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DeSantis Press Conference Spreads Anti-Vax Falsehood

No, the COVID vaccines will not change your DNA or RNA.
by Jim Swift
September 13, 2021
DeSantis Press Conference Spreads Anti-Vax Falsehood

In a press conference Monday that was branded to promote “protecting Florida’s freedoms,” Gov. Ron DeSantis invited anti-vaccine residents to stand behind the state seal and explain their opposition to the vaccine in front of the assembled media. One of DeSantis’s featured speakers falsely stated that “the vaccine changes your RNA”—the sort of claim frequently spouted by anti-vax conspiracy theorists.

Without correcting the record, Gov. DeSantis then took the mic and invited up another woman who pronounced she would not get the vaccine because it’s “my body, my choice.”

This does not seem to be the type of press conference you would hold if you were encouraging people in your state to get a life-saving vaccine that could have spared thousands of deaths during the state’s latest wave.

The remark about vaccines and RNA came from Darris Friend, an employee of an electrical utility in Gainesville, Florida who is joining in a lawsuit to overturn local requirements that he be vaccinated. In introducing Friend and the other speakers, DeSantis said he was going to “protect their jobs” and that individuals with such views should not be “treated like chopped liver.” Here’s a transcript of the relevant part of the discussion:

RON DESANTIS: So we have Darris Friend here, he’s eligible to retire in one and a half years. Now he’s facing termination, he could lose his pension, but he believes that this is a matter of principle, so he’s been willing to stand up. So here’s Darris.

DARRIS FRIEND: Alright, thank you, so I don’t have a speech and forgive me for sweating, I was out on the road trying to get all you great people in here to see the governor, so thank you for coming out today.

So like the governor said, I’ve been with the city since 1999. I’m about a year and a half out from retirement, and, for me, it’s not about the vaccine. It’s about mandatory vaccination. No one should tell you what to put in your body. I choose what goes in my body, of course I eat hamburgers and french fries but that’s my choice what I put in. So there are people out there that choose to eat non-GMO food, or they are vegetarians, or they’re, they don’t want to eat foods that were grown with pesticide and herbicide. No one should force those people to eat meat or vegetables that were grown with pesticide or herbicide.

The vaccine changes your RNA. So for me, that’s a problem.

So, I’m here with you folks, we don’t want to have the vaccine, it’s about our freedom and liberty. It’s not about the vaccine. Uh, they’re taking away our freedom and liberty little by little, it’s—they’re using the vaccine for cover. Last year they took away our religious rights. They are not defending our freedom of speech. And this is just one way to take us to the next step.

So thank you for coming out today, and thank you, governor.

Here’s the clip:

DeSantis, after giving this non-scientist the microphone to spout his views on science, did not correct the remark about the vaccines.

Let’s walk through the relevant scientific facts:

  • First, all vaccines pose risks, although the risks associated with the COVID vaccines available in the United States are significantly smaller than the risks of COVID itself.
  • Second, there’s a blatant misconception among some anti-vax types that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines change one’s DNA. They do not. (This is one of many false rumors circulating about how these vaccines work.)
  • Third, the claim that these vaccines change your body’s RNA is also false. They work by introducing a small amount of RNA (you can read up about mRNA here) into your body; it temporarily “teaches” your cells how to produce the coronavirus spike protein and then quickly breaks down in your body; but the native RNA that is already in your cells will not be changed by the introduction of the vaccine.
  • Fourth, if you are worried about RNA getting into your cells, you should know the viruses that cause flus and common colds are RNA viruses, and that they too do not modify your body’s DNA or RNA.
  • Fifth, if somebody is concerned about an mRNA vaccine, they have the option of Johnson and Johnson’s vaccine, which is not an mRNA vaccine—although, again, the J&J vaccine, like all vaccines, does bring its own risks.

In another press conference earlier on Monday, DeSantis doubled down on his longstanding opposition to vaccination mandates. This week, Florida will begin fining counties and cities that mandate vaccines for government employees or businesses that require vaccines for customers. The fines will be $5,000 per incident—which, DeSantis said, could run into “millions and millions of dollars potentially in fines” for a given entity.

After the Norwegian Cruise Line objected to the Florida law prohibiting businesses from requiring proof of vaccination, a federal court last month temporarily enjoined the enforcement of the law against that company. DeSantis’s spokespeople naturally blamed judges appointed by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and DeSantis plans to appeal.

His scheme to fine counties and cities for protecting their workforce is destined to end up in the courts as well.

It is true that, unlike some of his Republican counterparts, Gov. DeSantis did promote the vaccine when it was released, well before it was approved by the FDA. But his promotion was quite limited in nature and scope, and it didn’t last long. DeSantis could and should have spent more time pushing the vaccine, widely available and largely free, in a state where 35 percent of adults (and 45 percent of the total population) are still unvaccinated, contributing to an ugly COVID fifth wave:

(Courtesy of the New York Times)

DeSantis came under fire because he chose to promote Regeneron therapy for COVID, which turned out to benefit one of his political financiers. (He claimed foul play on the part of the press for reporting it.)

The line about DeSantis in the conservative media is that he is “Trump without the cringe.” Like other 2024 hopefuls, that is going to require some creative positioning—they can’t stray too far from Trump but don’t want to get too close to him, either. In DeSantis’s case, his political positioning could cost lives.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.