In a previous article, the various COVID vaccines coming to New Zealand were discussed. While examining the mRNA (Pfizer) vaccine it was stated that:
…it is RNA, it can be used immediately by the cell’s molecular machinery to make the protein (so does not enter the cell nucleus).
However, it is quite common to see social media posts saying something like:
“…those mRNA vaccines re-write your DNA”.
On the other hand the messaging from the medical establishment is quite the opposite (CDC):
mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.
The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.
Also Moderna’s (another mRNA vaccine) sponsor brief states:
The delivered mRNA does not enter the cell nucleus or interact with the genome, is non-replicating, and is only expressed transiently before undergoing degradation by the cell’s natural mRNA degradation process.
That sounds pretty definitive. However, there is a smorgasbord of articles and blogs arguing yes and no (e.g. here, here and here). So it seems that some clarification would be advised! In this article, we are going to try to uncover what is known about this question.
So what needs to happen if an mRNA vaccine is going to rewrite a cell’s DNA? There are 2 things:
- mRNA needs to enter the nucleus
- mRNA needs to be reverse transcribed into DNA
Can RNA Enter the Nucleus?
Data for COVID are sparse here, but we do have some for other RNA based viruses (e.g. flu) and it appears some variants of flu can get their RNA into the nucleus by using clever techniques (lowering pH).
However, note that this is showing that a virus can get its RNA into the nucleus – not that an mRNA vaccine can. This is an important distinction as viruses carry enzymes to help them with entry and control of cell components. At this point, it is unknown if the mRNA segment from the vaccine can enter the nucleus without any enzyme helpers. However, the possibility cannot be ruled out as the small size of the vaccine mRNA might be sufficient for it to gain entry.
Can mRNA Be Reverse Transcribed into DNA?
Again looking firstly at the virus rather than vaccines, a number of other viruses have had their RNA found in the host cell DNA. So it is not unreasonable to assume that SARS-CoV-2 might be able to do this.
A commenter in the previous article noted a study that suggests that SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be reverse transcribed by LINE-1 elements in the nucleus or, in a more novel way, via the presence of a concurrent retrovirus infection (e.g. HIV). However this paper has not been peer-reviewed, so some caution is advised.
So analogously to the previous section, it appears that a virus can get its RNA reverse transcribed into the host’s DNA, but that is not quite the same as a vaccine’s mRNA achieving it. This is further complicated by the fact that viral RNA and mRNA are not usually structured the same, which could be significant. But again the possibility cannot be ruled out.
Analysis and Conclusions
It would seem that there is a possibility that the claim ‘mRNA vaccines alter your DNA’ is true. However, this needs to be understood in the light of: a) if that is the case the corresponding virus is also likely to do the same and b) the viral vector vaccines (e.g. AstraZeneca and Janssen) certainly do alter your DNA. So the high level takeaway here is that viruses altering cell DNA is ‘situation fairly normal’!
The next thing to consider is: if a vaccine alters cell DNA is that really an issue? The thinking here is that a vaccine is only going to affect some of your cells. However, it does appear that an mRNA flu vaccine trial in mice showed that traces of it got into many of the organs including the reproductive ones! However (again) note that the corresponding virus is likely to achieve a similar effect.
Finally, it is clear that there is considerable complexity and subtlety in the interaction of viruses and our cells and plenty left to learn! This highlights the risk of rushing in with new technologies while long term trials are still in progress.
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