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Claims that COVID-19 vaccines will spur new variants are false

January 27, 2022 GMT

CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines are facilitating omicron’s infectiousness and mass vaccination might spur the development of new mutations.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Experts say that they have seen no credible evidence to support the claim that COVID-19 vaccines are making the omicron variant more infectious, or that it will exacerbate the development of new variants.

THE FACTS: During a panel discussion on Monday hosted by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, Dr. Robert Malone, a frequent critic of the COVID-19 vaccines, suggested that mass vaccination will produce new variants of the virus, and that the vaccines spur on the highly infectious omicron variant.

“If we continue to pursue universal vaccination, the high probability is that what we will continue to see is the evolution of additional escape mutants that are increasingly infectious and may well become more pathogenic,” Malone said. “Omicron is not only resistant to the vaccine but its infectivity seems to be facilitated by the vaccine.”

A video clip of Malone’s comments has circulated widely on social media and on blogs. One version of the footage, which was posted Monday on Twitter, has received over 19,000 likes.

But the claims are false, according to epidemiology and vaccinology experts. Contrary to Malone’s suggestion that mass vaccination will spur the creation of more variants of the virus, vaccine-induced immunity actually decreases the chances that new forms of the virus will spread.

John Swartzberg, a clinical professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Associated Press that variants are more likely to emerge in unvaccinated populations because the virus replicates better in people who aren’t vaccinated, giving it a better chance of evolving.

“He’s absolutely wrong,” Swartzberg said, referring to Malone’s comments. “An unvaccinated person produces so much more virus so there’s a much greater chance of a variant being produced.”

Of the claim that the vaccines make omicron more infectious, Swartzberg said, “I’ve seen no evidence to suggest, much less indicate that.”

Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in an email to the AP that Malone’s claims are “simply not the case.”

He noted that omicron emerged in southern Africa, where the vaccination rate is low.

“Our only way to tamp down new variants of concern is to do much better at vaccinating all of humanity,” Beyrer wrote.

Similar claims that the vaccines spur the evolution of new variants have circulated online in the past. Experts told the AP in May 2021 that while scientists have observed a phenomenon with some viruses called antibody-dependent enhancement, which involves antibodies caused by a past infection or vaccine failing to neutralize a virus, that has not been observed with the coronavirus or the vaccines.

While it’s possible for new variants to emerge alongside mass vaccination, infections in unvaccinated people pose a greater overall risk, John Mittler, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told the AP.

“The big picture is that vaccination reduces the amount of virus circulating in the body,” Mittler wrote in an email. “The net effect of the vaccine is to reduce the total number of cells that get infected.”

In response to the AP’s request for comment, Malone wrote in an email, “Right now, I am getting so many emails that I just don’t have time to personally respond to them all. I apologize, but I just don’t have enough hours in the day.”


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.