The Director of Pharmacy Tate Trujillo places the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in cold storage at Indiana University Health, Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., December 16, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Chill out: Cold-storage mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are legitimate

AAP FactCheck December 21, 2020

The Statement

A post shared by a New Zealand Facebook user claims cold-storage vaccines are not legitimate and are aimed at genetic manipulation.

“Any vaccine that needs to be shipped and stored at -80 degrees isn’t a vaccine. It’s a transfection agent, kept alive so it can infect your cells and transfer genetic material,” the post reads.

“Don’t let them fool you. This is genetic manipulation of humans on a massive scale. Shut it down.”

The post, which is from a November 15 tweet by The Disruptive Physician, Doc Evenhouse, has been shared on Facebook multiple times (here, here, here and here).

A Facebook post
 A post shared by a NZ Facebook user claims that cold-storage vaccines aren’t legitimate vaccines. 

The Analysis

The post makes two claims about vaccines that are incorrect. Many vaccines are routinely stored at sub-zero temperatures and the idea that cold-storage COVID-19 vaccines are a transfection agent that cause “genetic manipulation” is biologically impossible, experts say.

While the Facebook post does not mention a specific vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine created by Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored between -70 to -80C.  That vaccine is currently being rolled out in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

A chart by the American Academy of Pediatrics lists several vaccines which require sub-zero temperatures for storage. Other vaccines such as that for Ebola virus, was stored at -80C, according to the World Health Organization.

Regarding the post’s claims, Dr Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre at the University of Auckland told AAP FactCheck in an email: “The simple answer is this (post) is completely incorrect.”

Vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, a member of the New Zealand Vaccine Safety Expert Advisory Group and director of the University of Auckland’s Vaccine Datalink and Research Group, also rejected the claims made about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“(It) is a very peculiar statement. ÔǪ It is very much a vaccine in that it is a biological agent used to induce immunity to a disease in those to whom it is administered,” Dr Petousis-Harris told AAP FactCheck in an email.

The Pfizer vaccine and another by Moderna, use messenger RNA (mRNA), a molecule that puts DNA instructions into action. Instead of putting a weak or inactive germ into the body as many vaccines do, the mRNA vaccines cause the body to make a protein that triggers an immune response, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These vaccines need to be stored at extremely cold temperatures to keep the delicate mRNA material intact, according to Margaret Liu, a vaccine researcher who chairs the board of the International Society for Vaccines. Liu told National Public Radio (NPR) in the US that mRNA is “really easily destroyed, and that’s because there are many, many enzymes that will just break it apart”.

A spokesman for the Auckland Immunisation Advisory Centre agreed and explained to AAP FactCheck that it is “the mRNA technology (e.g. Pfizer/BioNTech) vaccine that requires the colder storage and transportation. This temperature is required to preserve the mRNA material and prevent it from breaking down.”

As of December 18, the New Zealand government has made arrangements to purchase four COVID-19 vaccines for use – Pfizer/BioNTech, Janssen Pharmaceutica, Novavax and AstraZeneca. The Pfizer/BioNTech was the first vaccine New Zealand agreed to buy, with a total of 1.5 million doses ordered. It will be transported and stored at -70C.

The post also claims that the vaccines are “a transfection agent,” meant to cause global genetic manipulation. But this misrepresents how mRNA vaccines work.

“Transfection” means introducing nucleic acids – DNA or RNA – into a cell, according to the biotechnology company Sigma-Aldrich. The process is outlined in a video here.

Dr Petousis-Harris told AAP Factcheck that RNA vaccines “are not transfection agents aimed at genetic manipulation”.

“There is no ability of RNA vaccines to, in any way, modify or manipulate our genomes,” she said.

“One reason is because the RNA cannot gain access to our genome, another is that it does not have the capability to integrate into it. Therefore this is a biological impossibility.”

A fact sheet by the CDC also states that “(mRNA vaccines) do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.”

The post also claims that the vaccine is “kept alive so it can infect your cells,” however the CDC notes that “mRNA vaccines do not contain a live virus and do not carry a risk of causing disease” in a vaccinated person.

“mRNA from the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell and does not affect or interact with a person’s DNA.”

Similar claims have been previously debunked here, here and here.

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine placed in cold storage.
 The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is placed in cold storage at Indiana University Health. 

The Verdict

According to medical experts, the post’s claims about the COVID-19 vaccine are false. Many vaccines require cold storage and the reason freezing temperatures are required for the COVID-19 vaccine is to keep delicate mRNA material intact. Experts told AAP FactCheck that mRNA vaccines do not manipulate a person’s genome.

False – Content that has no basis in fact.

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