The key tool that antivaxxers have used to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about COVID-19 vaccines has been the newness of the technology. Although introducing mRNA into muscle cells in order to provide them with the template to make a specific protein—in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which stimulates an immune response that also targets the virus—is an old technology, dating back more than three decades, the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based vaccines represent the first successful use of mRNA encased in liposomes as a vaccine administered to hundreds of millions of people. This has led to the repurposing of old antivax fear mongering about how vaccines “alter your DNA” or are “transhumanism” to result in antivax claims about COVID-19 vaccines that they “permanently alter your DNA“—contaminating it with that deadly spike protein!—and, like attenuated live virus vaccines, lead to “shedding.” The same fears were expressed about the adenovirus-based COVID-19 vaccines, like Johnson & Johnson‘s. None of this is true and, as is almost always the case, the claims were based on distortions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of research and biology. However, such misinformation can seem believable to those without the background in molecular biology to recognize it as the BS that it is, which brings me to the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine.
The Novavax COVID-19 vaccine was granted emergency use approval (EUA) a week ago. This particular vaccine has long been viewed with hope because, instead of being an mRNA-based vaccine (like Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) or a viral vector-based vaccine (like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), Novavax is a subunit protein vaccine. For instance, this article about the EUA in Politico noted:
The vaccine, a two-dose series administered three weeks apart, is manufactured using a lab-made spike protein produced in insect cells and an adjuvant obtained from the bark of a tree native to Chile, offering a different and older vaccine technology than is used in the messenger RNA vaccines and Johnson & Johnson shot. It is authorized for people ages 18 and older as a primary series, meaning the shot is intended for the roughly 10 percent of adults who have not yet received a Covid-19 vaccine.
Novavax executives have said they hope the shot will see uptake in individuals who have expressed hesitancy toward other Covid-19 vaccines or are allergic to components of the others’ ingredients.
“Today’s authorization offers adults in the United States who have not yet received a Covid-19 vaccine another option that meets the FDA’s rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality needed to support emergency use authorization,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement.
While I welcome new vaccines against COVID-19, I’ve long been very skeptical of the Pollyannish hope expressed by public health officials and Novavax executives that this vaccine will somehow so reassure the vaccine-hesitant that they’ll finally—finally!—after more than a year and a half get vaccinated against COVID-19 because an “old school” vaccine that’s just protein and an adjuvant has been made available. Don’t get me wrong. I expect that there might be some people for whom Novavax could possibly be the final development that reassures them enough to be vaccinated, but, as anyone who’s dealt with the antivaccine movement knows, it’s probably going to be a small number, nowhere near enough to have the seemingly “game changing” effect that I’ve seen predicted on occasion.
In fairness, Novavax does look to be a good vaccine; it’s just that overcoming manufacturing difficulties delayed its debut:
The Novavax vaccine contains a synthetic coronavirus spike protein made with moth cells and compounds that encourage an immune response. This formulation is similar to older vaccines.
In a trial of more than 26,000 adults in the U.S. and Mexico, two doses of the Novavax Covid vaccine were more than 90 percent effective at preventing symptomatic disease. For adults 65 and older, effectiveness was more than 78 percent. There were no serious side effects or safety concerns, including for the approximately 21,000 adults who were followed for more than two months after their second shot.
In a press release, the FDA noted that it had conducted a thorough analysis of Novavax’s production capacity as part of its decision to authorize the shot.
The shot received strong backing from the Trump-era Operation Warp Speedeffort, but faced difficulties with manufacturing throughout its lengthy vaccine development process.
Longtime readers can probably predict what I started seeing not long after the news media started reporting that the FDA had granted an EUA for Novavax. Can you?
Here’s a hint, taken from the page of the official website of the antivax National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC):
The above article, of course, was just an embed of a YouTube video and an excerpt from an old Washington Post article about Novavax. The YouTube video is actually brief and informative; so I’ll embed it too:
The video notes that this is nothing more than making recombinant protein to be used as the antigen in a vaccine, something that’s long been used for vaccines against influenza, human papilloma virus (HPV), and hepatitis B. And, of course, we know that antivaxxers never, ever, ever demonize recombinant vaccines like these with fear mongering about ingredients, distortions of science, and nonsense, right? Oh, wait. antivaxxers were claiming that HPV vaccines integrate viral DNA with the DNA of the recipients…over a decade ago!)
I generally have a rule about antivaccine blogs (and, to be honest, most blogs other than my own):
I broke that rule this one time. (The things I do for my readers!) An intellectual giant known only as Pam observed:
I am not an entomologist but I do garden a lot and see many moths. Since the video only talked about proteins and mRNA, I wanted to know more about what moths can do to a human in general. Moths are of the paraphyletic group meaning many have a common ancestor. Does that suggest what affects one species genetically may affect other species? Not sure. Did they say what species of moth they used in the Novavax? I did some online research and found some moth caterpillar species cause lepidopterism (caterpillar dermatitis) if touched. Lymantria dispar, the spongy moth (has black and red spots in caterpillar stage) carries the NPV (spongy moth virus). Could this NPV make its way into moth vaccines? Would make a great sci-fi novel plot–every vaccinated person grows antennae and makes coccoons. The comment about “Mothman cometh” brought all sorts of sci-fi musings to mind. Have not gotten a vaccine since 2006 and won’t be wanting ANY soon. Adjuvants are on my no-list since the allergist said this may be what I react badly to when getting a vaccine. Being out in natural settings with Nature is wonderful. Science should stop messing with the genetic make-up of any living being. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.
That’s right. An antivaxxer is invoking a new version of a very old antivax trope, one that dates back over 200 years:
Is Pam joking about Novavax turning its recipients into moths? Partially. She is, however, echoing a very old antivax trope, namely the idea that vaccines somehow change your very essence to be more like the vaccine. In the 1800s, it was cows because cow pox lesions were used to vaccinate against smallpox. Now? It’s moths.
The NVIC article, of course, was nothing new, just a resurrection of the same fear mongering about moth cells that had been going on ever since antivaxxers had discovered that spike protein to be used to manufacture Novavax was to be produced using a Baculovirus system and moth cells.
In fact, Baculovirus is a viral vector that’s long been commonly used to produce recombinant protein in the lab. It’s mainly used to infect insect cells and induce them to produce whatever protein is encoded by the DNA inserted into them, although it can also infect mammalian cells. Baculovirus-insect cell systems as a means of generating recombinant protein used to be fairly tedious in that it was difficult to engineer the virus and to isolate the proteins produced from the cells, but a lot of advancements in biochemistry and technology have made it much more feasible to use this system to generate the large amounts of high quality recombinant protein needed to manufacture a vaccine like Novavax. Baculovirus systems are also in wide use in research for purposes like cell-based assays, gene function studies, and, of course, production of recombinant proteins. As an aside, one other advantage of baculovirus and insect cells is that they allow for the generation of recombinant protein at a much lower temperature. Mammalian cells are generally grown at 37°C; insect cells are often grown at 27°C. One way to look at the baculovirus-“moth cell” system is that it’s just another method for using viruses to produce recombinant proteins in eukaryotic cells.
For example, for every approving Tweet like this:
I could find dozens of Tweets like this, going back months:
More predictably (for anyone familiar with longstanding antivax tropes) is this claim:
Then there’s this video:
We’ve encountered Dr. Jane Ruby twice before, most recently as one of the people claiming to have found “nanowires” in the “self-assembling clots” supposedly caused by COVID-19 vaccination. She’s also been spreading misinformation about “graphene oxide” in the vaccines, among other disinformation. I guess that she’s now on the “moth cell” fear mongering grift train.
On her website, she claims:
Dr. Jane Ruby is a medical professional and a pharmaceutical drug development expert with over 20 years of experience in regulatory processes for drug approval with the FDA and the EMA. She is also a published international health economist who has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows across America. Dr. Ruby worked on the human research studies to launch some of the most famous compounds in the world in Depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Addiction, and Cardio-pulmonary diseases.
If all that’s true (doubtful), where did Dr. Ruby go so wrong that she would spew such idiocy as in the video? Inquiring minds want to know!
As for the video, I must confess that I couldn’t get through the whole 18 minutes, because there was so much repetitive antivax nonsense in it that it actually made my brain hurt, which has nearly 25 years of experience dealing with nonsense like this, hurt. Early in the video, Dr. Ruby mentions that she’s gotten lots of emails and questions about Novavax from people who refuse to take mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines who ask her if they should take Novavax instead, given that it’s not an mRNA vaccine, but rather a potentially more “acceptable” recombinant protein-based vaccine. On the surface, this would seem to support the idea that Novavax might entice those afraid of new mRNA technology in vaccines to accept an “old school” vaccine. It doesn’t. Predictably, Dr. Ruby’s answer is not only just a “No,” but an “Oh, hell no!” After that, she starts listing every antivax trope you can imagine about the vaccine, starting out by claiming that Novavax is no more a “vaccine” than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which, as you’ll recall, were falsely characterized as “gene therapy” and not vaccines.
In a truly facepalm-worth bit, Dr. Ruby then goes on to claim that Novavax “uses the mRNA technology” and that “it doesn’t make it safer and it doesn’t make it better” than mRNA vaccines, while repeating yet again that Novavax is “not a vaccine.” Rather, to Dr. Ruby, Novavax is a “toxic poison designed to change your DNA forever,” which, she notes, is the “long game” and the “endgame.” She then disingenuously claims that she’s not trying to “scare you,” just to scare you out of taking any more shots.
After I finished facepalming over Dr. Ruby’s claim that Novavax uses the same mRNA technology as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, I was curious how someone claiming to be a physician could say something so utterly at odds with molecular biology. So I kept watching. To explain what she means, Dr. Ruby references this illustration:
I just kept facepalming. Dr. Ruby went on and on and on about how supposedly Novavax is using “synthetic” codes for proteins “never before seen in nature”—she even uses the term “in silico“—to “stimulate moths” to make billions of copies of the “toxic spike protein” that they then extract noting that your body isn’t making the evil toxic spike protein (as is the case in mRNA vaccines) but that the moth cells are. This explanation, while technically correct (barely) deceptively conflates the use of a baculovirus containing the specific cDNA code to serve as the template for moth cells to make spike protein, which is later extracted, isolated, and used to make a more traditional protein-based vaccine, and the mRNA technology that induces the cells of the recipient of the vaccine to produce spike protein. Yes, mRNA serves as the final template for protein manufacture in both systems, but it’s not as though the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines involve harvesting cells from your deltoid muscle and isolating the spike protein being made by them due to the mRNA vaccine. This explanation is so deeply stupid that there are only two possible explanations. Either Dr. Ruby is deeply ignorant of some very basic molecular biology that was basic three decades ago when I first studied biochemistry and molecular biology, or she’s lying, knowing that her audience is deeply ignorant of very basic molecular biology. Take your pick. (I suspect the latter, but will concede that the former is quite possible.)
Remember my question in a caption above? Specifically, I asked, “How long before antivaxxers start claiming that Novavax is contaminated with “moth DNA” that will integrate into your genome, just as antivaxxers used to claim that Gardasil is contaminated with HPV DNA that will integrate into your genome?” Believe it or not, I asked that question as I was writing this but before actually watching Dr. Ruby’s video. And guess what? She very quickly went there, going on about how the spike protein is isolated with “moth DNA” that’s included in the nanoparticles, so that you still have a problem with a “genetic code that is going to embed in your cells and God knows what it’s going to create from the moths” and then you have “directly injected billions of these toxic spike proteins,” which will supposedly wreak havoc in your body, including causing infertility.
First, this is a common gambit, to refer to “billions” of spike protein molecules, as though that were a lot. I’ve noted before, billions of molecules is actually not very many. One billion = 109 molecules. Let’s say the vaccine makes 6 billion (for easy rounding). That’s only 10-14 mole (or 10 femtomole or 0.01 picomole, calculated roughly as ~6 x 109/~6 x 1023). Given that the molecular weight of the spike protein is 78.3 kDa, that means that we’re talking about only ~8 x 10-10 g of spike protein, or 0.1 ng. (These are rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations.) As I’ve pointed out before, doing similar calculations for mRNA vaccines, the amount of spike protein produced is very, very tiny. To conintue, Novavax contains 5 μg of recombinant spike protein, which works out to 5 x 10-6 g ÷ 78.3 x 103 g/mole ≈ 6 x 1011 mole, or ~60 picomole, which is actually a lot more protein than “billions” of spike protein molecules. The difference, of course, is that it’s injected into the muscle with adjuvant and doesn’t spread throughout the body, contrary to Dr. Ruby’s claim that it does. (Intravenous vaccines don’t work very well.)
Dr. Ruby goes beyond that, though. In her world, apparently, those rendered infertile by Novavax will be the lucky ones. Why? Well, let her explain:
If you are lucky enough to conceive—and this goes for all of these shots—the next generation through recombination of mom and dad’s genetic material can have offspring that will suffer and be damaged and freak—freak manifestations. We don’t even know what those are going to look like yet. So stop looking at Novavax as a possible safer alternative. To what? To tyranny? To a sick, psychopathic cabal that wants to damage God-given DNA forever and say, “Wooo, we’re better than God”?
Dr. Peter Venkman would like a word with Dr. Ruby.
This is very much like the idea of “purebloods” that antivaxxers co-opted from the Harry Potter novels, the idea being that, like the magical purebloods in the story, who are untainted by “muggle” (nonmagical) blood, those who are unvaccinated have “pure blood.” As I’ve long pointed out, a huge part of alternative medicine relies on the concept that “contamination” (these days more frequently referred to as “toxins”) cause most, if not all, disease, and various “detoxification” regimens that make up so much of alternative medicine (and, not coincidentally, the basis of many treatments for many conditions—like autism—that antivaxxers used to attribute to vaccines) have more in common with religious ritual purification rituals than they do with science or medicine. The concept is so pervasive in antivax circles that sometimes antivaxxers would rather risk death than “contamination.” For example, Del Bigtree came dangerously close to death from bleeding hemorrhoids because he refused a transfusion with “vaccinated blood.”
This concept of “purity” versus “contamination” (implied to be with evil) also has a lot to do with the idea that “natural immunity” to a disease and has so infected the discourse over COVID-19 vaccines that one of my go-to video clips when discussing this topic is of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper from one of my favorite movies of all time, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb explaining how fluoridation is a Communist plot to “sap and impurify” the “precious bodily fluids” of real Americans, mainly because anti-fluoridation, antivaccine, and anti-GMO pseudoscience all tap into the alternative medicine fear of “contamination” as a cause of ill health and “purity of essence” (again, from Dr. Strangelove) as key to good health. In this case, Dr. Ruby is portraying the vaccines as tampering with God-given purity and setting humans up as “better than God.” The claim that Novavax will somehow “contaminate” your DNA with moth DNA and thereby wreak havoc in your body is very much of a piece with old antivax claims that the HPV vaccine will “contaminate” your DNA with HPV DNA and thereby wreak havoc in your body through “molecular mimicry“? Truly, the antivax hilarity that was “homologous recombinaltion tiniker” never died.
Consistent with old antivax narratives, Dr. Ruby also complains about the use of “lipid nanoparticles” in the vaccine, just like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do! Specifically, she refers to the use of “tree bark toxins” as an adjuvant. This is a theme that has arisen about Novavax in antivaxland. Here’s an example from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense claiming that the “nanoparticle adjuvant” (which Novavax calls “Matrix-M”) is horrifically harmful:
Nevertheless, in pre-COVID-19 studies of experimental vaccines containing Novavax’s Matrix-M, researchers waxed enthusiastic about the nanoparticle-based adjuvant’s “significant” and “potent” action — including its strong “immunostimulatory properties” even without any accompanying antigen.
And, where nanoparticles are concerned, the Novavax COVID-19 shot actually delivers a double whammy, combining Matrix-M with genetically engineered spike protein nanoparticles.
As Novavax explains it (for some reason putting the word “adjuvant” in quotes), “The spike protein is the ‘signal,’ but … we want your immune system to hear that signal loud and clear [and] that signal boost comes from our Matrix-M ‘adjuvant.’”
Matrix-M has been around a long time; for instance, here’s a study from a decade ago showing its immunostimulatory properties. Adjuvants, of course, have long been used to increase the immune reaction triggered by an antigen in a vaccine, thus allowing the use of much less protein; the most commonly used adjuvant is, as most of you know, aluminum. (And we all now that antivaxxers trust aluminum adjuvants, right? Just kidding! They hate aluminum adjuvants as much as they hate mRNA in vaccines!)
Where, however, did the bit about “tree bark” come from? It turns out that Matrix-M is a natural product, specifically a saponin derived from the soapbark tree (Quillaja saponaria), so named because its bark contains saponins, which can be made into soap.
As noted in this study:
Saponins, particularly those obtained from Quillaja saponaria Molina, are known potent adjuvants and Quillaja saponins (QS) have for long been used in animal vaccines. Saponin-based adjuvants can be formulated in different ways; in free form , with aluminium hydroxide , in ISCOMs (immunostimulating complex)  or in ISCOM-Matrix/Matrix structures . QS constitute a heterogeneous mixture of related but different chemical structures with various immunostimulatory activities, safety profiles and particle forming properties. By purification of the QS raw material, distinctive fractions with different characteristics can be defined.
The ISCOM, a potent adjuvant formulation first described in 1984 by Morein and co-workers , consist of stable complexes composed of saponin, cholesterol, phospholipid and incorporated antigen(s). The hallmarks of the ISCOM technology are the dose-sparing potential , induction of high and long-lasting antibody titers and potent T cell responses . However, later it was shown that antigen incorporation is not critical for these immune properties. Antigen and empty ISCOMs i.e. ISCOM-Matrix/Matrix could simply be mixed with sustained vaccine efficacy . In this study we use a novel adjuvant formulation based on two different Matrix particles made from two separate purified fractions of saponins, yielding Matrix-A™ and Matrix-C™ . These Matrix particles, approximately 40 nm large, are subsequently mixed at defined ratios to get the Matrix-M™ adjuvant.
And there you have it! The dreaded nanoparticles! Recall how antivaxxers fear mongered about the lipid nanoparticles used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to encapsulate the mRNAs used and assist their entry into cells. Again, fear mongering about lipid nanoparticles is nothing more than the “toxins” gambit reborn and retooled for COVID-19 vaccines, sometimes with some truly off-the-wall versions. Given that Matrix-M is a form of lipid nanoparticle as well, the antivax attacks on the Novavax COVID-19 are very predictable. You’d think that antivaxxers, being all about “natural immunity” and “natural medicine,” would be more accepting of an adjuvant that is a natural product, the story of whose repurposing and sustainable production is actually quite fascinating.
Not unlike the lipid nanoparticle “carrier systems” in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 injections, the “immunostimulant” Matrix-M adjuvant includes two types of fat molecules — cholesterol and phospholipids — bundled with detergent-like saponins.
In human biology, phospholipids are essential for properly functioning cell membranes. But in the vaccine laboratory, synthetic versions are viewed as “essential components of advanced vaccines.”
Unheeded by the pharmaceutical industry is the fact that up to 5% of healthy individuals are estimated to harbor antiphospholipid antibodies, produced in a “mistaken” autoimmune response.
Researchers have linked the autoantibodies to the risk of antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), an autoimmune disorder characterized by recurring blood clots as well as fetal loss, fetal growth retardation and other obstetric complications.
Although researchers claim to be baffled as to why some people develop APS, studies have noted the emergence of APS and other autoimmune conditions following receipt of numerous vaccines, including those against tetanus, influenza, human papillomavirus (HPV) — and now COVID-19.
Dr. Ruby spends several minutes basically saying the same sorts of things, while bragging that “no one else” is warning about Matrix-M, even though RFK Jr. is spreading the same misinformation about it. In any case, the claim that vaccines cause autoimmune disorders, by whatever proposed mechanism (whether sort of plausible or completely fantastical), is an old antivax trope. I might have to discuss the APS “hypothesis” (if you can call it that) in more detail in the future, as the same claims pop up over the lipid nanoparticles used in mRNA-based vaccines. Until then, I’ll just refer you to Yehuda Shoenfeld and ASIA as examples of how the false claim that vaccines have caused a massive increase in incidence of autoimmune disease started and persists.
Don’t get me wrong. I hope Novavax succeeds. More COVID-19 vaccines using different approaches represent a good thing. It’s just that people claiming that Novavax will be some sort of “game changer” that entices a lot of people who refused the mRNA vaccines to finally get vaccinated is a delusion. The reason is simple. The fear and conspiracy mongering are all about vaccines themselves, not any single technology used to make any given vaccine. If the mRNA in Pfizer and Moderna vaccines scares a lot of people, that does not mean that a more “old school” recombinant protein-based vaccine like Novavax will make much of a difference. It won’t. Just look at how fast antivaxxers have pivoted to fear mongering about the “moth cells” and the new tree bark-based adjuvant. It’s the vaccines, period.