Tackling vaccine myths

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As America continues work on its largest vaccination effort ever, a number of concerns, misconceptions and myths persist about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

It is reasonable to question the safety of a new vaccine by considering the evidence in scientific studies and explanations of experts, so the Republic-Times will do just that with five common worries individuals may have or claims they may have encountered about the vaccines for the novel coronavirus. 

Myth: The vaccines are unsafe because they were developed so quickly

It is true that the two vaccines approved for emergency use authorization in the United States have been developed in record time, with the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines each coming out within a year of the pandemic beginning. 

That happened because of an unprecedented effort to create a vaccine. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, pharmaceutical companies and scientists invested “significant resources” to develop a vaccine to protect against COVID-19, including dropping all other research to focus solely on this potential tool to end the pandemic. 

And regulatory experts sped up the process by reviewing progress on a regular basis, giving the vaccine priority, per a report from University of California Davis Health, an academic health center in California. 

Evidence also already exists that, despite the speed with which it was developed, the vaccine is safe.

In addition to clinical trials conducted by companies producing the vaccine, which the Food and Drug Administration reviewed and found the benefits of the shots outweigh the risks, over 40 million Americans have received at least one of the shots. 

While there have been isolated incidents of adverse allergic reactions like anaphylaxis and at least one death shortly after getting the vaccine, most people have had only typical side effects. The death is being investigated, but evidence so far does not point to the vaccine as the cause. 

That level of widespread safety also holds true for the overwhelming majority of people who have been vaccinated in countries like those belonging to the European Union, Britain and Canada. 

Although it is impossible at this point to know if there will be any potential adverse effects from the vaccine in years, there is no research predicting or providing evidence of negative long-term effects from the shots. 

“You’re more likely to have adverse effects in the long run from getting the disease itself than you are from getting the virus,” Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner stressed in December. 

Misconception: The COVID vaccine alters your DNA

This is simply a misunderstanding of how both approved vaccines work, as they use a new technology called messenger RNA or mRNA to protect individuals. 

With this technology, the COVID-19 vaccines use a small portion of the virus’s genetic code to tell cells to build the signature spike protein on the surface of the virus, thereby teaching the immune system to recognize and destroy the real virus. 

As part of this process, the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where the DNA is kept, so it cannot interact with it in any way, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Once the body has learned to protect against future infection by the novel coronavirus, the Mayo Clinic explains that “human cells break down and get rid of the mRNA soon after they have finished using the instructions.” 

Myth: The vaccines will make you sick with COVID-19

This mistaken idea may come from a collective conception of the flu vaccines, which contain the inactive flu virus and can sometimes trigger an immune response with flu-like symptoms. 

But, as pointed out above, the COVID-19 vaccine does not actually contain any of the novel coronavirus, living or dead. 

“This means that a COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19,” the CDC emphasizes. 

As the Cleveland Health Clinic explains, “vaccines prime your immune system to recognize and fight off a disease, but they don’t actually cause an infection.” 

That does not mean there will not be some side effects like a fever, muscle aches, fatigue or a headache after getting the shot. Those are actually good responses in the sense that it shows the vaccine is working.  

It also does not mean a person cannot contract the virus in between shots or shortly after the second one because the first shot does not provide full protection and it takes several days after the second shot for the body to develop immunity. 

Myth: The vaccines can make you infertile or cause a miscarriage 

“A sophisticated disinformation campaign has been circulating online, claiming that antibodies to the spike protein of COVID-19 produced from these vaccines will bind to placental proteins and prevent pregnancy,” the Mayo Health Clinic reported in December. “This disinformation is thought to originate from internet postings by a former scientist known to hold anti-vaccine views.” 

That is not plausible, however, because COVID-19 has not been linked to infertility, according to the clinic, so it is not logical that a vaccine would be able to have that effect when the virus itself does not. 

Although there has been no formal study of the subject, pregnant women who contract the virus have not been observed to have an increased miscarriage rate. Since the vaccines provide immunity the same way getting the virus does, a higher miscarriage rate in women with the virus would have already been noticed, and it has not. 

The method the vaccine uses also does not affect the placenta. 

“After a person is vaccinated, their body produces copies of the spike protein, which does not cause disease, and triggers the immune system to learn to react defensively, producing an immune response,” the FDA explains in a frequently asked questions section about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on its website. “Contrary to false reports on social media, this protein is not the same as any involved in formation of the placenta.” 

The review of the clinical trial data also did not find any affect on fertility. 

“Based on current knowledge, experts believe that COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to pose a risk to a person trying to become pregnant in the short or long term,” the CDC reports on its website.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that fertility problems are a side effect of any vaccine, so that makes this claim even more unlikely. 

Concern: You should not get the vaccine if you are pregnant 

This is more of a gray area. 

To date, there have not been any formal studies conducted to research how the vaccine affects pregnant women. 

 There have been studies, however, showing that women who are pregnant are at greater risk for a severe case of COVID-19, including hospitalization, ICU admission, mechanical ventilation and death, according to the CDC. 

For most vaccines, public health organizations like the CDC and FDA have been slow to recommend pregnant women because of the elevated health risks these people already face. 

That remains true in this case, as the FDA and CDC advise women to consult experts on this topic. 

“There is no contradiction to receipt of the vaccine for pregnant or breastfeeding women,” the FDA says on its website about both approved vaccines. “Pregnant or breastfeeding women should discuss potential benefits and risks of vaccination with their healthcare provider.” 

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