpressed one of the enzymes called a reverse transcriptase, which converts mRNA to DNA, the SARS-CoV-2 RNA could be reverse-transcribed and integrated into the genome of the cell.”

Mishra said that because the preprint isn’t peer-reviewed, it’s “difficult to make assertions about the validity of the results.” Furthermore, he noted: “The preprint does not prove that patients who persistently test positive are definitely because of this possibility. The article is twisting the facts, and choosing what is convenient for it. Millions of patients of natural SARS-CoV-2 do not show continued positive tests, so obviously the integration of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA is not frequently happening.”

In more technical terms, Mishra explained that: “While a theoretical possibility exists of the injected mRNA from the vaccines being reverse transcribed in chronic retroviral infections (such as HIV); the resulting cDNA from vaccine lacks tools or structures for insertion into human genome. Moreover, humans are infected with foreign mRNA by many RNA viruses in lifetime, such as common cold virus, but insignificantly few viral genomes ever get genetically inserted.” 

Mishra added that the “theoretical possibility” is really a question of hypothetical probability because there is no “demonstrative evidence that such a thing can happen.” Furthermore, he said that “ the possibility is theoretically so small that I would be fair to say it doesn't exist.”

To be clear, Mishray added that: “The mRNA in the vaccine has no theoretical or demonstrated mechanism known to me by which it can be integrated in our DNA.”

Lastly, Mishra noted that the study in question has “shown nothing about the mRNA vaccine” and that “associating this study with the vaccine is fraught with dubious intentions. It is meant to create confusion and is motivated with bad intentions.” 

Rudolf Jaenisch, biology professor at MIT and lead researcher of the analysis referenced by The Defender, told The Dispatch Fact Check via email that the study did not address whether mRNA vaccines can alter a person's DNA: “We have not addressed experimentally whether vaccine-derived RNA can integrate into the genome.” said Jaenisch. “This would be total speculation at this point but certainly is a possibility to consider.”

Jaenisch described the purpose of the study as follows: “We did the analysis published in the biorxiv preprint last December to address one of the puzzles of SARS-COVID-2 infections: patients may remain positive for viral RNA for many weeks after the initial infection and after no infectious virus can be detected anymore. Our hypothesis we wanted to test was: Could this RNA virus retro-integrate into the genome and thus become a permanent part of the infected cell’s genome. If so and integrated sequences would be expressed, this could produce the PCR positive signal late in the disease but would not be indicative of virus replication.”

Jaenisch noted that the evidence in the study “was somewhat preliminary and lacked direct evidence for genomic integration of viral sequences.”

Vincent Racaniello, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, said the study referred to in the article “is a completely artificial situation that bears no relationship to reality.” He added that: “The finding, for example, that CoV2 and host sequences are joined is an artifact. They then do completely artificial experiments which they think supports this artefact. In no way does this work demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 RNA could be incorporated into the cell genome. The sequence analysis used in support of this observation is flawed, and the experimental data are artificial.” 

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