October 15, 2020
Yacoub Kahkajian | MediaWise Teen Fact-Checker

MediaWise rating: Not legit

A recent tweet from Newsmax Media’s White House correspondent Emerald Robinson claimed the ingredients of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 could rewrite your DNA. Is this legit?

The tweet lists four components: luciferase, hydrogel, transfection, and mRNA, and Robinson’s tweet asks readers to do research about these components. So let’s find some good scientific sources to check this out.

Who is behind the information?

Before we kick off this fact-check, let’s take a closer look at who is sharing this information. Robinson is a political correspondent, and covers the White House for Newsmax, a news outlet whose audience tends to lean conservative. In addition, looking at Robinson’s Twitter account, she has also shared conservative-leaning tweets in the past, like this one and this one

Start off with a keyword search

Let’s start with luciferase. A simple Google search of “luciferase” returned an entry from the academic database, ScienceDirect. Luciferase is a harmless enzyme that glows when oxidized. As a matter of fact, it occurs naturally in fireflies; it’s what makes them glow.

But what’s it doing in a COVID-19 vaccine? Good question. A Google search using the keywords “luciferase” and  “vaccine” returned this post from the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical district in the world. Their post explains how they used luciferase to visually confirm if COVID-19 antibodies are being formed. They claim this could make the turnaround time of a diagnosis up to 12 times faster than previous methods and help confirm the efficacy of a vaccine.

The ScienceDirect overview also states that luciferase is already used in determining the outcome of cancer therapies. To find more information about this, we Googled “luciferase cancer cell” and found this study from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The peer-reviewed study reveals that luciferase has been used to study the activities of cells long before COVID-19, and the enzyme does not cause significant changes to cell metabolism. So luciferase is harmless. Next up is the ingredient hydrogel. 

Another quick Google search turned up an article by the Department of Health and Human Services, which describes hydrogels as water-swollen materials that hold a three-dimensional shape. Basically, water with a texture similar to gelatin.

But why not just use water in its normal form? Well, after Googling “hydrogel vaccine,” we found this article from Stanford which explains how hydrogels allow for controlled release of the contents of vaccines, making them safer and more effective.

Hydrogel is basically water in a slightly more solid form, often with the contents of a vaccine inside. It’s also important to note that this use of hydrogel is still being tested, and while studies do show that it is safe, it has not been approved yet.

The third item listed isn’t really an ingredient but a process: transfection. According to Mirus Bio, a medical corporation dedicated to the study of transfection, it can be defined as the introduction of DNA or RNA into eukaryotic cells. Transfection is how your immune system responds to a vaccine and creates the antibodies for it.

This is likely where the Twitter user got the idea that the vaccine will change your DNA. The thing is, that’s not how transfection works. Let’s look at this list of vaccine proposals from the University of Michigan’s health department for examples. Rather than changing DNA, these vaccines are designed to deliver the instructions for proteins to recreate an immune response to COVID-19 using the genes of the virus.

Finally, let’s look into mRNA. According to NIH’s National Cancer Institute, mRNA (also known as messenger RNA) carries genetic information from the DNA in the nucleus of a cell to the cytoplasm where proteins are made. mRNA is naturally created in the human body, and it’s harmless. The tweet is likely referring to the use of synthetic mRNA as a vaccine. We read up on this as well and found several key points, explained well in this fact-check from the Associated Press. First, the use of mRNA vaccines does have complications that scientists are still researching. But most importantly, it is simply not true that mRNA vaccines alter human DNA in any way.

What are other sources saying?

Reuters fact-checked a similar claim about COVID-19 vaccines genetically modifying humans, which they rated as false. Reuters interviewed Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Alliance for Science group, who said no vaccine can genetically modify human DNA. “That’s just a myth, one often spread intentionally by anti-vaccination activists to deliberately generate confusion and mistrust,” Lynas told Reuters. “Genetic modification would involve the deliberate insertion of foreign DNA into the nucleus of a human cell, and vaccines simply don’t do that.”

Our rating

The implication that these ingredients and processes will change your DNA are NOT LEGIT. This goes to show that in the field of science, scary words don’t always mean scary things. And if you want to fact-check medical claims like these on your own, make sure to get peer-reviewed studies and articles which source insight from medical experts.

This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 U.S. Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here for more.

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