The BBC has used some of its taxpayer funding to ‘reality check‘ Joe Rogan’s Covid ‘misinformation’. The state-funded broadcaster claims some episodes of the popular podcast have featured “false and misleading claims” and states: “Here are four of them fact-checked,” implying all are false. Let’s see.
Claim: A vaccine can alter your genes
Mr Rogan said: “This is not a vaccine, this is essentially a gene therapy.” But this is not true.
None of the Covid vaccines change your genetic material or DNA – essentially the recipe book containing the instructions of how to build your body.
The vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna harness a different molecule called messenger RNA.
If DNA is the blueprint, RNA is the messenger, carrying instructions to your cells.
In the case of the Covid vaccine, the message to your cells is to turn the RNA into copies of the virus’s spike protein.
That’s what fires your immune system up to start producing antibodies and other cells to fight off the virus.
When the message has been received, the RNA is broken down and disposed of.
First of all, note that the claim the heading says is being ‘fact checked’ is not the same as the claim it quotes Joe Rogan making, which is: “This is not a vaccine, this is essentially a gene therapy.” Perhaps the Reality Check team think gene therapy is synonymous with altering genes, as their ‘fact check’ implies they think if they show the mRNA in the vaccine does not alter genes they have successfully proved it is “not true” to say it is gene therapy. This assumption is false – though it does appear to have become the official line and has started appearing in every ‘fact check’ on the topic. A Reuters ‘fact check‘ from August, for instance, concludes: “Scientists told Reuters that while mRNA vaccines can be considered ‘genetic-based therapy’ because they use genetic code from COVID-19, they are not technically gene therapy. This is because the mRNA does not change the body’s genetic makeup.”
If you think this sounds like dancing on the head of a pin, you’d be right. In fact, it represents a sleight of hand introduced during the pandemic, in part at the behest of vaccine-maker Moderna in order to avoid the new vaccines having the negative associations of gene therapy. And while it’s awfully nice of media corporations like the BBC and Reuters to do the bidding of pharmaceutical companies, it doesn’t make the claim true. You might have thought the fact that virologist and mRNA expert Dr. Robert Malone is one of the people implicated in their ‘fact checks’ as referring to the vaccines as a form of gene therapy would have given them pause for thought. But he is persona non grata and they have their alternative experts to do the requisite pin-dancing, so they plough on regardless.
It isn’t actually hard to show that mRNA vaccine technology comes under the field of gene therapy, and that the attempt to distinguish the two has been invented in the very recent past as a way of making the vaccines look better. For instance, a 2011 article entitled “mRNA as gene therapeutic: How to control protein expression“, in a section headed “Applications for mRNA as a drug molecule: mRNA vaccination”, says this:
When considering vaccination against infectious diseases, genetic vaccinations eliminate the risk of mutation and uncontrollable proliferation of inactivated pathogens. Different groups have shown that mRNA is at least equally potent as proteins in eliciting CD8+ and CD4+ T-cell responses.
Nucleic acid vaccines are easy to manufacture and relatively inexpensive. Although DNA can be taken up and expressed by cells in vivo (or in vitro) efficiently, its use as nucleic acid vaccine has some disadvantages as compared to the use of mRNA. As mentioned before, DNA can integrate into the host genome, causing inactivation of cellular genes or oncogenesis. Another disadvantage is the fact that DNA provides a long duration of expression of immunizing antigens, while it has been demonstrated that the capacity of mRNA to cause a boost in antigen expression is desired when aiming for optimal vaccination.
Then there is this from a letter in Nature in June 2021 (emphasis mine):
However, these mRNA vaccines, which have been developed and approved within a few months, signify a breakthrough in the field of gene therapy, which has battled to achieve ordinary acknowledgement due to a large number of sceptical and conservative scientists and other claimed safety and translational concerns. Although these two vaccines are not the first approved drugs utilising genetic materials as active ingredients, they are believed to be a milestone in modern medical history that may forever change pharmaceutical approaches. …
This unprecedented achievement will also stress the crucial solutions that gene therapy may provide for many diseases. In the coming future, we expect to see a considerable effort for developing mRNA-based treatments for a wide range of diseases, e.g., hereditary disorders, type 1 Diabetes Mellitus, cancer, and HIV. Many other mRNA vaccines may also turn into reality for preventing infectious diseases and epidemics for being scalable, reproducible, versatile, and adaptable with different viruses’ variants. mRNA vaccines provide flexibility to be modified if any new virus variants may appear; thus, producing new forms of the vaccine within a few weeks. This is a great opportunity for the FDA and EMA to revise the drug development pipeline to make it more flexible and less time-consuming.
There are also the comments made by Stefan Oelrich, President of Bayer’s Pharmaceuticals Division, at the World Health Summit in October 2021:
We are really taking that leap [to drive innovation] – us as a company, Bayer – in cell and gene therapies… ultimately the mRNA vaccines are an example for that cell and gene therapy. I always like to say: If we had surveyed two years ago in the public – ‘Would you be willing to take a gene or cell therapy and inject it into your body?’ – we probably would have had a 95% refusal rate.
And then, of course, there is this from Moderna’s submission to the U.S. Government in June 2020, making the request for its vaccine not to be classified as gene therapy as that would give it a bad press and could complicate approval (emphasis mine):
Currently, mRNA is considered a gene therapy product by the FDA. Unlike certain gene therapies that irreversibly alter cell DNA and could act as a source of side effects, mRNA-based medicines are designed to not irreversibly change cell DNA; however, side effects observed in gene therapy could negatively impact the perception of mRNA medicines despite the differences in mechanism. In addition, because no product in which mRNA is the primary active ingredient has been approved, the regulatory pathway for approval is uncertain. The number and design of the clinical trials and preclinical studies required for the approval of these types of medicines have not been established, may be different from those required for gene therapy products, or may require safety testing like gene therapy products. …
Regulatory requirements governing gene and cell therapy products have evolved and may continue to change in the future, and the implications for mRNA-based therapies are unknown. For example, the FDA has established the Office of Tissues and Advanced Therapies within CBER to consolidate the review of gene therapy and related products, and convenes the Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee to advise CBER on its review. In the European Union, mRNA has been characterised as a Gene Therapy Medicinal Product. In certain countries, mRNA therapies have not yet been classified or any such classification is not known to us, specifically, in Japan, the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency has not taken a position on the regulatory classification. Notwithstanding the differences between our mRNA investigational medicines and gene therapies, the classification of some of our mRNA investigational medicines as gene therapies in the United States, the European Union, and potentially other countries could adversely impact our ability to develop our investigational medicines, and could negatively impact our platform and our business. For instance, a clinical hold on gene therapy products across the field due to risks associated with altering cell DNA irreversibly may apply to our mRNA investigational medicines irrespective of the mechanistic differences between gene therapies and mRNA.
Moderna is clearly keen to distinguish its mRNA-based product from “gene therapies” on the basis that it doesn’t alter cell DNA irreversibly, but that distinction is one the company has invented for its own purposes. Just because lots of people are now backing that view for political reasons it doesn’t change the origin or nature of mRNA vaccine technology as sitting within the field of gene therapy. It certainly doesn’t give the BBC ‘reality check’ team or any other ‘fact-checker’ the right to slap a misinformation label on anybody for not agreeing with Moderna’s self-interested attempt to change the meaning of words or the scope of established fields of science, much as Moderna might appreciate them doing so.
Aside from the classification issue, though, the underlying point is that mRNA vaccines are a form of novel, genetically-based bio-technology that, as per their regulatory classification as gene therapy, have unknown effects and warrant being treated with special caution.
Claim: Ivermectin can cure Covid
This claim was made on an episode last year featuring Bret Weinstein, an American author and Professor of Biology, who said: “Ivermectin alone is capable of driving this pathogen to extinction.”
BBC Reality Check looked at a series of research papers claiming to show the effectiveness of this drug in treating Covid.
Many were very low quality, and in some cases the data had been clearly manipulated.
If you look only at rigorously carried out studies, there is no evidence of the drug’s effectiveness.
Campaigners often cherry-pick positive examples and ignore the fact that many countries which relied heavily on ivermectin, like Brazil and Peru, had some of the worst death tolls from the virus.
The world-leading experts on reviewing medical evidence, Cochrane, concluded based on just these reliable trials that there was “insufficient evidence” to recommend the drug.
The ‘reality check’ here is mixing up ‘no evidence of benefit’ with ‘evidence of no benefit’, which are very different things. The ‘no evidence of benefit’ claim for ivermectin is based on excluding many of the existing studies because of limitations such as size or doubt about the honesty of the authors. If valid, it would mean there is not yet good evidence either way. This is disputed by a number of scientists, such as the BIRD group, and in any case studies are ongoing, with a Japanese team recently announcing an observed “anti-viral effect” from the drug (though no study has been published). Either way, ‘no evidence of benefit’ is not the same as ‘evidence of no benefit’, which is what can be concluded where high quality studies have demonstrated that a drug does not help. Yet this is what the BBC falsely implies with its own ‘cherry-picking’ of the death tolls from Brazil and Peru which supposedly counter the claims of efficacy.
Claim: If you get vaccinated after having had Covid, you’re at greater risk of harmful side effects
One of Mr Rogan’s most controversial guests has been the virologist Robert Malone.
Mr Malone was banned from Twitter in December last year for violating its Covid misinformation policies. He appeared on Mr Rogan’s podcast shortly afterwards.
Among the misleading claims made in this podcast episode was one suggesting people who are vaccinated after having COVID-19 are at greater risk of adverse side effects.
Following his appearance, more than 270 doctors and healthcare professionals signed a letter to Spotify, calling for Covid misinformation to be addressed.
Robust studies so far have shown that a very small number of conditions – blood clots, heart inflammation – are slightly more likely after certain vaccines, although are still very rare.
In one U.K. study, researchers found that vaccine after effects were more common in those who already had Covid.
However, this study only looked at mild after effects, such as fatigue, chills and headaches.
To begin with, the “270 doctors and healthcare professionals” are no such thing, as the list includes numerous journalists, vets, PhD students, and many without any specialism or university department listed. While the letter has now been signed by over 1,000 people (over half of them nurses), all it really shows is there are around 1,000 people who don’t like Joe Rogan, love the vaccines, and aren’t too keen on free speech. It tells us nothing about the merits of the views set out.
As regards heart inflammation being “slightly” more likely after vaccination, according to a major recent study in JAMA it is up to 133-fold more likely following vaccination, which is no one’s definition of slight.
Then the ‘fact check’ gets to the point: “In one U.K. study, researchers found that vaccine after effects were more common in those who already had Covid.” For some reason, no link is provided. Here it is; the study comes from King’s College London and is based on data from the ZOE app. The study did, as the BBC says, only look at mild side-effects, but it still backs up the claim, and there’s no study to show the situation is otherwise for more serious side-effects. So even according to the Reality Check’s own evidence this claim is true. Yet the BBC does not acknowledge this and implies it’s false. Why?
Claim: For young people, the health risks from the vaccine are greater than from Covid
Mr Rogan said: “I don’t think it’s true there’s an increased risk of myocarditis from people catching COVID-19 that are young, versus the risk from the vaccine.”
Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle that has been raised as a rare side effect of vaccination.
However, research has shown that this condition, which can lead to shortness of breath, chest pain and in very rare cases to heart failure, is considerably more common after a Covid infection than after vaccination.
It also appears that cases of myocarditis post-vaccination are generally milder and shorter-lasting.
Mr Rogan later corrected himself, but has made several other comments suggesting young people shouldn’t be vaccinated as they are at low risk from COVID-19.
It’s certainly the case that younger people are at much lower risk of serious illness from Covid, but they are not at zero risk of developing complications.
Covid itself has been found to be a bigger risk than the vaccines in every age group for which they have been approved.
The vaccines, particularly after a booster, can also reduce your chances of catching the virus and therefore passing it on to others.
The study which claimed to showed Myocarditis is considerably more common after a Covid infection than after vaccination only did so by (among other things) not splitting the results by age and sex. It was heavily criticised for this blatant piece of political sleight of hand, and later produced a breakdown which showed myocarditis was up to 14 times more likely after vaccination in younger males. Even this underestimates the difference in risk, however, as it doesn’t break down the results below 40 years of age, only counts infections from positive tests not from antibody prevalence, and doesn’t allow that many of those who are vaccinated will go on to be infected anyway.
It’s also not true that Covid has been found to be a bigger risk than the vaccines in every age group for which they have been approved. The JCVI stated in September that it did not recommend vaccination for under-15s as the evidence did not show the benefits clearly outweighed the risks.
If you’re getting sick of spurious, error-strewn BBC ‘fact checks’ like this being paid for by your TV poll tax, you can complain here.