COVID-19 myths debunked and common questions answered

COVID-19 Vaccine

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues across the country, many people are hesitant to get the vaccine. Some have unanswered questions or personal health concerns, while others have been scared away by rumors circulating on social media. We asked East Tennessee viewers what questions they wanted answered or myths debunked. We took those to the researcher at Vanderbilt University who led the Moderna vaccine trials, Dr. Spyros Kalams. We also used information from various other medical sources to provide context and answers.

MYTH: The vaccine gives you COVID-19.
FACT: This is false.

“Not true. There’s no virus in it,” Kalams said. “It’s physically impossible.”

He said this is a persistent myth that accompanies many vaccines.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines give you a piece of the genetic material or RNA. Your cells turn it into a protein of the coronavirus. From there, your body recognizes it is unfamiliar or “not human,” according to Kalams. It then creates an antibody against it.

The RNA eventually goes away, but the immune response sticks around. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a “viral vector” vaccine. It does not contain any virus, either.

MYTH: The vaccine alters your DNA.
FACT: This is false.

“The RNA vaccines don’t alter our DNA in any way. They get in, they do their job, and then RNA is only there for a short amount of time and then is degraded and goes away and none of the current vaccines, including the non-RNA vaccine like whether you’re getting the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, for instance, they don’t alter your DNA,” Kalams explained. “They’re there. They do their job. Your immune system responds to the vaccine. Your immune system is designed to remember things. That’s why it remembers that pattern and so it’s ready to act when the virus comes into your body and is ready to eliminate the virus.”

According to Johns Hopkins University, “the messenger RNA from two of the first types of COVID-19 vaccines does enter cells, but not the nucleus of the cells where DNA resides. The mRNA does its job to cause the cell to make protein to stimulate the immune system, and then it quickly breaks down without affecting your DNA.”

MYTH: You can still get COVID-19 even if you’ve been vaccinated.
FACT: This is true.

“That one’s true. That’s true, so what does that mean? Nothing is perfect. People may have heard that phrase that nothing is perfect and this is true for vaccines, as well. To have a vaccine that is 95% effective or more at keeping you out of the hospital is a good thing,” he explained.

Kalams said there is still more data to be collected on this, but the vaccines are proven to be highly effective at reducing symptoms if you do contract COVID-19 and preventing infection.

It’s similar to a flu shot, he said. You can still get the flu after having gotten a flu shot, but he said he gets it every year to minimize symptoms should he contract the flu. The symptoms are milder and you are much less likely to transmit it, according to Kalams.

“Our preliminary data shows that this is going to be the case with all of these vaccines. First, we realize that they prevent people from getting severe COVID, which is fantastic, but more and more data are coming out that it’s not just that, they prevent asymptomatic disease. They prevent you from getting infected and if you are infected, you’re carrying a lot less virus, which means you’re less likely to spread it,” he said.

MYTH: The vaccine can cause infertility.
FACT: This is false.

“Can I say busted?” Kalams asked.

This rumor is not new, but did recently begin to circulate again with the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to this article on Women’s Health.

“Implausible,” he explained. “How do you test something like that? That would take a long period of time, but before you jump to a conclusion like that, is it plausible that the vaccine would cause infertility? I don’t know if you heard how this came about, but someone somewhere thought that some pieces of the virus might look a little bit like some of the proteins that are on the placenta and based on that kind of, I don’t even call it an observation, this myth came about, but there’s no reason to believe that that would be the case for a vaccine that it would cause infertility. Secondly, if you’re concerned about proteins from the virus looking too much like the placenta you, you know what would be the problem? Actual COVID. You know, the infection, so in any case it’s not a plausible concern.”

Kalams said during the Moderna trials several participants received vaccines and then became pregnant. According to Johns Hopkins, “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.”

Kalams also said there is no evidence to show the vaccine is unsafe for pregnant women. He said women who happened to be pregnant at the time they got vaccinated in the trials haven’t had any safety concerns.

However, he said it is absolutely true that getting infected with COVID-19 causes a higher rate of premature birth.

MYTH: If you’ve already had COVID-19, you don’t need to get vaccinated.
FACT: This is false.

“Plausible, but busted,” Kalams said. “I don’t want to dismiss the fact that if you are infected, if you’ve been infected, it really does appear that you are protected for some time.”

The actual length of protection from original infection is still unclear. Reinfection does occur, according to Kalams. He said even if you had mild symptoms the first time around, you may not be so lucky the second time.

According to Johns Hopkins, “There is not enough information currently available to say if or for how long people are protected from getting COVID-19 after they have had it (natural immunity). Early evidence suggests natural immunity from COVID-19 may not last very long, but more studies are needed to better understand this.”

Researchers are currently studying the immunity of those who have been infected with COVID-19. You can read more about what they’re finding in this article by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Kalams said if you currently have COVID-19, you should wait until you have recovered to get the vaccine. However, the vaccine would not make a current infection any worse.

MYTH: The making of the vaccine was rushed, so it isn’t safe.
FACT: This is false.

You may wonder how they came up with the vaccine so quickly and if it’s safe do that fast. Kalams said funding poured in because this was a pandemic. So many people have the virus and it is spreading. The entire population of the world is dealing with this. Resources were dumped in to finding a vaccine. That’s unusual.

“It is absolutely true that, as we have mentioned, that the vaccine was designed and implemented in record time, but not because any steps were skipped,” he said.

He explained the same steps to approval were followed including trials like the ones he headed up. Everything was just sped up. A Knoxville couple knows how those trials went. You can read about their experience participating here.

Additionally, the method used to create these vaccines had already been in the works for years. Researchers didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Johns Hopkins has a break down of how this vaccine was developed so quickly and what factors played a role.

MYTH: If you have any allergies, you shouldn’t get the vaccine.
FACT: This is false.

There have been reports of allergic reactions to the vaccines.

“Thought to be due to the lipids, the little fatty particles that keep the RNA distributions, so it can get to your cells properly,” Kalams explained. “There are some documented allergies to some of the components of the vaccine and so far there have been a few cases of anaphylaxis, just hives and shortness of breath, but mild. Some people have EpiPens, but the current recommendation is if you’re somebody who is allergic to things and carries an EpiPen with you, you can get the vaccine. But that’s why we build in this observation period. If it’s going to happen, it happens early.”

The CDC recommends that people get vaccinated even if they have a history of severe allergic reactions not related to vaccines or injectable medications such as food, pet, venom, environmental or latex allergies. The CDC also reports people with a history of allergies to oral medications or a family history of severe allergic reactions may also get vaccinated. There is a page dedicated on the CDC website to allergies and the COVID-19 vaccine.

CDC research showed monitoring by the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System detected 21 cases of anaphylaxis from Dec. 14-23 after 1,893,360 first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. According to this research, 71% of those occurred within 15 minutes of vaccination.

The CDC and FDA investigate reports of adverse reactions or death. You can read that information or make a report here.

MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccine causes HIV.
FACT: This is false.

“Is there a phrase that’s more busted?”

Kalams asked. He said this is simply an out of the blue conspiracy theory.

This myth appears to have been born out of Australia. It is false. You can read more about that here.

MYTH: There’s no need for a vaccine because most people won’t die from COVID-19 anyway.
FACT: This is false.

“After all we’ve seen, I see hospital admissions and death all the time, so that’s a weird logical fallacy,” Kalams said. “It is true that a lot of people are asymptomatic with COVID. A lot of people have a really severe disease. Of those, most people will survive and a percentage will die, but as you can see, a small percentage of a very, very big number is still a very big number.”

As of this publication, more than 545,000 Americans had died from COVID-19.

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic report, “It’s important to recognize that getting the vaccine is not just about survival from COVID-19. It’s about preventing spread of the virus to others and preventing infection that can lead to long-term negative health effects. While no vaccine is 100% effective, they are far better than not getting a vaccine. The benefits certainly outweigh the risks in healthy people.”

MYTH: The vaccine will implant a microchip.
FACT: This is false.

“That’s kind of crazy busted,” Kalams said.

There is no vaccine microchip, and the vaccine will not track people or gather personal information into a database, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“This myth started after comments made by Bill Gates from The Gates Foundation about a digital certificate of vaccine records. The technology he was referencing is not a microchip, has not been implemented in any manner and is not tied to the development, testing or distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” according to an article on Mayo Clinic’s website.

MYTH: The vaccines were developed using fetal tissue.
FACT: This is false.

Kalams said this myth has surrounded vaccines for decades. He explained where it began.

“Cells that grow in culture forever, some of them were made in the 70s and 80s and they were cell lines that were generated from fetal tissues,” he explained. “They were not used for any part of the manufacturing for the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.”

The cell lines can be used in testing the vaccine and growing a virus, according to Kalams, but there was no use of fetal tissue in the manufacturing of these vaccines.

Johns Hopkins goes further into detail about the ingredients used saying, “The first two COVID-19 vaccines to be authorized by the FDA contain mRNA and other, normal vaccine ingredients, such as fats (which protect the mRNA), salts, as well as a small amount of sugar. These COVID-19 vaccines were not developed using fetal tissue, and they do not contain any material, such as implants, microchips or tracking devices.”

The ingredient list is also available within the package insert to the vaccines.

MYTH: Variants are going to infect us later, so the current vaccines are useless.
FACT: This is false.

“This is what viruses do, they change,” Kalams explained. “The variants don’t get around every part of our immune response. A lot of these vaccines are making antibodies that seem to be able to prevent these variants from infection or, again, give you milder disease.”

Additionally, Kalams said researchers are already working on updates or changes to current vaccines to prevent the variants. Companies are working to make vaccines specifically tailored to these variants. He said Moderna is working on rolling out a version of the vaccine for variants.

This article published by the Association of American Medical Colleges goes through how vaccinating for variants works. Doctors explain how this could lead to COVID-19 becoming nothing more than a common cold.

MYTH: Getting the vaccine will make chronic illness worse and set off a flare.
FACT: This is unlikely.

Kalams said there is no evidence that getting a COVID-19 vaccine would make a chronic condition flare up.

“Chronic illness is a pretty wide-ranging term, but I have to say for all we had lots of people with preexisting conditions and chronic illnesses in our trial. We had no adverse events that we could see from the vaccine,” he said.

He said if you have a chronic illness and are worried about a flare, COVID-19 itself would be more detrimental than any vaccine.

If you are concerned about a personal health condition, talk with your doctor.

MYTH: We can’t know if the vaccine is safe long term since it is so new.
FACT: This is unlikely.

Kalams said while it is true that nothing will substitute monitoring people for decades, the experience with vaccine manufacturing, research, and trials done provide a confident picture of long-term effects.

“These things will be observed over time. The only way to get long-term safety is watching something long term. However, I learned early on in med school that when you do a study you can either study a small number of people for a long, long time, or you can study a whole bunch of people at once to get some idea of safety,” he explained.

Kalams said they are doing both by vaccinating a lot of people in the trials and continuing to monitor them over time. There were 30,000 people in the Moderna vaccine trial alone.

“I’m just heartened. We really haven’t seen any safety signals coming out and we’ve been vaccinating people for months now,” he said.

MYTH: Because it was given approval through the FDA for emergency use, it’s not actually approved yet, so it’s a mass experiment.
FACT: This is false.

“It’s not an experiment at this point anymore. We’re seeing real-world effects. Just because you are publishing data doesn’t mean it is an experiment,” Kalams said. “You’re giving real-world shots, you’re preventing real disease, and what you’re doing is you’re publishing data in very transparent way.”

This Mayo Clinic article explains, “To receive emergency use authorization, the biopharmaceutical manufacturer must have followed at least half of the study participants for at least two months after completing the vaccination series, and the vaccine must be proven safe and effective in that population.”

“In addition to the safety review by the FDA, the Advisory Committee on Immunization has convened a panel of vaccine safety experts to independently evaluate the safety data from the clinical trial. Mayo Clinic vaccine experts also will review the available data. The safety of COVID-19 vaccine will continue to be closely monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA.”

MYTH: People who have had COVID-19 are more likely to experience symptoms after getting the vaccine.
FACT: This is possible.

“I think people who have had the COVID infection, when they get that first vaccine, it can almost appear like a boost,” he said. “It’s like people who have never been infected with COVID are more likely to have symptoms, big sore arm, maybe a low-grade fever, they’re more likely to get it after the second vaccine. In people with prior COVID infection that first vaccination can probably feel like the second shot to somebody who has never been infected, but we’ve had plenty of people who had COVID, got the shot and had no side effects.”

In this article, Kalams explained why the second dose of the vaccine may cause more symptoms than the first.

Johns Hopkins reports, “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.”

MYTH: The coronavirus has been around for decades.
FACT: This is true.

“True. Not this one, but a version of coronavirus has been around for a long time,” Kalams said. “There are seasonal coronaviruses that we test for. They cause the common cold. This one is a version of those. It’s actually on its own little tree. When you do the sequences you can make what’s called a little phylogenetic tree to see how much they are related. This one’s on its own branch.”

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