Andrew Bridgen wrong to call mRNA vaccines gene therapy

12 January 2023
What was claimed

The mRNA Covid-19 vaccines are gene therapy.

Our verdict

Gene therapy involves making deliberate changes to a patient’s DNA to treat a genetic condition. While mRNA vaccines involve genetic material they don’t change the recipient’s DNA or enter the cell’s nucleus where the genome is.

The definition of vaccine was changed to allow the mRNA treatments to be called vaccines. They are actually a new type of drug called Gene Therapies.

This video clip from the President of Bayer is for all those who still believe the mRNA treatments are not gene therapies.

Andrew Bridgen MP, who we have fact checked before for his false and misleading claims on vaccines, has repeatedly wrongly described the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines as “gene therapy”.

He has made at least eight references to gene therapy or therapies on Twitter in regard to the mRNA vaccines since the start of the year.

Describing the mRNA vaccines as “gene therapy” is a common form of vaccine misinformation. We’ve written about similarly false claims that the mRNA vaccines are an example of gene therapy previously, as have other fact checkers around the world.

‘Gene therapy’ describes a specific area of medicine where treatments for genetic diseases are designed to change a patient’s DNA. Although the mRNA vaccines involve genetic material, messenger RNA, they don’t change your genetic make-up or integrate into your genome.

In one tweet, on 8 January, Mr Bridgen shares a video of the head of Bayer’s pharmaceuticals division, Stefan Oelrich, saying: “We’re really taking that leap, us as a company, Bayer, in cell or gene therapy which to me is one of these examples where really we’re going to make a difference hopefully moving forward. Ultimately the mRNA vaccines are an example for that cell or gene therapy.”

Mr Bridgen tweeted: “This video clip from the President of Bayer is for all those who still believe the mRNA treatments are not gene therapies.”

We’ve checked this video before—it is genuine but Mr Oelrich in it misspoke. A Bayer spokesperson told Full Fact that his comment was “an obvious slip of the tongue”.

Earlier this month, on 2 January, Mr Bridgen tweeted: “The definition of vaccine was changed to allow the mRNA treatments to be called vaccines. They are actually a new type of drug called Gene Therapies.” He tweeted this alongside a video which claims that Pfizer and Moderna had previously described mRNA as “gene therapy”.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says that “while mRNA vaccines use genetic code, they are not gene therapies.”

A spokesperson for the MHRA told Full Fact it did not consider mRNA COVID vaccines to be gene therapies, and pointed us to UK legislation that states: “A “gene therapy medicinal product” is a biological medicinal product which has the following characteristics—

(a) it contains an active substance which contains or consists of a recombinant nucleic acid used in or administered to human beings with a view to regulating, repairing, replacing, adding or deleting a genetic sequence; and

(b) its therapeutic, prophylactic or diagnostic effect relates directly to the recombinant nucleic acid sequence it contains, or to the product of genetic expression of this sequence.”

That legislation, which was made prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, goes on to say: “A vaccine against infectious diseases is not to be treated as a gene therapy medicinal product.”

When Full Fact asked Pfizer if it considered its mRNA vaccine to be a form of gene therapy, a spokesperson responded: “That is false. Our vaccine is not a gene therapy.”

Full Fact asked Moderna to clarify and will update this article if it responds.

Gene therapy is a real thing. It involves delivering functioning DNA into the nuclei of a patient’s cells, often to cure a genetic condition. This means that gene therapies can permanently alter someone’s DNA, with those changes being inherited by daughter cells that result if the cell divides, while mRNA is transitory and not inherited.

But the mRNA vaccines aren’t gene therapy. The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines work by packaging instructions on how to make the spike protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes Covid-19). 

These mRNA instructions enter human cells and are used to make the spike protein, causing an immune response, which helps the body to fight off a genuine Covid-19 infection at a later date.

The mRNA from vaccines doesn’t enter the cell’s nucleus, where DNA is located, or interact with the person getting the vaccine’s DNA at all, so it isn’t gene therapy.

Speaking to AP, researcher for Mayo Clinic Michael Barry said: “The vectors for mRNA vaccines (lipid nanoparticles) are descendants of non-viral vectors called liposomes that were originally developed for gene therapy” but that didn’t mean the mRNA vaccines themselves were examples of gene therapy.

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Gene therapy vs vaccines

Examples of actual gene therapy include the drug Libmeldy to treat metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD), a genetic disease which severely decreases life expectancy in young children. Libmeldy works by replacing the faulty gene that leads to the disease. This is done by removing some of the patient’s stem cells and inserting working copies of the gene into them and putting those stem cells back into the patient.

Another is Zolgensma, a treatment which uses a harmless virus to introduce a working copy of the faulty gene that causes spinal muscular atrophy to patients with the disease.

These gene therapies involve deliberately changing a patient’s DNA, so that they have a working version of the gene that is causing their genetic disease. These changes are inherited by subsequent cells created when those original cells divide, which is why the effects of these treatments are often long-lasting. 

This is opposed to mRNA vaccines, which provide transitory messenger RNA to the nucleus, but don’t enter the cell’s nucleus or interact with the recipient’s DNA.

We have previously asked Mr Bridgen to correct the record on other claims he’s made about the Covid-19 vaccine. 

At the time of writing, he has just had the Conservative whip removed following a tweet comparing the vaccines to the Holocaust.

We have contacted Mr Bridgen for comment. 

Image courtesy of David Woolfall

Update 16 January 2023

We updated this article to include a comment from the MHRA.

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Andrew Bridgen to request a correction regarding these claims

Mr Bridgen did not respond.

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