A health worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at the Versalles Clinic, in Cali, Colombia. (Photo by Luis ROBAYO / AFP)

Posts misrepresent US study on dangers of coronavirus spike protein

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Multiple Facebook posts have shared parts of a study by US-based scientists that analysed spike proteins of the novel coronavirus. The posts suggest the study is evidence that some Covid-19 vaccines could be harmful. The claim is misleading: both the research institute that published the study and independent experts told AFP that it did not show Covid-19 vaccines are harmful.

The claim was shared here by a New Zealand-based Facebook page. It has been shared more than 100 times. 

A screenshot of the post from Voices for Freedom, taken May 10, 2021.

The misleading posts link to this media release about a study by researchers at the Salk Institute, a US-based nonprofit research foundation.

The institute’s study looked at how the spike proteins in SARS-CoV-2 -- the virus that causes Covid-19 -- damage cells in a person’s vascular system.

The post uses this to misleadingly question the safety of coronavirus vaccines. It implies that mRNA vaccines specifically may not be safe.

These vaccines -- which include the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines -- trigger an immune response to the virus by instructing cells to create copies of spike proteins.

The post asks: “Of course, they don't take this to its logical next conclusion (???), but it begs the question: if this new manufactured virus-free spike protein can do damage like this, what does this mean for the walking spike protein factories we are creating with certain products?”

Thousands of other social media users from around the world have shared similar misleading claims on Facebook in multiple languages since the beginning of May alongside the Salk Institute study, for example here, here and here.

The claim, however, is misleading.

Spike proteins

The misleading posts misrepresent the implications of the study for the safety of Covid-19 vaccines.

The Salk Institute's study concluded that Covid-19 vaccines are an effective and safe way to protect people from the virus.

The study’s last sentence says that when someone receives a Covid-19 vaccine, it “not only protects the host from SARS-CoV-2 but also inhibits [spike protein] imposed endothelial injury”. 

A Salk Institute spokesperson told AFP the spike proteins in Covid-19 vaccines are safe because they only remain in a person's arm muscle for a short period.

"The spike protein in the coronavirus behaves differently from the spike protein in vaccines”, the spokesperson said. 

Vaccine safety

Experts told AFP that Covid-19 vaccines do not produce harmful levels of spike proteins.

Peter Murray, professor of immunology at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, told AFP that Covid-19 vaccines produce far fewer spike proteins than SARS-CoV-2.

“The spike protein components of the vaccine are not produced in the same amounts as a normal viral infection (probably a million times less),” he said.

Annette Beck-Sickinger, professor of biochemistry at Leipzig University, said spike proteins are only created on the surface of the muscle cells when a person is vaccinated. 

“After the vaccination there are no free spike proteins meandering through the body and destroying our blood vessels,” she said.