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Local voices on COVID-19: We want to hear your COVID questions

May 04, 2021 08:08PM ● By Editor
May 4, 2021

Do the vaccines change my genetics?

By Kurt Farchmin, family physician at Sawtooth Mountain Clinic

This article is the first in a series intended to give some local perspective on issues about COVID-19. They are also intended to help readers make an informed decision about the COVID-19 vaccines. We encourage suggestions for future topics and you can see how to do so at the end of the article.

I want to focus today on the messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines. One of the most common questions I get in the office about the mRNA vaccines is how they affect our genetics. Most of the vaccines given in Cook County have been the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines which are both mRNA vaccines. These specific types of vaccines have been referred to as gene therapy which understandably stirs up a lot of concern. My hope here is to explain how they work and reassure the reader that your genes are safe if you get one of these vaccines.

The first thing to remember is that there are many kinds of genes in a cell. While technically a gene, mRNA is only a short-lived workhorse in our cells. The best way to think of mRNA is like an instruction manual. In this case, think of it like an instruction manual for an IKEA chair for your kitchen. You read the manual, you build the chair, then you throw the manual away. The same goes for the parts of a cell that make protein. They read the mRNA, make a protein, then the mRNA gets thrown away.  

The virus that causes COVID-19 is an mRNA virus. An mRNA virus is a collection of different proteins wrapped around a lot of different mRNA strands. When the virus gets into a cell, each type of mRNA has instructions for a different kind of protein. When all the proteins are made, they come together and make up copies of the virus that go on to infect other cells. The vaccines on the other hand only have one kind of instruction manual for one kind of protein.  This is the spike protein. By producing that one protein and showing it to the immune system, the body can recognize the virus in the future. Without the instructions for all the other proteins no virus is made and a person cannot get sick with COVID-19.  

None of this process involves our DNA. DNA is our fundamental genetic code and the basis for all of the functions of our cells. I have been dismayed to hear that there are those online, some of them doctors, who have been warning people, or more commonly implying, that these vaccines will alter our DNA. This is simply not the case. It is the same as suggesting that if you put your IKEA chair together in a different way you would somehow fundamentally change how the entire IKEA organization functions. 

In the same online forums, I see an argument that these vaccines cause the body to never stop producing the spike protein. Again, there seems to be confusion between DNA and mRNA. It could be considered true if the vaccines changed our genetic code, but remember, they don’t.  They don’t actually come anywhere close to our genetic code. Once in our cells some mRNA stays around longer than others, but all of them have an expiration date. Once they are gone, the cell stops making that protein. I would point out that neither of the mRNA vaccines are considered viable if left at room temperature for more than six hours. They break down that fast.

Everyone has a right to decide what goes into their body when it comes to a vaccine.  However you make your decision about these vaccines, please know that they do not change your genetic code and do not permanently change how your cells function. Also, whatever decision you make, please remember that we are all in this together.  

Kurt Farchmin, M.D. lives and works in Cook County. He is a family physician at Sawtooth Mountain Clinic.

Each article in this series will be written by someone here in Cook County. Next week’s Q&A topic is on fertility and COVID-19 vaccines. To submit a question for a future article, please email [email protected] or call 218-387-3605 and leave a voicemail. No question is too controversial. You can be assured that your questions will be kept anonymous. 

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