Misinformation shared online threatens to undermine New Zealand's big push to lift vaccination rates above 90 per cent, which could bring us fewer Covid-19 deaths and hospital cases, and more freedom. Here, University of Auckland vaccinologist Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris debunks 10 of the biggest vaccine myths circulating on social media.
1. No, vaccine-related hospitalisations aren't being hushed up
There are many approaches to assessing the safety of vaccines after they're introduced. One is to collect reports of adverse events that occur after the administration of vaccines, even if the vaccine might not have caused the event. These reports are encouraged, particularly if serious or unexpected. On average, every day in New Zealand, thousands of people are admitted to hospitals for all sorts of things – and an average 94 people die, if we take figures for the 12 months to June 2020 - at a time we are vaccinating between 30,000 and 90,000 people every day, just with the Covid-19 vaccine. You can imagine that hospitalisations and deaths will occur in the days after vaccination, just by chance. In order to figure out if the vaccine has had a role in the event, experts use rigorous methods to assess the causality. The other things they do is see if more events of different kinds are occurring that we would normally expect. Finally, we can do studies where we compare the risk of certain conditions between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. So far, the vaccines are extremely safe and serious adverse events are very rare indeed. This is the consensus of different groups of vaccine safety experts all over the world, including New Zealand. Where risks have been identified, they have been added to the product information.
2. No, vaccines don't affect womens' fertility
Fertility is something that is deeply cherished; after all, the survival of our species depends on it. There have been rumours that Covid-19 vaccines affect fertility. Even though there is no evidence that this is the case, such rumours can cause people to worry. There seems to be two sources of these rumours. One appears to be from a misreading of a study presented to a regulator where rats were given 1,333 times the vaccine dose. The other stems from a claim that there was similarity between the viral spike protein and a protein in placentas. In fact, there is no more similarity between these than any other random protein. However, most importantly, data from many sources shows that there is no difference in the fertility rate among vaccinated women and unvaccinated women. In contrast, infection with Covid-19 is associated with many risks to the mother and the pregnancy, So, the best protection for women who are planning to become pregnant or who are already pregnant is vaccination against this virus.
3. No, vaccines can't harm children
Pediatricians are seeing many more young children being admitted to hospital with severe Covid-19 than they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Also, children can be affected by what is called "long Covid". The Pfizer vaccine has now completed trials in children down to age 5 years and millions of doses have been given to children aged over 12 years. Countries all over the world are monitoring the safety very, very closely. It is very clear that the vaccine has a very good safety profile in children and it is also very effective. A lower dose is being used in the 5-to-11-year-olds. There is a lot more risk from the disease than there is from the vaccine, even in these younger age groups.
4. No, vaccines don't cause magnetism
There are no metallic ingredients in the vaccine. However, some viral video clips have been circulating showing people sticking things like cutlery to their bodies and claiming that the vaccine has made them magnetic. You can get a spoon and stick it to the human body because the body can be a little sweaty. There are experiments that you can do at home with iron fortified breakfast cereal - which does actually contain iron - and a magnet where you can actually attract the iron to the magnet. Yet, even if you eat a lot of breakfast cereal you do not become magnetic. The vaccine does not and cannot cause you to become magnetic.
5. No, natural remedies and immunity are not more effective against Covid-19
Keeping well with a good diet and exercise are important components in a healthy immune system. However, there is no evidence that healthy living prevents people from becoming infected with Covid-19. In addition, even though there have been many studies, there is no evidence that various natural remedies prevent people from becoming very ill with Covid-19. The clinical trials assessed the efficacy of the vaccine in many people, some with underlying health conditions and others with no health problems. The vaccine efficacy was high in both groups and there was no evidence that healthy people got less Covid-19 disease.
6. No, Covid-19 vaccines can't alter your cellular DNA
Each of our cells contains a copy of DNA, which is contained in a special compartment called the nucleus. The nucleus has a wall around it; mRNA cannot get into the nucleus and doesn't have any instructions to do so. Even if it could get into this area, it cannot integrate or interfere with the DNA, as it does not have the instructions to do this either. Shortly after injection, in hours to days, the mRNA disintegrates. Covid-19 vaccines cannot and do not interfere with DNA.
7. No, the vaccine can't cause cancer
Cancer occurs when cells divide out of control. Normally, there are genes that regulate the way in which cells divide, either by speeding it up or slowing it down. To cause cancer, a vaccine would need to interfere with the DNA, particularly the genes that control cell division. There are no components in the vaccine that can do this. The vaccine cannot, and does not, cause cancer. In contrast, we have two vaccines in widespread use that prevent cancer, human papillomavirus and hepatitis B vaccines.
Where to get a vaccination in Auckland - without a booking
8. No, the vaccines aren't still 'experimental'
The Pfizer vaccine trials for the primary study endpoints (efficacy and safety) were achieved late in 2020. They were no longer experimental once authorised for use. There is a misunderstanding that, because the trial end date is 2023, the vaccine must be "experimental". In fact, the end date is to allow for other endpoints to be completed, one example is the effect of a booster dose in a sub group of participants. Holding on to the trial participants allows for valuable additional information to be collected along with all the other studies that will continue. It is normal to study vaccines for the entire time they are in use, no matter if this is years or decades. The Covid-19 vaccines have been used all over the world in billions of people. In the US alone, it's estimated that these vaccines have prevented an estimated 140,000 deaths.
9. No, vaccine companies aren't exempt from all liability
Once a vaccine is licensed for use, most countries have a system for injury compensation, should someone suffer a vaccine-related adverse event. If every person who believed they had been injured by a vaccine sued the vaccine manufacturer, nobody would make vaccines because it costs millions to deal with these things. In New Zealand, ACC provides this cover. But to say "vaccine companies are exempt from all liability" is wrong. A vaccine company can still be held accountable if there is willful misconduct such as fraud or deceit. However, if there are unforeseen problems, then no. During a pandemic there is already a precedent set for indemnifying vaccine manufacturers. This does not mean the vaccines are not safe.
10. No, vaccines don't just reduce symptoms
There are several reasons why getting vaccinated is a good idea. One, because it reduces the risk of getting infected, particularly in the first few months of vaccination. Second, around nine in 10 vaccinated people will not get symptoms. Thirdly, very few vaccinated people become very ill. Fourthly, getting vaccinated prevents the hospitals becoming overwhelmed and protects the health-care professionals. Fifthly, getting vaccinated can lower the risk of transmission of the virus to the rest of the community. Finally, getting vaccinated will help get us all out of this pandemic.