Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines won’t cause a zombie apocalypse

The claim: Messenger RNA COVID-19 vaccines aren’t real vaccines, vaccination will turn body into ‘virus-making factory’

Zombies have long captivated human imagination but they don’t exist in real life, or do they? According to one social media post, these fictitious creatures soon will, due in large part to the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Now the new so-called experimental vaccine … the really new and amazing thing about it is that it’s not even a vaccine — mRNA is not a vaccine,” claims a video shared in a March 31 Facebook post.

The man speaking, Abdul Alim Muhammad who goes by mukifuad on Instagram (and from whose account the video originates), claims the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine is instead “an operating system such as you would put in your computer” designed to hijack the body’s cellular machinery to produce “the same (COVID-19) viral proteins that made you sick in the first place.”

Muhammad tells his viewers not to take his own word for it – a description of the vaccine as an operating system is prominently visible on Moderna’s own website.

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He also goes on to claim there are four vaccine doses, each for a different coronavirus protein: The spike protein (which Muhammad claims is the reason why “people test positive for HIV”) and three others referred to as M, N and P proteins.

After the fourth dose, the human body is turned into a “viral-making factory” that attacks itself, ultimately giving rise to a generation of zombies, a conclusion Muhammad claims is supported by the existence of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website dedicated to “zombie preparedness.”

The over-10 minute video, the first four minutes of which are from Muhammad’s original Instagram video and the rest news clips from various outlets like CBS and Fox News, has amassed nearly 10,000 interactions on Facebook according to social analytics platform CrowdTangle.

“We need to rise up..in NUMBERS to push against this agenda to take over,” wrote one Facebook user in the video’s comment section.

“It is not a vaccine… your immune system will be compromised. You don’t need it, another lie!” claimed another.

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

What exactly is mRNA and how does an mRNA vaccine work?

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the molecule containing the genetic instructions needed for all livings things to develop, live and reproduce. In multi-cellular organisms like humans, DNA resides in the nucleus, packed into bundles called chromosomes.

Because it can’t itself physically exit the nucleus, when molecules like proteins are needed, sections of DNA are transcribed into a form that can leave — messenger RNA, or mRNA. Once outside the nucleus and in contact with a cell’s protein-making machinery, the encoded protein is made. mRNA has no further reason to stick around at that point so it’s destroyed, disappearing much like a Snapchat message.

Using mRNA to make vaccines may be a relatively new technology, but the idea of harnessing this genetic modality has existed for the last 30 years, first pioneered by Katalin Kariko at the University of Pennsylvania. Before COVID-19 arrived on the scene, mRNA vaccines had been developed for Ebola, Zika and influenza, although none have yet been licensed, according to the CDC.

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines, the only two mRNA vaccines authorized and administered in the U.S., contain instructions for the coronavirus’ surface, or spike protein, used by the virus like a key to enter cells.

The spike protein by itself is harmless and cannot cause disease, but it does induce the immune system to produce antibodies against it and any virus bearing the protein — immunity being the fundamental criterion for any vaccine. As mentioned earlier, the vaccine’s mRNA has a short lifespan and is destroyed quickly.

For the mRNA vaccines, two doses are needed to achieve a robust and effective immune response. Contrary to Muhammad’s claim, there are no additional doses after the two except for booster shots targeting the new variants and to extend existing immunity against any future disease. These boosters do not contain any mRNA for the other viral proteins mentioned in the video.

That the spike protein is the reason why “people test positive for HIV” is also unfounded. It’s unclear where the claim originated, but it may stem from social media posts linking the coronavirus with HIV, suggesting COVID-19 is man-made.

“The spike glycoprotein of SARS-CoV-2 is just like the spike of every other (coronavirus),” said Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, in an email to the Associated Press last May. “It is not from HIV-1. This post is pure nonsense, fake science, and not worth responding to.”

Muhammad’s insinuation that the vaccine is not real because it’s an “operating system” is based on a very literal interpretation of Moderna’s analogy comparing its mRNA technology to software on a computer.

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The CDC isn’t preparing for zombies

One thing is true: The CDC does have a website for zombie preparedness, first conceived in May 2011 to raise awareness about an upcoming hurricane season, and teach emergency preparedness, using a fictitious zombie apocalypse.

The website recently arose from internet obscurity with the claim that the 16th century French astrologer Nostradamus foresaw a zombie apocalypse in 2021 and that the CDC’s website was evidence as such, a claim that USA TODAY has debunked.

Our rating: False

We rate the claim that mRNA vaccines are not real vaccines but operating systems that will induce the body to produce COVID-19 FALSE, based on our research. Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is a form of DNA that provides the cell instructions for making certain proteins. It is a one-time use molecule that is destroyed once the protein is made. This mechanism is harnessed by mRNA vaccines, which instruct the immune system to make antibodies against COVID-19’s spike protein.

The two mRNA vaccines available only require two doses, not four as claimed by the video shared on Facebook, and only contain mRNA for the spike protein, not other viral proteins. Vaccination will not turn vaccine recipients into zombies; the CDC website on “Zombie Preparedness” was created in 2011 as a vehicle for spreading information on emergency preparedness.

Our fact-check sources:

  • CBS News, July 22, 2020, “Bill Gates says ‘serious mistakes were made’ in U.S. pandemic response”
  • RealClear Politics, March 29, “Naomi Wolf: Mandatory Vaccine Passport Could Lead To The End Of Human Liberty In The West”
  • Nature Scitable, accessed April 14, “Translation: DNA to mRNA to Protein”
  • STAT News, Nov. 10, 2020, “The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race”
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dec. 19, 2019, “First FDA-approved vaccine for the prevention of Ebola virus disease, marking a critical milestone in publish health preparedness and response”
  • Vaccines, May 31, 2020, “Current States of Zika Virus Vaccines: Successes and Challenges”
  • Scientific American, Sept. 18, 2019, “Accelerating flu protection”
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 418, “Understanding and Explaining mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines”
  • The Conversation, Dec. 22, 2020, “New coronavirus variant: what is the spike protein and why are mutations on it important?”
  • Healthline, March 5, “Why Do You Need Two Doses for Some COVID-19 Vaccines?”
  • USA TODAY, April 7, “In the race to stay ahead of COVID-19 variants, US lags globally”
  • Associated Press, May 28, 2020, “Coronavirus is not genetically linked to HIV”
  • Moderna, accessed April 9, “mRNA Platform: Enabling Drug Discovery & Development”
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Feb. 23, “Zombie Preparedness”
  • The Washington Post, May 20, 2011, “Zombie apocalypse a coup for CDC emergency team”
  • USA TODAY, March 8, “Fact check: Post on Nostradamus prediction and CDC ‘Zombie Preparedness’ guide is missing context”

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

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