ONE evening in December 2020, Akinola Odumosu, a resident of Lagos State, received a broadcast message from his sister on WhatsApp, a freeware messaging platform.
The message claimed there were dangers of receiving the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
The message partly read that the mRNA vaccine was capable of causing genetic mutation that could result in irreparable damage to the recipient.
Believing the purported narrative, Odumosu shared the message among other friends and groups on Whatsapp.
During a telephone interview with this reporter, Odumosu said he believed the contents of the message because he knew of rumours that some people developed side effects after taking vaccines against other viruses in the past.
“I believe it, because I remember when I was young, there was a vaccine in Nigeria that had severe side effects on some people. So when I saw this broadcast message, I concluded that there were chances of such repeating itself,” Odumosu said.
Odumosu told this reporter that he did not only share the messages via WhatsApp, but also told some of his friends about the supposed dangers of the mRNA vaccine to humans.
What does the shared message say?
The message was attributed to Robert F. Kennedy jr, who warned that COVID-19 vaccines must be avoided ‘at all cost.’
Kennedy jr said the message was a warning to all ‘his patients’ against vaccination.
According to the claim, the “mRNA vaccines intervene directly in the genetic material of the patient and therefore alter the individual genetic material, which represents genetic manipulation.”
It further read that the mRNA vaccination was “problematic in terms of health, morality and ethics, and also in terms of genetic damage that, unlike the damage caused by previous vaccines, will be irreversible and irreparable.”
The message further read that the recipients would have to live with the consequences because they would no longer be cured simply by removing toxins from the human body, just as a person with a genetic defect such as Down syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Turner syndrome, genetic cardiac arrest, haemophilia, cystic fibrosis, Rett syndrome, among others.
Tracking the claim
Due to the attribution of the claim to Robert F. Kennedy Jr, this reporter reached out to his organisation, Children’s Health Defense, to confirm if he truly made the posts.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a lawyer, environmentalist and anti-vaccine campaigner. He is also the son of Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of former US president John F. Kennedy.
He is the founder of Children’s Health Defense, a non-profit organisation that says its mission is to end childhood health epidemics.
Children’s Health Defense denied sharing or sending the message in an email conversation with this reporter.
“This is absolutely NOT a quote by RFK Jr. He doesn’t have ‘patients,’ he’s an attorney.
“Children’s Health Defense and RFK Jr. do not advise people medically on any issue. It is up to the individual to make their own decision and to be allowed to hear both the risks and benefits of any medical procedure they are considering,” the Children’s Health Defense wrote in response to an email sent by this reporter.
Following the denial, this reporter made use of Google advance search and discovered that the misinformation attributed to Robert F. Kennedy Jr was first published online on October 29, 2020, on a website called ‘The Platform.’
Using the Who.is, an OSINT tool that reveals the details of other websites, this reporter found that the website was registered on January 27, 2020, after the emergence of COVID-19.
The ‘Contact Us’ and ‘About Us’ sections of the website were empty and left no description of the details of the website.
Searches of the posts on the website showed that there had been other fake stories about COVID-19 published on it.
From the website, this post began to spread across social media platforms, most especially Twitter and Facebook before ending up on WhatsApp in Nigeria, where it was being shared across groups and individuals.
While it is not possible to track the number of times a post has been shared due to WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption, the platform has introduced a method of identifying multiple shared messages on the application.
According to WhatsApp, a message would be labelled “Forwarded many times” with a double arrow icon if there have been at ‘least five forwards away from its original sender.’
Through the WhatsApp feature, this reporter was able to confirm that the message was circulating among individuals and groups on the platform.
The Truth about mRNA vaccines and Genetic mutation
Professor of Animal Genetics and Biotechnology at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Tumininu Adebambo, explained that generally, a mutation was any change that occurred in the human genome.
Adebambo said there were so many mutations occurring in human beings every day, but there were good and bad mutations.
In the case of vaccination, Adebambo said the concept of vaccination was an attempt to effect some changes in the immune system.
“For example, in the case of Polio, we are not immune to the Polio disease. Therefore, we vaccinate, introduce the virus into us so that our immune system can go beyond a particular organism, which means we affect our system to generate haemoglobin so that it can fight.
“Now so many people have been immunised against it and the occurrence is now very low, that is a form of change that we created in our system.
“The same thing, in any case of vaccination, we are expecting the body to change, to be stronger so that they would be able to fight a particular virus better than it was. Yes, a mutation would occur but it does not mean a bad mutation or change in the DNA,” Adebambo said.
An Associate Professor of Genetics in the Department of Cell Biology and Genetics, University of Lagos, Khalid Olajide Adekoya, who spoke with this reporter via a telephone conversation regarding the claim, said the mRNA vaccine would not cause genetic mutation.
Adekoya said there had not been any fact, justification or experiment that could establish the claim.
He noted that the mRNA vaccines were being administered, and there had not been a reported case of genetic mutation.
“They are not the same cell that can easily be changed, that when the gene changes affects another organ directly like that. Most of this information that is displayed, whether it is political or not, they are thinking the vaccine is likely to change the gene of the individual, there is no fact about it,” Adekoya said.
He further explained that the process of altering the DNA of a human being could only be effective at the uterine level when the cells were just being formed in the uterus and not when the individual had been completely formed because the cells would have taken identity and directed towards their respective functions.
He noted that introducing a chemical would not be able to change the DNA at that level unless through gene therapy or somatic gene editing.
Adekoya said in that process, an adult cell could be used to alter the DNA through chemicals or radiation but that would not still completely change the whole genome of the organism but would only change for a particular cell that would be removed.
How does the mRNA work?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that vaccines produced through mRNA technology do not alter DNA.
The WHO explained that the mRNA vaccines were not live virus vaccines and would not interfere with human DNA.
The WHO Director of Immunisation Vaccines and Biologicals Kate O’Brien explained that the process of mRNA helped the immune system to recognise the virus and build protein to protect the body from it.
“The vaccine provides the instructions to our own immune system in order to produce the small tiny part that just a very small component of the viral particle against which the immune system will react. That is what these mRNA vaccines are,” O’Brien said.
Also, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the mRNA vaccine would not enter the nucleus of the cell – where the DNA (genetic material) was kept.
The Center also noted that the human body cell broke down and got rid of the mRNA soon after it had finished using the instructions.
Explaining how the mRNA vaccine worked, CDC said in the initial process, the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines were administered through the upper arm muscle and once the instructions (mRNA) were inside the immune cells, the cells would use them to make the protein piece. After the protein piece was made, the cell broke down the instructions and got rid of them.
The Centre explained that the next process was for the cell to display the protein piece on its surface.
“Our immune systems recognize that the protein doesn’t belong there and begin building an immune response and making antibodies, like what happens in natural infection against COVID-19,” CDC said.
Lastly, the Health Centre said the bodies would have learned how to protect against future infection.
There are currently two vaccines that are produced through mRNA technology -Moderna and Pfizer.
Also, since administering the vaccine, there has not been a reported case of genetic mutation.
Hence, the claims made in these WhatsApp messages and Twitter posts in Nigeria have been found to be false as there is no evidence to prove that COVID-19 vaccines produced with mRNA technology could change the genetic component of an individual.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored. For more information on ARN, please visit the ARN site.