Column: COVID-19 vaccine myths

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Commentary by Andrew R. Greenspan, M.D.

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are becoming available in our area, the myths about them are becoming more prevalent. This is an attempt to deliver dispelling facts.

Myth: “We can’t trust COVID-19 vaccines because they were rushed to market.”

Fact: The first vaccines for COVID-19 do involve new technology, and they were developed in record time. But it’s not because there were shortcuts in the process. The new technology at the center of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines is called messenger RNA, or mRNA. While this is the first time it’s being widely used in a vaccine for the public, researchers have actually been working on this vaccine strategy for more than three decades. FDA analysis of the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness on people age 16 and older found “no specific safety concerns” that would preclude the vaccine’s use.

Myth: “The vaccine will give me COVID-19.”

Fact: Vaccines prime your immune system to recognize and fight off a disease, but they don’t actually cause an infection. The vaccines that are available in the U.S. contain a strand of the aforementioned mRNA. When the mRNA enters your cells, it instructs them to make a piece of the “spike” protein that’s present on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Those protein pieces don’t actually harm your body, but they do trigger your immune system to mount a response to fight them off.

Myth: “We don’t know what’s in these vaccines.”

Fact: Both Pfizer and Moderna have published the ingredient lists for their vaccines. In addition to the star ingredient, the COVID-19 mRNA for the spike protein, both vaccines contain lipids (fats) that help deliver the mRNA into your cells and a few other common ingredients that help maintain the pH and stability of the vaccine. Despite theories circulated on social media, they do not contain microchips or any form of tracking device.

Myth: “These vaccines will alter my DNA.”

Fact: The vaccines use mRNA to instruct our cells to make a piece of the coronavirus’s hallmark spike protein in order to spark an immune-system response. Once the mRNA does that, our cells break it down and get rid of it. Messenger RNA is something that’s made from DNA, but it’s not designed to integrate with our DNA, and it doesn’t permanently change our genome and who we are in any way.

Myth: “I already had COVID-19, so I won’t benefit from the vaccine.”

Fact: We don’t yet know how long natural immunity to COVID-19 lasts. Right now, it seems that getting COVID-19 more than once is not common, but there still are many questions that remain unanswered.  Therefore, even if you’ve had COVID-19, it still would be appropriate for you to get the vaccine to make sure you’re protected.

Myth: “Since COVID-19’s survival rate is so high, I don’t need a vaccine.”

Fact: It’s true that most people who get COVID-19 are able to recover. But it’s also true that some people develop severe complications. So far, more than 1.7 million people around the world have died from COVID-19, as well as some 350,000 Americans, and that doesn’t account for people who survived but needed to be hospitalized. Because the disease can damage the lungs, heart and brain, it also may cause long-term health problems that experts still are working to understand. There’s another reason to consider getting the vaccine: It protects those around you. Even if COVID-19 doesn’t make you very sick, you could pass it on to someone else who might be more severely affected. Widespread vaccination protects populations, including those who are most at risk and those who can’t be vaccinated. It will be important for ending the pandemic.

Myth: “Once I get the vaccine, I won’t have to wear a mask or worry about social distancing.”

Fact: Even if you get the vaccine, you should continue to wear a mask around others, wash your hands and practice physical distancing. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that both of the authorized vaccines require two doses given three to four weeks apart to achieve the best possible immunity. When you get your first shot, you don’t become immediately immune. It takes at least a week to 10 days for your body to begin to develop antibodies, and then those antibodies continue to increase over the next several weeks. The second is that these vaccines were developed and tested for their ability to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19. It’s not clear whether they also protect against asymptomatic infection and spread.

Myth: “Now that we have vaccines, the pandemic will be over very soon.”

Fact: In order to achieve what’s called herd immunity – the point at which the disease is no longer likely to spread – about 70 percent of the population will need to have been vaccinated or infected. But the companies that make these vaccines can only make so many at a time, so the vaccines will be distributed in phases with priority given to people with greatest need. They may not be widely available to the general public for several months.

Myth: “This vaccine contains egg protein.”

Fact: While most conventional vaccines — including the flu shot — are made with egg protein, the coronavirus vaccine has no trace of nuts, eggs or any food.

Myth: “The vaccine can create serious side effects.”

According to the FDA’s report, 84 percent of any adverse reactions among participants included pain at the injection site. Additionally, 62 percent of participant reactions were fatigue, 55 percent included a headache and less than 40 percent included muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever. Severe adverse reactions occurred in less than 4.6 percent of participants.

Myth: “This vaccine could make women infertile.”

Fact: There is no indication whatsoever that this vaccine would affect the fertility of females.

Myth: “The vaccine will protect us from COVID permanently.” 

Fact: The vaccine has only been around for three or four months since it came off the line. Since the virus has been around for about one year, what we don’t know yet is how durable that effect is. Multiple mutations already may imply need for future boosters.

If you have more questions about the vaccine, talk with your trusted healthcare provider or look to reliable sources, including www.cdc.gov or www.who.int.


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