While much of the country has embraced the rapid pace of COVID-19 vaccinations as a sign that a return to normal life is just around the corner, one segment of the population has been ginning up fears that mass inoculation is actually an existential threat to the future of the human race.
This long-simmering idea, which could not only help to steer some people away from vaccines but also fan the flames of already volatile cultural divisions and conflicts, came into stark focus in mid-March, when a meme spread across pandemic denialist Telegram channels, featuring a large image of two sheep fucking, and a block of text that reads: “DO NOT BREED WITH SHEEP.”
“People who are vaccinated will have modified DNA,” it continues. “No one discusses that DNA is passed onto the next generation. The risk that your children will marry into other cultures is possibly now shadowed by the fact that your children may marry into a COVID vaxed gene group potentially shortening their lives and that of others.”
This is, of course, complete nonsense. Although they use genetically engineered components, none of the three COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. interacts with, much less changes, our DNA. “I don’t see any way the vaccines could even unintentionally cause genetic changes,” says Paul Knoepfler, a cell biologist and genetics researcher at the University of California, Davis. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Yet despite its wild and unfounded claims, this meme found some traction in niche Telegram dis- and misinformation groups, as well as on conspiratorial blogs with wider readerships; it’s even been reposted a few times on mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. A number of individuals have also been independently voicing similar concerns for months now: As far back as mid-December, a Redditor created a thread on the platform’s COVID conspiracy-obsessed No New Normal forum to ask, “Will the RNA covid vaccine effect the takers children’s DNA?”
Months later on the same forum, another user sparked a discussion essentially vilifying those who get vaccinated with a post complaining about the challenges of finding men to date who aren’t “mindless sheep” and arguing that people who get the jab will have “weird little vaccine effected offspring.” Responding to that post, yet another Redditor suggested that soon enough “only vaccinated people will marry each other while non vaccinated will also get married,” and that this “will split the human race into a fake race. The Vaccinated Race.”
The Daily Beast reached out to a number of individuals who have posted these sentiments, but none of them replied.
These lowkey freakouts about the supposed insidious, intergenerational genetic contamination COVID vaccines and vaccinated people are foisting on all of humanity are not exceptionally common, even in dedicated pandemic and vaccine skeptical spaces. But they are logical extensions of “a core misconception that the COVID-19 vaccines alter your DNA,” as University of Pennsylvania misinformation monitoring expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson puts it, which speak to the length some skeptics’ and denialists’ fears and conspiracies can go. And if these specific ideas gain adherents—as some experts believe they likely will over the coming months and years—they could exacerbate growing rifts between these groups and everyone else.
At their heart, Mark Alfano, a Macquarie University researcher who studies anti-vaxxer digital bubbles, suggests that concerns about vaccines causing fundamental and enduring contamination in people go back to at least the early-to-mid-19th century—before the discovery of DNA. Some folks at the time just couldn’t get past their gut feeling that inserting something created by scientists into a human body was so unnatural that it might “change something essential about a vaccinated person.”
Experiments with DNA in the mid-to-late 20th century, which led to the creation of genetically modified organisms, gave rise to a separate thread of conspiracies about the potential misuse of this tech to warp natural humans. And about the potential for poorly thought-out or controlled mutations to somehow spill into the wider world, causing untold—and usually unspecified—pain and chaos.
Anti-vaxxers and general conspiracy theorists attuned to both of these strains of thought have tried to fuse them for decades, often arguing that vaccines are a key vector for plots to secretly “edit the health of human beings,” explains Callum Hood of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a think tank that studies conspiratorial groups. Prominent anti-vaxxers actually caught onto research into the mRNA vaccination techniques being deployed for the first time in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines about a decade ago, adds David Gorski, a doctor who’s studied and critiqued anti-vax groups for over 20 years.
So, it came as no surprise to many anti-vax watchers that, when the news broke last spring that big pharma companies were using mRNA modification tech to develop COVID-19 vaccines, memes and screeds started to pop up in conspiratorial circles almost instantly, making wild cases for how these vaccines would fundamentally change the DNA of anyone they touched. After the vaccines started rolling out last fall, fears of harmful, non-consensual DNA alterations quickly became “some of the most common conspiracy theories about the vaccines,” says Gorski.
However, core claims about the DNA altering potential of COVID vaccines are usually light on details—like what specific bad things these sinister, forced mutations will actually do to people. That vagueness has given rise to a host of inflections on this core, underlying fear, Jamieson notes, usually informed by other conspiracies or bits of information individuals have latched onto. These speculations run the gamut—and often contradict each other: Pfizer wants to program all men to have chronic erectile dysfunction so they can sell more Viagra. Or, Bill Gates and his fellow cabalistic elite power brokers want to sterilize as many people as possible as a means of population control. Or, the powers that be want to turn us into genetically modified humans so that we are technically no longer actual humans, and are thus not entitled to our supposedly God-given human rights, enabling our wanton enslavement and exploitation. (It should go without saying, but all of these theories are also baseless.)
Most elaborations on DNA alteration fears focus on what exactly vaccines will supposedly do to those who get them, because that combines with other what-if and what-about scare tactics to reinforce the personal choice, or convince others, to avoid vaccination. But Jamieson notes it’s simply a logical next step for some people to also wonder how vaccinated folks could affect others. These speculations offer the so-called proof some stringently anti-vax individuals seek that vaccines—and vaccinated people—are universally dangerous.
Awareness of the mechanics and risks of sexually transmitted diseases serve as fear-mongering fodder for some anti-vaxxers, allowing them to stoke concerns about the supposed risks of being exposed to a sexual partner’s warped genetic material. Or, as one Redditor put it: “I would be terrified to let some vaccinated guy blow his genetically modified load inside of me. I’m scared to even exchange saliva with these people. There’s no telling what the hell they’ve been shot up with.”
Fears of multigenerational contamination, however, likely stem from a newer and less familiar informational nugget, the experts The Daily Beast spoke to suggested: Knowledge of the real ethical debates around CRISPR, the first technology to really make heritable edits to the human genome practical. CRISPR’s astounding potential has sparked serious and highly visible debate among scientists and policy makers about the implications of human genetic editing, explains Dietram Scheufele, an expert on public awareness of and attitude formation about emerging technologies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Few conspiracy theorists understand how CRISPR—or even DNA—actually works, Jamieson notes. But a scrap of knowledge about the legitimate viability of, and real scientific concerns about, heritable gene editing is enough for some individuals to spin outlandish theories about the dangers of breeding with sheep. Common mistrust of scientists and other traditional authorities in pandemic and vaccine skeptical circles also allows people to brush off or explain away efforts to debunk their theories, Jamieson adds.
It’s hard to say how far any individual variation on the OMG they’re going to alter our genes with vaccines theme will spread. And Jamieson noted that few disinformation trackers are actively tracing or addressing calls to avoid sex and procreation with vaccinated people specifically. Usually by the time people go all the way down that rabbit hole, she explained, “they’ve already believed 50 other things that make them less likely to get vaccinated. So this idea isn’t likely to have any real effect on attempts to reach herd immunity.”
But Jamieson and a few other experts The Daily Beast consulted for this article suggest that do not breed with sheep-type rhetoric can still have real and substantial effects on pandemic and vaccine skeptics and their communities. It could, in theory, “deepen their anchorage to their communities, or increase their disposition to communicate their ideas to people they might be able to influence,” Jamieson noted. After all, fear-mongering about intergenerational genetic contamination sets up the idea that vaccinated people are both fundamentally different and dangerous, and so suggests that it’s better to only mix with, and bring as many folks as possible into, anti-vax circles.
While this sort of rhetoric has not caught fire yet, Scheufele and other experts think that there is a good chance that it will in the near future, “as CRISPR develops as a tool for medicine, including individual genetic therapies, and as we likely get into a cycle of annual COVID booster shots.” (Although yearly booster shots may indeed be necessary, medical experts are not certain about the need for them yet.)
If this concern about genetic contamination, belief in the need for segregation along vaccination status lines, and suggestion that vaccinated individuals are inhuman others does indeed grow in the coming months or years… well, it’s not hard to imagine the polarization and conflict they will foster.
“They are now genetically modified humans,” the admin of a major pandemic misinformation Telegram channel that spread the do not sleep with sheep meme wrote about vaccinated individuals in a community chat last month. “They are not even technically human anymore.”
“Vaccinated people are honestly a threat to humanity as a whole.”