Reverse transcription of COVID mRNA vaccine — anti-vaxxers go wild

A new paper that was published in February 2022 seemed to indicate that human cells could use a reverse transcription of the COVID-19 mRNA in vaccines to create new DNA. Of course, anti-vaxxers jumped on the reverse transcription train because it confirmed their beliefs that the mRNA vaccine somehow messes with your DNA. It doesn’t.

I’ll be blunt — this is an awful paper that doesn’t say what the anti-vaxxers think it means. And more bluntly, it does not come close to showing that the mRNA vaccine can change your DNA. Let’s take a look at this article in detail.

close up view of person holding a vaccine
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Review of mRNA vaccines

I’ve written this several times with regards to both the Pfizer and Modern mRNA vaccines, but it bears repeating, because a lot of people may come to this article for the first time. 

The Pfizer and Moderna Therapeutics COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines that rely upon an mRNA, or messenger RNA, molecule to induce an immune response. However, it does not do this directly.

Normally, during the process called transcription, RNA polymerase makes a copy of a gene from its DNA to mRNA as signaled by the cell. In other words, the mRNA sequences in the cell usually correspond directly to the DNA sequences in our genes. These mRNA sequences “carry” that genetic message to a ribosome for translation, where tRNA triplets, which code for one amino acid, attach to the appropriate mRNA triplet, adding one amino acid to the protein chain. 

As in DNA, genetic information in mRNA is contained in the sequence of nucleotides, which are arranged into codons consisting of three ribonucleotides each. Each codon codes for a specific amino acid, except the stop codons, which terminate protein synthesis.

At this point, note that the mRNA does nothing to the DNA strand in your genes – it merely reads the sequence.

Yes, that’s a lot of cell biology, though I took years of courses in cell biology, so trust me when I say I barely touched the surface. If you want to take a deep dive into the science of mRNA and mRNA vaccines, my friend Edward Nirenberg wrote two articles that will satisfy your desires – they make it clear how this all works and doesn’t work.

However, here’s a basic video that shows how this works.

Alan McHughen, in his outstanding book, “DNA Demystified: Unraveling the Double Helix,” describes how mRNA works:

When an mRNA strand exits the nucleus and enters the cytoplasm, it attaches to ribosomes, and this is where protein synthesis progresses. The ribosome reads the base sequence of the mRNA, three bases at a time. Each three-base triplet, called a codon, specifies a particular amino acid, except for a few with regulatory functions (e.g., UGA =“Stop!”).

If the first three-base codon is AUG, then a molecule of the amino acid methionine is brought into place. If the next triplet is AAA, that brings in the amino acid lysine. The methionine and lysine molecules are attached together. The next triplet is, say, GCC, and that brings in alanine, which is attached to the lysine. The ribosome has read nine bases, AUGAAAGCC, and compiled a short chain of three amino acids, abbreviated Met-Lys-Ala, or MKA (see amino acid abbreviations here).

The ribosome continues reading all of the mRNA bases until it hits a stop signal—which is also a triplet codon such as UGA—and the now long chain of amino acids falls loose. This chain may be a functional protein immediately, or, more usually, it might undergo some additional post-translational processing by enzymes to become active.

mrna vaccines

Once the mRNA has created a number of the proteins (in this case, the S-protein), that mRNA molecule is then ripped apart by enzymes in the cell, so that the individual RNA nucleotides can go back to being reused in a whole new mRNA sequence. The cellular machinery of translating DNA into proteins is constantly recirculating itself.

The mRNA vaccine technology relies upon a specific mRNA sequence to kickstart the endogenous production of proteins that are structurally equivalent to the viral antigens. The mRNA sequences in the vaccine enter the cell (with a carrier protein), heads to the ribosomes to create the SARS-CoV-2 antigens. These antigens will depart the cell and will trigger the body’s adaptive immune system to produce antibodies effective against the actual target, in this case, the S-protein or spike on the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

One more thing – the antigens produced by these mRNA sequences are biologically inert. They will induce an immune response, but they will not cause any other biological effect including becoming pathogenic.

Someone used this analogy to describe how mRNA works. Let’s say you have a book that represents the genetic code (lots of people describe our genetic code as the official manual of ourselves). You then scan that book in a copy machine, and now you have a bunch of papers that are an image of the original book. The copy does not change the original book. It can’t.

So, let’s summarize. The mRNA vaccines make use of the cell’s ribosome to create the S-protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That antigen induces an adaptive immune system response that will “remember” that antigen allowing the immune system to quickly attack the virus if it shows up.

Now comes the “however.” There are enzymes, called reverse transcriptases, that are produced by some viruses that can reverse the transcription process we described above and put new DNA into your genetic code by extending the length of chromosomes by a few genes. This helps them reproduce in the cell.

Human cells do contain reverse transcriptases but they are highly specialized only working with specific mRNA segments for DNA replication. They do not engage in reverse transcription of random bits of mRNA code such as found in the mRNA vaccines.

grayscale photo of books reverse transcription
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The reverse transcription paper

The paper in question was published on 22 February 2022 in Current Issues in Molecular Biology, a low impact-factor journal, by Markus Aldén and colleagues. The authors claim that theirs is the first in vitro study that shows that after the mRNA fragments of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine enter the cells, there is intracellular reverse transcription of the mRNA into DNA.

That sounds scary, right? Fundamentally, this paper actually doesn’t show that at all. So, let’s critique the science here.

  1. Like I always do, let’s take a look at the qiuality of the source. Current Issues in Molecular Biology is a very low ranked journal with an impact factor of 2.44 to 2.70, which means an average article published in this journal is cited less than three times over the past two years. Compare that to Nature or Science, both of which have impact factors of over 30. If the authors actually thought they had a scientific breakthrough, and this would qualify as one, then it should be in the most prestigious journals. Instead they publish it in a near-predatory journal which costs a large amount to publish. Real prestigious journals rarely, if ever, charge authors to publish their articles. They charge those of us who want to read the article.
  2. This is really being picky, but the article was so poorly written, with bad grammar and spelling in various places. Who edited this article? Andrew Wakefield?
  3. The article reads like the authors have a chip on their shoulder about the mRNA vaccines. They overlook real science about reverse transcription to hit a point that they are dangerous — in other words, they have a preconceived conclusion, and by the beard of Charles Darwin, they’re going to prove that the vaccine is dangerous. It’s almost propaganda.
  4. But let’s get to the science. This is an in vitro study, meaning it was done in cells, not in an actual, living human. As I have written dozens of times, less than 1% of preclinical studies, like in vitro studies, ever make it to some sort of clinical reality. They provide no convince evidence that this process of reverse transcription happens inside of a living cell inside of a living human being.
  5. in any cell, approximately 10-15% of the RNA in the cytoplasm is mRNA. The authors fail to explain or propose by what mechanism would reverse transcription and integration selectively favor either the SARS-CoV-2CoV2 genome in the vaccine over all of the other mRNA fragments in the cell. This is borderline illogical. If this kind of thing is happening all the time, then how is life possible at all?  We should see all sorts of cellular mRNA transcripts integrating into the genome at random, causing massive destruction of our genome. We don’t see this.
  6. The authors did not show or establish that any of the DNA transcribed from the vaccine mRNA was incorporated into the liver cell genome. What they did observe is the production of DNA amplicons, which are essentially floating in the cytoplasm of the cell. Those amplicons are NOT going to be incorporated into the genome. And the authors did not show that they were incorporated. The authors wrote, “At this stage, we do not know if DNA reverse transcribed from BNT162b2 is integrated into the cell genome.” This is an extremely important point.
  7. Even if they could show that the vaccine mRNA could be transcribed back into the cell’s genome, is there any evidence that would do anything meaningful or harmful? If our genome was so susceptible to such reverse transcription, we would have died out a billion years ago. Many viruses inject RNA into cells to replicate themselves, and if reverse transcriptase was pumping out DNA from all of these viruses, our genome would collapse. You’re reading this now, so I assume your genome is working quite well.
  8. The level of reverse transcription was so high that it probably can’t happen in real human cells (that old problem with in vitro studies). In fact the authors state: “The cell model that we used in this study is a carcinoma cell line, with active DNA replication which differs from non-dividing somatic cells. It has also been shown that Huh7 cells display significant different gene and protein expression including upregulated proteins involved in RNA metabolism [56].”
  9. Let me be clear about a huge problem with this article — they forced reverse transcription, which is not going to happen in vivo.

Summary

This paper was basically worthless. If the authors didn’t come across with an agenda, to try to show that mRNA vaccines are dangerous, it could have been an interesting article.

So, let me repeat myself. This paper provides no evidence whatsoever that the mRNA sequences in the Pfizer vaccine (and presumably the Moderna vaccine) are being incorporated into the genetic code of the recipient. In artificial in vitro conditions, the researchers forced reverse transcription, but they did not show that this could happen in a living human being and they didn’t show that the DNA segments were incorporated (or even could be incorporated) into the genome.

This is just another one of those papers that the anti-vaccine activists will use as their “gotcha” moment when they haven’t gotcha anything. It’s really bad science, and I am shocked that a low-ranked journal published it.

Citations


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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!