Putting Microchips in Vaccines Is a Terrible Idea, When You Think About It

A hypodermic needle with a droplet hanging from the tip, and a microchip int he droplet
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

I got my first COVID-19 vaccine recently. The whole experience was tremendously routine: I showed my registration, stood in a waiting area, saw a nurse, got the jab, waited 15 minutes in case of an adverse reaction, and left.

Oh, and I got a button.

The waiting period, of course, was when it happened.

James, said the pestilential voice inside my head, while I was scrolling on my phone. James!

What is it?

What if they microchipped you? You know, Bill Gates, with the 5Gs and the Wi-Fis?

Shut up, I’m looking at cat memes.

James! You design wearable devices for a living. You know that microchipping someone is possible.

Yeah, of course it is. They didn’t.

So prove it, big boy.

It’s true, I am the chief scientific officer of a data company that makes wearable devices. I’ve spent the past 15 years sticking tech on people, and in people. Thinking about how body-mounted devices work takes up basically my whole day, and one of my favorite mental exercises is seeing if I can pry practical insights from the wild and irresponsible conceptions of the smooth-brained garbage-people on the internet.

Ergo: Had Uncle Bill microchipped me?

I had 15 minutes to think it through. Here’s what I knew:

* I’d watched empty syringes being filled—visibly, in front of everyone—from multiuse vials. The Pfizer vaccine, six shots per vial. I saw nurses filling the syringes, other nurses taking trays of the prefilled syringes to tables, and the syringes being used. This was done fairly haphazardly, on an as-needed basis.

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* The syringes were Monojects—a model manufactured by Cardinal Health, an enormous multinational company. The Monoject is easily recognized by the orange plastic housing into which its needle snaps after a single use. This prevents needlestick injuries in nurses who have to use these syringes hundreds of times a day. Good design.

* The needle was narrow, I would estimate a 25 gauge. A needle’s standard gauge measurement (originally its Birmingham wire gauge) describes its diameter—and like most imperial measurements, it makes no sense whatsoever. In short, a 25-gauge needle is about half a millimeter across, with an internal diameter of about one-quarter millimeter. Needle gauge changes with medical application: When you donate blood, it usually comes out through a 16-gauge (bigger) needle; when you inject insulin, it might go in through a roughly 30-gauge (smaller) one.

* The needle was likely 1.5 inches long. On bigger shoulders, a one-inch needle would be too short for intramuscular injections. These shots need to go in through your skin, through your subcutaneous fat, and then into the underlying muscle. Bigger shoulders like mine require longer needles. I saw my shot go the whole way in. No drama.

* I experienced no other human contact, and thus no further opportunities for microchipping, at any point during my vaccination visit—as might be expected at a medical site set up to manage an infectious disease. Free hugs were neither dispensed nor encouraged. Everyone was double-masked, so an airborne microchip (were that even possible) also seemed unlikely.

So what does that all mean?

Let’s begin by ruling out the possibility that I was given a chip with 5G functionality. The most recent 5G chips are about the size of a penny, and would never fit inside those needles. (That’s putting aside the question of how one would power such a chip once it was installed.)

Could I have been given another, more generic sort of microchip, though? One defined, let’s say, as a small device with any digital-storage, transmission, or pass-through capacity at all? If we imagine that’s the goal of the conspiracy, just to implant everyone like wayward cats, then the only way to ensure reasonable coverage—let alone “a chicken in every pot, and a chip in every shoulder”—would be to prefill the syringes, not the vaccine vials, with the microchip payload.

See, at my vaccination site, half a dozen shots were being drawn rapidly from the same multiuse vial—so if the alleged microchips were in suspension (that is, particles suspended in fluid), you could never be certain that each syringe would pull at least one.

We can model this: Divide a quantity of fluid inside a vial that contains a number of microchips into six equal parts, for drawing up into a syringe, at random. What is the chance that you’d end up with at least one chip in each draw? If you had just six microchips in there, it would be less than 2 percent. Double that to 12 microchips per vial, and the chance of success is about 45 percent. In order to be 95 percent sure that each syringe contains at least one government-certified tracking device, do you know how many chips would need to be in the vial?

Twenty-six.

That would be astonishingly inefficient. And worse: If these are supposed to be unique personal identifiers, imagine the chaos of a system in which one person might carry several microchips while other, uh, “sheeple” have just one.

Nor would it be ideal to affix a nonspecific microchip to the end of each needle, as appears to be the case in a photo pulled from a newly published (and unhelpfully timed) scientific paper and passed around out of context on Facebook. In that scenario, you’d be unnecessarily blasting your hardware up into the barrel of the syringe as you drew in the vaccine. The only reasonable approach—and again, I say this as someone who has to make these things work, or I don’t get paid—would be to preload a microchip into the barrel of each syringe, and then hope it makes its way out.

This brings us to the geometry of the inside of the needle. Any chip is going to be approximately cuboid-shaped—again, see that Facebook pic—and would have to be small enough to pass through the needle. In other words, the chip’s axial diagonal—the distance between its two opposite corners—must be smaller than the needle’s internal diameter.

Some amazing advances have been made in our ability to conceive and manufacture tiny semiconductors in the past 10 years. Consider the minuscule build for a potentially injectable temperature monitor (complete with a processor and optical communication!) out of the University of Michigan. Tiny though it is, the axial diagonal of just the base chip is more than twice the internal diameter of my needle.

Even smaller system-on-chip builds do exist. This one from the Google-associated Verily Life Sciences, for example, could be stuck into my shoulder, and so could the one shown in the Facebook image, which is said by its creators at Columbia University to have pushed “volume efficiency to the ultimate limit.” Either of these would work, if Bill Gates really needed to know everyone’s core temperature.

But this isn’t where the conspiracy becomes more plausible—the opposite is true. Now that we’ve actually found something small enough to inject, we have two colossal problems.

  1. We have to power this system somehow. Past a certain point, tiny, adorable digital devices just can’t scale down to having tiny, adorable batteries that make them work. They are generally powered by external sources, such as light or ultrasound that travels through the skin and then gets converted into electricity. Although this is very cool, it also requires the placement of a pretty hefty energy source right near the injection site … which you would, 200 percent, no question, notice. Also, my “chip” would be way too far inside my arm for this to work. And speaking of being too deep …
  2. How are we supposed to get the data off the chip? A microchip or miniature RFID tag would serve its purpose only if it could communicate through an inch of muscle and a bunch of skin and fat. Muscle in particular is a rotten thing to navigate, as it’s basically a big bag of conductive fluid, notoriously fatal to radio signals.

Here we’ve run right up against the limits of what’s possible, and as my 15-minute waiting period neared its end, I found myself imagining the tiny, low-efficiency radio antenna on the chip inside my arm, floating all alone like an astronaut through space, sending futile chirps into the unfeeling emptiness of my deltoid muscle.

This was a disappointing thought. I never got to think through the logistics of these microchips’ manufacture and distribution. For instance: how to make millions or billions of them during a global semiconductor shortage; or how to manage inventory and associate each device with a database; or how to persuade major, publicly traded multinational corporations making medical supplies to expose themselves to existential corporate liability for injecting unapproved hardware into people. Or, for that matter, how to maintain the microchips after they’ve been injected and also, somehow, keep the whole thing quiet during a rollout through a global supply chain.

Instead, I just sat on my ugly plastic chair in the makeshift clinic, feeling quite maudlin about the completely nonexistent chip in my arm, abandoned like Laika the dog.

Then my time was up, and I went off to think about body-mounted devices that are actually real.