Rob Swanda’s parents came to him recently with their concerns about Pfizer’s newly developed coronavirus vaccine. His mother, a hairstylist, and father, who works as a delivery driver, live in upstate New York and were worried about the speed of trials — and another, wilder theory was doing the rounds.
“People are very concerned that it’s going to mutate your DNA,” said Swanda.
The Pfizer vaccine uses messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology. When injected, it works like a piece of code, instructing the body to recognize and fight back against the virus. Such vaccines are different to most other immunizations, because they don’t use any of the ingredients anti-vaxxers traditionally hate, such as preservatives, immune-response-bolstering adjuvants or viruses.
In the past, anti-vaccine activists have falsely claimed that those components cause adverse neurological reactions, autism and even death. But because the new immunizations operate in a completely different way, the community has had to pivot its campaign to a falsehood dating back to the 1960s: that vaccines can fundamentally alter human DNA.
“They just recycle old claims. And that’s indicative of the fact that they don’t understand this technology, they have never bothered to understand it,” said David Robert Grimes, an Irish physicist and cancer researcher known for his vaccine advocacy work. “They take a myth that they think can get some traction and they push it up.”
“Anti-vaxx conspiracy theories have been with us for a long time and show no sign of disappearing,” said Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “This suspicion is particularly exacerbated at this time, because the vaccine has been developed so quickly. Many people cannot accept that a safe and efficacious vaccine can be developed in such a short time.”
On Twitter, Facebook and Telegram, anti-vaccine propaganda has ramped up since the Pfizer shot emerged as the global frontrunner. One video, from a celebrity doctor turned QAnon conspiracy theorist named Christiane Northrup, has proved particularly popular on social media.
“The claims coming out about altering DNA definitely do raise concerns,” said Natasha, 31, from Melbourne, Australia, who runs the anti-lockdown Facebook group People of Victoria, which promotes anti-vaccination and coronavirus-denial content.
Swanda, 26, is in his final year of a biochemistry PhD at Cornell University and researches RNA – the key component in the new Pfizer vaccine. To respond to his parents’ concerns, he made a video explaining how mRNA vaccines work.
Dressed in a gilet and beanie, he stands before a series of hand-drawn diagrams on a whiteboard, and explains the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. In a week, the clip has had more than three million views.
The notion that a vaccine could somehow alter our genetic code is unscientific. Messenger RNA doesn’t have the ability to recode our genetic makeup, because it’s impossible for the vaccine to enter our cell nuclei. That scientific fact has been ignored by anti-vaxxers, who have begun to refer to the Pfizer shot as the “DNA vaccine.”
“It’s a perfect example of folks who don’t know what they’re talking about. They take one piece of information they don’t know and then they throw it out there,” said Dr Ali Haider, a cardiologist from Massachusetts who uses his Instagram platform to combat vaccine disinformation for a 114,000-strong following. “People just get scared when they hear things like RNA, genes, these buzzwords.”
Another concern — aired by vast numbers of vaccine-hesitant people online — is that the vaccines have been rolled out too fast.
“The reason that it has been developed so quickly is blindingly obvious if you spent 10 seconds thinking about our worldwide efforts, based on 20 or 30 years of research,” said Grimes. “We have thousands upon thousands of volunteers. All the usual bottlenecks that hold up development don’t exist with Covid.”
Haider explained that scientists have been working on developing mRNA vaccines for years, and that the Covid-19 outbreak has simply pushed their development forward. “This technology was ripe and primed and ready, and suddenly this pandemic hit,” he said.
The virus has ushered forth a new wave of anti-vaccination theories and, owing to the increased time spent online during the pandemic, people now are more exposed to such ideas than ever before. “We have to treat all information as potentially carcinogenic,” Grimes said. “Anyone who has spent a lot of time on social media is vulnerable to it.” He added that the only long-term solution is to teach people how to critically assess the information they encounter.
In 2019, The World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 threats to public health. A year on, the issue of vaccine uptake has never been more urgent, said Haider. “If we’re not getting these needles in people’s arms, it doesn’t matter how many billions of dollars and how much warp speed we do, we’re not going to get out of this.”
Haider is also countering the wave of disinformation by making digital content that explains the vaccines to people who don’t understand them.
One of his recent videos, featuring a conversation with a Covid-19 vaccine trial investigator, has racked up hundreds of thousands of views and been inundated with positive comments. However, he is on the receiving end of daily attacks by antivaxxers. “The more I see that, the more I smile and realize, ‘OK, this means this is getting out there,’” he said. “They are getting threatened.”
Swanda’s affirmation, however, was found closer to home. When his mother saw his video, she was reassured. She reposted it to her Facebook page, and began telling customers in her hair salon about it. “She’s getting, like, so many comments,” Swanda said. “She’s just completely floored that this happened. Actually I talked with her last night and she said, ‘Make sure you tell everyone I’m the reason that this video happened.’”