Straw Mannequins: Fact Checking Reuters’ Fact Checking

“False claim: A COVID-19 vaccine will genetically modify humans”

This claim of falsehood is itself False.

 

Reuters:

“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.”

 The claim is scientifically true.

Reuters:

“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.”

Kaufman’s claim is factually correct.

Most headlines don’t go into the details. Many headlines do mention both DNA and RNA-based vaccines. Bill Gates mentions them often and describes them as the most promising:

That’s why I’m particularly excited by two new approaches that some of the candidates are taking: RNA and DNA vaccines. If one of these new approaches pans out, we’ll likely be able to get vaccines out to the whole world much faster. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m only going to explain RNA vaccines. DNA vaccines are similar, just with a different type of genetic material and method of administration.)”

“Our foundation—both through our own funding and through CEPI—has been supporting the development of an RNA vaccine platform for nearly a decade. We were planning to use it to make vaccines for diseases that affect the poor like malaria, but now it’s looking like one of the most promising options for COVID. The first candidate to start human trials was an RNA vaccine created by a company called Moderna.”

Traditional vaccines use inactivated or live, attenuated pathogens that are purported to teach the body to defeat a pathogen without getting sick. The immune system produces antibodies which attach to antigens on the surface of a pathogen, signalling to the body to attack the invader.

An RNA vaccine works in a different fashion by providing the genetic code needed for the body to produce the antigen itself.

Bill Gates again:

“Here’s how an RNA vaccine works: rather than injecting a pathogen’s antigen into your body, you instead give the body the genetic code needed to produce that antigen itself. When the antigens appear on the outside of your cells, your immune system attacks them—and learns how to defeat future intruders in the process. You essentially turn your body into its own vaccine manufacturing unit.”

 

 Back to Reuters:

 “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 is correct.

Reuters:

“This means that, in contrast to the more widespread “conventional” vaccines ( here ) 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 is also correct.

Reuters:

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.”

 The underlined clause is not correct.

The definition from the FAO, while correct, is only one definition among a wide range of definitions:

“What constitutes a genetically modified organism (GMO) is not always clear and can vary widely. At its broadest it can include anything that has had its genes altered, including by nature.”

Wikipedia: Genetically Modified Organism

Another organism is not required to introduce genetic material into the GMO.

Reuters:

“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.”

False. Lynas has not debunked the idea that a DNA vaccine could genetically modify an organism. Nor is it an idea, but the very basis of how the DNA vaccine works. Lynas gave false information to Reuters:

That’s just a myth, one often spread intentionally by anti-vaccination activists to deliberately generate confusion and mistrust,” he said.

 False. A myth is defined as a widely held but false belief or idea. It can be shown that a DNA vaccine does indeed genetically modify an organism and so this is not a myth.

The claim that anti-vaccination activists often spread this intentionally to deliberately generate confusion and mistrust is a mixture of a strawman argument and a falsehood.

While anti-vaccination activists do often intentionally spread information that they perceive as factual (whether it is factual or not), there is no evidence that this is done to specifically generate confusion and mistrust, despite these often being the consequences. Rather these activists see this as spreading the truth. Even pro-vaccination activists have expressed misgivings about coronavirus vaccines.

Lynas again:

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.”

The underlined sentence is false.

RNA and DNA vaccines do indeed work by deliberately inserting foreign DNA into the nucleus of a human cell.

This article on Medscape, The Emerging Role of DNA Vaccines, clearly shows that the DNA vector in the form of a plasmid, containing the required genetic inserts coding for the antigen, is passed thorough the human cell membrane, then the cytoplasm and then transcribed into the nucleus where the resultant mRNA is translated into the antigen which is presented on the surface of the cell. This entire process is a form of genetic engineering.

Back to Lynas:

The DNA [in DNA vaccines] does not integrate into the cell nucleus so this isn’t genetic modification – if the cells divide they will only include your natural DNA. But this approach is incredibly promising for COVID because it can be scaled up very quickly, and is very versatile – it is easy to synthetically produce DNA sequences that match the required bits of viral genetic code.”

 The underlined part of the first sentence is factually false as has been shown from the Medscape article. Integrating DNA/RNA into the cell nucleus is the mode of operation that separates these forms of vaccines from traditional vaccines.

DNA Vector

The Emerging Role of DNA Vaccines

RNA vaccines work in a similar fashion. Viral Vector Vaccines also work by using Genetically modified viruses to carry the required genetic inserts into the cells and nuclei of the target organism. DNA, RNA and Viral Vector Vaccines are at the forefront of Covid-19 Vaccine technology.

The question as to whether the cells include only natural DNA when they divide remains open.

The NIH states that a lone gene that is inserted into a cell usually does not function. A genetically engineered vector is required to deliver the gene. This can be a plasmid or a virus.

How does gene therapy work?

Some viruses, such as retroviruses, integrate their genes into the human chromosomes and so change human DNA in a way that will be passed on. Gene technology using retroviruses as viral vectors alters the genes of the host organism.

Other viruses, such as adenoviruses, introduce their DNA into the nucleus but not the chromosome. They simply use the machinery in the nucleus to replicate the role of the DNA in producing mRNA according to the required genetic coding. The natural DNA remains unchanged and will be passed on unchanged.

The technology using adenoviruses as viral vectors uses the genes from genetically modified viruses to override the function of the host’s DNA according to the inserted code. In this sense they are a form of genetic engineering using foreign genes, without altering the DNA of the host. Whilst the genes of the host organism are not altered, the genetic expression of the host is altered.

Adenovirus Vector

How does gene therapy work?

 

Back to Reuters:

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.”

 The underlined sentences are factually correct. However, the “stimulation” that Dr McCray refers to requires a DNA or RNA vector integrating into the host’s nucleus. This is contrary to the claims of the Reuters article that the vaccine technology does not require entry into the host’s nucleus.

Reuters:

VERDICT

“False. A future COVID-19 vaccine will not genetically modify humans. DNA vaccines do not integrate the virus’ DNA into the cell nucleus of its recipient but instead inject part of the virus’ DNA/RNA into tissues to stimulate an immune response in the body.”

MY VERDICT

Reuters claim is false. The challenged claim is correct. The earliest available COVID-19 vaccines will indeed genetically modify humans, whether using foreign genes to alter the host’s gene expression or altering the host’s DNA to perform the same function. DNA vaccines do indeed integrate foreign DNA into the cell nucleus of its recipient. Injecting into the tissues is only the first stage, the DNA/RNA must make its way into the host cell’s nucleus before it can stimulate the required immune response.

In addition to false claims, Reuters use of pedantic semantics has also confused the issue.

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