Misinformation on a Covid-19 vaccine is circulating online and gaining traction, threatening to undermine the work done by scientists to produce three successful vaccines.
Inaccurate claims shared on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram hinge on arguments Covid-19 vaccines are not safe or are unnecessary.
From claims the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine contains aborted fetal tissue (it doesn’t), to assertions it attacks genes in the body necessary for it to function (this is not true) and that people in vaccine studies already have immunity (they don’t), social media is flooded with scientific-sounding “nonsense”.
Other inaccurate claims include the commonly-shared theory that Covid-19 vaccines contain microchips and that it is experimental because it has been produced in record-time.
This type of misinformation is becoming increasingly high-stakes ahead of rollout next year.
Health officials have warned 70 per cent uptake is needed to ensure herd immunity, where vulnerable people – individuals unable to take a vaccine due to health conditions or for whom it is less effective – can still receive second hand protection if enough of the population are immunised.
This means inaccurate information could stop us from reaching herd immunity and cost countless lives.
Many of these arguments are easily believed as they use scientific language or are shared by people who claim to have a background in science – but epidemiologists, vaccine experts and Covid-19 experts told i they are completely wrong and go against the facts.
The Oxford vaccine does not contain aborted fetuses
One of the claims circulating online is that the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, which officials announced was effective against Covid-19 this week, contains cells from an aborted male fetus in the ingredients.
The claim, which came from a Facebook video from the anti-vaccine page We Are Vaxxed, was uploaded on 15 November and has been viewed 163,000 and shared 11,000 times.
It has stuck among conspiracy theorists and travelled across platforms, being referenced as fact on Twitter too.
PolitiFact was one of the first to debunk this claim, highlighting that the person in the video inaccurately cites a scientific study of the vaccine as evidence. The narrator finds a section of the study where the authors describe analysing the vaccine in “MRC-5 and A549 cell lines”.
He then proceeds to share a screenshot of the Wikipedia entry for MRC-5, which argues that the cell line was originally developed from research “deriving lung tissue of a 14-week-old aborted Caucasian male fetus”.
The narrator concludes: “One thing (this vaccine) definitely has is the lung tissue of a 14-week-old aborted Caucasian male fetus.”
The issue is, the study used as evidence for this has been taken out of context. The research analysed how the vaccine behaved when it was inside a genetically normal human cell – it is not an ingredient and the study never said it was.
MRC-5 was created when a cell isolated from an aborted fetus in 1966 was multiplied to produce a “cell line” of the same genetic makeup. This original cell has been multiplied so many times, the ones used today do not contain fetus tissue.
A spokesperson from Oxford University said the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines being manufactured do not use MRC-5 but a different cell line – HEK-293. The original cells for HEK-293 were taken from the kidney of an aborted foetus in 1973.
“HEK 293 cells used nowadays are clones of those original cells, but are not themselves the cells of aborted babies,” Steve Pritchard, strategic communications manager at Vaccines Public Affairs Directorate at Oxford University told i.
It is very common for vaccines to be grown in labs using cultures that contain human cells. After they are grown, the results are purified several times to remove the cell culture material, meaning it is unlikely any human material remains in the final vaccine.
Both MMR vaccines, the shingles vaccine and both chickenpox vaccines are grown using human cell strains.
Vaccines do not attack DNA and stop you believing in God
Another claim is that “Covid-related vaccines attack the VMAT2 gene in the body” – a gene which impacts a person’s emotions and spirituality as well as individuals’ ability “to see God”.
The claim comes from a YouTube video from Ammon Bundy, the leader of a far-right militia group which has been growing in the pandemic.
The People’s Rights network was launched in opposition to health officials mandating Covid-19 restrictions. It is a group of militia members, anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists, preppers and anti-vaccination activists, according to a report by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and the Montana Human Rights Network.
The video comes from one of the People Right’s meetings, where the narrator (not Mr Bundy) claims a Covid-19 vaccine trial participant used to be spiritual and lost his faith as a result of the vaccine.
“This young man made the following statement, ‘They have killed God. I can’t find God. My soul is dead.’ That’s after participating in a Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial,” he says.
The Twitter account, STGreport – a conspiracy media account with 166 thousand followers – re-shared the claims.
The account, which describes itself as “the corporate propaganda antidote”, created a thread saying Covid-19 vaccines “are mRNA in nature… they are designed to change your DNA”, which was re-shared 1,600 times.
Again, claims that the vaccine contains mRNA which attacks a person’s DNA are strictly wrong and “go against the fundamentals” of biology, according to Dr Stephen Griffin, Virologist at the University of Leeds.
mRNA is made in the body and unable to go to DNA. Dr Griffin told told i: “The only way mRNA goes to DNA is with viruses, like HIV. For an mRNA vaccine to do anything to your DNA, it would have to get into your nucleus, which it cannot do.”
“It cannot interact with DNA in any form.”
Theories that the vaccine could impact a person’s spirituality are bogus too.
Claims that the VMAT2 are the core of a person’s religion hinge on pop science – something known as the ‘God gene’. The term was coined by Dean Hammer in The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes but has been heavily criticised since and is not supported by any peer-review evidence.
A review in Nature says the writer admits in his introduction that the volume is misnamed and that spirituality is not controlled by one gene, but is complex and involves many genes.
“Unfortunately, the nonrigorous shorthand, such as ‘God gene’, sticks, facilitating misinterpretation and enraging critics,” the writer said.
Vaccines aren’t working because we’re all immune
Another theory gaining traction comes from Michael Yeadon, a man with nearly 66,000 followers online and a number of claims in his bio to medical expertise, including having worked at pharmaceutical company Prifzer – one of the successful vaccine makers – a decade ago.
He previously cast aspersions on PCR tests, often dubbed the “gold standard” in Covid-19 testing by epidemiologists, which i previously investigated.
This time, he’s arguing the reason three vaccines work against Covid-19 is that “a substantial percentage of the population had prior immunity”.
He infers that people in the vaccine studies showed success when using the treatments as they were already immune to the virus.
This is easily debunked as the nature of a vaccine trial prove this cannot be true. For a trial to be successful, which Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca’s have been, the placebo group must be shown to have different results to those who had the jab.
In the randomised trials, everyone has the same chance as everyone else of getting the vaccine or a comparative injection that is not the real vaccine, according to Stephen Evans, Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“The results from the two groups are then compared. If even a substantial number had immunity (and we are fairly sure that they don’t have immunity before the trial begins) then there would be equal numbers with immunity in the two groups,” he told i.
Instead, we see there is a much larger number of people who get Covid-19 in the group who did not get the vaccine.
Participants are usually checked before trials too.
“A blood test is done about a week before the participant is scheduled to be randomised to get the vaccine or the comparison injection. Among other things this looks for antibodies to the virus to check that someone does not already have immunity, and if they do they are not included in the trial,” he explained.
“This means it is just not possible for any pre-existing immunity to be an explanation.”
Professor Griffin said Mr Yeadon’s claim that “humans easily become immune to this virus” at the end of the tweet, refers to increasing evidence that more of the population is protected with T cells stimulated against seasonal coronaviruses which cause common colds. “Some are able to recognise SARS Coronavirus 2 [Covid-19] but that doesn’t necessarily translate across to protection.”
“It may be they could lessen the severity but they will absolutely not stop you getting infected,” he said.
The vaccine is not experimental because it’s new
The reality is, despite the speed in which they have been developed, the same strict procedures for developing a vaccine have been adhered to and are being overseen by independent regulators, Bryan Deane, Director of new medicines and data policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) explained.
There were no shortcuts in the process.
The reason these vaccines have been formulated so quickly is that there are people working on each stage at the same time. “Phases of research and manufacturing of vaccines are being done at the same time rather than one after the other, which helps condense the process, and there’s a huge amount of extra manpower going into the research effort,” he told i.
While the vaccine is experimental while it is in trials, once it is found to be safe and effective against the virus, the data is given to regulatory authorities like the FDA in the US, the EMA in the EU and to the MHRA in the UK, Professor Evans explained.
“These authorities then independently decide whether the vaccine meets the standards. If and only if this is so, are authorisations given for use. It is then no longer regarded as ‘experimental’.”
“The assessment is rigorous,” he added. “While it is true that very rare side effects can be discovered after a vaccine comes into use, monitoring is done to ensure such problems are discovered and dealt with as soon as is possible.”
The vaccine does not contain microchips
One of the defining claims on Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic is ones saying it contains microchips.
From Bill Gates to Boris Johnson, numerous figures and their actions have been cited as evidence for this claim. In June, FullFact debunked a fake letter circulating online which appeared to be from Boris Johnson and referenced a new policy of microchipping people.
Another, which began earlier this year but continues to spread online, is that there will be microchips in Covid-19 vaccines funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates.
i has previously examined how Bill Gates became a bogeyman in the pandemic, with conspiracy theorists linking countless unfounded claims to him, including an early one that he created the virus.
While the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has financially contributed to developing a Covid-19 vaccine, there is no evidence to claims that he is implementing microchips and it has been debunked countless times.
While three vaccines have announced success against the virus, the next step will be for independent regulatory boards to approve them. These organisations have no vested interest, other than to protect public health.
Despite this, there is no doubt the claim has been one of the hardest to tackle. It even spread to TikTok, with a creator sharing footage from a YouTube video titled Coronavirus vaccine is the digital ID chip wow! uploaded in April, alleging microchips will be injected into people, Reuters Fact Check reported. It found the footage originally cited in the YouTube video was from 2017 and taken out of context.