Fact check: COVID-19 vaccine not associated with neurodegenerative disease

The claim: COVID-19 vaccines are associated with prion disease

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout advancing at about 2.77 million average doses administered a day – a steady increase since vaccinations began in late December – a supposed research paper is rousing fear about the vaccine’s safety on social media.

“Covid19 vaxines (sic) are associated with Prion’s disease (sic), which you may better recognize Mad Cow Disease,” writes Facebook user Rachel LeBert Cox in a March 23 post.

The source behind Cox’s bold claim is a paper titled “COVID-19 RNA Based Vaccines and the Risk of Prion Disease,” written by J. Bart Classen. A screenshot of the first page accompanies the post and provides an explanation: The messenger RNA, or mRNA, used in the vaccines trigger abnormally shaped proteins, the basis for prion and other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Classen’s paper, first published in January, has been shared elsewhere on Facebook.

USA TODAY has reached out to the poster and Classen for further comment.

What is prion disease?

Prion diseases consist of a family of rare neurodegenerative disorders caused by proteins that have folded abnormally, also known as prion proteins, which trigger normal proteins they come into contact with to also misfold.

Underlying reasons for the misfolding vary: In some prion diseases like fatal insomnia (FI) or certain types of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), it’s genetics. In others like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), popularly known as “mad cow disease,” it’s transmitted by eating infected animal products.

How exactly prions cause disease starts with the brain: The misfolded proteins accumulate and clump together, causing memory impairment, personality changes and difficulties with movement.

While prion diseases have no known cure, there are treatments that can slow or delay symptoms. Since outbreaks of BSE in the 1990s and early 2000s, regulations on how cattle are handled and fed have greatly prevented transmission from animals to humans.

Prion disease and COVID-19 vaccines

Contrary to Classen’s claim, there is no evidence to suggest the COVID-19 vaccines can cause prion diseases or other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

USA TODAY found no mention in its review of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision memorandums for both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, which involved clinical trials with tens of thousands of volunteers. Similarly, no cases have been reported to the federal government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS.

“VAERS has received no reports of prion-related diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) after COVID-19 vaccination,” said Martha Sharan, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to PolitiFact in February. “No evidence to date indicates a causative association between COVID-19 vaccines and these conditions.”

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University, told USA TODAY Classen’s paper held “no scientific weight at all” and that the journal his article is published in, Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, was “not a reputable or reliable journal.” (Microbiology & Infectious Diseases is an open-access journal published by SciVision Publishers, a potential predatory publisher intended for profit rather than academic peer-review.)

Dr. David Gorski, professor of surgery and oncology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, echoed Rasmussen in a Feb. 22 blog post for Science-Based Medicine.

“What we have here is a whole heck of a lot of speculation, with the finding of an obscure connection based on methodology that is not explained with anywhere near the level of rigor a real molecular biology or bioinformatics scientist would require to be convinced,” Gorski concludes.

It’s worth noting this is not the first time Classen has used “science” to claim vaccines do more harm than good. In 1999, he claimed the influenza vaccine caused type 1 diabetes, a claim disproven by Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Vaccine Safety.

Our rating: False

The claim that COVID-19 vaccines can cause prion and other neurodegenerative diseases is FALSE, based on our research. The claim originates from a paper (likely not peer-reviewed) published earlier this year that asserts the mRNA component of the vaccine causes prion disease. Neither Pfizer nor Moderna, both of which manufacture mRNA-based vaccines, reported cases of prion or other neurodegenerative diseases. The federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System also has not received any such reports. Scientific experts have said Classen’s claim is highly speculative and lacks actual proof.

Our fact-check sources:

  • The New York Times, updated March 31, “See How the Vaccine Rollout Is Going in Your County and State”
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated March 31, “Trends in Number of COVID-19 Vaccinations in the US”
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Oct. 21, 2019, “Prion Diseases”
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed March 31, “Prion Diseases”
  • Healthline, Sept. 17, 2018, “Fatal Familial Insomnia”
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration, July 23, 2020, “All About BSE (Mad Cow Disease)”
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plan Health Inspection Service, June 2, 2020, “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)”
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Nov. 20, 2020, “Emergency Use Authorization for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Review”
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Nov. 30, 2020, “Emergency Use Authorization for Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine Review”
  • PolitiFact, Feb. 26, “The coronavirus vaccine doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s, ALS”
  • Dr. Angela Rasmussen, March 31, Twitter interview
  • Beall’s List of Potential Predatory Journals and Publishers, accessed March 31, SciVision Publishers
  • Iowa State University, Nov. 13, 2020, “What is a predatory publisher?”
  • Science-Based Medicine, Feb. 22, “Can mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines cause prion disease or Alzheimer’s?”
  • British Medical Journal, Oct. 23, 1999, “Association between type 1 diabetes and Hib vaccine”
  • Johns Hopkins Institute for Vaccine Safety, June 1, 2017, “Do Vaccines Cause Diabetes?”

Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.

Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

You may also like...