The claim: COVID-19 vaccines are creating virus variants
Public health officials are monitoring five variants of COVID-19 circulating in the United States, all of which appear to spread more quickly than the original strain. Scientists say those variants are the product of coronavirus mutations spurred by its continued spread.
But online, an alternative explanation for the variants has taken hold. Its source: a Nobel laureate who helped discover HIV.
“Bombshell: Nobel Prize Winner Reveals – Covid Vaccine is ‘Creating Variants,'” reads the headline of a May 18 article from RAIR Foundation USA, an activist organization whose stated goal is to “combat the threats from Islamic supremacists, radical leftists and their allies.”
The RAIR article, which has been shared widely on Facebook, linked to an interview with French virologist Luc Montagnier, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with his colleagues for their discovery of HIV in 1983. Since then, Montagnier has promoted several unverified medical claims, including that long-term antibiotic treatment can cure autism and that a “good immune system” is enough to protect someone from AIDS.
During the interview, which was conducted by Pierre Barnérias — a filmmaker who produced a documentary filled with debunked conspiracy theories about COVID-19 — Montagnier blamed vaccination for the coronavirus variants.
“It is an unacceptable mistake,” he said, according to the RAIR translation of the video. “The history books will show that, because it is the vaccination that is creating the variants.”
That’s wrong — naturally occurring mutations are responsible for the coronavirus variants, not vaccines. Experts and public health officials say vaccines can help prevent the development of new variants by slowing the rate of virus transmission.
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“The mutation itself does not occur because of immunization,” said Dr. Stanley Perlman, a microbiology and immunology professor at the University of Iowa.
USA TODAY reached out to RAIR Foundation USA and Montagnier for comment.
Mutations cause virus variants
Public health officials say coronavirus variants are the result of changes to the virus’s genes. Every time a virus replicates, mutations naturally occur in its genetic material.
When RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 circulate widely within a population, they change and adapt over time. One example is flu viruses, which change so frequently that a new vaccine is needed each year.
Since the pandemic began, the coronavirus has infected more than 169 million people worldwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. That high caseload, as well as its geographic distribution, has given the virus ample opportunity to mutate, experts say.
“If you think about a virus like a tree growing and branching out, each branch on the tree is slightly different than the others,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. “These small differences, or variants, have been studied and identified since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Coronavirus vaccines can help slow the evolution of the virus.
All three vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. are effective at reducing the spread of the coronavirus. As more Americans have received the vaccine, new COVID-19 cases have declined. That means the virus has fewer opportunities to replicate, mutate and produce new variants.
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Perlman said there’s no evidence the COVID-19 vaccines will make variants worse in the long run. New variants emerge through the process of natural selection when that strain is the one strong enough to overcome a host’s immune system
Evidence suggests variants are more likely to develop in populations that have a weak immune response to the coronavirus, according to Perlman and other experts.
“So, in essence, stressed out, high-density human populations with poor access to health care are ideal settings for the origin and success of novel strains with novel mutations that can escape immune systems (or vaccines) and, at the same time, be more deadly,” Rob Dunn, a biologist and professor at North Carolina State University, said in a March 4 university blog post.
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During the video, Montagnier said the antibodies produced by the coronavirus vaccines “enable an infection to become stronger.”
Montagnier attributed that claim to Antibody-Dependent Enhancement (ADE), a phenomenon in which virus-specific antibodies can enhance the entry and replication of a virus. Those antibodies recognize and bind to a pathogen, but instead of preventing infection, they act as a “Trojan Horse” and allow the pathogen to enter cells. That process can lead to wider dissemination of the disease.
ADE has resulted from a few previous vaccination efforts, including vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus and measles in the 1960s and, more recently, dengue virus in 2016. Scientists have looked for ADE associated with the coronavirus throughout the pandemic, but they haven’t found any cases.
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“The fact is there is no ADE, so that’s why we’re silent about it,” Perlman said.
Our rating: False
The claim that COVID-19 vaccines are creating virus variants is FALSE, based on our research. Naturally occurring mutations in the coronavirus’ genes are responsible for the variants, experts and public health officials say. Widespread vaccination can help prevent the development of new variants by slowing the spread of the virus.
Our fact-check sources:
- RAIR Foundation USA, May 18, Bombshell: Nobel Prize Winner Reveals – Covid Vaccine is ‘Creating Variants’ (archived)
- CrowdTangle, accessed May 21
- World Health Organization, March 1, The effects of virus variants on COVID-19 vaccines
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 20, About Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19
- RAIR Foundation USA, accessed May 28, About page (archived)
- University of Utah Health, March 16, UNDERSTANDING COVID-19 VARIANTS
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 10, US COVID-19 Cases Caused by Variants
- Dr. Stanley Perlman, May 22, Interview with USA TODAY
- Dr. Stanley Perlman, May 26, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- North Carolina State University, March 4, A Primer on Coronavirus, Variants, Mutation and Evolution
- Johns Hopkins University, accessed May 28, COVID-19 Dashboard
- Food and Drug Administration, accessed May 28, COVID-19 Vaccines
- USA TODAY, March 27, Comparing the COVID-19 vaccines
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed May 28, COVID Data Tracker
- VTDigger, April 27, Trey Dobson: The more we vaccinate, the fewer variants that can emerge
- Viral Immunology, July 9, 2004, Antibody-Dependent Enhancement of Virus Infection and Disease
- USA TODAY, April 30, Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause death, won’t decimate world’s population
- Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, accessed May 28, Antibody-dependent Enhancement (ADE) and Vaccines
- Constantinos Kyriakis, May 21, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- MedPage Today, March 16, Why ADE Hasn’t Been a Problem With COVID Vaccines
- The Nobel Prize, accessed May 28, Luc Montagnier: Facts
- The Guardian, Oct. 8, 2012, Nobel Prize in Quackpottery: Physiology or Medicine
- ThePrint, May 26, Nobel laureate who found HIV now backs homoeopathy, anti-vaxxers & calls Covid a lab accident
- France 24, Nov. 18, ‘Hold-Up’: French ‘documentary’ lends voice to Covid-19 conspiracy theories
- Le Monde, Nov. 12, Les contre-vérités de « Hold-up », documentaire à succès qui prétend dévoiler la face cachée de l’épidémie
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