Federal officials authorized two mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 after being determined to be safe and effective against symptomatic illness in clinical trials. But a Texas doctor, in a widely shared video, falsely claims the vaccines don’t provide protection and that they’re actually “experimental gene therapy.”
In a video shared widely on social media, a Texas doctor known for his political activism — and whose vitamin sales prompted a warning by federal officials — is peddling a host of false claims to try to discourage people from getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Dr. Steven Hotze implores viewers to “just say no” to the vaccines after a long, error-filled pitch that baselessly alleges the mRNA vaccines aren’t vaccines at all.
As explained in previous SciCheck stories, two vaccines currently approved in the U.S., from Pfizer and Moderna, are designed using modified messenger RNA. The mRNA provides instructions for cells to make spike proteins that trigger an immune response against the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
Hotze is a conservative activist who unsuccessfully challenged COVID-19 public health measures in Texas last year and made unproven allegations about voter fraud ahead of the 2020 election. In December, the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission sent Hotze a letter warning him to stop selling his line of vitamins by using misleading suggestions that they could treat or prevent COVID-19.
His mRNA vaccines video published on his website on Feb. 26. The link to that post has been shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle analytics data. The video has also been viewed tens of thousands of times across various posts on Facebook and Instagram.
We reached out to Hotze about some of his claims in the video and didn’t hear back. We’ll break down a few of his assertions here.
False Claims About Vaccine Efficacy, Definition
Hotze tells his viewers: “If you are immune to a disease, you can be exposed to it without becoming infected. The so-called COVID-19 vaccine does not provide any individual who receives the vaccine with immunity to COVID-19, nor does it prevent the spread of the disease. It does not meet the CDC’s own definition of a vaccine. That’s why it’s a deceptive trade practice under 15 US Code Section 41 of the Federal Trade Commission for pharmaceutical companies who are producing this experimental gene therapy to claim that it’s a vaccine.”
The vaccines demonstrated in clinical trials to be highly effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 disease. The Pfizer and Moderna trials each enrolled more than 30,000 people and found efficacy in preventing symptomatic disease — at least 94% after the second dose. His claim the vaccines don’t “provide any individual who receives the vaccine with immunity to COVID-19″ is wrong.
It’s currently unclear how much the vaccines will limit transmission of the virus, SARS-CoV-2. In other words, while the vaccines have shown prevention from developing symptoms of COVID-19, they may not prevent a person from carrying the virus. But there’s a good chance they will help curb transmission to some degree: Experts say with other vaccines, a vaccinated person, even if infected with the virus, often sheds less virus, therefore making them less contagious.
Hotze’s remark that mRNA vaccines don’t “meet the CDC’s own definition of a vaccine” also holds no weight.
He points out that the CDC website defines a vaccine as a “product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease.” That’s correct. But that definition is also consistent with the FDA’s decision to issue emergency use authorizations for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines because of their demonstrated efficacy in trials.
“Clearly, Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines are ‘product[s] that stimulate a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease,’ i.e., COVID-19, and they have a protective effect,” Jacob Sherkow, a University of Illinois law professor whose research focuses in part on the legal implications of advanced biotechnologies, said in an email. Sherkow noted that it’s not entirely clear what the legal effects of the CDC’s website definition are since “[i] t’s not a formal administrative rule or even a guidance … it’s just a generic definition of a vaccine.”
Hotze’s argument that the mRNA vaccines are a “deceptive trade practice” also doesn’t make sense. While he cites “15 US Code Section 41 of the Federal Trade Commission,” it appears he’s referring to 15 U.S. Code § 45 — since section 41 deals with the establishment of the FTC.
“The only thing § 45 of the FTC Act does, here, gives FTC authority to police ‘deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce,’” Sherkow said. “It doesn’t define what a deceptive act is.”
Sherkow said the definition of a “deceptive practice” rests on many years’ worth of case law: “In general, those arise when three conditions are met: there is a representation or omission that misleads a consumer; the consumer’s interpretation is ‘reasonable’; and the misrepresentation is ‘material,’ i.e., the consumer purchased the product because of the representation.”
“None of those are present here,” he added. “There is no misrepresentation about the nature of these vaccines — indeed, there’s an ocean of information about exactly what they are and how they work.”
Erroneous ‘Gene Therapy’ Assertion
Again referencing the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, Hotze falsely claims: “These so-called vaccines, which are manufactured using cells derived from human babies that were aborted in the 1970s, should more accurately be called experimental gene therapy. They are untested, unproven experimental gene therapy that poses a much greater danger and risk to your health than the COVID-19.”
We’ll first address his false assertion that the vaccines are an “experimental gene therapy” — an allegation he repeatedly makes throughout his video.
The FDA’s website defines gene therapy as a “technique that modifies a person’s genes to treat or cure disease.”
Sherkow, who has written about gene therapy, said the mRNA vaccines don’t qualify as such.
“The mRNA vaccines do not modify a person’s genes, i.e., their genome,” he said. “They’re transcripts of the virus’s Spike gene that get translated into protein and expressed in cells; the mRNA degrades afterwards. The genome remains unchanged.”
And Hotze’s claim that the mRNA vaccines are “manufactured using cells derived from aborted human babies in the 1970s” is wrong, too.
Fetal cells obtained from two aborted pregnancies in the early 1960s, one in Sweden and one in England, were made into cell lines used to grow viruses to make some vaccines — such as varicella (chickenpox), rubella and hepatitis A. But those cells aren’t present in the vaccines themselves since the virus is purified before it goes into a syringe.
However, Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines aren’t made from a virus and not manufactured using those fetal cell lines, as Hotze claims. That said, one of the cell lines was used to test those two mRNA vaccines to ensure they worked.
A third vaccine approved in the U.S. — a single-dose from Johnson & Johnson without the mRNA platform — is made using an adenovirus produced using a retinal cell line that was first obtained from a fetus in 1985, according to the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Like other vaccines manufactured using the cell lines, fetal cells are not present in the J&J vaccine.
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