Tracing the myth that COVID-19 vaccines alter human DNA
Incorrect claims falsely attributed to public health experts were later amplified by anti-vax doctors and activists
BANNER: A nurse holds a vial of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine doses in n Råå, Sweden on December 27, 2020. (Source: Reuters Connect/Petter Arvidson/BILDBYRÅN)
A conspiracy theory falsely suggesting that COVID-19 vaccines alter human DNA began in May 2020 and quickly morphed as it crossed borders and languages, with new and more bizarre theories branching into science fiction and religion. Despite numerous fact-checks published in a timely manner by multiple outlets, the conspiracy continued to be shared in various forms. Tracing the origins and spread of this conspiracy theory reveals how COVID misinformation adapts to new audiences as it circulates online.
The idea that vaccines alter DNA is one conspiracy out of many that fuels vaccine hesitancy in parts of the world, allowing the virus to keep spreading and morphing into new variants. The latest major variant, Omicron, caused a dramatic rise in the number of cases in countries like South Africa, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and Canada. Although the Omicron variant is believed to be less severe than Delta, the uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19 still has the potential to produce yet another, more dangerous variant.
The DFRLab analyzed the COVID-19 misinformation database compiled by Poynter’s CoronaVirusFacts Alliance and identified 96 debunks of the claim that COVID-19 vaccines alter human DNA. Many of these narratives gained credibility by falsely attributing the information to authoritative figures like Microsoft founder Bill Gates and former Moderna chief medical officer Tal Zaks. The false claims were then amplified by medical professionals who practice alternative medicine and demonstrate clear anti-vaccine sentiments.
Outbreak of a false narrative
The myth that COVID-19 vaccines could change a person’s DNA first appeared after Bill Gates published a video on April 30, 2020 detailing how COVID-19 mRNA vaccines work. At no point in the video does Gates suggest that the vaccines can alter DNA. Shortly after the video was published, Waking Times, a website that frequently publishes conspiracies and pseudoscience, released an article titled, “Bill Gates Explains That The COVID Vaccine Will Use Experimental Technology And Permanently Alter Your DNA.” The article’s author, Alex Pietrowski, has a minimal web presence, as the DFRLab found few verifiably connected sources beyond Waking Times itself.
After Politifact debunked the claim on May 20, 2020, Waking Times issued a correction and Pietrowski partially walked back his claim that COVID-19 vaccines can change DNA. The article’s headline was also updated, but the URL still includes the original inaccurate title. And while the opening paragraph no longer states that mRNA vaccines can alter DNA, it still implies that DNA changes are theoretically possible when DNA-based vaccines are used rather than mRNA-based vaccines.
Overall, the article by Waking Times garnered almost three times more engagement on social media than the Politifact debunk, according to social media listening tool BuzzSumo. But there was a wide gap in engagements depending on the platform. On Facebook, Politifact garnered more than 17 times the engagement than Waking Times. On Twitter, however, Waking Times garnered almost 192 times more engagement than Politifact.
The DFRLab analyzed the Twitter accounts that amplified the Waking Times article using data accessed through BuzzSumo, and identified 173 accounts which posted retweets 100 percent of the time without ever replying to other users. The accounts exhibiting this behavior, which is not commonly found among organic or authentic accounts, were responsible for 2.9 percent of tweets that linked to the story. An additional 557 accounts (9.3 percent) had a reply rate below 1 percent and a retweet rate above 90 percent, potentially suggesting inauthenticity or semi-automated behavior.
The mysterious letter with varying signatures
Soon after the initial falsehood was debunked, another one surfaced, this time in the form of a letter from a doctor warning their patients against mRNA vaccines that “intervene directly in the genetic material of the patient and thus change the individual genetic material.” The letter was circulated in at least six languages on social media platforms and WhatsApp messages. It was sometimes presented as anonymous, while in other instances it was attributed to a medical professional, sometimes fictitious and other times real.
The earliest instance of the letter that the DFRLab could identify was from a May 23, 2020 Facebook post. The letter was attributed to “Anette Lillinger — German Naturopath” and was written in English. The letter then appeared in German two days later on multiple occasions, some of which were not attributed to an author.
The letter was debunked by Africa Check and AFP’s German fact-checking team. AFP tracked down an individual named Anette Lillinger, who used to be a school teacher but who now sells water filters. She acknowledged sharing it but denied authorship, telling outlet, “I only shared the text from a Telegram channel with my contacts. Somebody must have added my name to it. I’m not even a naturopath. I’m a teacher.”
Another copy, from a Facebook post on May 26, attributed it to “Dr. med. Christin Gramsch,” a naturopath and homeopath who later signed an open letter against epidemiological restrictions imposed by the German government in November 2020. The DFRLab could not find any instances of the Gramsch version of the letter predating the Lillinger version, though.
Later, near the end of June 2020 and into July, Facebook posts in German attributed the letter to a “Dr. Kaiser,” a family doctor from the town of Parsberg in Bavaria, Germany. Soon afterwards, Dr. Matthias Kaiser of Parsberg denied any involvement and filed a police report after realizing the forged letter was circulating in local WhatsApp groups under his name, according to an article by German newspaper Mittelbayerische.
The Lillinger version of the letter was eventually translated into other languages. An English version was shared by the far-right UK Independence Party, which posted the letter to its Facebook page in May 30, 2020. In June 2020, it was mentioned on a fringe website in Dutch, a Facebook post in Ukrainian, and a Facebook comment in French.
The letter morphed even further in the United States. A new version began circulating in June 2020, omitting two paragraphs but included slightly different wording to express the same message. While the letter was still attributed to “Anette Lillinger,” it also now featured a paragraph attributed to prominent US anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
The addition of the Kennedy quote played a significant role in spreading the suspicious letter. The new version appeared on Reddit, fringe websites in English and Portuguese, Facebook posts in Hungarian and Spanish, and in a comment on the Facebook page of a Palestinian media organization. All these instances cited Kennedy as the author of the letter.
The conspiracy letter continued to spread into 2021. The most recent instance of the claim can be traced to a Facebook post on March 1, 2021, which featured a Russian translation of the Lillinger version of the letter. Facebook tagged the post with a disclaimer that it is “False information checked by independent fact-checkers.”
Additional narrative variants
The cases presented above are not the only instances in which claims were made about COVID-19 vaccines altering DNA. The DFRLab’s analysis of Poynter’s COVID-19 misinformation database found 96 debunks of the claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause changes to human DNA, published by 27 fact-checking collectives from 18 countries in Europe, the Americas, and Southeast Asia.
At least 46 of the false narratives debunked by the fact-checking alliance claimed that mRNA-based vaccines, the technology used in Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, alter human DNA. Another 40 narratives falsely suggested that COVID-19 vaccines in general will alter human DNA. At least four narratives falsely suggested that the Luciferase enzyme, which produces the light found in fireflies, is the mRNA vaccine ingredient that will alter human DNA. Fact sheets available for the vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen do not list Luciferase as an ingredient.
Most of these false claims were attributed to real people, with medical doctors being the most cited “experts” at 23 mentions. Another 14 individuals with some connection to medicine were identified as the source of the false claim. Of these, the claim was most often attributed to Carrie Madej, a former osteopathic physician who now “dedicates her time to educating others on vaccines, nanotechnology and human rights;” Rashid Buttar, an osteopathic physician known for spreading COVID-19 conspiracies who has been accused of mistreating his patients; Christiane Northrup, a former gynecologist who now focuses on holistic medicine and astrology; and Chinda Brandolino, an Argentinian COVID-skeptic physician known for his anti-abortion political activities.
Beyond the false claims linked to current and former medical professionals, an additional 16 narratives were attributed to celebrities, while 15 narratives were attributed to executives of vaccine manufacturers. For example, 13 claimes were falsely attributed to Tal Zaks, formerly of Moderna. These were based on his TEDx Beacon Street talk in November 2017, during which he talked about the potential of mRNA vaccines. Contrary to the false narratives, he did not say experimental mRNA vaccines modify DNA.
In terms of format, fact-checkers debunked claims posted on social media 56 times, and on fringe websites 22 times. The false claims were most often shared within a video, documented in at least 30 separate occasions. Interestingly, there were also four audio claims, three of which were shared on closed messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Falsehood takes on a life of its own
Despite numerous debunks, false narratives about COVID-19 vaccines altering DNA remained pervasive, as it kept reappearing in numerous countries over the course of the period analyzed by the DFRLab. In the below chart measuring the lifespan of the variations of the story, the spikes are most significant when it comes to conspiracies directly mentioning mRNA vaccines. This is due to active transnational amplification of the falsehood, which originated from authentic comments from Gates and Zaks that were later misconstrued to present the false allegation that they were “admitting” to mRNA vaccine technology altering human DNA.
Other fringe narratives later appeared as spin-offs of the original claim. Falsehoods spread about other vaccines, like AstraZeneca and Sputnik V, while others made claims about specific ingredients that vaccines do not contain, such as Luciferase, Graphine, and fetal cells. Other false claims suggested that vaccines will turn people into zombies or “transgenetic mutants” that should not have human rights.
The falsehood that COVID-19 vaccines can change human DNA gained the attention of fact-checkers as the claim circulated in several languages on social media. Disinformers successfully spread variants of the conspiracy by linking the claims to medical professionals, celebrities, and people in leadership positions in vaccine-producing companies to provide an air of credibility. While the list of debunked stories analyzed may not be exhaustive, they help expose some of the key practices that facilitate anti-vaccine mythmaking and their spread.
Cite this case study:
Nika Aleksejeva et al, “Tracing the myth that COVID-19 vaccines alter human DNA,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), February 8, 2022, https://medium.com/dfrlab/tracing-the-myth-that-covid-19-vaccines-alter-human-dna-ce7dd282bbc0.DFRLab