Anti-Vaccine Misinformation Has Consequences

According to the Associated Press, a pharmacist at a hospital group in Wisconsin has been arrested and charged with several crimes after he allegedly left a box of COVID-19 vaccines out of refrigeration and allowed them to spoil. The article states that “[a] detective wrote in a probable cause statement that Brandenburg, 46, is an admitted conspiracy theorist and that he told investigators he intentionally tried to ruin the vaccine because it could hurt people by changing their DNA.” That misinformation about the mRNA vaccine altering or changing a person’s DNA is one of the first bits of misinformation falsely claimed by anti-vaccine individuals and organizations.

The mRNA vaccine does no such thing. Scientists — and people who paid attention in biology class — know this not only because there is no evidence in any of the clinical trials (and now in the post-marketing surveillance) that the vaccine does this, but they also know this because cells have several mechanisms to prevent RNA from entering their nucleus and RNA simply cannot alter DNA. Are there viruses that can alter DNA? Yes, and they are DNA viruses that can cause cancer, like the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), for which there is a vaccine with an excellent safety record.

Most recently, Andrew Wakefield, the author of a fraudulent 1998 study that sought to link the MMR vaccine to autism, has started spreading the rumor of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines altering DNA. He called it “genetic engineering,” which it is not. In his recent video that is being spread by anti-vaccine groups, Andrew Wakefield — a former British physician whose ability to practice medicine was taken away for the MMR-autism fraud — also states that the vaccine will induce an autoimmune disease. It does not. Finally, he also asserts that people have died from the vaccine because people died after getting the vaccine: 4 in the placebo group and 4 in the vaccine group for the Moderna trial. (See table 19 of their data submission to the Food and Drug Administration for other adverse events.)

Throughout the entire pandemic, many public health officials have faced threats to their safety over the recommendations and public health actions taken to try and contain the virus. Some of that bullying and intimidation was done by anti-vaccine groups and their members. And, while much of that bullying and intimidation has been online, their actions have spilled over into the real world too many times. With this alleged mishandling of COVID-19 vaccine by someone who fell for anti-vaccine talking points, anti-vaccine actions take a step further toward harming a large number of people. As it is alleged in charging documents, the pharmacist planned for the vaccines to still be given after being left outside of refrigeration and allowed to spoil. The consequences of giving an expired vaccine could have been worse than anything claimed by anti-vaccine conspiracies.

Unfortunately, governments the world over have been unable to stave off the waves of lies and misinformation about crucial things like public health and medicine. Some cannot because of the limitations placed on them by their political constitutions. Others cannot because they’re locked in an arms race with the technology that amplifies misinformation to global audiences. And then there are the social media companies that walk the fine line between allowing their users to have freedom of expression and not allowing them to spread dangerous rumors.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen