While vaccines contain human DNA, there is no link to cancer, autism

The claim: A number of vaccines contain human DNA, and the FDA has acknowledged that residual human DNA has the potential to cause cancer or change your genetic code

As scientists race to find a vaccine for COVID-19, mixed information regarding the safety of vaccines is spreading rapidly online.

In an Instagram post, Weston A. Price Foundation shared a photo displaying a quote that says the FDA has “acknowledged that residual human DNA has the potential to cause cancer or to change one’s genetic code.” The quote is attributed to Kendall Nelson, producer of the film “The Greater Good,” which explores the pros and cons of vaccination in the U.S.

The caption states a number of vaccines contain traces of human DNA. The DNA, the foundation wrote, comes from the lung tissue of “a healthy fourteen-week-old aborted Caucasian male fetus” and that spikes in autism in the 1980s and ’90s coincided with the increased use of “human-DNA-contaminated” MMR II and varicella vaccines.

The Weston A. Price Foundation is a nonprofit charity aimed at spreading information about Dr. Weston Price’s nutrition research, which includes a belief that modern technology should be “a servant to the wise and nurturing traditions of our ancestors rather than used as a force destructive to the environment and human health,” according to its website.

The foundation’s stance on vaccination is that “vaccination as practiced today is a 200-year mistake.” It further claims that childhood diseases are “either mild or non-existent” when parents teach children the nutrition practices for which the foundation advocates.

Some vaccines do contain human DNA

Vaccines for chickenpox, rubella and hepatitis A are created using human embryo cells, according to an article from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The embryo cells are more specifically fibroblast cells, which are needed to hold skin and connective tissues together. The cells were obtained in the early 1960s via the elective termination of two pregnancies. 

The fetal cell lines — now named MRC-5 cells — continue to grow in a lab and are still used to make vaccines today.

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The FDA told USA TODAY that residual DNA is “not used as an active ingredient in vaccines but can be present as a consequence of the methods used to produce some vaccines.” It has strict guidelines for what qualifies cell substrates to be used in vaccines.

When asked for comment, the Weston A. Price Foundation sent an FDA technical report for a 2012 meeting of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. It also sent a second link, which included an article published in The Vaccine Reaction, cited the same document and provided a transcript from the meeting.

At that meeting, members of the committee discussed the appropriateness of the use of cell lines derived from human tumors – not human fetal cells, to which the Instagram post refers. 

It is important to note, too, that this meeting was a discussion of the matter, and no conclusion was reached. 

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“To come back to the agency’s question of whether this Committee believes it’s correct scientifically to go forward with the development of these vaccines, our answer is yes,” said Dr. Robert Daum, the committee’s former chair, according to the transcript. “I think we need to work out some of these communication issues and education issues. It’s, to some extent, a whole new discussion. I’m not sure we can resolve it easily today.”

Side effects of residual human DNA

The potential risk of residual DNA has been debated for over 40 years, to no avail. Because there is no definitive answer as to the level of risk presented by residual DNA in vaccines, FDA scientists have chosen to limit the size and amount of residual DNA in vaccines.

But most research seems to indicate that residual human DNA’s risk in vaccines is minimal, according to research published in Frontiers in Microbiology, a leading scientific journal, in March.

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The concern of some, as indicated in the Weston A. Price Foundation’s claim, is that vaccines that include residual DNA could cause harm if DNA from the embryo cell mixes with the DNA of whoever is receiving the vaccine.

This is unlikely for two reasons: stability of DNA and opportunity, according to the article in Frontiers in Microbiology.

Much DNA is destroyed while making vaccines because it loses its stability when exposed to certain chemicals. When the vaccine is finalized, there is minimal human DNA left in it, and it is highly fragmented, which means the DNA strands have been split into pieces. The fragmentation makes it so the DNA cannot create a whole protein that could be harmful.

Further, DNA in vaccines cannot incorporate itself into cellular DNA, the Philadelphia hospital explains in a different article on vaccines and DNA. So even if a protein could be formed, there would be no opportunity for it to bond with the vaccine recipient’s DNA.

In order for residual DNA in vaccines to be any risk, the dose would have to be “millions of trillions” the amount of DNA now in vaccines.

Vaccines do not cause cancer, autism

The post pairs a quote about cancer and changes to genes potentially caused by residual DNA with a caption that includes a statement linking vaccines to autism. These claims are unfounded.

There is no link between vaccines and an increased risk of cancer, according to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

In fact, vaccines can actually reduce the risk of cancer. Some viruses, like HPV, can cause changes in genetic activity, which shows up in cells in the body. This can lead to an increased likelihood of those cells becoming cancerous. By receiving a vaccination for those viruses, the risk of developing cancer is reduced, too.

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The caption further claims that injecting DNA vaccines into children can cause autism. The Centers for Disease Control is clear that there is no link between vaccines and autism and that there is no link between any vaccine ingredients – like DNA – and autism.

An FDA spokesperson confirmed that even though these concerns have been raised theoretically, there is no scientific evidence that residual human DNA – or vaccines that use it – cause cancer or can change a person’s genetic code.

“Vaccines licensed by the FDA have a track record of safety and effectiveness,” the FDA told USA TODAY. “One of our highest priorities continues to be the protection of public health through safe and effective vaccines. FDA ensures that vaccines undergo a rigorous and extensive development program to determine and ensure safety, purity and potency and will only approve a vaccine for use in the United States if the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine has been demonstrated.”

Our rating: Partly false

We rate the claim PARTLY FALSE because some of it was not supported by our research. It is true that some vaccines contain human DNA, obtained from fetal fibroblast cells. However, the quote in the photo and its caption state that vaccines can cause cancer or autism, which has been proven to be false.

Our fact check sources:

  • The Weston A. Price Foundation’s website

  • IMDB, “The Greater Good”

  • Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “Vaccine Ingredients – Fetal Tissues”

  • FDA, “Guidance for Industry: Characterization and Qualification of Cell Substrates and Other Biological Materials Used in the Production of Viral Vaccines for Infectious Disease Indications”

  • World Health Organization (WHO), “WHO Informal consultation on the application of molecular methods to assure the quality, safety and efficacy of vaccines”

  • U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), “Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, 154th meeting”

  • Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “Vaccine Ingredients – DNA” 

  • FDA, “Investigating Viruses in Cells Used to Make Vaccines; and Evaluating the Potential Threat Posed by Transmission of Viruses to Humans”

  • Frontiers in Microbiology, “Vaccine Safety: Myths and Misinformation”

  • Transcript from a 2012 meeting of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee 

  • Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, “Worth the Shot: No, Vaccines Won’t Give You Cancer”

  • Preventative Medicine and Cancer Care, “Do Vaccines Cause Cancer? Is There a Link?”

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism”

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Some vaccines are made with human DNA

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