Here we go again with yet another viral video fear mongering about COVID-19 vaccines. This one features someone of whom I don’t recall having heard before, a Dr. Phillip Buckhaults, a faculty member at the University of South Carolina, who testified before South Carolina Senate Medical Affairs Ad-Hoc Committee on DHEC last week. Here’s the video that’s been all over the antivax crankosphere today:
Before I dig into the claims made in this video, in which Dr. Buckhaults resurrects fear mongering about DNA contamination in COVID-19 vaccines, an old antivax trope repurposed for COVID-19 vaccines thanks to another scientist gone rogue named Kevin McKernan, with help from one of the earliest purveyors of antivax disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Peter McCullough, let me just mention that it’s gone viral. Personally, I discovered this video because of two sources, one familiar and unexpected, one familiar and expected. Let me start with the familiar and unexpected source first:
Because this is a Blue Check account and can post much longer bits on the platform formerly known as Twitter, let me quote it all for those who do not have an X account:
I listened to Dr. Phil Buckhaults’ over 30 minute testimony and Q and A in South Carolina and saw good science raising concerns about contamination of COVID mRNA vaccine with DNA. South Carolina is fortunate to have @P_J_Buckhaults who raises safety concerns related to billions of pieces of DNA in each @pfizer vaccine vial. He suggests that better @US_FDA, @CDCgov and State oversight is needed. He explains how pieces of naked DNA allowed in protein vaccines at a certain threshold was not so problematic in a different era but that with encapsulation in liposomes they can now easily get into cells. If they get into cells they can integrate in the genome which is permanent, heritable and has a theoretical risk of causing cancer depending on where in the genome they integrate. There is need for more research into what happens in stem cells and I would add germ-line, heart, brain etc. I am also concerned about prolonged production of spike for months with the paeudouridine in the more stable RNA. Is it too much or just the right amount (for everyone?) This point was raised by
@P_McCulloughMD Blood clots, myocarditis, cardiac arrests and other adverse effects are documented. To have adequate informed consent, individuals need to know risks versus benefits and this is part of the concern. As @P_J_Buckhaults says, it may be OK for elderly at high risk of death from COVID but perhaps less so for younger people. Do athletes need better precautions? Why are some at higher risk for bad outcomes? Is it 5%, 10% and why? @P_McCulloughMD has raised those issues.
Prof. Wafik El-Deiry is an unexpected source to be so credulous about this because he is an oncologist and cancer biologist whose work influenced me as a graduate student 20 years ago and who is now the director of the Legorreta Cancer Center at Brown University. We first met him a long time ago opining on whether cancer research might be playing it too safe. More recently, I quoted one of his X posts (Tweets?) when he expressed concern about SV40 from DNA contaminants getting into cells and causing cancer. I expressed amazement that he would say something like this about tiny fragments of plasmids (circular DNA molecules into which the cDNA for genes encoding proteins of interest are often inserted in order to amplify in DNA) given his background as a cancer researcher who made seminal observations regarding the tumor suppressor genes p53 and p21.
In retrospect, I suppose that I shouldn’t have, because he’s doing it again. Still, even though Prof. El-Deiry is a familiar source now with a track record of credulity towards such claims, I was still nearly gobsmacked at how far down the rabbit hole he’s now gone. Seriously? Tagging Dr. McCullough, apparently unaware of how much of an antivax conspiracy theorist he is? Regurgitating antivax talking points echoing the “died suddenly” conspiracy theory about COVID-19 vaccines supposedly causing unprecedented numbers of athletes to drop dead? (Hint, they’re not.) This is not good at all. In fact, it’s very, very bad. Prof. El-Deiry should be embarrassed.
He’s not. He doubled down:
And then this:
Yikes! Does Prof. El-Deiry that this bit about “sweeping generalizations” and, in particularly, his final question (“Are there nuances for children vs the elderly?”) is classic antivax rhetoric? I assume that he doesn’t. After all, he wouldn’t be the first scientist to find such rhetoric, divorced from a deep understanding of the issues involved in designing a vaccine program, to be compelling. (Cough, cough, Vinay Prasad, cough, cough.)
The familiar but expected source is an antivaxxer whom we’ve met before, Maryanne Demasi. When last we met her this spring, she was attacking scientific consensus as a “manufactured construct.” Unfortunately, she has a fairly long history of antivax stylings; so it was no surprise at all that she would be doing her darnedest to amplify a bit of antivax disinformation like the “DNA in vaccines” fear mongering. In any event, she has a Substack (because of course she does) and featured Dr. Buckhaults in a recent post entitled Researchers “alarmed” to find DNA contamination in Pfizer covid-19 vaccine. I can’t help but note that the word “researchers” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, as in reality I am only aware of two or three “researchers” who are particularly “alarmed” at this finding, and, although I don’t know Dr. Buckhaults’ proclivities (yet), I know that two of them (e.g., Dr. McCullough) are raving antivax cranks. However many “researchers” are “alarmed,” let’s see what Ms. Demasi wrote about the testimony before delving into the video itself:
Phillip Buckhaults, a cancer genomics expert, and professor at the University of South Carolina has testified before a South Carolina Senate Medical Affairs Ad-Hoc Committee saying that Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine is contaminated with billions of tiny DNA fragments.
Buckhaults, who has a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, said “there is a very real hazard” that these fragments of foreign DNA can insert themselves into a person’s own genome and become a “permanent fixture of the cell.”
He said it’s a plausible mechanism for what might be “causing some of the rare but serious side effects like death from cardiac arrest” in people following mRNA vaccination.
Buckhaults is not an alarmist and has been reluctant to go public with his findings for fear of frightening people.
He himself was vaccinated three times with Pfizer’s covid vaccine and recommended it to family and friends. He described the mRNA platform technology as “revolutionary” and said the vaccine has saved many lives.
“I’m a real fan of this platform,” Buckhaults told the Senate. “I think it has the potential to treat cancers, I really believe that this platform is revolutionary. In your lifetime, there will be mRNA vaccines against antigens in your unique cancer. But they’ve got to get this problem fixed.”
Ah, yes, the “I’m not an ‘alarmist'” trope that is inevitably followed by alarmism, coupled with the “I was vaccinated and so can’t be antivax” trope. Very nice. Very effective. Very old. I’ve heard this sort of patter so many times before dating back up to nearly two decades.
I could tell that Dr. Buckhaults was drifting into denialist territory early on in the video when he repeatedly claimed that the “Pfizer vaccine did a pretty good job of keeping people from dying but it did a terrible job of stopping the pandemic,” trotting out the whole claim that it didn’t stop transmission at all and “only lasted a month.” After that, he described how the vaccine was “contaminated” with DNA. What I found odd, however, is where he got the vials of vaccine to test:
The Pfizer vaccine is contaminated with plasma DNA. It’s not just mRNA; it’s got bits of DNA in it. This DNA is the DNA vector that was used as the template for the in vitro transcription reaction when they made the mRNA. I know this is true because I sequenced it in my own lab the vials of Pfizer vaccine that were given out here in Colombia. One of my colleagues was in charge of that vaccination program in the College of Pharmacy, and, for reasons that I still don’t understand, he kept every single vial. So he had a whole freezer full of the empty vials. Well, the empty vials have a little tiny bit in the bottom of them. He gave them all to me, and I looked at them. We had two batches that were given out here in Colombia, and I checked these two batches, and I checked them by sequencing. I sequenced all the DNA that was in the vaccine, and I can see what’s in there. It’s surprising that there’s any DNA in there and you can kind of work out what it is and how it got there. I’m kind of alarmed about the possible consequences of this both in terms of human health and biology but you should be alarmed about the regulatory process that allowed it to get there.
So let me get this straight. A faculty member in the college of pharmacy kept all the vials after the vaccine had been administered? Here’s where chain of custody and storage conditions become very important. As Dr. Buckhaults points out himself in his testimony, DNA is much more stable than RNA in solution. If these vials of used up vaccine containing small amounts of vaccine left over weren’t stored properly, the tendency would be for the RNA to degrade much more rapidly than any DNA, thus apparently elevating the DNA-to-RNA ratio in the solution. It’s the very same issue that I wondered about when Kevin McKernan—remember him?—started the fear mongering about DNA fragments from the plasmids used to generate the mRNA in COVID-19 vaccines. I pointed out that McKernan tested two vials of expired Pfizer vaccine and two vials of expired Moderna vaccine. I noted that he said almost nothing about where he got the vials or how they had been stored. These things matter, particularly if you’re going to do assays as sensitive as PCR can be.
Issues of storage of the vaccines aside, Dr. Buckhaults presented this slide early on:
First of all, there is zero evidence or biological plausibility to link minuscule amounts of short fragments of DNA to cardiac arrest or sudden death. This is just wild speculation on Dr. Buckhaults’ part. So is the part about insertional mutagenesis, the process by which DNA can insert itself into the genome and introduce mutations. Here’s the thing. Insertional mutagenesis can only lead to cancer if the mutation either activates or increases the expression of oncogenes (cancer-causing genes) or inactivates tumor suppressor genes. These genes only take up a small percentage of the genome, and the mutations have to be of very specific types to have even a chance of inducing cancer. In other words, it’s a very inefficient process, particularly in cells that do not divide, like the muscle cells into which vaccines are injected. What he’s blathering about sounds scary but is incredibly unlikely.
And that bit about autoimmunity? It’s a very old antivax trope about DNA somehow recombining in the nucleus to produce fusions between foreign and human genes that result in non-self proteins that can provoke an immune response. Basically, it’s “molecular mimicry” by HPV vaccines, and “homologous recombinaltion tiniker” all over again. (That latter one briefly became a meme used to mock antivaxxers because of the misspelling.) Yes, it’s Sin Han Lee all over again when a decade ago he used an incredibly sensitive nested PCR assay prone to false positives to “prove” that there was “fetal DNA” in Gardasil, even though what he discovered, if legit, was still such an incredible small quantity of DNA left over from the cell line used in the manufacture of the vaccine as to be harmless. In order to leave no potential mechanism, no matter how, left out, Dr. Buchaults even speculates that the DNA might even get into stem cells to make the cancer risk so much worse and even advocates testing people’s stem cells to look for these fragments, while bluntly stating, ““And I will not get the vaccine again myself unless I get a batch and find out that it’s free of DNA,”
Because minute amounts of random DNA fragments are so scary. So very, very scary.
I’m especially calling bullshit on the autoimmunity part, given this graph that Dr. Buckhaults showed:
What this shows is that the average size of the DNA fragments found in the vaccine is around 120 base pairs, with a long tail out to some larger sizes. Remember, these are fragments of a plasmid, most of which doesn’t code for relevant protein, which is why I laughed when Dr. Buckhaults said:
The autoimmunity thing is not my wheelhouse I’m not an immunologist but the cancer risk is that’s my bag I know this is a thing and it is a possibility
“The autoimmunity thing is not my wheelhouse”? That’s an understatement!
Like McKernan, Dr. Buckhauts goes on to fear monger using large numbers, estimating that in each vaccine there are two billion copies of the small fragment that he did quantitative PCR to measure and possibly as much as 200 billion fragments altogether. Scary! Well, probably not, even if true. Do I have to whip out Avogadro’s number (6.023 x 1023/mole) again to tell you just how much this is? (2 x 109)/(6.023 x 1023/mole) = 3.3 x 10-15 mole or 3.3 femtomole, an incredibly tiny amount. Even 100 times that—200 billion!—would only be 3.3 x 10-13 mole, or 0.33 picomole, again a very small quantity. Certainly, expressing the quantity of DNA fragments claimed to have been found as femtomole or picomole quantities would not have sounded nearly as scary as “billions and billions” of fragments.
Also, as has been pointed out, the data regarding DNA content of the vaccines has long been known to regulatory authorities, for example:
In other words, it’s a nonissue.
I was amused when Dr. Buckhaults was asked whether he had tried to publish his data in a peer-reviewed journal or not or whether he was planning to. I bet you nkow the answer to that one:
No and no. they’re not as of now they are interesting and concerning but not they don’t rise to the level of a peer-reviewed publication. The most likely, the best possible outcome would be that I would check with a bunch of people and find out it never integrated and this is not a problem and then it will never be published because papers don’t publish negative results. Kind of the worst outcome is, I can check with a bunch of people and I find out it integrated and it’s caused these horrible things and yeah then I’ll get a paper and be famous. But I’m hoping that that’s not the way it goes.
Even Dr. Buckhaults appears to know, deep down, that what he’s doing here is bad science and unlikely to be published—but not for the reasons that he goes on to complain about, such as “perverse incentives in academia” and the lack of a desire to publish negative results. Rather, I bet he never publishes because he knows that his work won’t pass muster. It’s a win-win bet on my part. If he doesn’t publish, I know for sure that my assessment of Dr. Buckhaults’ work is likely accurate. If he does publish, I might learn something. But he won’t publish, and, likely, neither will Dr. McKernan. Then they’ll claim it’s “censorship” or “fear” of publishing anything casting doubt on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
Meanwhile, the usual antivax suspects will continue to use results like this to spread fear of COVID-19 vaccines.