Fact checking of the week: mRNA vaccines are not gene therapy and do not alter human DNA

Background

Various articles and social media posts claim that „Stefan Oelrich, president of Bayer’s pharmaceutical division, has admitted that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are cell and gene therapy marketed as vaccines to gain public trust.”

In fact, Stefan Oelrich, member of the Board of Management of Bayer and head of the Pharmaceuticals Division, did not say that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are gene or cell therapy. In a recent speech, Oelrich said that messenger RNA-based vaccines are an example of technological innovation, just as the gene and cell therapy proposed by Bayer are an example of technological innovation. This statement was taken out of context and distorted to falsely claim that „vaccines against COVID-19 modify / may alter human DNA” – a common myth circulating since the beginning of the vaccination campaign.

The full statement attributed to Stefan Oelrich is:

“We are really taking that leap [to drive innovation] – us as a company, Bayer – in cell and gene therapies … ultimately the mRNA vaccines are an example for that cell and gene therapy. I always like to say: if we had surveyed two years ago in the public – ‘would you be willing to take a gene or cell therapy and inject it into your body?’ – we probably would have had a 95% refusal rate.”

Facts

Stefan Oelrich, member of the Board of Management of Bayer AG and head of the Pharmaceuticals Division, attended the opening of the 2021 World Health Summit (WHS) held Berlin from October 24 to 26.  Official video replay of the event features Stefan Oelrich’s speech starting around the timestamp 1:29:35.

In fact, some authentic sequences of Oelrich’s speech have been taken out of context and distorted to misleadingly claim that mRNA vaccines are gene and cell therapy. Stefan Oelrich’s speech focused on new technologies in the medical field and public trust in these technologies. According to Oelrich, the fact that the  world population has welcomed mRNA vaccines could open the way for new technologies in the medical field such as cell and gene therapy, technologies that Bayer has studied and promoted against diseases such as anemia or Parkinson’s. Oelrich made a comparison between messenger RNA vaccines and gene therapies as an example of technological breakthroughs in the medical field.

Open Fact-checking contacted Bayer, asking for clarification on Stefan Oelrich’s speech at the World Health Summit. Bayer’s official response states that there was an obvious slip of the tongue and that mRNA technology is not gene therapy.

Adam Taylor, a virologist and research fellow at the Menzies Health Institute, Queensland, Griffith University, told Reuters that “gene therapy, in the classical sense, involves making deliberate changes to a patient’s DNA in order to treat or cure them. mRNA vaccines will not enter a cell’s nucleus that houses your DNA genome. There is zero risk of these vaccines integrating into our own genome or altering our genetic makeup.”

Harvard Stem Cell Institute states that “gene therapy involves a process by which problematic gene sequences are replaced with healthy ones, thus stopping the evolution of a disease. Gene therapy is not used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, since vaccines don’t replace or edit human genes.

According to the Ministry of Health of Romania, COVID-19 mRNA vaccines (such as those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) do not include any compounds that have the ability to modify a person’s DNA. The role of the messenger RNA molecule in the vaccine is to give our cells instructions to produce Spike protein, a protein to which the immune system will react by producing specific antibodies. mRNA do not integrate the virus’ DNA into the cell nucleus of its recipient and decomposes rapidly once it has achieved its goal of producing Spike protein.

Anti-fake has previously debunked misleading claims about COVID-19 vaccines that ”can alter/change human DNA.”

Rating: Missing context and distorted claims

Articles and social media posts that translated or re-published Oelrich’s official statement are based on the technique of taking a quote out of context and amplify it to support misleading narratives circulating during the pandemic and the vaccination campaign. According to these narratives, the pandemic is a “masquerade” or a “hoax” planned by Big Pharma / global elites aiming to usher an evil (financial) agenda. The fact that vaccination has been embraced as one of the fastest and most convenient solutions to end the global health crisis is distorted and misrepresented as „vaccination is the goal”/ “the reason why the COVID-19 hoax was invented in the first place”.

Tips & tricks for safely navigating digital information

It is important to recognize and be cautious about such forms of misleading content. For this purpose, we suggest a few relatively simple steps:

  • check the context in which a certain statement was made and be careful if the context is not nor clear/ missing;
  • check the original source of a statement and verify if claims are supported by  factual evidence;
  • make a clear distinction between a quote and its interpretation, pay attention when the boundaries between the two are blurred.

Our sources:

vaccinare-covid.gov.ro – Clarificări privind presupusele efecte ale vaccinurilor împotriva COVID-19 asupra ADN-ului uman

bayer.com – Stefan Oelrich

open.online – No! Un dirigente di Bayer non ha ammesso che i vaccini a mRna sono terapie geniche

webmd.com – Chance That COVID-19 Vaccines Are Gene Therapy? ‘Zero’

hsci.harvard.edu – Gene thrapies

genomicseducation.hee.nhs.uk – Why mRNA vaccines aren’t gene therapies

reuters.com – Fact Check-mRNA vaccines are distinct from gene therapy, which alters recipient’s genes

fda.gov – What is Gene Therapy?

parisbeacon.com – Has a Bayer executive claimed that messenger RNA vaccines are gene therapy?

politifact.com – Joe Rogan falsely says mRNA vaccines are ‘gene therapy’

youtube.com – EY 01 – Opening Ceremony – World Health Summit 2021

worldhealthsummit.org – World Health Summit

bayer.com – Cell and gene therapy: The next milestone in fighting diseases

media.bayer.com – Bayer establishes Cell and Gene Therapy Platform to accelerate pharmaceutical innovation

antifake.ro – Fact checking-ul săptămânii: „Rețeta” completă a unui conținut problematic

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