Health

6 Myths About The COVID-19 Vaccine, Debunked By Doctors

Talk to the vaccine skeptic in your life about these myths.

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Health experts have said that a COVID-19 vaccine is pretty much the only way life will get back to a pre-pandemic "normal," whatever that means. But like so many other things about the pandemic, the very concept of a vaccine has attracted myths, misconceptions, skepticism, and outright rejection. Whether you’re trying to convince your vaccine-skeptical sister that the COVID-19 vaccine will be safe, or trying to manage the expectations of your BFF who thinks “it’ll just make coronavirus disappear," it’s good to know all the facts about COVID-19 vaccines — and how to bust the myths.

“There is a lot of information out there about a vaccine for COVID-19, but not all of it is correct,” Dr. Seema Sarin M.D., director of lifestyle medicine at EHE Health, tells Bustle. Science reported in June that only around 50% of Americans plan to get a vaccine, and a survey in the UK found 16% of people would avoid getting vaccinated. That's not great news, and a lot of it is down to myths about vaccination and COVID-19.

When the coronavirus vaccine finally debuts, it’ll join a host of vaccines that have saved millions of lives — and attracted their fair share of misconceptions. “Vaccines have saved thousands upon thousands of lives over the years, and have prevented severe disease and disabilities like polio, hepatitis, and meningitis,” emergency physician Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D., tells Bustle. “As the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation [an independent global research center] projects over 400,000 lives lost [to COVID-19] by January 1, the vaccine may be our greatest hope to save lives and return to normalcy.”

Here are some of the biggest myths about the COVID-19 vaccine, and what doctors want you to know about them.

Myth 1: "A Vaccine Won't Be Safe"

With Russia and China already using experimental vaccines, and President Trump's attempts to rush approval of a vaccine before election day, some may worry that a vaccine might not be fully vetted before it's released.

The short answer is that vaccines aren’t allowed to go anywhere near the public until they’re shown to be safe. “Vaccine development in the U.S. follows a very rigorous process to ensure safety and efficacy before a vaccine is produced and widely distributed,” Dr. Sarin says. The COVID-19 vaccines will go through animal testing, three different clinical trial phases with humans, and regulatory reviews before it ever makes it to market. “The FDA will not approve any vaccine unless it is proven to be at least 50% effective,” Dr. Nesheiwat says.

“Many vaccines also have an informal 'phase IV' where researchers continue to monitor a vaccine for safety and efficacy after it is approved,” Dr. Sarin says. The teams working on COVID-19 vaccines across 172 countries will be monitoring their work with the utmost care.

There's also a lot of scrutiny on vaccine producers, even as the pressure's high to produce one that works quickly. “This month, several of the drug makers developing vaccines for COVID are going to issue a public pledge not to even try to seek government approval until they have proof of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine they are developing,” Dr. Teresa Bartlett M.D., senior medical officer at claims management company Sedgwick, tells Bustle.

Myth 2: "The Vaccine Will Be Rushed"

“It’s true that most vaccines take years to develop, but scientists all over the world have been working since COVID-19 emerged to find a vaccine,” Dr. Sarin says. “Additionally, many of top candidates that have emerged for a COVID-19 vaccine were not developed entirely from scratch. Some of the vaccine candidates were already in development after research on similar diseases (SARS and MERS) provided information on what might work best to fight COVID-19.” The fact that this is a global pandemic also means there’s collaboration between research teams, governments, and private companies all over the world. “That has sped up a normally slower timeline for vaccine development,” she says.

Myth 3: "The Vaccine Trial Being Paused Is A Bad Sign"

When a trial for one of the most promising vaccines, created by a team at Oxford University and drug company Astra Zeneca, was paused in August after a subject became unwell, people started to worry. Did this mean the vaccine wasn't safe, or that it would hurt people?

In reality, pauses are a good sign, because they show the drug companies are taking safety concerns seriously. “When we see companies like Astra Zeneca pause the vaccine trial — which includes thousands of volunteers worldwide — for just one person, that is a testament to their priority of safety,” Dr. Nesheiwat says.

Trials have to be paused when any participant shows an illness that can’t be immediately explained. The BBC reports the patient in the Astra Zeneca case may have developed an inflammatory syndrome that can result from some viral infections, but it’s not thought to be related to the vaccine. “The vaccine process cannot be rushed to make sure in the end we have a vaccine that is safe without dangerous side effects,” Dr. Bartlett says, and taking necessary pauses is one step towards that goal.

Myth 4: "A Vaccine Will Make You More Vulnerable To Illnesses"

Vaccines teach your immune system to recognize and fight specific threats; they don’t overload the immune system or weaken it. But vaccine trials exist to eliminate doubt about any of their effects on immune function or other illnesses. “A vaccine is designed to improve your body’s ability to fight a specific disease,” Dr. Sarin says. “Part of the research process involves testing vaccines to ensure that they do not have unintended side effects, such as causing other diseases or putting you at higher risk for developing a different illness.” The point of the clinical phase III trials, she says, is to eliminate all of these side effects; if the vaccine causes extreme side effects that will make it too risky, it's not coming to market.

Myth 5: "A Vaccine Will Solve Everything"

Once a vaccine is approved, the pandemic's over, right? Nope. “There are still more steps that are necessary before it’s widely available to anyone who wants a vaccine,” Dr. Sarin says. Hundreds of millions of doses need to be manufactured and distributed, and it will take a while for a significant chunk of the population to get vaccinated. Infectious disease physician Michael Ison told NPR in September that at least 60 to 70% of the population needs to be immune to the virus to stop it from spreading.

Vaccines also won’t be available to everybody immediately. “In the early phases, a new vaccine will only be available on a very limited basis,” Dr. Sarin says. The CDC is going to prioritize emergency workers and healthcare personnel, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on September 16. It's also likely you'll need to get two doses a few weeks apart, according to National Institutes Of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins.

Even once you're vaccinated, that's not the end of the journey. The coronavirus may slowly mutate, and the immune effects of a vaccine might fade over time, meaning that one vaccine won’t work forever. “There is concern that the vaccines that are being developed will not have the very high immunogenicity that we see with measles or rubella,” Dr. John A. Sellick D.O., professor of medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo, tells Bustle. In other words, we’ll likely need to get new ones every year, like the flu shot. “I think that the COVID vaccines will be less than perfect, though they will certainly give us some benefit,” he says.

Myth 6: "There'll Be A Vaccine By The End Of The Year"

Many people have optimistically latched onto estimates that a vaccine will be ready by the end of the year, but there's little likelihood that that will mean the immediate end of the pandemic.

“Hopefully we are getting closer to having vaccines available but it is a myth to expect that to happen in the very near future,” Dr. Robert Mordkin M.D., U.S. medical director for testing company LetsGetChecked, tells Bustle. Phase III trials aren’t complete yet, says Dr. Sarin, and even though Dr. Redfield told the Senate that the earliest a vaccine could be available was November or December, that’s the best case scenario. He said that the earliest a vaccine might be available to the U.S. general public is mid-2021.

Until then, social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing will continue to be the reality — and it'll be the norm for a long time, until a majority of people are immunized.

Experts:

Dr. Teresa Bartlett M.D.

Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D.

Dr Robert Mordkin M.D.

Dr. Seema Sarin M.D.

Dr. John A. Sellick D.O.