Florida health official repeats debunked claim that Covid mRNA vaccines contain 'DNA-changing virus'

Medical experts have reiterated that Covid-19 mRNA vaccines cannot change a person's DNA after Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo made the false claim in a January 2024 interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously debunked the long-running misinformation, saying "mRNA vaccines are not live virus vaccines and do not interfere with human DNA."

"Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo said there is 'no doubt' that the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines could change people's DNA!" read a simplified Chinese post shared on January 21, 2024 on X.

The post included a clip from an interview that Ladapo did with Carlson, who posted a longer version of the interview on his X account here on January 16, and the complete interview on his website here (archived link).  

Carlson can be seen asking Ladapo if it is "conceivably possible that mRNA vaccines change people's DNA", to which he replies: "It's absolutely possible. There is zero question about that."

The false video surfaced after Ladapo claimed in a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on December 6, 2023, that Covid-19 mRNA vaccines contain the simian virus 40 (SV40) -- a DNA virus that can cause tumours in animals -- which he said posed a "unique and heightened risk of DNA integration into host cells". 

A screenshot of the false post on X.

Similar false claims were also shared on X here and here, and Facebook here and here.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis -- who has openly questioned the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines -- appointed Ladapo as the state's surgeon general on September 21, 2021 (archived link).

DeSantis has pushed to permanently ban introducing Covid-19 related mask and vaccine mandates in the state, while Ladapo called for a halt in the use of mRNA vaccines (archived links here and here).

But medical experts have told AFP that mRNA vaccines do not contain SV40 and the jabs cannot change a person's DNA. 

Unfounded claim

Anna Wald, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, said in an email to AFP that the false claim was a "preposterous statement" as mRNA vaccines "cannot change people's DNA" (archived link).

"DNA integration means that a piece of foreign DNA is inserted into the genome, potentially changing the DNA," she said. "This issue is not relevant to the mRNA Covid vaccines, as they are RNA and not DNA vaccines."

Although polio vaccines used in the late 1950s and early 1960s were contaminated with SV40, it has not been present in any vaccine since 1963 (archived link).

Abram Wagner, an assistant professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan, also told AFP that SV40 was not present in Covid-19 vaccines in an email on February 6 (archived link).

"The available scientific evidence strongly indicates that genetic material from the Covid-19 vaccines is quickly metabolised and excreted from the body, and does not incorporate into our DNA," he said. 

"At this point, billions of individuals have received an mRNA vaccine. If there were a negative health impact relating to an altered genome, we would have heard about it sometime in the past four years."

Aubree Gordon, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, also said the social media posts containing the interview with Ladapo were "false" (archived link).

"mRNA cannot enter the nucleus and is broken down quickly by the body," she explained to AFP in an email in February 2024. "Our cells use mRNA all the time, as it is how we make proteins. The Covid vaccine mRNA is a messenger that allows our bodies to make a protein. Our immune response to that protein then protects against Covid-19."

National health watchdogs, including those from the United States and Australia, have separately said Covid-19 vaccines do not alter DNA (archived links here and here).

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also debunked the same claim in a statement: "mRNA vaccines are not live virus vaccines and do not interfere with human DNA." (archived link)

AFP has repeatedly debunked claims that Covid-19 vaccines alter human DNA here, here, and here.

Is there content that you would like AFP to fact-check? Get in touch.

Contact us