Fact-Check: Will Moderna & Pfizer Vaccine Cause Genetic Damage?
November has marked several milestones in the global effort to develop a vaccine against coronavirus. Moderna and Pfizer have said that their COVID-19 vaccines are 95 percent effective. The vaccine being developed by The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc confirmed that it is producing strong immune responses in older adults. Results from other homegrown vaccines are also expected in a few days.
India does not have an organised anti-vaccine movement like that in the West. But, while the much-awaited vaccine is knocking on the door, it is important to build public trust in the vaccine.
Anti-Vaxxers and Online Disinformation Campaigns
Mumbai was the first city to make masks mandatory in public spaces early on in April. Since then, the Maharashtra government has issued orders to fine people for not wearing a mask.
On 1 November, several anti-mask activists gathered at Shivaji Park in Dadar to advocate against the ruling. The protestors carried placards that said, “Say no to masks”, “Vaccine is harmful” etc.
The same day a Twitter thread was also posted talking about the risks of taking two of the vaccines that are under development. The message in the tweet has previously been attributed to Robert F Kennedy Jr, the nephew of former US President John F Kennedy. Robert is a popular anti-vaxxer - one who doesn't believe in vaccinations. The small but vocal group has increased their online reach and continue to spread misinformation about different vaccines.
The Quint received the same message on its WhatsApp tipline. Since WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted, it is not possible to gauge the virality of the post.
While the post includes several false claims, it is mostly centred around the false claim that COVID-19 vaccine will cause “irreversible genetic damage”.
WHAT WE FOUND OUT
A keyword search for “mRNA vaccine and genetic modification” returned several other results where anti-vaxxers have made similar claims. While mRNA vaccine will be the first of its kind, it would not alter DNA.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccine candidates use mRNA, which is a new and unproven technology, but experts say offer an easier and faster way to produce vaccines compared to traditional vaccines.
The technology uses a genetic platform called mRNA, short for messenger RNA, which directs the body’s cells to stimulate the immune system.
“Your immune cells then recognize this viral protein and generate an immune response against it, primarily by generating antibodies that recognize the viral protein,” Brent R Stockwell, a Columbia University biology and chemistry professor to AP.
Since the technology is new, there are possible side effects, but modifying DNA is not one of them, Stockwell added.
The Oxford vaccine team told The Quint that their vaccine, ChAdOx1, is an adenovirus-vectored vaccine and not an mRNA vaccine, as claimed in the Twitter thread. Their vaccine will rely on a cold virus commonly found in chimpanzees to carry the spike protein’s genetic material to the body. The Oxford vaccine has passed safety trials during Phase I clinical trial.
Another study published on mRNA vaccine said that mRNA vaccine has multiple advantages over the pDNA or viral vector vaccine as it can be “produced rapidly, possibly within days of obtaining gene sequence information, using completely synthetic manufacturing processes. The platform is versatile and amenable to multiple targets, and thereby ideal for rapid responses to newly emerging pathogens.”
Vaccine Acceptance in India
A recent survey of 18,000 individuals from 15 countries showed a declining trend in vaccine acceptance. However, the study shows that Indians are the keenest to get a vaccine when it's available.
In the survey conducted by World Economic Forum and Ipsos in October, 73 percent said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if available, down from 77 percent in August. According to the survey, 87 percent of Indians agreed that they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if available.
But, the study also showed that India has the highest number of people who say that they are against vaccinations in general. Around 34 percent of Indian respondents were worried about side effects while 16 percent were concerned about fast-moving trials.
Reluctance to Vaccination
Indias have traditionally accepted vaccination programmes. Indian smallpox program resulted in the eradication of the disease in 1977, two years before its global eradication in 1979.
The eradication of poliovirus was not as easy. The vaccination saw resistance in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Some families saw didn’t see polio as a risk while some believed rumours that linked the polio vaccine to impotency. The Pulse Polio Campaign launched in 1995 helped in the eradication of the disease in 2014.
Reports of parents refusing to vaccinate their children against measles and rubella have also surfaced. India has recently seen an outbreak of Diphtheria, one of the oldest vaccine-preventable diseases. Doctors treating a group of patients in Karnataka said that the patients were not vaccinated.
Religious beliefs and lack of awareness of common side-effects of vaccination are other reasons why vaccine hesitancy has grown in India.
The editor-in-chief of The Lancet journal, Richard Horton said in an editorial, “A COVID-19 vaccination strategy demands a whole-of-society response - incorporating businesses, trade unions, faith communities, charities, media, entertainment, and sports. A vaccine to protect the public against SARS-CoV-2 is the most important and immediate technical challenge humanity has ever faced - at a moment when public trust in science and government is alarmingly brittle.”
Social media giants are taking multiple steps to curb disinformation online by restricting suspicious and unfounded claims, adding warning labels and partnering with independent fact-checkers. Unlike the West, immunisation is not a political issue in India. However, the government and health officials need to lay the groundwork for building trust in the vaccine while it is still in its development stage.
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