Florida’s surgeon general called for a suspension of the use of Covid vaccines on Wednesday, citing widely debunked concerns that contaminants in the vaccine could become permanently integrated into human DNA.
“These vaccines are not appropriate for use in humans,” Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the state’s surgeon general and highest-ranking health official, said in a statement released by the Florida Department of Health.
Federal health officials and other experts have repeatedly sought to counter Dr. Ladapo’s erroneous comments about vaccines, pointing out that a careful review of the scientific evidence found no basis for his claims.
The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it had not identified any “safety concerns related to the sequence or quantity of residual DNA.”
The Covid vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna use so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA, a type of genetic material, to direct the body to produce immune molecules against the coronavirus.
Dr. Ladapo’s latest statement amplifies Florida’s growing anti-vaccine stance. He was appointed surgeon general in 2021 by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and has since increasingly aligned himself with anti-vaccine claims that the shots cause serious harm.
In March 2022, Dr. Ladapo published guidance that advised against giving the vaccines to healthy children, despite studies showing the vaccines are safe and effective at all ages. That fall, he recommended that young people ages 18 to 39 avoid mRNA vaccines because of the high risk of cardiac death, reaching that conclusion by skewing the results of a state-led study.
Last year, Dr. Ladapo blamed life-threatening conditions reported from Florida and elsewhere on Covid vaccines, prompting the FDA to issue a rebuttal. And in September, Florida advised all residents under age 65 to skip vaccines.
Dr. Ladapo’s latest statement is “very irresponsible,” said John Wherry, a vaccine expert and director of the Institute of Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“However, over the course of the pandemic he has demonstrated a poor understanding of science and medicine in general, so this is not surprising,” Dr Wherry said.
Neither DeSantis’ presidential campaign nor his governor’s office immediately responded to requests for comment. The Florida Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the rationale for Dr. Ladapo’s assessment or its potential effect on vaccine uptake in the state.
Dr. Ladapo’s escalating rhetoric has prompted federal agencies to directly address his claims. In a letter to Dr. Ladapo published in December, the FDA detailed numerous reasons why his claims are implausible.
Vaccines have saved millions of lives, the agency said in a statement Wednesday. He chastised Dr. Ladapo for fueling misinformation that contributes to low vaccine uptake and continued death and serious illness due to Covid.
Covid is on the rise again in the United States, and fewer than one in five American adults have received their latest shots. Even among those aged 75 and older, who are at highest risk from Covid, only about one in three have received the latest version of the vaccine. Florida’s vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country.
“The FDA strongly supports the safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality of the approved and authorized COVID-19 vaccines and respectfully disagrees with the opinion of the Surgeon General of Florida,” the agency said.
In his statement on Wednesday, Dr. Ladapo argued that contaminants in vaccines could integrate into human DNA, theoretically causing chromosome instability and cancer of healthy cells.
Experts in virology and immunology said these ideas were nonsensical.
“You’ll see a lot of ‘powers’ in there,” said John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “There is no evidence that this chain of ‘powers’ actually happens or even could happen.”
DNA vaccines have many orders of magnitude more DNA than is present as a contaminant in the mRNA vaccine, and yet they have never been associated with cancer, Dr. Moore noted.
“Every member of my immediate family has received doses of the mRNA vaccine,” he added. “I am absolutely certain that none of them are at risk of getting cancer.”
For Dr. Ladapo’s claim to be true, humans would need an enzyme capable of incorporating foreign DNA into their genomes.
“We don’t have one,” said Dr. Eric Rubin, a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee and editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine.
“There is no mechanism and no credible evidence,” Dr. Rubin said.
Mike Ives AND Nicholas Nehamas contributed to the reporting.