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5 popular myths about the COVID-19 vaccine and what the science really says

While new technology made it possible for quick vaccine development, the experts urge people not to fall victim to myths about it.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

This week health care workers across the United States proudly bared their arms to be the first to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Yet, misinformation about coronavirus vaccines started circulating even before any vaccine had been approved. While the experts say that some side effects from vaccines can happen, these myths are simply not true.

“There's always some risk being associated with vaccines, but those risks are likely to be highly outweighed by the benefits of the vaccine,” Virginia Pitzer, an associate professor epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, told TODAY. “The number of people who have already received the vaccine without any severe side effects suggest that if any side effects occur, they're likely to be very, very rare.”

Most are feel thrilled that a vaccine is available for such a terrible virus.

“When a new iPhone comes out, everybody is standing in line to get this piece of technology. Nobody’s asking all these questions or has (heard) myths about it. But we don’t think about vaccines as the kind of technological marvels that they are,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told TODAY. “No one is thinking of vaccines as something that has proven time and time again to enhance human life.”

The experts debunk five commonly shared myths about the coronavirus vaccines.

1. Myth: The vaccine was rushed.

In only nine months, one vaccine for COVID-19, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, already has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use. By early 2021, at least three others might have enough data to be considered for approval. While these vaccines were developed quickly, researchers followed the same procedures they do when they test any medical treatment.

“It certainly was a much faster deployment than is typical of vaccine deployment, but that doesn’t mean that steps were skipped or any of the important aspects of evaluation were overlooked,” Pitzer explained. “The reason why it was possible to develop a vaccine so quickly is that it was building off a lot of research that has been going on for years.”

Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, said some of the vaccine development was based on past research conducted for a SARS vaccine, which was shelved when it was no longer needed.

“They were able to apply a lot of the lessons they had learned in the vaccine research for that (SARS) coronavirus to the vaccine research for this current coronavirus,” he told TODAY.

Dr. Jeffrey Carson, a provost at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who is involved with the phase 3 clinical trial of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said all vaccine candidates are going through the usual process.

“No doubt it’s been done very quickly, but they’ve been done with state-of-the-art clinical trial methodology,” he told TODAY. “We’re using all the standard clinical trial methods that we’re using in any therapeutic evaluation.”

2. Myth: The vaccine edits or changes DNA.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA to deliver the spike protein to the cells to encourage the body to produce an immunity to COVID-19. Some people think that the mRNA changes people’s DNA or edits cells.

“That is definitely 100% a myth,” Sullivan says. “We have DNA in our cells. What happens is DNA is transcribed into mRNA and then the mRNA gets translated into a protein … In human cells, we can’t go backward in this process. In other words, you can’t make DNA from RNA.”

Pitzer says it’s just a different way of using the body to develop a defense against a virus.

“What the vaccine is doing is to use the cells in our own bodies to produce the spike protein to generate the immune response,” she said. “That doesn't mean that it's really doing anything to the genes within the human cell. It's just basically allowing the individual cells to be kind of the machinery that generates protein instead of having to do that externally.”

3. Myth: The vaccine causes infertility in women, sterility in men.

“That’s just an arbitrary statement,” Adalja said. “It's just basically cognitively meaningless to say something like that.”

Carson agrees.

“There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that’s ever demonstrated that,” he said. "That's just an unfortunate statement."

And, Pitzer said there’s no reason to believe the vaccine would impact one’s ability to have children.

“There's nothing biologically that the vaccine is doing that could possibly be linked to sterility or infertility,” she said.

4. Myth: The vaccine causes COVID-19.

People often mistakenly believe that a vaccine will cause a person to develop the illness. That’s just not possible.

“The virus itself is not part of the vaccine. The only thing that is included in the vaccine is the spike protein — how your body recognizes the virus,” Pitzer said. “It doesn’t include any other aspects of the virus that would cause COVID-19 illness.”

While people often think that “natural immunity,” what one develops after getting an illness, is better, the experts say that’s not true.

“When you're thinking about natural infection, it's really a little bit of Russian roulette,” Adalja said. “If you try to get natural immunity, you may end up with some. You may end up killing somebody in the process. Or you may end up with long-haul symptoms.”

5. Myth: You only need one shot

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine — which is undergoing FDA review for authorization of emergency use this week — require two shots. If approved, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might only require one shot (Sullivan said the study is designed to look at the efficacy of one shot and two shots). While the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shows strong protection after one dose, the experts say people receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine should get two as recommended.

“The study was designed to see how well the vaccine worked when people got two injections,” Sullivan said.

While the data shows that people receive some protection after the first dose, Sullivan says people should get both because that’s what works best.

“We cannot interpret (the data) as saying, ‘Oh well we’re protected after only getting one injection,’” he said.