Fact Check: Forbes Article Did NOT Say COVID-19 Vaccines Directly Modify DNA -- Previous Title Of The Article Was Misinterpreted

Fact Check

  • by: Lead Stories Staff
Fact Check: Forbes Article Did NOT Say COVID-19 Vaccines Directly Modify DNA -- Previous Title Of The Article Was Misinterpreted Title Changed

Did an article published by Forbes support the idea that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines directly modify DNA? Not exactly: Although the headline "Yes, The Vaccine Changes Your DNA. A Tiny Bit. That's A Good Thing," was posted on the website, the title of the article was changed shortly after its publication to better reflect the contents of the article. And while some of the content of the article was revised after publication, it never had stated that mRNA vaccination directly alters one's DNA. Lead Stories spoke with immunology experts who accurately explained the processes described in the article.

The claim appeared in an Instagram post on December 1, 2021, that showed a quote retweet from Twitter of the "Change Your DNA" article headline. The quote retweet read:

Pretty sure I got fact-checked for saying this months ago. It's fine, it's just a little gene therapy.

This is how the post looked on December 3, 2021:

(Source: Instagram screenshot taken on Fri Dec 3 18:27 221 UTC)

Lead Stories has previously debunked the claim that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines modify DNA in several fact checks, including here, here and here. A resource from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) titled "Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines" states:

mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell where our DNA (genetic material) is located, so it cannot change or influence our genes.

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) describes mRNA as:

... a single-stranded RNA molecule that is complementary to one of the DNA strands of a gene. The mRNA is an RNA version of the gene that leaves the cell nucleus and moves to the cytoplasm where proteins are made.

During a phone call with Lead Stories on December 2, 2021, Otto Yang, a professor of medicine at UCLA who primarily researches viral immunology, discussed why RNA is so short-lived in a cell:

RNA is a temporary material, so it is not intended to last in the cell. So it literally lasts for minutes or hours and then it decays, it's gone. And that's important and that's intentional, because a cell needs to be able to make proteins and stop making proteins: it needs to be able to control, right? So if the RNA lasts forever, that would be a problem because the cell cannot turn off making that protein.

Yang explained that RNA goes in "one direction" and cannot create DNA:

So in a normal cell in a person, there's an enzyme to make DNA from DNA, and there's an enzyme to make RNA from DNA -- and that's it. There's no enzyme to make DNA from RNA.

Yang then described what happens when someone is injected with RNA:

... the fats around the RNA molecule basically fuse with the fats in the membrane of the cell and the RNA is delivered into the cytoplasm, which is where RNA goes when it comes out of the nucleus of the cell, too. So from the standpoint of the cell, it's basically just some genetic material that needs to be used to make proteins. The cell doesn't know where the RNA came from, it's just the blueprint that is used to make proteins and so here it is, we're gonna make the protein. And so that's how it works.

And that RNA, again, is temporary: it's not going to turn into DNA, and it's only gonna last a short amount of time before it degrades. Because that's the normal biology of what happens.

Nicholas Pullen, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Northern Colorado who conducts research in immunology, told Lead Stories via email on December 2, 2021, that the Instagram post is "an irrelevant comparison [the user has] come to -- apples to oranges":

Gene therapy (intentionally changing and/or replacing specific sequences of DNA with an outside sequence) as they allude to has nothing to do with vaccines.

The Forbes article, which is now titled "Covid Vaccines Don't Alter Your DNA -- They Help Choose Cells To Strengthen Your Immune Response," is mostly the author's attempt to explain immune system processes called affinity maturation and isotype class switching. These processes, which occur after the normal process of V(D)J recombination, involve B cells that are activated in the body after an infection or a vaccination.

Lead Stories corresponded with the author of the Forbes article, Steven Salzberg, a professor of biomedical engineering at John Hopkins University, via email on December 2, 2021. Salzberg told us that he revised the title of the article to avoid misinterpretation and that the article ultimately concludes:

... the overall MIXTURE of DNA in your body is a tiny bit different after vaccination. But the actual change to the DNA that happened in your B cells was already present before you got vaccinated. Thus the vaccine doesn't directly change your DNA in any single cell, but it does change the overall makeup of your immune cells (B cells and T cells), and those cells have slightly different DNA.

It's much too complicated for a headline.

Salzberg told Lead Stories that he made a correction to the previous version of the Forbes article in which he mistakenly described B cells as T cells. However, neither the oldest archived version of the article found on the Internet Archive (linked to here) nor the revised version of the article (linked to here) suggest that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines directly modify DNA.

Yang skimmed the revised version of the Forbes article while talking with Lead Stories and said that he believed that the processes that Salzberg makes an effort to describe are still not represented correctly in the article.

Like Yang, Pullen said the B cell activity that occurs in the body after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination is not unique to mRNA COVID-19 vaccination:

The author is referring to the normal process of adaptive immunity happening in one's body in response to microbe invaders (or vaccination). This involves, in B cells, processes of antibody affinity maturation and isotype class switching. There are a variety of good lay summaries of this available (including Wikipedia).

This is an everyday process happening in all healthy people (and even most unhealthy people) regardless of vaccination status. In fact the point of almost all vaccines is to make sure B cells do these processes more specifically/efficiently in response to the microbe you want defense against, regardless of whether it is an mRNA vaccine.

Again, this is a normal process regardless of vaccine or vaccine type.

Pullen said he believed the "Change Your DNA" title that Salzberg originally used for the Forbes article was "incorrect" but that the revised title of the article is accurate.

Lead Stories also reached out to the CDC, the National Human Genome Research Institute and American Association of Immunologists. We will update the story with any relevant responses.

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

  Lead Stories Staff

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