In between all of the bad news going on in the world, you may have missed the story of Steven Brandenburg, the anti-vaccine pharmacist who intentionally destroyed numerous vials of the Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, which had recently received an emergency use authorization from the US FDA.
At first, it was thought it was unintentional. When you are moving quickly to vaccinate healthcare workers and others against the deadly disease, maybe Steven Brandenburg, a licensed pharmacist, just got so busy that he left the vaccine on a table until it was too late. I have been involved with vaccines for a long time, and I cannot begin to count how many times people have spoiled vaccines because of forgetfulness, not understanding how it should be stored, or a plethora of other reasons.
Once it became clear what had happened, Brandenburg was fired by his employer, Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wisconsin, and eventually arrested for destroying over 500 doses in about 53 vials of the vaccine. Maybe one could be excused for accidentally spoiling 5 vials of the critical vaccine. But 53 vials is strong evidence of criminal intent (note, I am not an attorney, nor do I play one on the internet).
Steven Brandenburg was charged with felony charges of reckless endangerment and property damage, though prosecutors said the charges could be dropped to a single misdemeanor if the vials, which have yet to be tested, are still usable. He is out of jail on a $10,000 bond.
Steven Brandenburg, anti-vaccine conspiracist
So what did he do precisely? According to Aurora Medical Center, Steven Brandenburg admitted that he deliberately removed the vials from refrigeration at the Aurora Grafton medical center overnight on 24 December 2020, returned them, then left them out again on the night of 25 December through to the next morning.
An Aurora pharmacy technician discovered the vials outside the refrigerator on 26 December. According to the hospital, Brandenburg initially said he had removed the vials to access other items in the refrigerator and had inadvertently failed to put them back. Many of us heard this part of the story initially.
According to documents submitted to the FDA, the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is viable for 12 hours outside refrigeration. Healthcare workers did not know that they were potentially spoiled and had vaccinated 57 healthcare workers before stopping and discarding the rest.
Those 57 individuals probably received useless vaccines, but the vials were sent to Moderna for further testing to determine if they were actually spoiled. The police estimated that the spoiled doses were worth between $8-10,000. That’s why it is a felony, though again if they weren’t spoiled, he probably won’t be charged as a felony.
Brandenburg told the police in Grafton, WI that he believed the Moderna vaccine could harm people and “change their DNA.” Of course, he was into many other conspiracies about the COVID-19 vaccine, most of them pushed by the anti-vaxxers across the planet.
mRNA does not change your DNA
I am going to repeat myself – these mRNA vaccines do not change your DNA, period, full stop. In case you’re not inclined to read the link in the previous sentence, I’ll just rewrite what I said about mRNA vaccines and your DNA.
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.
Once the mRNA has created a protein, it 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.
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.
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 our individual person). 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.
The mRNA from the mRNA vaccines do not interact with your DNA in any way. They cause the ribosome to produce the S-protein antigen, and that’s it. Once some copies of the molecule of S-protein are produced at the ribosome from one strand of mRNA from the vaccine, that mRNA strand is broken down into individual nucleotides to be reused by the cell. And in case you were wondering, RNA nucleotides are the same whether they’re manufactured by cells or in a test tube. They are molecularly exactly alike.
If mRNA could functionally change the DNA, it would open up a whole world of genetic medicine. We could fix all kinds of genetic diseases with this mechanism.
But that’s not how mRNA works, so we can’t.
There are actually other reasons why these mRNA vaccines are not going to affect your DNA:
- Your cells’ genome (DNA) is contained within the nucleus of the cell, which is surrounded by a double-membrane. It allows for large molecules, such as mRNA which has read the DNA, to leave the nucleus, but blocks large molecules from entering it. So the S-protein mRNA from the vaccine will not enter the nucleus until it is broken down into individual nucleotides, at which point, they are exactly the same as all of the other nucleotides.
- Even if the mRNA molecule could affect the DNA and even if it could get into the nucleus, there are all kinds of error correction machinery in our DNA to keep out random bits of code. With trillions of cells in each human, each containing billions of DNA base pairs, there are naturally a lot of errors that could kill a human if the quality control machinery of the DNA didn’t keep close watch over errors.
- Similarly, this mRNA cannot get into the mitochondria (which have their own DNA) and cause damage to its DNA. Even though the mitochondrion lacks a cell nucleus, it does have its own ribosomes and genes, and they would react to the S-protein mRNA in the same ways as the cell – it would not change its DNA.
Bye-bye Steven Brandenburg
Steven Brandenburg destroyed valuable COVID-19 that could have prevented the disease in his community because he believes that they would harm your DNA. They don’t.
I know that Brandenburg will not be the last person to believe in this nonsense and try to do the same thing. He’s probably a hero to the anti-vaccine world.
The frustrated Orac is ready to explode from the conspiracies and denialism from healthcare workers:
While many physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals bravely risked their lives to care for COVID-19 patients (and some even died of COVID-19), a small but disturbing and impossible-to-ignore number of doctors denied or minimized the pandemic, sold unproven or even quack “cures,” and helped spread conspiracy theories designed to spark resistance to public health interventions, like masking, social distancing, and closures of businesses that involve large numbers of people gathering. Some have even engaged in germ theory denial by claiming that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that has been shown to cause COVID-19, either doesn’t exist (it’s an exosome!) or doesn’t cause COVID-19. As these examples led me to think about how such people could get through medical school (just as Andrew Wakefield always did), I learned earlier this week that it wasn’t just doctors, but pharmacists as well, who fall prey to conspiracy theories.
The best that people like me and Orac can do is to vigorously debunk these anti-vaccine myths. And maybe we can make the next Steven Brandenburg from destroying these critical vaccines.