No, Covid-19 Vaccines Won’t Change Your DNA

Here’s how they actually work

Emily Mullin
Medium Coronavirus Blog
3 min readJan 8, 2021

--

Credit: Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty Images

The false claim that coronavirus vaccines will alter a person’s genetic code has spread on social media platforms in recent months as companies like Pfizer and Moderna sprinted to develop vaccines against the highly contagious virus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic.

The notion even led a Wisconsin pharmacist to intentionally remove 57 vials of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine from the fridge at the hospital where he worked and leave them out at room temperature, hoping they would spoil. The man admitted to police that he had deliberately tried to sabotage his hospital’s vaccination efforts because he believed the vaccine could harm people and “change their DNA.”

The confusion may arise from the fact that Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines use a tiny piece of genetic material called messenger RNA to stimulate an immune response in the body. Though sometimes called “genetic vaccines,” they can’t modify a person’s DNA in any way.

“Messenger RNA vaccines do not have the capacity to change your DNA,” Shobha Swaminathan, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Rutgers University and medical director of infectious diseases practice at University Hospital in Newark, tells the Medium Coronavirus Blog. Swaminathan is also the principal investigator for Moderna’s phase 3 clinical trial at Rutgers.

You might remember from high school biology that DNA — the genetic material that makes up who we are — resides in the nucleus of the cell. DNA codes for proteins that your body needs to carry out various biological processes. To do that, DNA needs an intermediary: messenger RNA, or mRNA, which carries the instructions for making those proteins.

Your DNA initially makes mRNA in the nucleus. From there, the mRNA leaves through a one-way door. “It never goes back in,” explains David Verhoeven, PhD, assistant professor of veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine at Iowa State University, who develops vaccines for animal testing. Once the mRNA leaves through that door, the cell’s machinery uses it to start making proteins.

The big difference between DNA and RNA is that DNA is your permanent genetic code; RNA is ephemeral. It sticks around in the body for a few days at…

--

--

Emily Mullin
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.