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No evidence COVID-19 vaccines lead to autoimmune disease

January 5, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines that rely on messenger RNA technology will teach the body to attack itself, leading to autoimmune disease.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. There is no evidence that the so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna cause autoimmune disease.

THE FACTS: In a 12-minute video circulating on social media, a nurse practitioner warns people against getting the COVID-19 vaccines based on mRNA technology, falsely claiming that it will teach the body to attack itself and lead to autoimmune disease.

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Tamika Morrow, a registered nurse practitioner in Michigan who posted the video to Facebook Dec. 16, provides a faulty account of how mRNA vaccines work.

“So you mean to tell me they want people to get a vaccine that has never been used on human beings before that will send messages to your body to produce the coronavirus spike protein in your body that may cause autoimmune conditions that will be lifelong all to prevent a virus that will last 2-3 weeks,” she says. “They are allowing this whole virus thing to take off the way it is with the intent of getting everybody this vaccine. Stay away from the vaccine.”

The video has been viewed more than 350,000 times on Facebook. Posts online sharing the video say “This is a Nurse Practitioner speaking FACTS about the V@&A@%CC@$I@#N@%E. Do NOT TAKE IT!!!!”

Experts say the claim is false and misrepresents how the mRNA vaccines work. The mRNA vaccines contain a genetic code that trains the immune system to recognize the spike protein on the surface of the virus to generate an immune response and fight it.

Morrow goes on to claim in the video that scientists with Pfizer and Moderna who have researched the vaccines found that there is a possibility that the vaccines cause autoimmune disease. She presents no evidence of this in the video and autoimmune disease was not described as an adverse reaction in any of the findings for the two vaccines.

The Associated Press reached out to Morrow who responded, defending her claim and questioning how determinations could be made about whether the vaccines are safe since they are new and long-term complications would not yet be apparent.

In an email, Morrow provided the AP with an article referring to a 2018 journal review on mRNA vaccines co-authored by Dr. Drew Weissman, who has studied mRNA for decades and participated in groundbreaking research on the molecule. Morrow noted that in the 2018 article on “mRNA vaccines — a new era in vaccinology,” a number of possible adverse effects for mRNA vaccines were listed, including concerns about autoimmunity.

Weissman said such concerns weren’t applicable with the COVID-19 vaccines because they use a new kind RNA, which would not cause autoimmune disease.

Modified mRNA vaccines have since been given to people for five years now.

“There is no data that says an mRNA vaccine can cause an autoimmune disease,” he said in an email. “I have not seen or heard of a single report that mRNA vaccines cause autoimmunity.”

Autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system attacks itself and is unable to recognize normal cells from foreign cells. Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

The spike protein in the coronavirus allows it to attach to human cells. The mRNA vaccine teaches the immune system how to combat the spike protein when it comes across it in the body.

Specific cells in the body process and present foreign proteins to the immune system all the time that are not eliminated by cells that kill viruses.

“We make hundreds of thousands of copies of messenger RNA in our cells all the time that make thousands of proteins,” Dr. Paul Offit, an immunization expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who sits on the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, said in an email.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found no specific safety concerns or serious side effects before concluding the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines could be used on an emergency basis. The most common side effects for both vaccines were injection site pain, which is typical of vaccines.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that people with autoimmune disease can take the mRNA vaccines.

“However, they should be aware that no data are currently available on the safety of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for them,” the CDC has said.

A lack of understanding around how mRNA vaccines work has led to a flurry of misinformation around the vaccines. For example, posts have falsely claimed that the mRNA vaccines alter DNA, which is not true.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536