Kiwi scientists are dismissing new claims from a group opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, that it can release deadly proteins into the blood - saying they've misread the paper, or are just "parroting" misinformation they've heard.
The claim from Voices for Freedom is that people who've had a COVID-19 vaccine have detectable levels of the virus' spike protein in their blood vessels, saying it's responsible for "blood-related health issues and deaths".
A study published late last month found "extremely low levels of viral protein" in patients' blood plasma after receiving the Moderna vaccine, which like the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine being rolled out in New Zealand, uses a new kind of technology called mRNA.
Both vaccines work by teaching our cells how to make the SARS-Cov-2 virus' spike protein - the pointy bit that gives it the ability to attach to our cells and infect them. The idea is to teach the immune system what it looks like, so when the real virus appears, our body recognises it instantly and mounts a defence, before we get sick.
The vaccines don't contain any of the virus' genetic material at all, and the spike proteins are broken down before being displayed on cells' surface for the immune system to look at.
"When a vaccinated cell reaches the end of its life, the proteins and fragments are snaffled up by immune cells, along with the other cellular debris," Alison Campbell, an honorary fellow and biological sciences lecturer at the University of Waikato said in May. "This happens after a couple of days."
"It does not enter your blood," Helen Petousis-Harris, University of Auckland vaccinologist and head of a new global effort to study the long-term effects of COVID-19 vaccines wrote for Stuff in May. "Instead, most of the action occurs in cells at the injection site and in the nearby lymph nodes."
But the new study found traces of the viral proteins in patients' blood.
"We were able to detect extremely low levels of viral protein and see that as soon as the body begins generating antibodies," said co-corresponding author David Walt of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
The finding came just weeks after another study which found the spike proteins on their own, without the rest of the viral RNA, might be able to cause serious damage to blood vessels - at least in hamsters.
"If you remove the replicating capabilities of the virus, it still has a major damaging effect on the vascular cells," said study author Uri Manor of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego.
The connection between the two studies has been picked up by anti-vaccination groups around the world, including New Zealand-based Voices for Freedom, which has made headlines in the past few months for spreading misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines.
In an email to Newshub, spokesperson Alia Bland said the study showed "emphatic assertions that the spike protein DOES NOT enter the blood of vaccinated recipients" were wrong, and the new research "helps to explain the blood related health issues and deaths we are seeing across the world in close proximity to the receipt of these vaccines".
She went into more detail in a post on the Voices for Freedom website she claimed was "written alongside a qualified doctor with multiple degrees including medicine and experience in molecular biology".
The two experts named above - Dr Petousis-Harris and Dr Campbell - did respond to Newshub's request for comment, both rubbishing the group's interpretation of the studies.
Dr Campbell said the study which found traces of proteins in patients' plasma was "exquisitely sensitive", picking up traces of protein about a million times less concentrated than what was pumped into the hamsters in the Salk research.
"They seem to be picking up a subunit of the S protein, which is what you'd expect given it's apparently cleaved before presentation to the immune system on the cell membrane," she told Newshub.
"The paper shows that's cleared from the blood very quickly. The authors themselves say it's likely to be the result of the immune system destroying cells that are expressing the vaccine mRNA by making S protein. There's certainly no evidence that the intact protein is secreted holus bolus into the bloodstream."
In other words, the test picked up an incredibly small amount of just a fraction of the spike protein - far less than would be present in an actual COVID-19 infection - that was leftover when a cell was destroyed by the immune system.
"This is not the same as a flood of spike proteins in the blood," added Dr Petousis-Harris.
"The mRNA does not distribute widely as it is delivered into the muscle. Only a tiny amount of spike protein is produced, the mRNA in this case is not self-amplifying, it is destroyed very quickly, and the spikes do not form virus-like particles."
Peter Murray, professor of immunology at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, told AFP the COVID-19 vaccines produce far fewer spike proteins than the virus.
"The spike protein components of the vaccine are not produced in the same amounts as a normal viral infection (probably a million times less)."
The Brigham study noted the protein was quickly washed out of the patients' systems - gone in two weeks. The second dose of the Moderna jab didn't produce any detectable level of proteins in the blood at all.
"We see that the second dose does not result in circulating protein but does provide an additional boost in antibody levels, as expected," said co-first author Alana Ogata, a post-doctoral fellow in Dr Walt's lab.
"The viral [spike] protein may cause illness on its own," Dr Campbell said, but "the Salk paper used massive amounts to achieve their results. And used hamsters (three of them), not humans."
Voices for Freedom refused to name the expert who supposedly helped them write their article.
Dr Campbell said it's likely they're getting their talking points from a US journalist and author whose willingness to share COVID-19 misinformation saw him dubbed the 'pandemic's wrongest man' by US magazine The Atlantic.
"I suspect they have either read only the abstract, or are misinterpreting the paper. Or are channeling one Alex Berenson."
There have been only a handful of deaths to date that could reasonably be attributed to COVID-19 vaccines after more than 2 billion doses. COVID-19, in comparison, has killed at least 3.7 million people - likely an undercount - and left many more suffering long-term complications.