mRNA Controversy Puts Ag on Defensive

Separating Science From Myth: mRNA Animal Vaccination Tech Holds Promise

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Environmental Editor
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Messenger RNA-based animal vaccines have yet to hit the market but are expected to be ready in one to five years. (DTN file photo)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Conspiracies flying around on social media allege livestock industries are set to use mRNA vaccines as soon as May and the technology is a way to give the meat-eating population messenger RNA- or mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines through digestion.

Livestock mRNA vaccines have been under development for years but currently none have been licensed for use in the United States, not even for COVID-19 in animals.

The Animal Health Institute said mRNA animal vaccines are one to five years away, and they are not to be confused with RNA technologies already in use.

In particular, Merck has what it calls "RNA particle technology" to make flu and other virus vaccines customized to specific animal herd needs. That technology has been on the market since 2018, prior to the advent of the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine.

University of Florida Horticultural Sciences Professor Kevin M. Folta described mRNA vaccine technology this way: DNA is the hard drive of the cell and mRNA is the USB drive.

The mRNA temporarily stores a little bit of the hard drive information and takes it to the ribosome -- essentially the cell's printer. The mRNA carries the genetic code of a small piece of a pathogenic virus -- a small piece that can help the body mount defense against the infection but is not infectious itself.

"Scientists have simply learned how to use the cell to also produce a little, non-pathogenic piece of a virus from a bit of viral mRNA," Folta told DTN.

"That information in mRNA allows the cow's cell to make a tiny piece of the virus that can stimulate immunity to a disease."


Last week the National Cattlemen's Beef Association put out a brief statement in response to the social media outcry: "There are no current mRNA vaccines licensed for use in beef cattle in the United States. Cattle farmers and ranchers do vaccinate cattle to treat and prevent many diseases, but presently none of these vaccines include mRNA technology."

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in an April 3, 2023, statement that the Texas Department of Agriculture was taking a measured look at the state of mRNA vaccine technology in livestock.

"Since news of the development of mRNA vaccines and mRNA-related treatments for livestock came to the attention of the Texas Department of Agriculture, we have been working toward developing a fact- and science-based assessment of the risks associated with this technology," he said.

"Our analysis will include the clinical research, the structure of existing Texas law and the public policy, economic and production impact of the different policy prescriptions we may adopt. I aim to ensure that Texas agriculture remains safe, trusted, healthy and wholly uninfected by dangerous or unproven technology.

"I personally take this issue very seriously. No political hot takes. Just a well-reasoned and well-researched proposal based on a wide range of input from stakeholders, scientists, agriculturalists and other experts."


In Missouri, Arizona, Tennessee and other states, legislators introduced bills to require package labels on products made using so-called "gene therapy" techniques.

The Missouri House of Representatives has been considering HB1169, which is a broadly sweeping bill that doesn't mention mRNA technology at all but would require such labels on vaccines of all kinds as well as genetically modified organism (GMO) foods, for example.

Missouri Cattlemen's Association Executive Vice President Mike Deering told DTN flatly, "I say that there's absolutely no mRNA vaccines licensed for use in beef cattle in the United States, or anywhere worldwide at this time. Certainly not aware of any vaccine coming out this month as Twitter comrades and others furling that misinformation said or in the near future for that matter."

Deering said the legislation, however, will put all state ag producers at a disadvantage if the measure becomes law as most states don't require such labels.

"It would apply, according to our attorneys, to any vaccination and the burden of proof would have to be on the producer to then list what vaccine they gave and then have to prove whether that somehow modifies genes as these folks are claiming," he said.


Gene therapy is a field of medicine that focuses on the genetic modification of cells to produce therapeutic effects, or the treatment of diseases by repairing defective genetic material.

In fact, there are gene therapy drugs on the market.

Missouri's HB1169 defines "gene therapy product" as "any product with any capacity to alter, interfere with, or otherwise act in any manner similar or equivalent to genes."

According to the bill, "Any product that has been created to act as, or exposed to processes that could result in the product potentially acting as, a gene therapy or that could otherwise possibly impact, alter, or introduce genetic material or a genetic change into the user of the product, individuals exposed to the product, or individuals exposed to others who have used the product shall be conspicuously labeled with the words 'Potential Gene Therapy Product' unless the product is known to be a gene therapy product."

HB1169 would allow Missouri residents to make written requests to "any entity" that, "produces, sells, or distributes a product in this state with the capacity to infect an individual with a disease or to expose an individual to genetically modified material, including, but not limited to, vaccines, gene therapies, drugs, and medical interventions, shall provide any and all information related to the ways in which individuals who did not directly obtain or use such product may be exposed to the product or a component of the product."

"The fact that politicians are describing it as 'gene therapy' shows that they don't even understand what they are trying to regulate," Folta said.

"That's scary. The new bills being proposed in multiple states against mRNA vaccines are scientifically bankrupt and motivated by supreme ignorance that will only harm our farmers and ranchers. This is dangerous because they are using the legal system to propagate false information that breaks public trust in science," Folta said.


Even if mRNA vaccine technology was ready for primetime for U.S. livestock, at least one biotechnology group testifying on HB1169 told a Missouri House committee during a hearing last month that science dictates the impossibility of humans being vaccinated via the vaccinated animals they eat.

The Missouri Biotechnology Association laid it out this way in a March 22, 2023, letter to the Missouri House:

"mRNA biology is referred to as the blueprint for all protein synthesis, using cell biology to activate immune systems. mRNA has inherent safety features as it does not self-replicate, mRNA does not enter the nucleus or integrate into the patient's DNA, and the manufacturing process is cell-free and contains no human or animal products.

"Messenger RNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, is a type of single-stranded RNA involved in protein synthesis. The mRNA companies detailed in their applications that the mRNA remains in the cytoplasm (a cell's watery interior) until eliminated by natural mRNA decay; to alter the DNA, it would need to both access the nucleus and be reversed transcribed; the mRNA contains no nuclear access signals; and there are no known reverse transcription sites."

In other words, mRNA used in vaccines cannot survive the human body's digestive tract or 'rewrite' a person's DNA as many theories on social media posit.

Farmers have for many generations inoculated their livestock for protection against various diseases.

The Food and Drug Administration has label requirements that restrict when vaccinated animals can enter the food system --- to assure the eating public the food is safe for consumption.

HB1169's sponsor, Missouri Republican Rep. Holly Jones, did not respond to DTN's request for comment.


Folta said the bill is based on a fallacy that administering mRNA-based vaccines would be the equivalent of introducing a foreign substance in the body.

"mRNA is present in every cell of our bodies," he said.

"It is a fundamental intermediate in how the DNA blueprint is expressed as a cow, a chicken or a human."

Traditional vaccine technologies rely on inactivated viruses, live attenuated viruses or protein subunits that represent disease antigens. Those antigens then stimulate an immune response.

"The technology (mRNA) is brilliant and allows rapid response to new disease variants, both in livestock and in wild populations," Folta told DTN.

"That's important, as many diseases can be transmitted to humans. Plus, mRNA vaccines are easy and cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines. It is just a faster, cheaper and more precise way to do what we have been doing for decades with traditional vaccines. The real advantage is that vaccination is a cornerstone of livestock production. You need healthy animals to make healthy food."

The mRNA technologies have been studied in all kinds of animals for years, Folta said, and appear "extremely promising" against a large range of animal viruses.

That includes Lyme disease, avian influenza, hoof and mouth disease, rabies, pseudorabies and dozens of others could be treated or eliminated using the technology.

On a related note, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry will hold a hearing at 9 a.m. CDT on Tuesday to discuss USDA's response to foreign animal disease risks. The hearing can be livestreamed here:….

Todd Neeley can be reached at

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Todd Neeley

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