False claim on mRNA vaccines attributed to Moderna executive
The Claim: Moderna executive said coronavirus vaccines alter DNA
The United States has reached a milestone with 50% of adults fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but the reluctance to vaccinate – encouraged by misinformation and conspiracies – is still significant.
A May 26 Facebook post, which includes quotes but does not cite any sources, claims Moderna chief medical officer Tal Zaks said mRNA vaccines – such as Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine – are changing the DNA of a recipient. Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson manufactured all three vaccines approved for use in the United States
Other Instagram and Facebook posts make the same statement and link to an article with a headline that reads: “Bombshell: Moderna Medical Director Admits mRNA Modifies DNA.”
Messenger RNA vaccines do not alter the DNA of those who receive them, nor did Zaks make that claim.
USA TODAY has contacted the posters for comment.
Messenger vaccines do not alter DNA; the article distorts the comments
The screenshot of the title in various articles is from right-wing media Sons of Liberty. The article includes and quotes footage from a 2017 TED talk featuring Zaks, but misrepresents what he says during the event.
Here is what Zaks said: “We are actually pirating the software of life. We consider it to be an operating system. So if you could actually change that, if you could put in a line of code, or change a line? code, it transforms has profound implications for everything. “
The article then draws its own conclusion based on Zaks’ comments.
“When you ‘change’ a line of code or ‘enter’ a line of code (referring to DNA), then the ‘code’ or DNA is changed, meaning that the individual or ‘subject’ has now changed its genome to what the ‘scientists have encoded’, the article says.
Checking the facts: COVID-19 Vaccines Won’t Cause Zombie Apocalypse
This conclusion is incorrect. Zaks did not claim that mRNA vaccines would alter the DNA of recipients during the TED conference. He actually makes the opposite claim when explaining an mRNA influenza vaccination.
A vaccine is an injection where we get “pieces of the virus, proteins, and train our immune system to recognize the virus,” he said. “Now imagine if instead of donating the protein, we would give the instructions on how to make the protein – how the body can make its own vaccine. It’s an mRNA vaccine.”
As he speaks, Zaks displays two images, one shows a traditional vaccine where viral proteins float around cells, and the other shows an mRNA vaccine that prompts cells to create the proteins.
Moderna and Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccines work similarly to the mRNA diagram shown by Zaks. Both plans introduce a small amount of synthetic genetic code – mRNA – containing instructions for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
Because mRNA is not the same as the DNA contained in the nucleus of human cells, it cannot be combined to alter someone’s own genes. Once the mRNA enters a cell, it triggers the production of the spike protein, which itself cannot cause disease, but causes the immune system to make antibodies against it.
MRNA breaks down soon after vaccination and does not stay in the body.
Our rating: False
We evaluate the claim that Moderna’s chief medical officer said mRNA vaccines modify DNA is FALSE, as 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 that claim.
Our sources of fact-checking:
- NPR, May 25, half of all American adults are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19
- USA TODAY, April 19, America hits milestone with COVID-19 vaccine widely available to those who want it, but reluctance still casts a shadow
- TEDx Talks YouTube, December 8, 2017, Rewriting the Genetic Code: A Cure for Cancer in the Making
- USA TODAY, April 14, Fact Check: COVID-19 Vaccines Won’t Cause Zombie Apocalypse
- GOV.UK, April 19, Summary of Product Characteristics for the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 4, Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines
- European Medicines Agency, June 6, EMA recommends authorization of COVID-19 Moderna vaccine in EU
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Our fact-checking work is funded in part by a grant from Facebook.