Experts debunk common misconceptions and conspiracy theories.
We live in an age of disinformation, with falsehoods spreading like wildfire through social networks, gaining legions of believers. With new vaccines designed to protect people from COVID-19 now being distributed across the nation, rumors and fantastical notions about the inoculations are also widely circulating.
“The internet has many advantages in that it puts information at our fingertips, but the problem in my opinion is that people aren’t able to assess the reliability of the information that they’re receiving,” says Henry Bernstein, DO, MHCM, a pediatrician with Cohen Children’s Medical Center–Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York. “That is where we run into difficulties in trying to gain people’s trust.”
For Dr. Bernstein, who serves on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), public trust is essential to making the vaccination program a success and putting an end to the pandemic. To gain this trust, people need to be able to distinguish accurate information from misconceptions.
Here are some of major COVID-19 vaccine myths being disseminated on the internet, with doctors distinguishing facts from falsehoods:
Myth 1: The new vaccines were developed so quickly that drug companies cut corners on safety.
Although the virus that causes COVID-19 was first reported at the end of 2019, scientists had already conducted years of research on related coronaviruses that cause SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and developed possible vaccines to fight these viruses.
The COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer (in conjunction with BioNTech) and Moderna, which utilize a genetic molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA), are a direct result of that research.
“The vaccines rely on a technology, mRNA, that has been studied for over a decade, since at least the initial outbreaks of MERS,” says Jennifer Horney, PhD, professor of epidemiology and core faculty with the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware in Newark.
Dr. Horney adds that researchers at Pfizer and Moderna conducted rigorous clinical trials of their vaccines involving tens of thousands of participants to evaluate both safety and effectiveness. “Research will continue as the vaccine begins to be distributed,” she says.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that adverse reactions to the new vaccines have been few, with the most commonly reported side effects — pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain, and fever — lasting just a few days.
Several people have experienced severe allergic reactions and temporary face paralysis following vaccination. These incidents tend to make headlines, but they have been rare.
Myth 2: The vaccines change your DNA.
The new mRNA vaccines were created using genetic technology but they do not affect a person’s DNA in any way. The CDC explains that the mRNA in the vaccine gives cells instructions on how to produce a piece of a kind of protein called a spike protein, which is similar to a protein on the surface of the coronavirus. This triggers the immune system to produce antibodies, which remain in the bloodstream ready to fight any future coronavirus infection.
The mRNA from the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell and does not affect or interact with a person’s DNA, the CDC affirms.
Myth 3: The vaccines can infect you with the coronavirus.
The mRNA vaccines do not contain a live virus and do not carry a risk of causing disease in the vaccinated person.
“Getting the virus from the vaccine would be like getting a chicken from scrambled eggs,” says Jill Foster, MD, a pediatric infectious disease physician and a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. “It can’t happen. There’s no virus in the vaccine.”
Hayley Gans, MD, a pediatric infectious disease physician with Stanford Medicine in Palo Alto, California, elaborates: “The way that these vaccines work is to expose your body to a protein that the virus has on its surface, but the rest of the virus is not present. Therefore you’re not getting infected with a virus and it can’t turn into a virus.”
Myth 4: As soon as you get vaccinated, you can get right back to normal life.
Even after people get an mRNA vaccine and the required booster shot, they will need to wear a mask and avoid close contact with others because, the CDC explains, it’s not known whether they can still carry the virus and transmit it to others.
“We don’t know after you have been vaccinated if you can still have some of that virus replicating in your upper airways,” says. Dr. Gans. “So I think it’s very important for everyone to continue to practice good habits to mitigate the disease until we see complete herd immunity and complete disappearance of this virus.” Herd immunity is defined by the Mayo Clinic as the point at which the spread of disease from person to person becomes unlikely because of widespread immunity.
Gans also stresses that the vaccines have been shown to be 95 percent effective, which means they don’t guarantee full protection. But if a vaccinated person does get infected, they are far less likely to develop severe illness. “That’s the way a lot of our vaccines work,” she say. “People who get the flu vaccine may actually get the flu, but they don’t end up in the hospital.”
Myth 5: The vaccines increase your risk for developing autism or cancer.
“No vaccines we currently have cause autism or cancer — that has been definitively proven — despite what the internet might tell you,” says Dr. Foster. “There’s no reason based on the science for these vaccines that they would cause either.”
Foster explains that a system is in place to identify and report any rare adverse affects of COVID-19 inoculation. “This has been around for decades, but is really being ramped up for these vaccines,” he says. One of the main jobs of the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office is doing research to find out if adverse events that are reported by doctors, vaccine manufacturers, and the public are truly caused by the vaccine.
Myth 6: You don’t need to get a vaccine if you’ve already had COVID-19 or if other people get inoculated.
The CDC says that there is not enough information currently available to say if or for how long after infection someone is protected from getting COVID-19 again. The journal Science reported in November that more people have been getting the virus twice.
It’s important for as many people as possible to get a vaccine in order to achieve herd immunity. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a December 10 article in the Harvard Gazette that herd immunity against COVID-19 is possible by the fall of 2021.
Myth 7: The vaccines can cause infertility.
The New York Times reported on December 10 on rumors flooding the internet that COVID-19 vaccines could cause infertility in women because they contain an ingredient that interferes with the development of the placenta. Again, Dr. Bernstein says, “There are no data to support this hypothesis. Experts believe mRNA vaccines are unlikely to pose a risk to a pregnant woman or her fetus.” He points out that, as always, the CDC will be carefully monitoring any adverse events in the months to come.
Myth 8: Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates wants to use the new vaccines to implant microchips in people.
A YouGov poll of 1,640 people found that 28 percent of respondents believed the microchip conspiracy theory.
Dr. Foster traces the reason to fear. “It’s quite reasonable to be afraid of vaccines,” she says. “Deep in our primitive brains is a place that is saying, ‘Hey, it’s dangerous to have a stranger stick you with a sharp object and inject a foreign substance into you.’”
She explains that fearful people are looking to validate their emotion, and so they are more likely to accept outlandish claims.
Getting more scientifically proven, accurate information to the public may help. The doctors interviewed here underscore the need for individuals to make sure they are getting their health facts from reliable sources.
“People can make up any theories that they want about anything,” says Gans. “Get your information from an authoritative source.”
Bernstein encourages people to rely on organizations such as the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Article first appeared on EveryDayHealth