We're still being misled about how long the mRNA vaccines last in the body
And the "experts" are still getting it wrong
A surprising finding
In January 2022, a paper came out showing that the mRNA of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines could last at least 2 months post-vaccination.
The study sampled the lymph nodes of people 7-60 days post-vaccination, and detected vaccine mRNA on days 7, 16, and 37, with lower but still appreciable amounts detected at day 60 (Figure 7).
Note that 60 days was the maximum amount of time sampled, so in some people the vaccine mRNA might even last longer. We don’t know, because no one has looked beyond 60 days.
This was a very surprising finding. mRNA is not generally known to last this long (more on this later).
In this article I’ll go over:
Why mRNA lasting so long is a concern
The information landscape surrounding this issue
What’s so surprising about mRNA lasting so long
An unexpected wrinkle I came across while doing research for this article
How much we still don’t know
Why mRNA lasting so long is a concern
What would be so bad about the vaccine mRNA lasting a long time in the body?
Recall that the vaccine mRNA encodes for something called the spike protein. I previously covered the dangers of spike protein here, which linked to several studies showing that it poked holes in the blood-brain barrier in mice, poked holes in advanced in vitro models of the human blood-brain barrier, caused damage to lung or endothelial cells in Syrian hamsters, and disrupted human cardiac pericytes.
Then there was this, which went over the evidence that spike protein poked holes in cell membranes (more here), and this which showed that spike protein caused anomalous clotting in blood from healthy individuals.
A preprint also just came out showing that some people suffer from long COVID-like symptoms because they retain pieces of spike protein in a subset of their immune cells for months post-vaccination (see here). We don’t know whether this is because these people still have vaccine mRNA in their bodies producing spike protein, or if spike protein can last a long time in the body, or both.
Anyway, mRNA lingering in the body producing unknown amounts of spike protein for unknown periods of time, is bad news.
The information landscape surrounding this issue is horrible
It’s close to impossible to get accurate information on this issue of how long the mRNA lasts. The internet is awash with misinformation on it.
If you google “covid vaccine mRNA degradation” or variations of that, the first link you might see is this 2021 review of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines:
mRNA vaccines for COVID-19: what, why and how - PMC - NCBI
Although it is generally difficult to estimate the degradation rate of a particular messenger RNA in vivo, studies have estimated that the most endogenous mRNA transcripts are rapidly degraded, usually within 10-15 minutes
So if you were trying to research how long the mRNA of the vaccines lasts you might mistakenly come away with the impression that it only lasts on the order of minutes.
The next link on the search results page is from a site called nebraskamd.com and here’s what it says on the matter:
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work by introducing mRNA (messenger RNA) into your muscle cells. The cells make copies of the spike protein and the mRNA is quickly degraded (within a few days).
It doesn’t give a reference for this.
One of the first videos to come up in the search results is this, from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:
It features Dr. Hank Bernstein, who the CDC calls "Flu Fighter,” and a “trusted subject matter expert for all the American Academy of Pediatrics infleunza-related work.” Here’s what he has to say about how long the vaccine mRNA lasts:
Fortunately, mRNA has a very short life span…
Since our cells are continuously producing proteins, mRNA is broken down fairly quickly by normal body processes. The cell breaks down the mRNA into harmless pieces and gets rid of it.
Here’s yet another “expert” spreading misinformation. In COVID-19 Vaccine Fact Vs. Fiction: An Expert Weighs in on Common Fears, from the website of the University of California San Francisco, Dr. Bryn Boslett, MD says:
This is not a live virus vaccine, and the mRNA is likely going to stay right in the arm where it’s injected and get taken up by the cells there. The mRNA is quickly degraded by the body after it does its job.
What about government websites? Here’s a webpage called Understanding COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, which is from genome.gov, part of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Under a section called “How does an mRNA vaccine work?” it says:
mRNA is a short-lived molecule, meaning it degrades easily and does not last long inside cells.
And finally, here’s what the CDC says:
[UPDATE 8/3/22: The CDC has since quietly removed some of the “Facts” listed here. Here is an archived version from July 22, 2022. Here is the latest version. Thanks to this newsletter and Jonathan Engler for pointing this out.]
That last bullet point is the relevant bit here:
The mRNA and the spike protein do not last long in the body.
Our cells break down mRNA from these vaccines and get rid of it within a few days after vaccination.
Scientists estimate that the spike protein, like other proteins our bodies create, may stay in the body up to a few weeks.
That last bit about spike protein staying in the body for “up to a few weeks” is also wrong. That same study showing vaccine mRNA present in lymph nodes 2 months post-vaccination also showed spike protein present 2 months post-vaccination, plus this study showed spike protein found on exosomes 4 months post-vaccination.
So I’m guessing that none of these sources got the memo that there’s now evidence that the mRNA of the vaccines can last for at least two months, since none of them put out any kind of update correcting their misinformation. This is pitiful, especially for the CDC. Their budget was over $7 billion in 2021. Their budget for 2022 is set to be over $8 billion.
Random people on Twitter are aware of this study, but the CDC isn’t, apparently.
But even before we had any evidence that the vaccine mRNA could last so long, the public should have, broadly speaking, gotten the message that the vaccine mRNA had all kinds of modifications made to it to enhance stability and protein production (see here). One of the modifications was to replace all the uridine in the RNA with N1-methylpseudouridine. Some of the modifications were proprietary.
What’s so surprising about mRNA lasting so long
Recently Dr. Robert Malone, inventor of mRNA vaccines, sat down with evolutionary biologist Dr. Bret Weinstein, to discuss just how novel and surprising it was to learn that the mRNA vaccines lasted so long in the body:
Robert Malone also wrote about these findings here and here.
As mentioned earlier, mRNA is not generally known to last so long, though there are some important exceptions which I’ll get into later.
Let’s start with what typically gets taught in biology classes or textbooks.
The half-life of mRNA is the time it takes for half of it to get degraded. According to a popular textbook, Cell and Molecular Biology by Gerald Karp, the half-life of mRNAs in eukaryotes ranges from minutes to hours, with some longer-lived mRNAs having half-lives “of more than 24 hours”:
From another popular textbook, Lodish’s Molecular Cell Biology, “most mRNAs of higher eukaryotes have half-lives of many hours”:
Now let’s look at some studies. This study found that the median half-life of mRNA in human cells was about 10 hours. According to this, most of the mRNAs measured seemed to have a half-life of several hours, but a small percentage of mRNAs had a half-life of about 37 hours, though this study only looked at poly(A)-containing mRNA. In prokaryotes (like bacteria), the half-life is usually even shorter.
By the way, the reason RNA is often described as “unstable” in the body isn’t because it spontaneously breaks down. There are all kinds of mechanisms to regulate how long RNA lasts, but one of the most important is the presence of RNases, which are enzymes that break RNA down.
RNases are all over the place. They are inside cells, in the plasma, in the air, and on our skin (see here or here). They are one of the main reasons why one has to be careful when working with RNA.
Just to give you an idea of how easy it is for RNases to do serious damage to RNA, take a look at this reference article about RNA isolation (isolating RNA from cells) from Thermo Fisher Scientific, which is a company that biologists get lab equipment and reagents from:
RNA isolation is both a skill and an art
Here’s a screenshot showing some tips on working with RNA:
I couldn’t capture all the “Dos” in the screenshot because there were so many.
The tips include things like “don’t touch anything with bare hands” that could come into contact with the RNA (our skin secretes RNases), don’t breath on the RNA samples (our breath contains RNases), don’t allow frozen tissue to thaw (because all the endogenous RNases in the sample will break down the RNA).
Basically, RNases are all over the place, and many of them are extremely hardy, and it doesn’t take a lot of RNase to do some serious damage to your RNA sample.
In the body, RNases are there to clean up any RNA that isn’t supposed to be there, whether it’s from bits of old cells that need to be recycled, or from invaders like viruses. A living body is, generally speaking, hostile to foreign mRNA.
Those modifications made to the mRNA vaccines must have really been something, to keep the mRNA stable for so long.
An unexpected wrinkle
When I originally started this article, my intention was to convey why it was so surprising that mRNA could last so long in the body, and leave it at that. But then I came across a wrinkle.
It turns out that there are some cases where mRNA can be very long-lived, like in Xenopus frog oocytes (immature eggs), where there is evidence that mRNA can last well over a year. See for example this paper: Very long-lived messenger RNA in ovaries of Xenopus laevis.
The authors of the paper speculate that the oocyte environment is largely responsible for the stability of the mRNA.
If they are right about this, that begs some questions: Are there any human cells where mRNA could last this long? What would happen if vaccine mRNA got into those cells?
Again, recall that the vaccine mRNA had numerous modifications made to it to increase its stability and enhance protein production. Now imagine that on top of that, this synthetic mRNA is in an environment that enhances the longevity of even “normal” mRNA.
How long could that synthetic mRNA remain intact in the body?
There’s so much we don’t know
mRNAs that are not being used can sometimes aggregate in compartments in the cytoplasm called p-bodies or stress granules; sometimes these are sites of mRNA degradation, but sometimes they act as storage compartments. Both p-bodies and stress granules are poorly understood. What do we know about how long mRNA can be stored for, and why? What do we really know about the regulation of mRNA degradation?
Remember when I mentioned that there was a recent preprint which showed that some people suffering from long COVID-like symptoms form the vaccines had retained pieces of spike protein in some of their immune cells, months post-vaccination? Some of these people had mutant spike peptides; in other words, the sequence of the spike protein fragment was not what was intended from the mRNA vaccines. Something went haywire there.
We couldn’t even get that right.
So we don’t know why some people produce mutant spike peptides. We don’t know, at least in some people, why the mRNA vaccine lasts so long, or why they retain spike protein for so long. We don’t even know how much spike protein gets produced per mRNA molecule. We don’t know why some people suffer from serious side effects from the vaccines, and some seem fine, at least on the surface.
Meanwhile, our “experts” and government websites feed us cartoon pictures about the mRNA vaccines that do not even begin to capture the complexity of what is really going on. We shouldn’t stand for it.
"Not long" leaves interpretation in the eye of the beholder. When scientists fail to quantify, be extra skeptical.
The simplest functional interpretation of "not long" is "not long enough to do damage," so these "trusted experts" should be held accountable to the extent that turns out not to be correct.
Thanks for the article Joomi! Do you know how long antigens would typical last in germinal centers? I've seen questions raised as to whether it may just be typical for Antigen-presenting cells and the lymph nodes to hold onto things longer than we may assume them to. Just a minor remark because there's still so much with science that is not known, so how much of what is being researched now is novel to COVID and the vaccines, or whether this is something that hasn't been extensively researched.
Granted, the mRNA being long-lived regardless is concerning, including the possible implications of continuous spike production. As to whether the mRNA is reaching other parts of the body, would we need to consider the LNPs as being needed to facilitate transport? I don't see the mRNA free-floating and being taken up by cells without the LNP, unless the mRNA doesn't need up with being taken up by cells. Just a question as to whether the mRNA would continuously circulate.
And on the spike protein not being the same, have you looked into codon optimization? I haven't looked too extensively, but there may be concerns that codon optimization may remove slower parts of translation, and that doing so may lead to misfolded proteins.
Anyways, another great article!