If you're looking for credible information on the new COVID-19 vaccines, don't trust everything you see and hear on social media. Myths, misperceptions and sinister explanations abound, making it tough to separate science from science fiction.
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Have you heard the one about a nefarious plot to implant trackable microchips in people? FYI: There's not a shred of evidence to back that up. (More on that whopper below.)
"The real scare for public health professionals is that this type of information will influence your beliefs about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine and, ultimately, your willingness to get vaccinated," says Corey H. Basch, EdD, MPH, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, who studies the spread of health misinformation.
Bottom line: Don't let unchecked claims keep you from getting your shots. Here, we debunk the most vexing COVID vaccine myths.
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Myth 1: It Was Rushed
It usually takes 10 to 15 years to develop a vaccine, according to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Contrast that with the quest for a COVID-19 vaccine. In less than a year, two vaccines were authorized for emergency use: one from Pfizer and another from Moderna.
But infectious disease experts and virologists say you needn't worry that the vaccines were rushed.
First of all, scientists weren't exactly starting from scratch. In 2003, while studying another coronavirus, the one that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), they identified the "spike protein" as a possible vaccine target, says Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "So it's a 17-year timeline," he told doctors during a December 2020 vaccine forum hosted by the Annals of Internal Medicine and American College of Physicians.
Plus, vaccine manufacturers were able to crunch the timeline not by skipping steps but by running certain phases of testing simultaneously.
"Working in parallel instead of taking the traditional sequential approach to vaccine development potentially shaves months off the timeline for vaccine development," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted in a news release.
It's true that the vaccines were given a green light without having a full year of safety and efficacy data in hand. But only vaccine candidates deemed safe progress to human trials, per the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. And, according to Dr. Hotez, those trials were "massive" and "well powered." More than 44,000 people participated in Pfizer's study, and Moderna enrolled 30,000 people.
Myth 2: It Will Alter Your DNA
Heidi Larson, PhD, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the UK, tracks public attitudes about vaccines. With respect to the Pfizer and Moderna messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, some people say, "It's going to mess with my DNA … You're going to make us genetically modified humans," Larson told doctors during the Annals vaccine forum.
But that's not how it works. Such statements reflect a basic misunderstanding of cellular function, Kirsten Lyke, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, tells LIVESTRONG.com. In short, "DNA does not equal RNA," she says.
DNA resides in the nucleus of our cells. It's our "genetic blueprint," according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, while RNA (ribonucleic acid) is perhaps best know for its role as a messenger, the Wistar Institute explains.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) is like "a little computer code that's telling our cells: 'Make protein,'" as Dr. Lyke puts it. It will never affect your genetic coding; it merely trains your body to recognize the spike protein so your immune system will be prepared to mount a defense when you encounter the virus, she says.
Myth 3: It May Cause Autoimmune Diseases
It's hard to know how this particular bit of misinformation got its legs. The Associated Press (AP) recently fact-checked one potential source: a 12-minute Facebook video by a nurse practitioner in Michigan who asserts that mRNA vaccines can teach the body to attack itself, leading to autoimmune disease.
AP's verdict? Not true. The news agency quotes mRNA researcher Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, who says the RNA in COVID-19 vaccines would not cause autoimmunity, and he's not aware of a single report of that happening.
What's more, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine trials included people who have autoimmune disease, per the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Yet there's no indication that these people — or others who might be susceptible to developing an autoimmune or inflammatory response — experienced adverse effects. (Common side effects include pain and swelling at the injection site.)
People with suppressed immune systems, such as folks receiving cancer treatment or those who have an autoimmune condition, should definitely get vaccinated, per Henry Ford Health System, because they will receive at least some level of protection from COVID-19, though not as much as people with healthy immune systems. Of course, always consult your physician first.
Myth 4: It's All a Conspiracy
Social media is rife with lies, half-truths and unsubstantiated claims about the virus and the vaccine. But fact-checkers at the nonpartisan PolitiFact, venerable health organizations (such as the WHO and Mayo Clinic) and major news organizations (including the New York Times, Reuters and USA Today) have debunked the web of misinformation.
The discredited claims include assertions that:
- COVID-19 is a scheme cooked up by Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, MD, and others to control the world and profit off of vaccines. (FACT: There's no evidence to substantiate such claims.)
- The COVID-19 vaccine was developed to insert microchips or "nanotransducers" in people for tracking or information-gathering purposes. (FACT: The Mayo Clinic says this misconstrues a comment Gates made about a digital certificate of vaccine records and isn't tied in any way to the coronavirus vaccines.)
- 5G mobile networks spread COVID-19. (FACT: Viruses are spread through respiratory droplets, per the WHO.)
- The vaccines were developed using fetal tissue. (FACT: Fetal tissue was neither used in the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, nor do the shots contain fetal cells, per the Mayo Clinic.)
It's confusing when people in lab coats profess to be experts, or when celebrities use their platforms to push conspiracy theories, Basch says.
"There can be 500 videos of Dr. Fauci, and yet people will gravitate toward a conspiracy-theorist because it's a message they haven't heard yet," she adds. And that makes people think, "'I should listen. This is a new piece of information.'"
Myth 5: It Can Harm Fertility
Rumor has it that the COVID-19 vaccine will lead to infertility in women. Per the Mayo Clinic, the disinformation campaign asserts that antibodies produced against the virus's spike protein can also bind to a protein vital for forming a human placenta and prevent pregnancy. In truth, no COVID vaccine has been linked to infertility or miscarriage, the clinic says.
USA Today traces the current myth to a social media post, but vaccine-related sterilization anxieties have persisted through the years. It's "probably one of the oldest rumors," Dr. Larson confirmed during the recent Annals forum." It's an existential threat, and it's very much rooted in deep distrust of authority."
Although the vaccine trials excluded pregnant women, 23 women in the Pfizer study did become pregnant, as did 13 in Moderna's — "clearly not causing infertility," Dr. Lyke points out.
Myth 6: It Causes HIV
Spoiler alert: It actually does not cause HIV. But folks may have been led astray by a Facebook video in which a university professor claims that a COVID-19 vaccine trial in Australia "made everybody positive for HIV," as the New York Times reported in December 2020.
There's actually a nugget of truth in the rumor, Dr. Lyke points out. Australian researchers did develop an experimental vaccine using parts of an HIV protein, as the Times points out. And it did produce some false-positive HIV test results.
"Once the researchers understood this, they immediately canceled and stop the trial," Dr. Lyke says. "But the rumor had gotten out there that coronavirus vaccines cause HIV."
Myth 7: Once You Get the Vaccine, You Can Ditch Your Mask
Just because you got your COVID vaccine "doesn't mean that you couldn't carry the virus in your nasal passages and spread it," Dr. Lyke cautions.
At the moment, there's not enough evidence to know whether your risk of infecting others is reduced, she explains. "Even if you're vaccinated, you don't want to pass the COVID virus to someone in your family who may not be vaccinated."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says experts need to understand more about the protection the vaccine offers before deciding if and when to stop recommending mask-wearing and social distancing. So, for now, the tried-and-true advice stands: mask up, wash your hands and avoid close contact with others.
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- College of Physicians of Philadelphia's History of Vaccines: "Vaccine Development, Testing, and Regulation"
- Annals of Internal Medicine/American College of Physicians: "COVID-19 Vaccine Forum"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "HHS Accelerates Clinical Trials, Prepares for Manufacturing of COVID-19 Vaccines"
- National Human Genome Research Institute: "Human Genome Project"
- Wistar Institute: "RNA: More Than Just a Messenger"
- Associated Press: "No Evidence That COVID-19 Vaccines Lead to Autoimmune Disease"
- Infectious Diseases Society of America: "Vaccine FAQ"
- Henry Ford Health System: "10 Myths About the COVID-19 Vaccine That Aren't True"
- PolitiFact: "Fact-checking 'Plandemic 2: Another Video Full of Conspiracy Theories About COVID-19"
- World Health Organization: "Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public: Mythbusters"
- Mayo Clinic: "COVID-19 Myths Debunked"
- New York Times: "Virus Conspiracists Elevate a New Champion"
- Reuters: "Fact Check: RFID Microchips Will Not Be Injected With the COVID-19 Vaccine, Altered Video Features Bill and Melinda Gates and Jack Ma"
- USA Today: "Fact Check: 'Plandemic' Sequel Makes False Claims About Bill Gates"
- USA Today: "Fact Check: A False Post on Social Media Claims COVID-19 Vaccine Causes Infertility in Women"
- New York Times: "Australia Scraps Covid-19 Vaccine That Produced H.I.V. False Positives"
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 Vaccination"
- College of Physicians of Philadelphia: "Vaccine Development, Testing, and Regulation"