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No, Covid-19 vaccines won’t modify human DNA

A post doing the rounds on Facebook in South Africa says the concern that Covid-19 vaccines can modify human DNA is valid.

It reads: “The fear is NOT that the vaccine will KILL people, the fear is that the vaccine will have nanotechnology capabilities and modify DNA to exercise more control over humans by other humans.”

Do Covid-19 vaccines have “nanotechnology capabilities” and what does this mean? Is it possible for the vaccines to alter a person’s DNA? And could the vaccines be used to “exercise more control” over people? We investigated.

 

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Nanotechnology, DNA and RNA

Nanotechnology is the study and application of “extremely small things that can be used across all other science fields, such as biology or chemistry”, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Britannica describes it as “the manipulation and manufacture of materials and devices on the scale of atoms or small groups of atoms”.

It is conducted on the nanoscale. One nanometre is a billionth of a metre, or  0.000000001 metre. The nanoscale allows scientists the ability to “see and to control individual atoms and molecules”.

It is used in the generation of “mRNA vaccines”, including at least two of the vaccines approved to prevent Covid-19.  

Deoxyribonucleic acid, known as DNA, and ribonucleic acid, or RNA, make up the nucleic acids, “one of the three or four classes of major ‘macromolecules’ considered crucial for life”, according to Live Science. 

The others are proteins, lipids and, according to some scientists, carbohydrates. DNAcontains our genetic code, the blueprint of life”, all the genetic information used in the development and functioning of all living organisms. 

As Africa Check has previously explained, DNA cannot be converted directly into the feature it codes for. If a cell needs to make a protein, the instructions for making that protein first need to be “transcribed” or copied into messenger RNA. Then, other cellular components “translate” the mRNA into a protein.

The RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts in the US explains that for proteins to be manufactured, the double-helical DNA must be “read”. It is “unzipped to expose the individual strands and an enzyme translates them into a mobile, intermediate message, called ribonucleic acid”. 

Health and medicine publication Stat calls mRNA the “genetic messenger for making DNA code into proteins”. It says nanotechnology is used when making mRNA vaccines and when using existing drugs to formulate new ones to treat Covid-19.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, makes the following points about mRNA vaccines:

  • mRNA technology is fairly new, but not unknown. It has been researched for more than a decade.
  • mRNA vaccines do not contain a live virus and do not carry a risk of causing disease in the vaccinated individual.
  • mRNA from the vaccine does not affect or interact with a person’s DNA.

Nanotechnology is relevant in the production of mRNA vaccines, but it’s incorrect to say the vaccines themselves have “nanotechnology capabilities”. This puts the cart before the horse. 

RNA doesn’t change DNA of human cells

Gavi, a public-private global health partnership that works to increase access to immunisation in poor countries, says that because mRNA is not the same as DNA, it cannot combine with our DNA to change it.

“It is also relatively fragile, and will only hang around inside a cell for about 72 hours, before being degraded,” Gavi says.

Prof Jeffrey Almond, at Oxford University in the UK, told the BBC that "injecting RNA into a person doesn't do anything to the DNA of a human cell". 

Almond said the vaccine provides instructions to the body “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.”

Concerns about mRNA vaccines have been fact-checked several times, including by Reuters and Poynter

RNA vaccines for Covid-19 

Covid mRNA vaccines have been authorised for use in the US and other countries.

“Like all vaccines, Covid-19 mRNA vaccines have been rigorously tested for safety before being authorised for use in the United States,” the CDC says.

The BBC, when explaining the slow roll-out of vaccines in South Africa, said  the country was expecting to receive a batch of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in January 2021, and more in February. 

But the AstraZeneca vaccine is not an mRNA vaccine – it is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus.

The BBC illustrated the types of Covid-19 vaccines rolled out internationally, of which two are mRNA vaccines:

vaccine

In a presentation to the South African parliament in January, health minister Zweli Mkhize said only 10% of the vaccine doses South Africa would receive in the near future would be mRNA vaccines. 

Most of the vaccines distributed in South Africa would be the AstraZeneca vaccine (70%) and the similar but single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine (20%), according to the Daily Maverick

There is no need to fear that vaccines to prevent Covid-19 will alter a person’s DNA, and it is impossible to “control” people by vaccinating them.

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