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Could the mRNA Vaccines Lead to an Increase in Neurodegenerative Disorders?
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Could the mRNA Vaccines Lead to an Increase in Neurodegenerative Disorders?

The author of an article claiming such is a noted vaccine opponent.

A viral Facebook post suggests that the messenger RNA vaccines produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna could lead to an increase in prion disease years from now. The post relies on a screenshot of a purported research article from J. Bart Classen, who writes that “we will see a rise in prion disease in 5-40 years.”

For starters, what is a prion disease? According to the Center for Disease Control, prion diseases are: “a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders that affect both humans and animals.” The CDC defines prions as “abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible and are able to induce abnormal folding of specific normal cellular proteins called prion proteins that are found most abundantly in the brain.” Per the CDC, “[T]he abnormal folding of the prion proteins leads to brain damage and the characteristic signs and symptoms of the disease.” Human prion diseases include Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and kuru, among others. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as mad cow disease, is an example of an animal prion disease. 

The author of the article, J. Bart Classen, is a noted opponent of vaccines. Classen wrote a letter to former President Donald Trump in 2017 calling on him to stop “disastrous government vaccine policies.” He wrote: “Vaccines cause chronic immune disorders such as autism, diabetes, asthma, allergies and multiple different autoimmune diseases. Because of vaccines these diseases are increasing at epidemic proportions.” 

Jacob Yount, associate professor in the Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity at Ohio State University, told The Dispatch Fact Check via email that “the strategy of proposing a far-fetched negative consequence of the COVID vaccines long into the future without evidence or data is calculated dishonesty.”

The article itself is from a publication called Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. Yount pointed out that the journal isn’t listed on Pubmed, which he describes as “the major U.S. index of scholarly biomedical publications.” He acknowledged that while some of the articles in the journal may include legitimate research, they generally have minimal data. Yount also explained that there are several indications that the journal in question is “a so-called predatory journal.” Predatory, per Yount, “generally means that you can publish anything as long as you pay the publication charges.”

Yount noted that the journal’s publisher, Scivision Publishers, appears on Beall’s list, a list of predatory journals and publishers. 

“The publication charges for the journal are not actually listed on its website,” Yount noted. “This is very unusual as this is always disclosed by legitimate journals.” Not only is the journal not on Pubmed, the government funded index of journals, Yount also pointed out that the journal “has not been given an ‘impact factor’ by Web of Science, which also has standards for inclusion in this very commonly used ranking system for scientific journals.” 

The Classen study, says Yount, “seems to be based on gibberish presented in a seemingly scientific manner,” noting that “mRNA vaccines have a longer history of testing in humans that started several years before the COVID vaccines, and these past vaccines were found to be safe and have not resulted in prion disease,” he explained. “Further, the mRNAs themselves are degraded by our cells in a matter of days, so I do not find any reason to think that the mRNAs delivered to cells in our arm muscle would have a direct effect on proteins in the brain.”

Vincent Racaniello, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, called the claim that messenger RNA vaccines produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna could lead to an increase in prion disease is “completely wrong,” and that Classen’s article is “flawed.” In an email to The Dispatch Fact Check he said: “The study by Classen is a theoretical exercise in which he assesses if the mRNA vaccine can convert cell proteins to prion conformations. The exercise is completely speculative and flawed and no conclusions can be drawn from this study. Hence the claims on social media are completely wrong as they are based on a flawed study from which no conclusions can be made.”

It’s also worth noting that the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EAU) memo for both the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine make no mention of prion disease. Furthermore, a spokesperson from Pfizer also told The Dispatch Fact Check via email that “[T]here is no evidence to suggest the vaccine causes prion disease.”

Neither Classen nor Scivision Publishers could be reached for comment.

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Khaya Himmelman is a fact checker for The Dispatch. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Barnard College.