4 Key Differences Between COVID-19 Vaccines and Gene Therapy Every Healthcare Worker Should Know

All healthcare workers should know how COVID-19 vaccines differ from gene therapy. Here's a quick guide.

We’ve all, at one time or another, dealt with an antivaxxer. The COVID-19 crisis certainly gave them plenty of fodder for their misinformation campaigns, and myths about the COVID-19 vaccines abound.

These people can be stubborn, difficult, even aggressive. But they typically lack education in the sciences, so their false beliefs make (some) sense, especially if they distrust scientists or the medical community.

However, what happens when the misinformation comes from the very people who should know better — scientists and healthcare workers? That’s not good.

When Healthcare Workers Spread Misinformation

Take the following exchange from the Great Bastion of Misinformation: Facebook. An antivaxxer in a health-related group I belong to stated that the COVID-19 vaccines are a form of gene therapy.

Um… what?

What this woman wrote bears no resemblance to how the COVID-19 vaccines work. Or how gene therapy works, for that matter. It actually makes no (Zero?) sense.

This person works in the health industry as a naturopathic consultant. She has no credentials that I could find.

You might wave off her lack of understanding after hearing the word “naturopathic,” but many naturopaths, including one I’ve gone to for years, adhere more closely to evidence-based treatments. Either way, when you work in healthcare and have patients or clients, they look to you as an expert.

And unfortunately, this kind of false information can come from traditional medical professionals as well. For example, a physician I met told me that another physician shared this with his community:

“All of the Covid vaccines are effectively genetic modification. They vary only in the mode of delivery. They all work, by introducing a gene to our bodies.”

Nope. That’s false.  

Other examples:

  • A man I spoke to said his dentist claimed the vaccines are dangerous.
  • Three Kansas nurses refused to administer the vaccines because they were developed “too quickly.
  • A man with a “Dr.” in front of his name proclaimed to a large following that the COVID-19 vaccines aren’t “real vaccines” but gene therapy.
  • And of course, we all remember the Plandemic nightmare, when a supposed scientist spread false information about COVID-19 and vaccines in a viral video.

Must all health workers have detailed scientific understanding of how every drug they administer works? No.

But to spread misinformation that clearly shows they don’t understand how said drug works can endanger those listening to them and erode public trust in medicine and science. 

We can’t let that happen.

To combat this problem, I created a quick and easy reference guide for health workers and anyone else looking to explain the differences between gene therapy and the COVID-19 vaccines, whether to patients or to colleagues.

Difference #1: Gene Therapy Changes DNA, COVID-19 Vaccines Don’t

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the COVID-19 vaccines revolves around DNA. People wonder:

Do the vaccines affect my DNA? Will they change my genome? Are they a form of gene therapy or gene modification like some of these “experts” say?

I can understand this concern to some extent. People hear “mRNA” and recognize genetic buzzwords, and naturally wonder what the deal is.

And the concern makes some sense. Gene therapy, which DOES change your DNA, has a lot of risks and challenges associated with it, as you’ll see in Difference #4. Scientists have struggled for decades with that fact.

Fortunately, the COVID-19 vaccines do NOT impact, change, or alter DNA. As I explained in my articles on mRNA and viral vector vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccines take advantage of our body’s protein-making machinery to produce the spike protein antigen that triggers our immune system to form antibodies.

That’s a different ballgame altogether than changing your DNA.

Bottom Line: COVID-19 vaccines use our genetic machinery to make a protein, but do not affect or change our DNA/genes/genome.

Difference #2: Gene Therapy Treats Disease, COVID-19 Vaccines Prevent Disease

Gene therapy and COVID-19 vaccines not only have different methods for achieving their goals, they have entirely different goals.

The purpose of gene therapy is to treat disease, specifically disease caused by a particular faulty gene. A “good” gene is manufactured and delivered to the patient to compensate for the “bad” gene and hopefully correct the problem.

COVID-19 vaccines, on the other hand, prevent disease. Specifically, they prevent illness due to SARS-CoV-2 viral infection.

How? By giving our bodies the instructions to make one of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins so our immune systems can develop antibodies to fight it.

Bottom Line: COVID-19 vaccines don’t treat disease by altering DNA; they prevent disease by triggering our bodies to develop antibodies to fight SARS-CoV-2.

Difference #3: Gene Therapy Targets Specific Cells Only, COVID-19 Vaccines Don’t

One interesting fact about gene therapy: not only does it aim to change a specific gene in your DNA, it targets only specific types of cells.

For example, if the disease being treated is liver-based, you want the therapy to target liver cells. If the disease in question is blindness due to a faulty retina, the therapy seeks to target retinal cells.

COVID-19 vaccines don’t target specific cells. They don’t need to, because they don’t aim to treat or cure any disease.

Instead, they aim to prevent disease by stimulating the immune system to create antibodies.

Bottom Line: COVID-19 vaccines don’t target specific cells, hoping to change their DNA; they seek only to create a protein that will stimulate the immune system.

Difference #4: Gene Therapy is (Mostly) Experimental, COVID-19 Vaccines are Safe

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about the COVID-19 vaccines involves concerns about how “quickly” they got produced and whether they’re still “experimental.”

“Experimental” means the treatment or drug is still in the clinical trials stage.

Remember, for a drug to receive the FDA’s blessing, it must complete three phases of clinical trials in order to demonstrate 1) its effectiveness, and 2) that the benefits of the drug far outweigh its risks (and yes, all drugs have risks associated with them).

All three COVID-19 vaccines distributed in the US (Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson) made it through the three clinical trial phases. They are not experimental and are safe to use.

On the other hand, as of this writing, there are only a small number of gene therapies that have made it through all clinical trial phases in the US. Therefore, gene therapy is still mostly experimental.

Some question the quickness of the vaccines’ approval for public use (i.e., the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization or EUA). With EUA, the vaccines are still tested for effectiveness and safety, but they don’t undergo the longer follow-up that you would with regular approval. They were also pushed to the top of the FDA’s waiting list because a pandemic is considered an emergency, saving precious time.

True, in rare cases, some people will display adverse or even dangerous reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines. But that’s true for ALL vaccines, and for any type of drug for that matter.

Those who believe themselves at risk for an adverse vaccine reaction should talk to their doctors about vaccination and weigh the risks versus the benefits.

Bottom Line: Unlike most gene therapies, COVID-19 vaccines completed all three clinical trial phases required by the FDA, and were found to be effective and safe.

Health misinformation hurts everybody, especially when it comes from those trained in healthcare. Let’s spread the word about how these vaccines work so that the public will feel confident getting vaccinated.

The sooner we do, the sooner we reach herd immunity and quit risking lives.

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The Rogue Scientist

Christie Hartman is a writer and scientist specializing in science-based health. A biology major as an undergrad, she completed her PhD in behavioral genetics at the University of Colorado Boulder. Before starting her writing career, she worked as a scientist and professor at CU’s School of Medicine, where she studied the genetic contributions to substance abuse and antisocial behavior.

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