Vaccine skepticism and outright anti-vaccination sentiment have become rife in recent months, with more members of the public questioning not only the efficacy of vaccines, but their development practices, safety standards and their objectives.
The rapid development of coronavirus vaccines over the past year, an urgent task given the devastation to lives and livelihoods being caused by the global pandemic, has made them a prime target for hesitancy and myth.
But disinformation and misinformation that casts doubt over safety and efficacy can endanger lives.
The World Health Organization said vaccine hesitancy was among its top 10 global health threats in 2019. Vaccination, it said, “prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.”
When it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, experts and public health officials say it’s crucial to combat misinformation (false or inaccurate information) and the more nefarious disinformation (false information intended to mislead people) being spread about inoculations. Here are some of the main myths that are circulating about coronavirus vaccines:
Fact: The coronavirus vaccines that are now being deployed have undergone strict and rigorous clinical trials involving thousands of human participants after initial animal trials.
Vaccine makers have insisted that no corners were cut and trial results have proved the vaccines are safe and effective. Before being authorized for use, trial data from the vaccines — such as those made by Pfizer–BioNTech, Moderna and the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca — have undergone strict scrutiny by regulators including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the European Medicines Agency and Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.WATCH NOWVIDEO13:21How the coronavirus vaccine works and why Americans should trust it
In late-stage clinical trials, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were found to be 95% and 94.1% effective, respectively, at preventing severe Covid-19 infection. The vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca was found to have an average efficacy of 70%.
When the U.K. in early December became the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Dr. June Raine, chief executive of the U.K.’s MHRA, said no corners had been cut in its approval, saying experts had worked “round the clock, carefully, methodically poring over tables and analyses and graphs on every single piece of data.”
The MHRA’s scientists and clinicians conducted a “rolling review” of the data as it was made available during clinical trials, hence allowing it to speed up its assessment of the vaccine and whether to authorize it. This was critical, the MHRA said, given the public health emergency.
Fact: The coronavirus vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna contain messenger RNA (or mRNA) which instruct our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. This builds immunity against the virus that causes Covid.
The mRNA (i.e., the instructions) from a Covid vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA is kept, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
“This means the mRNA cannot affect or interact with our DNA in any way. Instead, Covid-19 mRNA vaccines work with the body’s natural defenses to safely develop immunity to disease.” In addition, immune cells break down and get rid of the mRNA soon after they have finished using the instructions. Find out more from the CDC here.
Fact: Some women are concerned that the coronavirus vaccine could harm their fertility and there has been a mass of misinformation online regarding this. Indeed, on Tuesday, the U.K.’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives issued a statement about Covid vaccinations, fertility and pregnancy.
In it, Dr. Edward Morris, president at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: “We want to reassure women that there is no evidence to suggest that Covid-19 vaccines will affect fertility. Claims of any effect of Covid-19 vaccination on fertility are speculative and not supported by any data.”
He continued: “There is no biologically plausible mechanism by which current vaccines would cause any impact on women’s fertility. Evidence has not been presented that women who have been vaccinated have gone on to have fertility problems.”
Fact: There is limited data about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines for people who are pregnant, the CDC says.
Of the data available from animal studies, “no safety concerns were demonstrated in rats that received Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before or during pregnancy; studies of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are ongoing,” the CDC said.
Studies in people who are pregnant are planned and both vaccine manufacturers are monitoring people in the clinical trials who became pregnant, it added.
In the U.K., where the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are currently being deployed, the government says that: “the vaccines have not yet been tested in pregnancy, so until more information is available, those who are pregnant should not routinely have this vaccine.”
Nonetheless, the government notes that evidence from nonclinical studies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and University of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines have been reviewed by the WHO and regulators around the world and have “raised no concerns” about safety in pregnancy.
The U.K.’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the government on its vaccination strategy, “has recognized that the potential benefits of vaccination are particularly important for some pregnant women,” including those at very high risk of catching the infection or those with clinical conditions that put them at high risk of suffering serious complications from Covid. In these cases, the government recommends that women discuss possible vaccination with their doctor.
Fact: Even if you are immunized against Covid, you could still pass the virus on to others. We still don’t know how vaccinations affect onward transmission and until we do — and while many people remain unvaccinated — people are being urged to follow social-distancing guidelines, wear masks and wash hands to prevent possibly passing the virus on.
Fact: While a previous coronavirus infection might provide people with antibodies against reinfection, experts are not yet sure how long this protection lasts. Preliminary results from a U.K-wide study of thousands of health workers found that people who had been infected with Covid were likely to have some form of immunity for at least five months. However, the data also suggested a small number of people with antibodies may still be able to carry and transmit the virus.