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Fact Check-Bayer executive’s comments misinterpreted in social media posts

Remarks by Bayer executive Stefan Oelrich in 2021 have been shared on social media to spread the false allegation that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are a form of gene therapy. Contrary to claims online, Oelrich was highlighting the public’s acceptance of such technological innovation as an example of how people could potentially also accept the company’s gene and cell therapies.

“The CEO of Bayer basically stating that 95% of people wouldn’t have taken the mRna 'gene therapy' two years ago. People were TRICKED and intentionally LIED TO, which was why so many people did,” reads a tweet with the 41-seconds-long clip ( here ).

An iteration on Instagram stating Oelirich admitted “that the COVID-19 vaccine is in fact gene therapy,” has garnered at least 4,475 likes. ( here )

Other iterations can be found ( here )( here ) ( here )

THE CLIP

The clip dates from Oct. 24, 2021, during the opening ceremony of the World Health Summit 2021. The commentary highlighted online can be heard around timestamp 1:37:27 ( here ).

But Oelrich, member of Bayer AG’s Board of Management and head of the Pharmaceuticals Division ( here ), did not “admit” the mRNA shots are a form of gene therapy as claimed on social media.

Further context shows that he was instead speaking about how the acceptance of a biotech innovation like mRNA COVID-19 vaccines was an example of how cell and gene therapies, another biotech innovation, could be received by the public.

“And for us therefore, we are really taking that leap -- us as a company Bayer -- in cell and gene therapy, which to me is one of these examples, where we are really going to make a difference, hopefully, moving forward.”

“Ultimately the mRNA vaccines are an example for that cell and gene therapy. I always like to say, if we had surveyed two years ago in the public, ‘would you be willing to take gene or cell therapy and inject it into your body?,’ we would have probably had a 95% refusal rate. I think this pandemic has also opened many people’s eyes to innovation in the way that was maybe not possible before.”

Moments earlier, Oelrich discussed innovation in the biotech field. “We’ve seen the vaccines as the perfect example during this crisis, but innovations in the field of biotech also radically up-end our view on many other diseases, specially NCDs ( here ). We can now think of curing many of those diseases, not just treating symptoms as we think forward.” ( youtu.be/OJFKBritLlc?t=5771 )

Reuters has reported about the German company’s efforts on developing cell and gene therapy ( here ) ( here ).

THE SCIENCE

Reuters previously addressed false claims that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are a form of gene therapy ( here) or that the vaccines alter the recipient’s DNA (here) (here) (here)

While mRNA vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna can be considered a genetic-based therapy, because they use genetic material, a piece of RNA based on SARS-CoV-2, to prompt an immune response in recipients (here), this is not the same as gene therapy, which is designed to permanently change the body’s genetic makeup, experts have told Reuters.

“Gene therapy, in the classical sense, involves making deliberate changes to a patient’s DNA in order to treat or cure them. mRNA vaccines will not enter a cell’s nucleus that houses your DNA genome. There is zero risk of these vaccines integrating into our own genome or altering our genetic makeup,” Dr Adam Taylor, a virologist and research fellow at the Menzies Health Institute, Queensland, Griffith University, told Reuters in August 2021.

Unlike gene therapy (here) (here), mRNA vaccines are then “rapidly degraded” by the body, Taylor said.

More information about gene therapy and mRNA vaccines can be found (here) (here).

VERDICT

False. In this clip, Bayer executive Stefan Oelrich did not “admit” that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are “in fact” gene therapy. He was highlighting the public’s acceptance of a technological innovation like mRNA COVID-19 vaccines as an example of how people could potentially also accept the company’s gene and cell therapies. While mRNA vaccines do use genetic material, they are not designed to change the recipient’s genetic makeup and thus they are distinct from gene therapy.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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