From bogus to bizarre: A roundup of some common Covid-19 vaccine myths

We address some of the common misunderstandings and myths related to Covid-19 vaccines.
Published January 5, 2021

For a crisis that seemed unending in 2020, we may have finally arrived at the light at the end of the tunnel — the mass rollout of Covid-19 vaccines has kicked off the biggest inoculation campaign in history.

Covid-19 vaccines from a variety of manufacturers such as Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Sinopharm have been authorised for rollout in various countries while the shot by AstraZeneca has been authorised for use by the UK government. Close to three million Americans have been vaccinated since the rollout began with China, the origin of the outbreak, also vaccinating one million people.

Pakistan also keenly awaits wide availability of the vaccine. Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar has said that Pakistan has authorised procurement of one million vaccine shots which "will cover all frontline health workers" as soon as they are approved. He said the target for their release was the "first quarter of 2021".

Pakistan recently crossed the 10,000 fatality mark but despite that, a Gallup Pakistan poll conducted last month showed 37 per cent of Pakistanis would not get a vaccine once it became available. This is an "alarming number" according to the pollster's executive director, Bilal Gilani.

Pakistan cannot afford a sustained presence of the coronavirus and the public needs to get aboard a mass inoculation program for the country to get rid of Covid-19.

A representation of the novel coronavirus. — Graphic: Reuters

Here, we address some of the common misunderstandings and myths related to Covid-19 vaccines.

I don’t have to follow SOPs or take precautions after the vaccine

One of the most common misconceptions about not just the Covid-19 vaccines but vaccines in general is that they provide some kind of one-shot permanent protection. This is not true since no vaccine is 100pc effective and there’s always a chance you might fall ill again since vaccines have an active life of a couple of months. This is also why we need booster shots since the effects of the vaccine can wane off.

You should, therefore, continue with following standard operating procedures and taking precautions for Covid-19 since it is still not known if vaccinated individuals can act as carriers or not.

Furthermore, there have been cases of some individuals getting infected with Covid-19 despite being vaccinated. This is because the effect of the vaccine kicks in over a number of days and you aren't afforded complete protection until you complete the vaccination course.

"We know from the vaccine clinical trials that it’s going to take about 10 to 14 days for you to start to develop protection from the vaccine. That first dose we think gives you somewhere around 50pc, and you need that second dose to get up to 95pc," said Dr Christian Ramers, an infectious disease specialist with Family Health Centres of San Diego.

Have people died after getting the Covid-19 vaccine?

You might be one of the many who have heard the rumour that the coronavirus vaccines "killed early adopters". You may have come across many posts and manipulated videos of this nature on social media platforms as well.

The truth is that there have been no deaths from the Covid-19 vaccine rollout. This hoax seems to have come up due to the Facebook post of the nurse in Alabama who died after receiving the vaccine. The Alabama Department of Public Health released a statement on Twitter and confirmed the entire incident was a hoax and a case of disinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine.

Most of these original posts have since been deleted and the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) said it had no reports about any such claims or events.

But what about people who died in the vaccine trials?

Yes, people did die during trials for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine but those deaths were not caused by the vaccine. Only two out of the six people who died from a trial of 44,000 samples were actually administered the vaccine. The others had received placebos.

"None of these deaths were assessed by the investigator as related to study intervention. All deaths represent events that occur in the general population of the age groups where they occurred, at a similar rate,” said the US Food and Drug Administration on the deaths.

The virus commonly enters the human body through the eyes, nose or mouth. Graphic: Reuters

The vaccine has not had enough testing time and skipped animal trials

The coronavirus vaccines have been developed on an accelerated schedule which has caused some to eye it with suspicion with regards to their authenticity and efficacy. A frequently asked question is that if vaccines normally take years of testing, how can the Covid-19 vaccine be available within an year?

“The vaccines have been very well studied,” said Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. “There were 43,661 people enrolled in the randomised Pfizer clinical trial, including 225 at UC Davis Health, which was one of 150 sites to take part in the trial. The results were carefully reviewed. Both vaccines have been scientifically proven to be very safe.”

"The only difference is that some of the stages overlapped so, for example, phase three of the trial — when tens of thousands of people are given the vaccine — started while phase two, involving a few hundred people, was still going on," says BBC Health reporter Rachel Schraer.

The coronavirus has been a historic event so it merited a historic reaction. The reason that development of the Covid-19 vaccines progressed so quickly are actually manifold. Countries across the world had started development amidst international cooperation and exchange of information; they were also building upon years of prior work in treating viruses like SARS and MERS and studying messenger RNAs (mRNA).

The Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines have also not skipped animal trials and were tested on thousands of people as well before being licensed and approved for mass use.

The vaccine can induce allergic reactions, making it dangerous to take

Footage and news of allergic reactions from the vaccine shots have been making rounds for a while now around the globe.

The vaccines may induce an allergic reaction in some individuals but this is not a cause for concern since allergic reactions are a natural part of the body responding to the vaccine. That being said, allergic reactions in the coronavirus vaccines are typically rare, occurring at a rate of about one in a million.

The university of Alabama at Birmingham says according to data from 40,000 individuals, the most common reactions were injection site reactions (84.1pc), fatigue (62.9pc), headache (55.1pc), muscle pain (38.3pc), chills (31.9pc), joint pain (23.6pc) and fever (14.2pc). These are short-lived and mean the body's immune system is reacting to the vaccine and producing antibodies.

Those with a history of severe allergic reactions have been advised to not take the vaccine at this time. The cases reported in the media of those who had severe reactions, most of them had a history of being prone to allergies.

Common symptoms caused by the novel coronavirus. — Graphic: Reuters

Do Covid-19 vaccines have microchips which can track patients?

Vaccines almost always have various conspiracy theories surrounding them. Stories of secret societies using vaccines to quell the populace and establish their dominance for some 'new world order' are very common. "Is there a conspiracy to control people en masse?" said Dr Mohsin Ali at Islamabad's Shifa International Hospital, recounting the sometimes bizarre doubts clouding people's minds.

Among the popular theories about Covid-19 vaccines is that they contain microchips, which track patients and keep a record of their movement and in more extreme scenarios, serve as mechanisms of mind control.

Outside the realm of fanciful fiction, the truth is no microchip of any kind is inserted into patients to track them after a vaccine shot. The microchip is not even currently used for vaccine production and has an entirely different purpose.

It is attached like a barcode to vials of the vaccines and tracks information about remaining doses, expiry dates, etc, and does not contain personal information about patients.

Will the Covid-19 vaccine alter and change my DNA?

The idea that the coronavirus vaccines will change humans on a genetic level is one of the most common myths surrounding them. No, they will not alter or change your DNA in any way. Vaccines based in mRNA technology like Pfizer and Moderna merely use genetic material from the virus to send instructions to your body which help it to produce antibodies to fight the virus.

"Injecting RNA into a person doesn't do anything to the DNA of a human cell," Prof Jeffrey Almond of Oxford University was quoted as saying by the BBC.

According to Blumberg, these are not DNA-based vaccines. "They’re mRNA based. They do not enter the cell nucleus, where our DNA is. They cannot modify any cell DNA."

It is, thus, physically impossible for mRNAs to change your genetic structure.

Isn't it suspicious that mRNA technology has never been used before in vaccines?

Yes, mRNA technology has never been approved before for vaccine use but that does not make it suspicious. It has been studied many times in humans over the last few years and has been tested on tens of thousands of people before final approval for the coronavirus vaccine.

Media vaccinations of individuals are staged since the needles disappear?

Several important personalities and politicians — from US Vice President Mike Pence to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — have received vaccination shots in public to convince their people to get vaccinated.

In a bizarre claim, there is an idea floating online that these vaccinations are staged since no needle can be seen once the syringe is retracted.

This is one theory which can be laid to rest very easily: the media vaccinations are not staged or fake. The reason the needles ‘disappear’ and aren’t seen once the person has been vaccinated is because that is how safety syringes operate.

Safety syringes have been used for more than 10 years at this point and contain a retracting needle. This retracting needle protects medical staff from exposure to infection or any injuries.

These are the six main types of vaccines in the works to build immunity against the coronavirus. — Graphic: Reuters

The vaccine is not needed since the recovery rate from the coronavirus is so high

Many people have misunderstood that a high recovery rate for Covid-19 means there is no real need for the vaccine since the chances of patients passing away are so low.

Jason Oke, senior statistician at the University of Oxford, said to BBC, "About 99pc of people who catch Covid-19, survive it."

That recovery rate still means 100 out of 10,000 people will die. Not to mention, recovery depends on a range of factors like age, immunity and access to medical facilities.

Of the people who recover, some have mild symptoms while others have to suffer great pain and difficulty while undergoing expensive medical care. Furthermore, the long term effects of the virus are still not fully understood but experts say there are long term consequences of the virus in people who recover.

Some of the commonly reported problems from surviving a Covid-19 infection according to BBC health and science correspondent James Gallagher are:

"Breathlessness, a cough that won't go away, joint pain, muscle aches, hearing and eyesight problems, headaches, loss of smell and taste as well as damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys and gut. Mental health problems have [also] been reported including depression, anxiety and struggling to think clearly."

Can the coronavirus vaccines infect you with the disease?

Some people have the misconception that coronavirus vaccines can infect you with the actual disease itself, with some myths going as far as to suggest that the vaccines deliberately infect people who otherwise did not have the disease — for some nefarious agenda.

This is based on a simple misunderstanding of how vaccines are developed and work. Messenger RNA vaccines can't infect you since as we already mentioned above; they don't contain the virus, only some genetic instructions from it.

But what about inactivated vaccines like Sinopharm?

Inactivated vaccines use a weakened form of the virus to provoke the body's immune system into a response. This is an older technology for developing vaccines like the polio vaccine or rabies vaccine. China's Sinopharm vaccine was also developed using this technology.

So far, countries have reported different efficacy rates for Sinopharm, from 86pc from the UAE to 79.3pc from China itself.

In the end, however, this may not be a concern since an efficacy of 79.3pc is still well above the minimum 70pc requirement from the World Health Organisation and well above the 50pc of the US Food and Drug Administration.

Those efficacy levels are still well above the efficacy of flu vaccines which varies from 40 to 60pc according to the US CDC.

Do vaccines use tissue from an aborted fetus?

In a claim right out of the pages of some science-fiction horror story, there is one theory floating around in the USA that coronavirus vaccines use material from aborted fetuses in their composition.

This has no truth to it; vaccines do not use material originating from fetal tissue of an aborted baby at any point of the design process. This claim appears to have originated because of a misunderstanding of how the vaccine research and production process works.

"There are no fetal cells used in any vaccine production process," said Dr Michael Head, of the University of Southampton, to BBC.

Vaccine production process uses cloned human cells to research how the virus and vaccine interact with human cells. These cells are only for the purpose of research and are not present in the final vaccine. They also do not come from the cells of an aborted fetus but are artificially grown in a lab.

I've heard that Bill Gates will not take the vaccine

Conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and the Gates family — he was also part of the superstition regarding the microchips we covered above — aren't a new thing; the latest is that he plans to skip the coronavirus vaccine.

This is false. The Gates family are supporters of vaccinations. Bill gates in an interview with NBC's Today show also said he would immediately take the vaccine depending on where his place in the line is.

He also hailed the progress and speed in developing the coronavirus vaccine and said, "Humans have never made more progress on any disease in a year than the world did on Covid-19 this year." So the notion that he plans to avoid the vaccine is a patently silly one.

Header image: A Covid-19 virion attacks a human cell as antibodies attempt to come to its rescue. Graphic: Reuters