The consequences of vaccine conspiracists demanding unvaccinated blood

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The real life consequences of vaccine conspiracists demanding unvaccinated blood

George Della Pietra doesn’t like to call himself a blood dealer. Instead, the Swiss naturopath, who recently founded a mediation service to connect unvaccinated blood donors with recipients, refers to himself as “an advocate of health freedom.”

The impetus for the organization, called the SafeBlood Donation, was the covid-19 vaccine — which Pietra describes as “dangerous” and claims “alters the DNA.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called this claim a myth, noting that the genetic material from mRNA vaccines doesn’t enter the cell nucleus, which is where DNA is found.

“I want to have people not be poisoned by the vaccine,” Pietra said, “whether it is through the vaccine directly or through the backdoor via a blood transfusion.”

The Zurich-based organization, which now has members worldwide, represents a growing “safe blood” movement, fueled by covid-19 misinformation.

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In the United States, potential unvaccinated donors are matched with receivers, with SafeBlood working as an intermediary between the two. Recipients can obtain blood “fresh or canned.”

The Food and Drug Administration does not require blood collectors to test blood for vaccination status. And hospitals are not permitted to tell patients about the vaccination status of donated blood.

But patients can choose to decline a blood transfusion, or opt for a directed donation, which permits a patient to select their own compatible blood donor. A directed donation requires an agreement between the patient’s physician and the blood center. Rita Reik, chief medical officer of America’s Blood Centers, responsible for providing almost 60 percent of the U.S. blood supply, noted that the process is both complicated and expensive, so it’s not done routinely.

The other issue with directed donation, according to Reik, is that sometimes it is not as safe as taking from the general blood supply because the donor might not answer donor screening questions as honestly.

“The donor is highly motivated because they think their blood is safe,” Reik said. “Unless there is a really compelling reason for a directed donation, we have pretty much, in the blood banking industry, moved away from it.”

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Known anti-vaccine and conspiracy theory sites have been amplifying this trend as well — including the Defender, a news website run by the Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit organization founded by frequent purveyor of vaccine misinformation Robert Kennedy Jr.

RELATED: How did Fauci become the covid-19 conspiracy target?

The site ran an article in October with the headline: “Is the U.S. blood supply tainted,” claiming that the covid vaccine campaign might have “contaminated the country’s blood supply.” The piece was picked up by Alex Jones’ conspiracy website, Infowars.

The Food and Drug Administration has explicitly said that recipients of a “a nonreplicating, inactivated, or mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine″ can donate blood without a waiting period.

And on Twitter, a November article from the far-right conspiracy theory site Natural News describing a “tainted” general blood supply and touting the growing unvaccinated movement went viral after Gillian McKeith, purveyor of pseudoscience and misinformation, shared it.

In early December, covid conspiracy theorist Stew Peters released a video titled: “Vaxx Shedding BOMBSHELL! Celeb Paralyzed By Moderna, World To Need UNVACCINATED Blood Banks?” During the video, Peters’ guest “expert,” Jane Ruby, who is not a medical doctor, claims that “it is very dangerous to take this [vaccinated] blood.” The video has been viewed close to 40,000 times on the video platform Rumble.

A growing problem

There is not yet enough data available to say exactly how many people have refused “tainted blood,” but Reik said that at this point “the issue is widespread enough that most centers are thinking about it.”

“It does seem to be a problem that is not going away, but may be spreading,” Reik said.

The trend of people seeking “unvaccinated” blood, and even refusing medical treatment if “clean” blood is not used, is a piece of the larger covid misinformation ecosystem that has been around since the beginning of the pandemic. Pietra himself cited covid rumors that have long since been debunked as part of the impetus for his entire company — specifically claiming that mRNA vaccines use dangerous technology and that the vaccines alter your DNA.

Robert Garry, a Tulane University virologist, said in an email to Grid that this anti-vaccinated blood trend “is taking the anti-vax hysteria to yet another absurd level.”

Garry and most reputable experts agree that there is no legitimate medical reason to refuse vaccinated blood.


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“Immune cells and proteins such as antibodies induced by a vaccine in the transfused blood are short-lived,” Garry noted.

As for the rumor that the mRNA vaccine will enter the bloodstream if given vaccinated blood, Garry explained that the amount of mRNA that escapes the injection site “is close to nil” and not a cause for concern. The mRNA, which degrades in a matter of hours, is wrapped in a fatty nanoparticle envelope for injection. The fat layer prevents the mRNA from breaking apart before it enters the body.

“The mRNAs that make up the vaccine are encapsulated so that they are taken up into cells very efficiently. The amount that escapes the injection site is close to nil, but probably not absolutely nil,” Garry added. “Just because it enters the blood doesn’t mean it’s ‘harmful.’”

Jessica Merrill, director of American Red Cross Biomedical Communications, agreed, telling Grid that “covid-19 vaccines authorized in the United States present no known risk to the safety of the blood supply or to patients receiving a blood transfusion.”

A pricey piece of misinformation

Then there’s the cost of people believing that vaccinated blood is unsafe. It’s not a quick process to find out if someone has had the vaccine, said William Schaffner, infectious disease specialist from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. And it can be a costly undertaking.

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There are two main types of proteins on the outside of the covid virus particle: nucleocapsid and spike proteins. The nucleocapsid protein protects the virus’ own genetic material; the spike is what covid uses to latch on to human cells. The vaccines mimic the spike protein, so people who have received covid vaccines have spike antibodies. People who recover from covid will have antibodies to both the spike protein and the nucleocapsid protein.

This means, Schaffner explained, that to get “unvaccinated blood,” you would have to look for people who have no spike protein antibodies.

But doing so, Schaffner noted, would be a potentially expensive research project that hasn’t yet been done on a large scale.

The commercial antibody tests do not accurately measure spike protein antibodies because they were designed to figure out if someone has been previously infected. “So, having to test donors would be very, very difficult if they want absolute assurance that the person has not received the vaccine,” Schaffner said.

Despite the science against him, Pietra is committed to his cause.

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“My goal is, very clearly, that everybody in the world will be able to choose their blood donor,” he said. “The freedom of choice.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Khaya Himmelman
    Khaya Himmelman

    Reporter

    Khaya Himmelman is a reporter at Grid. A former misinformation reporter for the Dispatch, she is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Barnard College. Khaya has appeared on CNN to discuss misinformation in the media.