Debunking vaccine myths and growing concerns

pharmafile | September 28, 2021 | Feature | Manufacturing and Production  

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines were never seen as a quick fix. Preventative vaccines for Ebola, malaria, and the Zika virus were slow going, and the global scale of COVID-19 prompted swift action. Vaccines are now part of our daily lexicon, their numbers explained every day in the news.

Most people have an opinion on vaccines, whether that be pro or con, and the latter’s anti-vaccination movement has garnered a large following.

For many people, getting vaccinated seems like the clear thing to do, but this isn’t the case for everyone – whether that be due to concerns, myths, reluctance, and misinformation.

The COVID-19 vaccines split the population, with misconceptions clashing with scientific fact. Let’s take a look at which of these are based on fact, and those that are dubious at best.

Vaccines affect fertility

There has been a lot of talk of the COVID-19 vaccine affecting women’s fertility, which has caused anxiety and led to vaccine reluctance. However, according to Lisa Maragakis MD, Senior Director of Infection Prevention, and Gabor Kelen MD, Director of the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, this is a myth.

“The COVID-19 vaccine will not affect fertility. The truth is that the COVID-19 vaccine encourages the body to create copies of the spike protein found on the coronavirus’s surface. This ‘teaches’ the body’s immune system to fight the virus that has that specific spike protein on it.

“Confusion arose when a false report surfaced on social media, saying that the spike protein on this coronavirus was the same as another spike protein called syncitin-1 that is involved in the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy.

“The false report said that getting the COVID-19 vaccine would cause a woman’s body to fight this different spike protein and affect her fertility. The two spike proteins are completely different and distinct, and getting the COVID-19 vaccine will not affect the fertility of women who are seeking to become pregnant, including through in vitro fertilisation methods.

“During the Pfizer vaccine tests, 23 women volunteers involved in the study became pregnant, and the only one who suffered a pregnancy loss had not received the actual vaccine, but a placebo.

“Getting COVID-19, on the other hand, can have potentially serious impact on pregnancy and the mother’s health. Johns Hopkins Medicine encourages women to reach out to their medical providers to discuss other questions they have about COVID-19 as it relates to fertility or pregnancy.”

Development has been ‘rushed’

Some vaccine hesitant people are concerned by the speed that the vaccines were developed, as it usually takes eight to ten years to develop a vaccine from start to finish. According to MU Health Care, “The vaccines are proven safe and effective. Although they were developed in record time, they have gone through the same rigorous FDA process as other vaccines, meeting all safety standards.”

Additionally, Beneden Health says that ‘rushed’ suggests that researchers weren’t following their usual rigorous standards and that corners were cut. That isn’t the case. Rapid development and testing of vaccines isn’t common practice – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t safe. Vaccine development is usually slowed thanks to the bureaucracy, funding issues, and waiting for assessment panel dates. Due to the emergency situation, COVID-19 vaccines haven’t been faced with these usual delays.

“The COVID-19 vaccines have had to meet all the expected robust clinical milestones with no safety shortcuts. None of the usual steps were left out in the reported vaccine development. The MHRA has strict quality, safety, and effectiveness metrics that all medications (including vaccines) must pass. All the vaccines licenced within the UK have passed their strict processes.

“These vaccines are new, which means it’s impossible to have long-term data at this time. However, these vaccines have been licenced as safe, effective, and the best option to prevent illness and death.

“No steps were skipped. Instead, we can thank the unprecedented worldwide collaboration and investment for the shorter timeframe on the development of the vaccines. The clinical trials and safety reviews actually took about the same amount of time as other vaccines.”

Vaccines will alter DNA

Another common fear about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they alter your DNA, specifically vaccines that use mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) technology. But this is another misconception, according to Benenden Health: “The types of vaccine licenced for use against COVID-19 don’t interact with or alter your DNA. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are based on messenger RNA.

“mRNA is a small molecule made naturally by your cells, as well as bacteria and viruses. It provides a blueprint for protein manufacture. In vaccine form, they act as chemical negotiators within the body to teach it how to develop an immune response against COVID-19.

“mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell (which is where our DNA is kept) and therefore doesn’t interact with our DNA in any way. To genetically modify your DNA, you’d need to insert a foreign DNA into the nucleus of a human cell, and vaccines can’t do that.”

Those who have had COVID-19

Many people say that if they’ve already had COVID-19, or think they have, then there’s no need for them to get the vaccine. This has meant many people who are legible for the vaccine have not received it. The experts at Hopkins Medicine say: “People who have gotten sick with COVID-19 may still benefit from getting vaccinated. Due to the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the fact that re-infection with COVID-19 is possible, people may be advised to get a COVID-19 vaccine even if they have been sick with COVID-19 before.

“There is not enough information currently available to conclude that getting COVID-19 leads to natural immunity (the immunity someone gains from having an infection. Early evidence suggests natural immunity from COVID-19 may not last very long, but more studies are needed to better understand this.

“Several subjects in the Pfizer trial, who were previously infected, got vaccinated without ill effects. Some scientists believe the vaccine offers better protection for coronavirus than natural infection.”

According to MU Health Care, “If you have already had COVID-19, there’s evidence that you can still benefit from the vaccine. At this time, experts don’t know how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19. Natural immunity varies from person to person. Some early evidence suggests natural immunity may not last very long.”

Vaccines cause blood clots

A great deal of attention has been drawn to the risk of blood clots from the vaccines, specifically Oxford-AstraZeneca. Due to this, many people have not received the vaccine for fear of falling ill with a rare clot and dying.

The fact is, there is a very small risk of developing a blood clot. According to Beneden, “Some people are concerned about the risk of blood clots from the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. There have been a very small number of reports of an extremely rare form of blood clot in the cerebral veins occurring soon after vaccination. This type of blood clot is called sinus vein thrombosis.

“They can occur in people who haven’t been vaccinated. 5 in 10,000 of people will get a blood clot with the oral contraceptive pill. The risk of developing a blood clot from a long-haul flight is about 1 per 1,000.

“On the other hand, the risk of getting a blood clot after having the vaccine is just four per million. With that in mind, the risk from the vaccine is comparatively small.

“Researchers found that someone who’s been vaccinated is no more likely to have one of these blood clots than the general population.

“The JCVI has advised that anyone under the age of 40 should be offered an alternative vaccine. This weighs up the risk of being seriously ill with COVID-19 or the extremely small risk of a serious adverse event.”

What can be done to combat misinformation?

Vaccine misinformation has the potential to hinder the progress of vaccination rollouts to fight COVID-19. Pharmafocus spoke to the vaccine alliance, Gavi, about what can be done to combat this growing issue.

“Vaccine misinformation is a challenge around the world and existed well before the outbreak of COVID-19. While factors can vary considerably, one common denominator is lack of access to high quality information. We also know that misinformation is often shared by family, friends, occasionally politicians, religious leaders, and even doctors, which makes community-level action crucial.

“Gavi and partners work closely with local groups and leaders to build trust and confidence. Our on-the-ground partners, including governments and UNICEF, work closely with local and religious leaders as well as community mobilisers to engage communities. They provide them with the necessary communication tools to help respond to questions and concerns about vaccines that they may get and help build demand for vaccines.”

Asked specifically about social media, and its pivotal role in spreading misinformation about vaccines: “The power and influence of social media has contributed to the spread of misinformation. While platforms are stepping up efforts to evaluate the trustworthiness of content, there is much more work to be done. Gavi continues to collaborate with social media platforms with the goal of preventing misinformation, and we urge these platforms to continue this hard work.

“A fundamental component of building confidence in vaccines is transparency and enhancing access to accurate information. For instance, we know that all vaccines that WHO has listed for emergency use have been proved to be effective by both laboratory testing and extensive real-world evidence. And from the data we know that COVID-19 vaccines have predictably prevented illness, and they are a far safer bet than contracting the virus itself.

“Simply put, vaccines save lives.”


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