Post misleads on J&J COVID vaccine, DNA
CLAIM: The COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson enters the nucleus of cells, suggesting that the shot alters recipients’ DNA.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. The vaccine uses a weakened, modified cold virus. While the DNA from that adenovirus does enter the nucleus of cells in order to produce mRNA and prompt production of the spike protein of the coronavirus, experts say there’s no evidence the shots alter a person’s DNA.
THE FACTS: Social media users have long spread erroneous and alarming claims that the mRNA COVID-19 shots from Pfizer and Moderna are altering humans’ DNA.
A popular post circulating this week acknowledges that falsehood but goes on to misleadingly suggest that it’s actually another vaccine — one from Johnson & Johnson — that is changing recipients’ DNA because it enters the nucleus of recipients’ cells.
“For the past 3 years, nothing but constant yelling about mRNA vaccines designed to change your DNA. It’s false. It doesn’t enter the nucleus. But guess what does? The J&J is a DNA vaccine. Yet TOTAL silence..” reads a tweet shared as a screenshot on Instagram.
J&J’s COVID-19 shot is a viral vector vaccine that uses a cold virus, known as an adenovirus, that is weakened and modified. The company used the same technology to make an Ebola vaccine.
The J&J COVID-19 vaccine does deliver the adenovirus DNA to the nucleus, where it in turn produces messenger RNA — or mRNA — that then instructs the body to produce the spike protein of the coronavirus, as the Vaccine Education Research Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains.
But experts say that doesn’t mean the J&J vaccine changes the human genome, which is the entire set of DNA instructions found in a cell.
“Just because they are present in the same location that doesn’t mean there’s going to be recombination there,” said Paulo Verardi, an associate professor of virology and vaccinology at the University of Connecticut, referring to the adenovirus DNA integrating with the human genome.
There are several factors that work against the notion that the vaccine is being integrated into the genome, Verardi said, who said such a scenario is “very, very, very, very unlikely.”
First of all, adenoviruses are not known to integrate into humans’ genome, he said. Other viruses, such as retroviruses — HIV being one — do.
What’s more, the adenovirus used in the J&J vaccine is also modified so that it is not able to replicate in humans, making the prospect of it altering humans’ DNA even less likely than if humans were to be actually infected with an adenovirus, as they routinely are, Verardi added.
Dr. Beth Moore, chair of the University of Michigan’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, similarly said in an email that because the virus is replication-incompetent, it can’t easily spread cell to cell.
“The fact that the virus enters the nucleus does NOT mean that it integrates into the genome of humans,” Moore said.
J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine has been largely sidelined by officials because of the risk of rare but serious blood clotting issues. The vaccine is now recommended only in limited situations, such as previous allergic reactions to components of the mRNA vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many more Americans have received doses from Pfizer and Moderna.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.