Vaccine hesitancy is one of our last major hurdles in the fight against COVID-19, and we are racing against the emergence of several variants to avert a (more) prolonged pandemic.
Alarming social media stories portraying COVID vaccines in a negative light have added a dangerous roadblock for many. I hope dispelling these three myths will help others feel ready to safely build protective immunity through vaccination.
Myth 1: The approval process was rushed.
Before last year, vaccines typically took six to 12 years to develop and receive approval, so I see where this is coming from. How did we roll out the current vaccines so quickly without any shortcuts?
First, the trials were well-funded and run by companies that know what they are doing. Second, trial phases were overlapped and not run sequentially. Third, the number of participants were enrolled all at once instead of in phases. Scientists simplified the data collection to two primary questions: Are these vaccines safe? And do they prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death? The vaccines are incredibly safe and highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death, so they received emergency usage approval. Studies did not stop there, though.
Since their approval, we now also know that these vaccines are highly effective at preventing asymptomatic transmission as well. Severe adverse events continue to be rare. These vaccines continue to be effective against most variants. In fact, these vaccines are outperforming our highest hopes.
Myth 2: The vaccines will alter our DNA and create long-term problems.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on mRNA which teaches our cells how to make a protein found on the virus. Because mRNA is found in a different part of the cell than DNA, these vaccines do not affect our DNA. Johnson & Johnson is a viral vector vaccine, and it doesn’t reach our DNA, either.
So what about long-term effects? The initial vaccine products are degraded very quickly by our own cells — within a few days to a week. In general, vaccines rarely create any long-term problems. But delayed effects of vaccination have occurred — for example, with the oral polio vaccine and the yellow fever vaccine. That being said, these delayed reactions have all occurred within six to eight weeks of receiving a booster dose, and the reactions mimic natural infection.
Phase 3 trials for the COVID vaccine evaluated participants for the full eight weeks post-booster. No delayed events were noted. In contrast, the risk for long term and chronic, debilitating disease is significant with natural COVID-19.
Myth 3: COVID vaccines cause infertility.
Perhaps the most damaging vaccine myth to date arose when a doctor out of Germany and a former Pfizer employee raised concern about the similarity between part of the viral spike protein and a protein on the placenta — syncytin-1. The concern was that vaccination would train our immune system to respond to the virus and also unwittingly attack the placenta. There is no sound science to back this claim.
Our immune responses can differentiate viral proteins from placenta very easily and will not mix these up. While these proteins share small areas of similar genetic code, they don’t match. And data supports this as well. Within the vaccine trials, more women became pregnant in the vaccine groups than in the placebo group. We have seen no alterations in fertility rates in the U.S. during the pandemic. If this claim were true, then you would expect our immune systems to create antibodies from natural infection that would target the placenta and affect fertility as well.
On the other hand, pregnant women infected with COVID-19 are at an increased risk of hospitalization and having preterm birth complications and even death. The risk of COVID-19 infection while pregnant is exponentially higher than any vaccination risk.
Many reading this have already received a vaccine or plan to in the future. Thank you. But we all know someone we love who is hesitant to get the vaccine. Choosing whether or not to get a vaccine is too important to be taken lightly. How do we approach this with our loved ones? With kindness, empathy and an open mind.
Ask nicely what is holding them back. More than likely, they either do not believe it to be effective or do not believe the benefits outweigh the risks. Ask them to clarify what is creating their hesitancy. Recognize that people are trying to do what is best for their families. And then, if you are unsure how to respond, educate yourself before having another discussion. You have more influence than you realize, especially with people who know and love you. Lead by example.
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy will not be won by the president, Dr. Anthony Fauci or a celebrity, but by grassroots efforts in our local communities that simply show we care. This is a team effort.
Dr. Jennifer Rudd is an infectious disease specialist in Oklahoma State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.