Fact check: Moderna executive did not say mRNA vaccines alter recipient’s DNA
The claim: Moderna executive said coronavirus vaccines alter DNA
The U.S. has reached a major milestone with 50% of adults being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but vaccine hesitancy – encouraged by misinformation and conspiracies – is still prominent.
A May 26 Facebook post, which includes quotes but cites no sources, claims Moderna’s chief medical officer Tal Zaks said mRNA vaccines – such as Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine – alter a recipient’s DNA. Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have manufactured the three vaccines approved for use in the U.S.
Other posts from Instagram and Facebook make the same claim, and link to an article with a headline that reads, “Bombshell: Moderna Chief Medical Officer Admits mRNA Alters DNA.”
Messenger RNA vaccines do not alter the DNA of those who receive them, nor did Zaks make this claim.
USA TODAY has reached out to the posters for comment.
Messenger vaccines do not alter DNA; article misrepresents comments
The screenshot of the headline in various posts comes from right-wing Sons of Liberty media. The article includes and cites footage from a 2017 TED Talk featuring Zaks, but misrepresents what he says during the event.
Here’s what Zaks said: “We are actually hacking the software of life. We think about it as an operating system. So if you could actually change that, if you could introduce a line of code, or change a line of code, it turns out it has profound implications for everything.”
The article then draws its own conclusion based on Zaks’ comments.
“When ‘changing’ a line of code or ‘introducing’ a line of code (referring to DNA), the ‘code’ or DNA is then altered, meaning the individual or ‘subject’ has now had their genome changed to what the ‘scientists’ have coded,” the article says.
Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines won’t cause a zombie apocalypse
This conclusion is inaccurate. Zaks did not make the claim that mRNA vaccines would alter the DNA of recipients during the TED Talk. He actually makes the opposite assertion during his explanation of an mRNA flu vaccination.
A vaccine is an injection where we get “bits and pieces of the virus, the proteins, and that teaches our immune system to recognize the virus,” he said. “Now imagine if instead of giving the protein, we would give the instructions on how to make the protein – how the body can make its own vaccine. That’s an mRNA vaccine.”
While he’s speaking, Zaks displays two images, one shows a traditional vaccine where virus proteins float around cells, and the other shows an mRNA vaccine prompting cells to create the proteins.
Moderna and Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccines function in the same way as the mRNA diagram Zaks presented. Both shots introduce a small amount of synthetic genetic code – the mRNA – containing instructions for SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein.
Because mRNA is not the same as the DNA contained in the nucleus of human cells, it can’t be combined to alter someone’s own genes. Once the mRNA enters into a cell, it prompts the production of the spike protein, which itself can’t cause disease but does train the immune system to make antibodies against it.
The mRNA breaks down shortly after vaccination and does not stay in the body.
Our rating: False
We rate the claim that Moderna’s chief medical officer said mRNA vaccines alter DNA is FALSE, because it is not supported by our research. Messenger RNA vaccines do not alter the DNA of those who receive them, and Zaks did not make this claim.
Our fact-check sources:
- NPR, May 25, Half Of All U.S. Adults Are Now Fully Vaccinated Against COVID-19
- USA TODAY, April 19, America reaches milestone with COVID-19 vaccine widely available to those who want it, but hesitancy still casts a shadow
- TEDx Talks YouTube, Dec. 8, 2017, Rewriting the Genetic Code: A Cancer Cure In the Making
- USA TODAY, April 14, Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines won’t cause a zombie apocalypse
- GOV.UK, April 19, Summary of Product Characteristics for COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 4, Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines
- European Medicines Agency, June 6, EMA recommends COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna for authorisation in the EU
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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.
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