Health

10 Common Myths About The COVID-19 Vaccine, Debunked By Doctors

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

A scientist draws covid vaccine from a vial with a needle. Doctors want to bust these 6 myths about ...
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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. A review of 30 peer-reviewed studies published as a preprint on medRXiV in January 2021 found that around 43% of the U.S. population is a little hesitant to get the COVID vaccine. A lot of that number has to do with myths about vaccination and COVID-19.

COVID jabs have joined 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. “The vaccine may be our greatest hope to save lives and return to normalcy.”

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

Myth 1: "The Vaccines Aren't Safe"

With so many pharmaceutical companies competing for millions of dollars in government vaccine orders, 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. COVID-19 vaccines had to go through animal testing, three different clinical trial phases with humans, and regulatory reviews before they made it to market. “The FDA will not approve any vaccine unless it is proven to be at least 50% effective,” Dr. Nesheiwat says. Both Moderna and Pfizer had to hold off on requesting emergency use authorization from the FDA until at least half of the trial participants had had two months' worth of follow up.

“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. Dr. Teresa Bartlett M.D., senior medical officer at claims management company Sedgwick, tells Bustle that several drug makers developing vaccines for COVID issued 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.

Myth 2: "The Vaccine Was 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. Pfizer and Moderna both use a technique involving mRNA drawn from cancer research, while another candidate, AstraZeneca, is using a genetically altered cold virus.

”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: "That Vaccine Trial Being Paused Was A Bad Sign"

When a trial for AstraZeneca's vaccine 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 AstraZeneca 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 AstraZeneca case developed an inflammatory syndrome that can result from some viral infections, but it’s not thought to be related to the vaccine. All three front-running companies have finished various trials without any candidates suffering from severe vaccine-related side effects. “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. Pfizer and Moderna have passed this hurdle, and AstraZeneca is hoping to clear it too once its U.S. trial of 30,000 patients is finished.

Myth 5: "A Vaccine Will Solve Everything"

Now that vaccines are being delivered, 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; later in the year, that estimate grew closer to 80%. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses a few weeks apart.

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. The head of BioNTech has said he believes their vaccine may last a year, but further data is needed.

Myth 6: "A Vaccine Means You Don't Need To Wear A Mask"

Just because you've got a jab doesn't mean you should throw out all those masks. (Which would be a pity, as they're probably pretty cute.) "To protect yourselves and your communities from COVID, you must continue to wear your masks even if you have been vaccinated," Dr. Nesheiwat says.

There are a few reasons for this. For one, Dr. Nesheiwat says, you need two doses of the current vaccines, and they take at least 14 days to work, so you need to stay masked over that period. For another, the Pfizer and Moderna trials both found their vaccines were over 90% effective at stopping people from contracting symptomatic COVID, but it's unclear whether they protect against asymptomatic cases. And if they don't, you could get the vaccine, catch COVID with zero symptoms, and be capable of passing it on to others.

Dr. Nesheiwat says that herd immunity, with over 70 to 80% of the nation vaccinated, is the magic number before anybody begins to think of putting their masks away.

Myth 7: "Vaccines Keep You From Spreading The Virus"

It's important to remember that none of the vaccines on the market are 100% effective. There's still a possibility that you might end up with COVID, and pass it on to other people; vaccines protect you from catching it, but there's little data on whether they stop you transmitting it if you get ill. And that's not counting the possibility you could get asymptomatic COVID.

"The vaccine can protect you against severe complications of COVID-19 and its multiple symptoms but it is still possible to spread COVID to others, even though the likelihood of this occurring is lower," Dr. Nesheiwat says. "Even though I have been given the Moderna vaccine, I continue to wear my mask and practice social distancing."

Until everybody gets vaccinated, including those who are vulnerable, 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.

Myth 8: "The Vaccine Can Give You COVID"

One of the most enduring myths about the flu shot is that it can give you the flu. While that myth has been definitively disproven, the thinking comes from the idea that some people feel flu-ish symptoms after getting the shot — as a result of side effects of the vaccine, or for unrelated reasons — and that the flu shot is made up of dead flu virus .

The same goes for the COVID vaccine — that is, that it absolutely will not give you COVID, just like the flu shot can't give you the flu.

Some vaccines, like AstraZeneca's, contain versions of the COVID vaccine that have been neutered — that is, they can't actually give you the virus itself. This vaccine operates on the same principle as flu vaccines; they contain elements of the original virus that can "teach" the immune system to protect against it. Moderna and Pfizer's mRNA-based vaccines go one step further; they don't contain any versions of the virus at all, just instructions for your body to make the spike proteins that distinguish COVID from other viruses, which then help your body create antibodies to protect you against the real thing.

Just as with the flu virus, it is possible for people to develop COVID independently after getting vaccinated. For one, even the most effective vaccines are 95% effective, meaning some people in trials still got sick. It also takes a few weeks for your body to build the immunity it needs to fully protect you, per the CDC, or it's possible that you might have been exposed and not showing symptoms before your shot. But there is no way for any of the COVID vaccines available to actually give you COVID. None. Zip. Zilch.

Myth 9: "The COVID Vaccine Changes Your DNA"

Both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines use COVID mRNA to replicate a small part of the virus, so your immune system can practice fighting it. But they don't alter your genetic code in any way. The mRNA used in these vaccines is simply a messenger, and it tells your body a very small part of the actual COVID virus — a spike protein, which is the bit the virus uses to break into your cells.

DNA and mRNA are very different; there's no way for the mRNA from the vaccine to get anywhere near the tightly-coiled DNA in your cells. "Injecting RNA into a person doesn't do anything to the DNA of a human cell," Professor Jeffrey Almond from the University of Oxford told the BBC. The mRNA used in the vaccine also breaks down after it's used, often in a matter of hours.

Myth 10: "The COVID Vaccine Causes Infertility"

Rumors have circulated that COVID vaccines can make women infertile. The myth is based on the idea that there's an apparent similarity between the coronavirus' spike proteins, which the vaccine trains your body to fend off, and a protein found in the placenta called syncytin-1. People are worried the antibodies the vaccine creates could attack syncytin-1, mistaking it for COVID, and harm the placenta's ability to support pregnancies. But there's no chance that vaccines could affect this protein. "There’s absolutely nothing to that," Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told the Washington Post.

Some of the fear, experts say, may stem from the fact that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines weren't tested on pregnant people before they were authorized for emergency use. However, there's no reason to think the (excellent) safety data in those vaccines wouldn't apply to pregnant people, too, Dr. Alisa Kachikis, MD, MSc, an expert in obstetric pharmacology and maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Washington, previously told Bustle. Further, every major OB/GYN organization, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, supports pregnant people getting the vaccine, given that getting COVID while pregnant is a major health risk. Pfizer also launched a trial of 4,000 pregnant people in February, so there will be safety data for this specific group in the coming months.

Experts:

Dr. Teresa Bartlett M.D.

Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D.

Dr. Seema Sarin M.D.

Dr. John A. Sellick D.O.