- Esther Odenkunle, PhD, biochemist, neurobiologist, antibody engineer, and senior scientist at GlaxoSmithKline.
- Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS is an infectious disease epidemiologist and microbiologist. She is the science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project.
- Paula D. Walker, MD, MPH, Paula D. Walker, MD, MPH, is a board-certified public health physician and microbiologist based in Atlanta.
- Suzanne Pham, MD, FAAP, Suzanne Pham is the medical director of the COVID-19 response team at Weiss Memorial Hospital.
Before we get down to busting myths, let's start with the basics: A vaccine is a substance that stimulates your body's response to fight against pathogens, Esther Odekunle, PhD, previously told Well+Good. "Depending on the effectiveness of the vaccine, it could provide full immunity or lessen the severity or duration of the infection," she said—including COVID-19, which can have devastating symptoms and long-lasting effects that the scientific community still doesn't fully understand. Pfizer's vaccine will require two doses administered 21 days apart and is expected to be 95 percent effective at protecting against COVID-19 at least seven days after the second dose. (Moderna's similarly requires two doses and is 94.1 percent effective after the second dose; the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would require just one dose, which is 66 percent effective.)
Despite the news about a potential vaccine, people have their doubts—especially among communities made up of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOCs) who have been hit hardest by the virus. According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Black adults state that they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine, and research also shows that Black Americans were less likely to accept a COVID-19 vaccine. This vaccine hesitancy partially stems from decades of racism and oppression entrenched in our health-care system. "The pandemic has revealed an underlying condition of the entire country, and that underlying condition is that we do not care for people equally in the U.S.," Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, infectious disease epidemiologist, recently told Well+Good during our 2021 Trends event.
In addition, people have also expressed doubts about vaccination because of vaccine misinformation. Anti-vaxxers have created rumors and conspiracy theories about the vaccine, from it causing sterility to it being able to track people. As misinformation about the vaccine looms, experts are here to debunk those COVID-19 vaccine myths once and for all.
Debunking COVID-19 vaccine myths, one at a time
1. The vaccine does not track you
Rumors have been spreading for months that the vaccine would insert microchips with the intention of tracking people. But that is absolutely false. "That was a misinterpretation of a very simple headline about putting chips on the outside of vials," Rivera explained.
The concerns date from a May 2020 interview with Jay Walker, an executive chairman of Apiject, a pre-filled syringe maker company. (The company received a $590 million loan to produce injectors for the COVID-19 vaccine.) During the interview, Walker was asked about the company's Radio Frequency Identification Chip (RFID). Walker said that the chip works like a bar code and is part of the syringe's label, not the injectable substance, as reported by Reuters. The bar code does not store any personal information—rather, it's meant to assure the health-care provider administering the vaccine that it's authentic and has not expired.
2. An mRNA vaccine does not alter genetic code
One of the biggest misconceptions about the mRNA vaccine, the technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (as well as the forthcoming Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines) is that it changes people's DNA. This is completely false—and a misunderstanding of the science behind the vaccine's efficacy.
According to Rivera, people think the word mRNA means that it would alter genetic code, but this is not possible. DNA replicates and stores your genetic information, whereas RNA converts genetic information to build proteins. "RNA has nothing to do with changing DNA. So the concerns of having some sort of altering effects on people's bodies permanently is not true," Rivera said.
So how do mRNA vaccines work? Essentially, the vaccine injects you with mRNA sequences that have been coded to produce specific proteins found in the novel coronavirus. Our cells build the protein specified in the mRNA code, then recognize that protein as an invader and then create antibodies to fight it off. That way, if your body ever encounters COVID-19, you already are equipped with the tools to neutralize it before it can make you sick. "We've been studying this modality for vaccines for over 10 years. We started studying it with SARS, MERS, and influenza. But this is the closest we've gotten to an approval," Rivera said.
3. The COVID-19 vaccine does not cause sterility
Fear-mongering information about the COVID-19 vaccine causing sterility has circulated across the internet. The infertility rumors originated from an article published by a blog called Health and Money News, as previously reported by the New York Times. The Health and Money News blog falsely claimed that the Pfizer vaccine contained ingredients that could train the body to attack a protein that aids in the development of the placenta. According to Rivera, sterility was not found in any of the data. "That's based on a very lazy approach to understanding some of the science," Rivera said.
4. The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines *are* safe for pregnant people
This wasn't so much of a myth as a potential question mark, but thanks to new research, it's a worry we can put to bed. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April, which used retrospective data from over 35,000 pregnant people who had received an mRNA vaccine, there were no "obvious safety signals among pregnant persons who received mRNA COVID-19 vaccines."
Speaking at a press briefing following the release of these study results, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, "CDC recommends that pregnant people receive the COVID-19 vaccine." Later, the CDC clarified that the organization was not changing its official recommendation on whether pregnant people should get vaccinated (which, as stands, does not make a recommendation for or against), but rather that the organization was stating that the vaccine should be "offered" to this population.
As with all things related to COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, more research needs to be done to increase our understanding of how the vaccines impact pregnant people, particularly in the long term. But these are more-than-encouraging early indicators of safety.
5. Immunity to COVID-19 does not come directly after taking the vaccine
According to Suzanne Pham, MD, FAAP, medical director of the COVID-19 response team at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago, people are not immune right after they take the vaccine. "It does take time for the body to develop immunity after the vaccine has been received," Dr. Pham tells Well+Good. Immunity starts to kick in at least seven days after the second dose, according to Pfizer and the FDA. For the Moderna vaccine, immunity develops after 14 days after the second dose with 94.5 percent effectiveness.
Because immunity is not developed right away, it's imperative for people to continue practicing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID-19 safety guidelines. "So distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, those will need to remain," Dr. Pham says.
6. Taking OTC pain medications before getting the COVID-19 vaccine may impact immune response
As with many vaccines, mild side effects such as soreness at the injection site and headaches are common with the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. To manage these discomforts, some people (including experts) have recommended taking over-the-counter pain medications such as Tylenol or aspirin immediately before vaccination. However, taking these meds right before getting a vaccine can potentially interfere with its efficacy, says Paula D. Walker, MD, MPH, a board certified public health physician and microbiologist based in Atlanta.
“Over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol or ibuprofen before the vaccine may prevent parts of the immune system from mounting an optimal response to the vaccine or slow down the immune response,” Dr. Walker tells Well+Good. “In some studies, it has been shown that taking pain relievers before receiving a vaccine yields fewer antibodies compared to when pain relievers are not used.” Fewer antibodies, Dr. Walker says, could mean less protection against COVID-19 in the future—defeating the purpose of the vaccine.
To be clear, there is no research yet on whether this could affect the efficacy of the current COVID-19 vaccines on the market. But the results from prior studies are compelling enough that Dr. Walker recommends avoiding pain relievers before getting your vaccine doses to avoid any potential interference with the body’s immune response. That said, if temporary pain and swelling at the injection site or muscle aches occur, Dr. Walker says that over-the-counter medications can be taken several days after the vaccine has been administered. (Check with your vaccine administrator to get more specific guidance when you get your shot.)
The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that vaccination prevents two to three million deaths per year, and that's why it's so important to quash false information concerning the COVID-19 vaccine when it comes your way. "COVID-19 is a medical issue. We all need to bond together to decrease the spread of COVID-19, and think about the importance of vaccination," Dr. Pham says. Although we live in a world of misinformation, accurate and reliable information does exist.
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