Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines don’t produce dangerous toxins
The claim: Spike proteins from coronavirus vaccines are dangerous toxins that cause damage in the body
A Canadian immunologist who says he’s “pro-vaccine” has recently become the source of misinformation about the safety of coronavirus vaccines.
Text in a June 3 Instagram photo says the coronavirus spike protein resulting from vaccination is a “toxin.” The post cites a “doctor” as evidence.
“Doctor on COVID Vax: ‘We Screwed-Up. We didn’t realize the Spike Protein is a TOXIN,'” the text says. “Does this mean everyone vaccinated is manufacturing their own Spike Protein Toxins in their own bodies?”
The post is one of dozens of similar claims that have circulated on Facebook and Instagram over the past few weeks, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. The most widely shared version stemmed from a May 31 article by LifeSite News, which has previously made false claims about the safety of coronavirus vaccines.
The Instagram photo is a screenshot of a May 31 headline from the Hal Turner Radio Show. Turner, a far-right radio host, has previously published false claims about coronavirus vaccines on his website.
The spike protein is located on the surface of the coronavirus and is used by the virus to enter human cells. All three coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States teach the body how to make antibodies against the spike proteins, eliciting an immune response.
Fact check: Moderna executive did not say mRNA vaccines alter recipient’s DNA
The “doctor” the Hal Turner Radio Show and other websites cited is Byram Bridle, a viral immunologist and an associate professor inthe Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. In a May 27 interview with Canadian broadcaster Alex Pierson cited in the Hal Turner Radio Show story, Bridle cast doubt on the safety of coronavirus vaccines by saying spike proteins are toxins that cause cardiovascular damage in vaccinated people.
“We made a big mistake,” he said. “We never knew the spike protein itself was a toxin and was a pathogenic protein. So by vaccinating people, we are inadvertently inoculating them with a toxin. In some people, this gets into circulation, and when that happens in some people it can cause damage — especially in the cardiovascular system.”
Bridle said his claims were “completely backed up by peer-reviewed, scientific publications.”
But they’re not.
An author of the study Bridle cited during the interview said Bridle “over-interpreted” its results. And several of Bridle’s colleagues told USA TODAY his claims about spike proteins are wrong.
Public health officials say the coronavirus vaccines, which millions of Americans have received, are safe and effective at preventing severe COVID-19 cases.
Fact check: Peer-reviewed studies have shown safety, efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines
“Bridle is suggesting that a study that noted minuscule quantities of spike protein in blood after first dose represent a health hazard,” David Fisman, an epidemiology professor at the University of Toronto, said in an email. “That is poppycock: biologically implausible and not data-based.”
USA TODAY reached out to the Instagram user who shared the post for comment.
Vaccines teach body to make spike proteins
First, let’s review how the coronavirus vaccines work.
Two vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S., one from Pfizer-BioNTech and another from Moderna, use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology to inoculate people against the coronavirus.
More traditional vaccines contain weakened or inactivated viruses, that aren’t capable of causing infection or disease themselves, to build up the body’s immune response.
mRNA vaccines don’t work like that. Instead, they carry genetic material with instructions that tell cells how to produce a protein or a piece of protein, which in turn activates the body’s immune response and causes the production of antibodies.
Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine relies on mRNA – messenger ribonucleic acid – to get our cells to produce a virus-free spike protein. The vaccine delivers mRNA into the body’s cells in a lipid coating, like a fat bubble. Once inside, the cell produces spike proteins similar to those on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. Our immune system recognizes those vaccine-created spike proteins as invaders and creates antibodies to block future attacks. (Photo: Jennifer Borresen/USA TODAY)
All three vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. teach cells how to create the spike protein present on the surface of the coronavirus. The body then produces antibodies until all the spike proteins are destroyed, building up immunity for future coronavirus infections.
Carolyn Coyne, a professor of molecular genetics and biology at Duke University, previously told USA TODAY that spike proteins do stay in the body for some time. But the proteins are eventually broken down, and the vaccines are constructed in a way that limitsthe ability of the proteins to fully bind to cells and create more infectious particles.
“There is no scientific data to indicate that the spike protein is toxic or that it lingers at any toxic level in the body after vaccination,” Abby Capobianco, press officer for the FDA, said in an email.
Fact check: No, the CDC did not release data showing 7 in 10 Americans are declining COVID-19 vaccine
The coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective at preventing serious coronavirus infections, according to data from clinical trials involving more than 100,000 participants. Officials briefly paused use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April after some people who received it developed a rare and serious kind of blood clot. But the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that vaccine’s “known and potential benefits outweigh its known and potential risks.”
Study author, Pfizer refute claims
During his interview with Pierson, Bridle cited two things: a study accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Infectious Diseases and a document about Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.
But neither source backs up his claims.
Bridle said the May 20 study showed how spike proteins produced by coronavirus vaccines could linger in the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular damage. An author of that study says otherwise.
“My reading of the article you sent is Bridle is over-interpreting our results,” David Walt, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the study’s co-author, said in an email to USA TODAY.
The study measured proteins in plasma samples from 13 participants who received two doses of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine. It found that spike protein “was detectable in three of 13 participants an average of 15 days after the first injection.”
As part of his June vaccination push, Biden announced an effort to recruit Black-owned barbershops and salons to promote COVID shots.
But those results don’t indicate the coronavirus vaccines are dangerous. It suggests the vaccines are working as designed.
“Our study simply validated that the mRNA vaccine is translated into the protein it is designed to encode,” Walt said. “Because our method is 100-1000 fold more sensitive than others, we detected VERY low concentrations of the protein in most vaccinated individuals.”
The paper’s authors hypothesized that could be due to the body’s immune response. During that process, T cells kill other cells that present the spike protein, causing an “additional release of spike into the bloodstream.”
That phenomenon isn’t a cause for concern, Walt said.
“While it is true that the spike protein has ‘superantigen’ properties, which means it has the POTENTIAL to cause adverse effects, we know that it doesn’t cause these effects in many infected patients, it doesn’t cause many of these superantigen effects in most vaccinated individuals, and the levels are incredibly low in the blood, suggesting this shouldn’t be a concern,” he said.
Fact check: No, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will not make your body Bluetooth connectable
The second source Bridle cited during his interview is a “biodistribution study” obtained from the Japanese Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency. He said the study shows how the coronavirus spike protein circulates in the bloodstream of vaccinated individuals and accumulates in their organs.
Pfizer told USA TODAY the document, which is in Japanese, doesn’t back up Bridle’s claims.
“The document is a real (common technical document), though it’s not leaked – it’s part of the submission data applied by Pfizer to PMDA (Japan’s version of FDA) for its review,” Kit Longley, senior manager of science media relations, said in an email. “The document is about the pharmacokinetics overview seen from lab studies and we can confirm it’s not about spike proteins from the vaccine resulting in dangerous toxins that linger in the body.”
Colleagues say Bridle is off base
When USA TODAY reached out to Bridle via email for comment, an automatic reply addressing his comments on the coronavirus vaccines was returned.
“My answer to the question posed by the host was objective and founded on multiple reliable scientific sources,” Bridle’s automatic reply says. “I was simply fulfilling my duty as an academic public servant to disseminate information when it is asked of me.”
Turner also defended Bridle’s claims in an email to USA TODAY.
“The video contained in the article on my website says all that needed to be said,” Turner said. “In it, you heard the doctor in his own words.”
Navy veteran Ronnie Jackson, of Blakeslee, Pennsylvania, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Fran McLean at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center in Plains Township, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Sean McKeag, AP Images)
But Bridle’s own colleagues at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College say the immunologist’s claims are wrong.
“The bottom line is the vaccine contains an altered protein that is designed to prevent full activation, and it circulates for a short period of time at levels that are far below what would be a concern,” W. Glen Pyle, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, said in an email.
J. Scott Weese, an associate professor in the Department of Pathobiology, said in an email that all evidence suggests the coronavirus vaccines are safe. Misinformation about the safety of the vaccines appears to be aimed at “creating fear and confusion during a critical time in this pandemic,” he said.
“The efficacy and safety of mRNA vaccines is astounding, to me, particularly for a virus we’ve only known for a year and a half,” Weese said. “mRNA vaccines have been used on millions of people, including extremely high rates of vaccination in high-risk populations (elderly, patients with other diseases), with incredibly low adverse event rates.”
Fact check: No, COVID-19 vaccine isn’t transmitted to others via contact
Public health officials have closely monitored the vaccine rollout for potential adverse effects. Amy Greer, an associate professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph’sOntario Veterinary College, said in an email that the system appears to be working.
“Given the large number of mRNA vaccines administered to date, the absence of (safety concerns) with the mRNA vaccines is really a significant scientific achievement,” she said.
Our rating: False
The claim that spike proteins from coronavirus vaccines are dangerous toxins that cause damage in the body is FALSE, based on our research. A recent study found spike protein in the blood of individuals vaccinated against COVID-19, but the levels were too low to cause damage, according to one of the study’s authors. Pfizer and Bridle’s colleagues also say his claims about spike proteins are wrong. Public health officials say the three coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. are safe and effective at preventing serious infection.
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- Hal Turner Radio Show, May 31, Doctor on COVID Vax: “We Screwed-Up. We didn’t realize the Spike Protein is a TOXIN” Does this mean everyone vaccinated is manufacturing their own Spike Protein Toxins in their own bodies?
- Clinical Infectious Diseases, May 20, Circulating SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine Antigen Detected in the Plasma of mRNA-1273 Vaccine Recipients
- David Walt, June 2, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- LifeSite News, accessed June 2, Facebook
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- University of Guelph, accessed June 2, Byram W. Bridle
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- Children’s Health Defense, accessed June 3
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- USA TODAY, May 25, Fact check: Moderna vaccine does not include poisonous substances
- Hal Turner, June 2, Email exchange with USA TODAY
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