Healthcare workers prepare doses of the Moderna coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine before administering them to staffers of Japan's supermarket group Aeon at the company's shopping mall in Chiba, Japan June 21, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

‘Toxic’ spike protein claims misinterpret vaccine study

AAP FactCheck June 22, 2021

The Statement

A new medical study is being cited as evidence that COVID-19 vaccines can cause serious harm by spreading “toxic” spike proteins into a recipient’s bloodstream and internal organs.

On June 4, Facebook page Ross Walter Nutritionist & Naturopath published a post that refers to a recent US study of health workers who received the Moderna mRNA vaccine. The study detected the spike protein for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the blood of 11 of the 13 participants.

The post then quotes a Canadian immunologist as saying the study shows that by vaccinating people, “we are inadvertently inoculating them with a toxin that gets into circulation”. AAP FactCheck has previously debunked several false or misleading claims about vaccines published by the same Australia-based page (see here, here, here and here).

Similar claims have been shared in New Zealand, where one website published a lengthy blog post under the headline: “New study shows potential for serious harm in COVID-19 vaccinated.”

A Facebook post from the NZ Outdoors Party, which attracted 3256 votes in the 2020 election, draws on the same study to suggest mRNA vaccines “take over cells to manufacture the deadly (spike protein) toxin and this spread throughout much of the body”.

A Facebook post
 A Facebook post includes a series of claims about a new study and mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. 

The Analysis

Despite the claims circulating online, a co-author of the study cited in the posts said the research did not suggest COVID-19 vaccines posed serious risk of harm – adding that its results had been misinterpreted.

David R. Walt, an expert in diagnostic testing from the Department of Pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, said the study he jointly authored, which has been accepted for publication by the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, was intended to see if researchers could use an ultra-sensitive test to detect circulating antigens produced by mRNA vaccines.

“We found we could detect extremely low concentrations of S1 (a subunit of the spike protein) in 11 of 13 healthy vaccinated individuals and the full spike in 3 of 13,” Dr Walt told AAP FactCheck in an email.

However, he added that the presence of “minute” quantities of spike protein did not mean mRNA vaccines had the potential to cause serious harm.

“We actually found that within a few days of the antigen appearing, the individuals developed antibodies that removed the antigen from the bloodstream. Our conclusion was that the vaccine is working as intended,” he said.

An Australian biotechnology expert also told AAP FactCheck that the study has been misconstrued. University of Queensland (UQ) professor Trent Munro, who was involved in UQ’s development of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate last year, said in an email: “The (mRNA vaccine) dose used is very small, and is specifically designed to ensure a small amount of spike protein is produced from the injected RNA.

“During development, several dose levels were tested to identify a dose that is sufficient to provide the most robust immune response and protection against COVID-19 disease… There is no known ‘toxic’ effect of this process after mRNA vaccination, and studies will continue to monitor for any potential safety signals.”

The theory that the study discovered “toxic” spike proteins circulating in the bloodstream has been fuelled by comments made in a radio interview by Canadian immunologist Byram Bridle, an associate professor at Ontario Veterinary College.

Referring to the new research, Dr Bridle said there was now “clear-cut evidence” that the vaccine spike protein spreads into the bloodstream, where it has the potential to damage organs.

“In short, the conclusion is, we made a big mistake,” he said. “We never knew the spike protein itself was a toxin and was a pathogenic protein, so by vaccinating people we are inadvertently inoculating them with a toxin.”

However, multiple vaccine experts have challenged Dr Bridle’s characterisation of how the vaccine works, saying the spike protein created by the vaccine acts differently to the spike protein of a live virus.

Adam Ratner, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, told Associated Press that Dr Bridle’s analysis of the research is “completely inaccurate” and vaccines are mostly concentrated at the site of injection or the local lymph nodes.

“There is no spike protein in the vaccines first of all. The amounts that are made after the mRNA is injected are very small and it almost exclusively stays locally. It is nowhere near the amount he was talking about,” Dr Ratner said.

US fact checking website Health Feedback, which uses experts to verify claims about health science, said Dr Bridle’s statement “rests on the assumption that if the viral spike protein causes cardiovascular toxicity in COVID-19 patients, the spike protein produced in vaccinated people should be toxic as well”.

However, Health Feedback said this assumption was incorrect: “While both mRNA vaccines and viral vector vaccines carry the instructions to produce the entire spike protein, the cells break down much of the protein into small fragments. Furthermore, unlike infection, the spike protein from COVID-19 vaccination doesn’t get assembled into new viral particles.”

Prof Munro told AAP FactCheck that mRNA vaccines were “proving to be incredibly effective and safe” in protecting both the recipients and others from COVID-19, backing up clinical trials which “consistently demonstrated an excellent safety profile”.

Healthcare workers prepare doses of the Moderna vaccine
┬ámRNA vaccines produce a “small amount” of spike protein to illicit protection against COVID-19.┬á

The Verdict

Claims about “toxic” spike proteins spreading into the bloodstream and organs are based on a misinterpretation of a legitimate scientific study looking at the circulation of vaccine antigens. A co-author of that study has told AAP FactCheck that the results do not reveal any cause for alarm and in fact showed that the vaccine was working as intended.

Multiple vaccine experts in Australia and the US agree the study has been misunderstood or misconstrued, and that it does not show mRNA vaccines will cause harm.

False – Content that has no basis in fact.

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