2020 was a bumper year for conspiracy theories.
And the recent flurry of positive news around vaccines – 4,307,002 doses have been given out in the UK by Saturday, to 3,857,266 people – has focused some of this energy into the supposed harms and risks associated with inoculation, reinvigorating the anti-vax movement that began in the 1990s.
Most of the concerns raised are old and already debunked news, repackaged for the social media age and propagated by non-experts.
So HuffPost UK asked an actual expert, UCL medicine cell biologist Dr Jennifer Rohn, to help debunk the 2020 version of a 1990s phenomenon:
1) Vaccines do not alter your DNA
One quirk of the coronavirus pandemic that absolutely no one saw coming is that many of the following conspiracy theories and falsehoods can be found being promoted on the Twitter feeds of various 1990s pop stars.
First up is Jim Corr of Irish folk group The Corrs, a guitarist with no medical or scientific qualifications whatsoever.
In a Twitter spat with a priest in Philadelphia, he claimed: ”The vaccine is a novel experimental RNA vaccine which will alter the very DNA of the recipient.”
This is absolutely not true and there is not a single piece of evidence to back it up. In fact, it’s physically impossible.
Let’s start with a few key terms.
DNA is a long molecule that contains our unique genetic code (our genes). It governs the development, functioning, growth and reproduction of the proteins in the cells of our body.
RNA is similar in structure but its job is to carry out the instructions encoded in our DNA so that our proteins know how to behave. It does this in three ways, one of which is to act as a messenger between the DNA and our proteins. In this role, it is called messenger RNA (mRNA). Once its job is done, it disappears.
The vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines and use part of Covid-19's RNA in order to tell our cells to produce antigens.
These antigens are then recognised by the immune system and prepare it to fight coronavirus.
Crucially, while RNA and DNA do interact, RNA cannot change our DNA. It only works in one direction, by telling the proteins in our cells how to behave.
“It’s just not physically possible. It’s just the wrong type of material,” says Rohn.
So where does the idea that it can change our DNA come from? Rohn thinks it might be due to people confusing vaccines with gene therapy.
“Gene therapy is a completely different thing. It’s where you take some DNA, put that into a virus and that’s designed to go into your cells and correct problems,” she says.
Gene therapy is an experimental technique that has been used with some success against cystic fibrosis and some cancers. But it has nothing to do with vaccines, how they are developed or how they work.
2) If you can take the vaccine, you really, really should
Back to our motley line-up of ’90s pop stars and this time it’s the turn of Ian Brown, the former Stone Roses singer, who also has no scientific or medical qualifications whatsoever.
Anti-vaxxer Brown has been very vocal throughout the pandemic, most recently stating that no should care if he doesn’t get a vaccine because anyone who does want one can get one and then be protected regardless.
There are two things to be considered here.
Firstly, not everyone can be vaccinated. People undergoing certain medical treatments or those with compromised immune systems may not be able to safely take a vaccine.
As such, they are relying on the wider population to take the vaccine, develop herd immunity, and therefore indirectly protect them from Covid-19.
The second thing to consider is that herd immunity for a disease is typically achieved when 70% to 90% of a population is vaccinated.
So while Mr Brown alone deciding to not take the vaccine is not problematic, tweeting and encouraging his 148,000 followers to do the same very much is.
“It’s quite a shocking thing to say: ‘I’m going to sit back and reap the benefits of vaccination without actually getting the vaccine myself,’” says Rohn.
“I think that’s completely selfish because not everyone can get vaccinated. There are people who are too vulnerable and they’re immunocompromised and they’re relying on everyone else to do the right thing.”
3) Vaccines do not contain tissue from aborted foetuses
Back to Jim for our next apparently horrifying claim: that the vaccines contain the cells of aborted foetuses.
Again, this is not true. There is no human tissue at all in a vaccine.
“You would never put human tissue into a vaccine because it might cause an immune reaction that you don’t want,” says Rohn.
The belief expressed by Corr stems from a misunderstanding about how vaccines in general are developed.
Some cells used in lab research are derived from stem cells obtained decades ago from elective abortions. Over the years, these cells are reproduced over and over again and provide a consistent genetic make-up for conducting vaccine research.
“There are cell lines that we use in the lab all the time that are derived from stem cells,” says Rohn. “Some of them are 50 years old and they’re an essential part of the research arsenal. It’s not like we’re going out and aborting foetuses to do research on them.”
Even the staunchly anti-abortion Catholic Church has come out in favour of vaccines necessarily developed using such cell lines, assuring followers: “One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion.”
4) Vaccines do not cause autism
This false belief long predates the Covid vaccine yet somehow persists despite the fact there is absolutely no evidence to back it up.
“I really don’t know what else there is to say.”
It’s also an extremely ableist conspiracy theory, as they go. And we shall leave it at that.
5) Yes, the vaccine has been developed quickly but that doesn’t mean it’s not safe
We end with something that doesn’t qualify as a conspiracy theory but is a misunderstanding that can be cleared up with a bit of science.
In keeping with our recently established tradition, we now turn to Right Said Fred.
It’s undeniable that coronavirus vaccines have been developed with unprecedented speed. The previous record was four years, when the mumps vaccine was distributed in the 1960s.
With the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine rolled out on December 8, this record was slashed to well under a single year.
“I think the concern is quite understandable in some ways,” says Rohn. “Usually it takes 10 years and this time it’s taken 10 months, so of course people are going to wonder if any shortcuts have been taken.”
In short, the answer is no. Rather than the result of shortcuts or the loosening of safety standards, the speed with which Covid vaccines have been developed is due to the phenomenal money and effort thrown at the problem – the UK government alone has spent £6bn in total to develop and procure them.
And we weren’t working from scratch.
“There’s been an enormous amount of groundwork on these prototypes so we were quick off the mark from a research point of view,” says Rohn. “The actual trials are taking a long time and that’s where nothing is being compromised.
“No reputable regulatory body will approve this without a completed and successful series of clinical trials.”
While the immediate need for the vaccine does mean the longer term effects of the vaccine cannot be known just yet, it’s incredibly unlikely that there will be some mysterious and damaging side-effect that only becomes apparent later on.
Former chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, said earlier this month that from a “long history” there was “no reason” to expect that a new coronavirus vaccine would have long-term side effects.
He added: “If there are going to be side effects, there are the immediate ones.”
These of course would have been picked up in trials already conducted.
Rohn said: “We know a lot about vaccines and what we’re seeing in the trials is exactly what we expect to see – a robust immune response, we’re seeing antibodies and T cells. Nothing that’s going in is incredibly earth-shattering – it’s RNA and protein.”
UPDATE: Since the news tha the Pfizer vaccine will be rolled out in the UK