Natural News, others jump to conclusions unsupported by the study they cite to claim COVID-19 vaccines destroy the immune system and cause cancer
A study published in October 2021 (and retracted in May 2022) examined how high levels of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein could affect the process of DNA damage repair in cells growing in the lab. Because the mechanism for DNA damage repair is involved in the production of antibodies, some claimed that the study showed spike protein in the COVID-19 vaccines could damage the immune system and lead to cancer. However, these claims are unfounded, as they fail to account for the fact that the study was conducted in vitro, not in people. While in vitro research provides a valuable foundation for scientific exploration, more research is needed to determine if the results from the experiment accurately reflect what happens in infected or vaccinated persons.
Misrepresents source: Some websites inaccurately claimed that the study by Jiang and Mei showed that the spike protein in COVID-19 vaccines damaged DNA repair pathways and led to cancer. The study showed the viral spike protein inhibiting DNA damage repair in cells in lab experiments, but the authors did not address whether this leads to cancer. As such, the study doesn’t support that conclusion. The study was retracted in 10 May 2022.
Overstates scientific confidence: The study’s results come from in vitro experiments where the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein was produced in high amounts using cells growing in the laboratory. While in vitro assays play an important role in science, experiments that replicate spike protein levels reached in the cells of infected and vaccinated persons are necessary to assess whether the results presented in the paper are relevant to people.
On 5 November 2021, Natural News published a post in which they claimed a recent scientific study showed that the spike protein in the COVID-19 vaccines accumulated in the nucleus of cells and destroyed “DNA repair pathways, paving the way for CANCER”. The post also claimed that the spike protein in the vaccines seemed “to have been designed to destroy the immune system”.
According to the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that investigates extremism and disinformation, Natural News promotes both conspiracy theories and disinformation. Health Feedback previously fact-checked a number of claims made by Natural News, including some concerning COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines (see here and here). As we’ll show below, these recent claims from Natural News are also inaccurate, with the website overstating scientific confidence in the paper’s conclusions. Additionally, the Natural News post cited cancer, which wasn’t addressed in the study.
The study referenced in the Natural News post was published by Hui Jiang and Ya-Feng Mei on 13 October 2021 in the scientific journal Viruses. A few months later, in May 2022, the study was retracted. In the now-retracted study, the researchers conducted in vitro experiments in which the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 was overexpressed, which means that production of the protein was artificially increased; overexpression is a strategy used in experiments to learn more about a protein. The authors detected the spike protein in the cell nucleus, the compartment where genetic material is stored, and observed that the spike protein was inhibiting repair of DNA damage.
As patients with severe COVID were observed to have poorer adaptive immune responses, Jiang and Mei proposed a mechanism where the “spike proteins may impair adaptive immunity by inhibiting DNA damage repair”. Adaptive immunity develops in response to a foreign invader, such as a virus, and uses immune cells and antibodies that target the invader.
The specific aspect of adaptive immunity investigated in the paper, V(D)J recombination, is essential for producing a diverse antibody repertoire. This diversity enables the immune system to combat a wide variety of disease-causing microorganisms. During V(D)J recombination, immune cells reshuffle a certain segment of their DNA that acts as the blueprint for antibodies. This video from Nature provides a summary of how the process works and why it’s important. Because this reshuffling process requires DNA to be first broken apart and then put together, the DNA damage repair mechanism is essential for V(D)J recombination and antibody production.
The authors hypothesized that if spike protein inhibits DNA damage repair, the spike protein would also hinder the process of V(D)J recombination and thus hamper the adaptive immune response during infection. They concluded that their findings “reveal a potential molecular mechanism by which the spike protein might impede adaptive immunity”. In addition to affecting a person’s defense against SARS-CoV-2 infection, the authors also added that the findings “underscore the potential side effects of full-length spike-based vaccines”.
The study received little engagement on Twitter until Robert Malone—a former scientist and frequent spreader of vaccine misinformation—tweeted a link to it on 31 October 2021; that tweet received over 2,700 likes and over 1,360 retweets. Since then, many of the tweets (see here and here) and posts from websites like Natural News about the study used it to claim that the COVID-19 vaccines will lead to cancer and problems with the immune system. Many drew attention to the authors’ conclusion suggesting a potential side effect of the spike-based vaccines.
As the study gained momentum online, a number of scientists expressed concern about the study, particularly about how the results were being interpreted online.
Writing in his “In the Pipeline” column for Science magazine, chemist Derek Lowe noted that the idea that the spike protein may be impacting antibody production is worth investigating. But he added that for such an effect to be plausible, a number of questions need to be answered. For instance, Lowe noted that there needs to be a comparison of the amount of spike protein produced in the experiment’s cells compared to cells following vaccination or infection.
Lowe also pointed out that V(D)J recombination only occurs in specific types of cells, and “we don’t actually know the extent to which the coronavirus infects these cell types, nor the extent to which they are affected by vaccination (something the authors also make note of)”. In the study, the spike protein was expressed in HEK293 and HEK293T cells; these are cell lines derived from human cells that have been modified to promote maximal protein production.
The Viruses study was also discussed on the 18 November 2021 episode of the podcast This Week in Virology (TWiV). Virologist Rich Condit, one of TWiV’s co-hosts and an emeritus professor at the University of Florida, pointed out that the study’s results are “outside of the context of a viral infection”. In the episode, Condit said that “that’s not to say assays like this are not useful”, but that it’s important to remember that “we’re not talking about infection with virus even in culture and we’re certainly not talking about animals or humans” and their results need to be interpreted with caution. Like Lowe, the hosts of the TWiV also pointed out that there are no controls to assess how overproduced the spike protein is in the in vitro experiments compared to infected cells, and that V(D)J recombination happens in specific cell types in the bone marrow and thymus and there’s no evidence of the spike protein getting to those locations in either infection or vaccination.
Additionally, Jeremy Stark, a cancer biologist at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte California, expressed a number of concerns with the experiments performed in the Viruses paper. In an email to Health Feedback, Stark shared a link to his assessment of the paper that he posted on PubPeer on 19 November 2021. PubPeer is a website where scientists can review and discuss papers post-publication.
On PubPeer, Stark noted that the paper lacked details about the experiments, making it difficult for other researchers to replicate the experiments in order to confirm the results. Additionally, Stark had concerns about the lack of positive and negative controls in the experiments. Experimental controls help researchers determine if an experiment ran correctly, thus validating that the experiment’s results are real and not random or due to experimental errors.
In vitro assays, like the ones used in the study, are often a starting point in scientific exploration, which may produce results that are worth investigating. However, as shown above, more research is needed to determine if the results from in vitro experiments, like the ones in the paper, recapitulate what happens during infection and vaccination. Additionally, concerns about the experimental design of the paper, especially related to the lack of controls, were also raised. As such, claims by Natural News and others that the study provided evidence that the spike protein in COVID-19 vaccines destroy the immune system and lead to cancer overstate scientific confidence and ignore limitations of results from in vitro experiments.
Furthermore, while claims by Natural News and others focus on spike proteins from COVID-19 vaccines, the study itself used the viral spike protein, not the spike protein from the vaccines; the spike protein used in the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines has been slightly modified to promote the protein’s stability. This detail is not considered by Natural News and others in their claims.
Additionally, not only are these claims not backed by the Jiang and Mei study, but they are similar to claims that have already been debunked. For instance, Natural News claimed that “Covid jab spike proteins cause immunodeficiency” and pave the “way for cancer to grow and spread”; both of these claims have previously been made. For instance, in September, Ryan Cole claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines weakened the immune system and led to a 20 times increase in cancer. As Health Feedback showed in a claim review, there is no evidence that the vaccines weaken or disrupt the immune system, nor is there any evidence that the vaccines cause cancer.
In short, there is still no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines cause cancer or destroy the immune system. Furthermore, the study held up as proof by Natural News and others that the vaccine spike protein causes cancer and destroys the immune system used in vitro experiments that are limited in their ability to represent what’s happening in the human body.
UPDATE (11 January 2023):
This review was updated to note that the study published by Jiang and Mei in the journal Viruses was retracted on 10 May 2022. Note of the retraction was added to three places: the details section, the key take away section and in the 3rd paragraph.
- 1 – Jiang & Mei (2021) SARS–CoV–2 Spike Impairs DNA Damage Repair and Inhibits V(D)J Recombination In Vitro. Viruses.
- 2 – Moriya (2015) Quantitative nature of overexpression experiments. Molecular Biology of the Cell. Immunology.
- 3 – Heinz & Stiasny (2021) Distinguishing features of current COVID-19 vaccines: knowns and unknowns of antigen presentation and modes of action. npj Vaccines