An executive at the German pharmaceutical company Bayer referred to mRNA vaccines used against COVID-19 as an example of innovation in biotech at the World Health Summit 2021. But a website post takes the executive’s words out of context to falsely claim he said the vaccines are gene therapy.
How safe are the vaccines?
More than 200 million people in the U.S. have been vaccinated against COVID-19 using messenger RNA vaccines, or mRNA, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has explained that the vaccines cannot alter a person’s DNA.
The mRNA vaccines work by instructing the recipient’s cells on how to make spike proteins, prompting the body to generate an immune response that protects against the virus that causes COVID-19. The messenger RNA — the “m” in mRNA stands for messenger — cannot enter the nucleus of a cell, where DNA is located, and it doesn’t have the enzymes that would let it communicate with or integrate into DNA, Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explained in a video posted shortly after the vaccines became available.
“It is not possible for messenger RNA to alter DNA,” he said. “The chance of that happening is not small, it’s zero.”
Health departments in several other countries — including the U.K., Canada and Australia — have also explained that mRNA vaccines do not change a person’s DNA. We’ve also written about the false claim that the vaccines are “gene therapy” that can change DNA, as have many others.
But the falsehood persists.
A website called Valuetainment recently posted a version of the false claim that had originally made the rounds months ago, even though fact-checkers had already addressed the claim when it first emerged.
Valuetainment is run by Patrick Bet-David, a businessman who purchased a $4.4 million Florida office in January that houses the website business. Bet-David has discouraged the use of vaccines before. In an appearance on Joe Rogan’s show, he said that he wasn’t going to get a COVID-19 shot, but had received at least 11 vaccines when he was in the Army. “I’ve had plenty of vaccine in myself,” he said, “probably why I’m a little bit off.”
On June 20, Valuetainment posted a story with a headline that said, “mRNA Vaccine Exposed! Bayer Admits COVID-19 Vaccine is Gene Therapy.”
It was based on an Oct. 24 video of Stefan Oelrich, an executive at the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, giving a speech at the World Health Summit 2021.
Toward the end of his talk, Oelrich spoke about public acceptance of health care innovations.
Oelrich, Oct. 24, 2021: We’ve heard a lot about innovation tonight — health for all — it’s certainly imbedding innovation into all facets of the life sciences ecosystem, making use of the current momentum to tackle issues beyond COVID-19. We’ve seen the vaccines as the perfect example during this crisis, but innovations in the field of biotech also radically upend our view on many other diseases, especially [non-communicable diseases]. We can now think of curing many of those disease[s], not just treating symptoms as we think forward. Innovation, and we tend to forget — especially in the rich countries — is also sustainability at a totally different level because those that take the leap to drive innovation in a really meaningful way and invest — and take the risk to invest in [research and development] — will also attain sustainability by creating job security and creating prosperity for those that take the investment. I think this is really important also for these latitudes here.
For us, therefore, we’re really taking that leap — us as company, Bayer, in cell and gene therapy, which to me is one of these examples where really we’re going to make a difference, hopefully, moving forward. Ultimately the mRNA vaccines are an example for that — cell and gene therapy — I always like to say that if we had surveyed two years ago in the public, “would you be willing to take a gene or cell therapy and inject it into your body” — we would have had probably a 95% refusal rate. I think this pandemic has also opened many people’s eyes to innovation in a way that was maybe not possible before.
Valuetainment focused only on the part in bold, and it quoted Oelrich as saying, “Ultimately the mRNA vaccines are an example for that selling gene therapy.” The audio and the context indicate that he said “cell and,” rather than “selling.”
In the context of his speech — which emphasized the value of ingenuity in health care and praised the public’s growing acceptance of new treatments and preventions — it appears he was using the vaccines as an example of new technology that could pave the way for other developments, like the cell and gene therapies that Bayer is working on.
We didn’t hear back from Bayer when we sought clarification on Oelrich’s speech. But the Italian news outlet Open wrote about the claim in November and printed a response from the company that translates into English as this: “It was an obvious slip of the tongue. According to Bayer, mRNA is not a gene therapy in the sense of general understanding.”
The company also has a page on its website explaining how COVID-19 vaccines work and it includes a section debunking the myth that mRNA vaccines can somehow alter DNA.
So, the claim circulating now is just a retread of an already debunked falsehood about the vaccines, which have proven to be both safe and effective.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States.” Accessed 23 Jun 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines.” Updated 16 Jun 2022.
National Health Service. “Why mRNA vaccines aren’t gene therapies.” 11 Jun 2021.
Australian Government Department of Health. “Is it true? Can COVID-19 vaccines alter my DNA? No, COVID-19 vaccines do not alter your DNA.” 10 May 2022.
Fichera, Angelo. “Texas Doctor Spreads False Claims About COVID-19 Vaccines.” FactCheck.org. Updated 10 Feb 2022.
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Can mRNA Vaccines Alter a Person’s DNA?” 10 Feb 2021.
World Health Summit. “KEY 01 – Opening Ceremony – World Health Summit 2021.” YouTube. 24 Oct 2021.
Puente, David. “No! A Bayer executive has not admitted that mRna vaccines are gene therapies.” Open.online. 10 Nov 2021.