By Melanie Mouzoon, M.D., F.A.A.P., F.A.B.M.
The world has been waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine for almost a year in the hope that it would bring an end to the pandemic. Now that the FDA has approved emergency-use authorization for a limited number of vaccines in the U.S., there are a lot of questions and misconceptions making the rounds.
While it’s understandable that the speed at which the vaccine was developed and tested might be concerning to some, we hope to put any worries to rest by debunking the most common COVID vaccine misconceptions and myths.
Myth 1 - The COVID-19 vaccine was developed too quickly to be safe.
Prior to the COVID-19 vaccine, the fastest that a vaccine was ever developed – the mumps vaccine – was four years. So, it’s not surprising there is some apprehension about a vaccine that was developed in under a year.
It’s important to note that while this strain of coronavirus is novel (or new), COVID-19 is a member of the coronavirus family, which contains hundreds of strains of the virus that have been studied. In addition, the mRNA vaccines have been under development for cancer vaccines for a number of years. For this reason, the scientists who developed the COVID-19 vaccine were not by any means starting from scratch. They used research and data going back years as a foundation.
Also, due to the cooperation and collaboration among scientists from all over the world and advances in genomic sequencing, the viral sequence for the COVID-19 strain was uncovered all the way back in January, giving researchers a jumpstart in developing a vaccine.
Adding to this, funding is typically a factor in the speed at which a vaccine is developed. Because of the worldwide impact of COVID and the importance of developing a vaccine quickly, funding for this vaccine was provided by a large number of both government and private contributors. Billions of dollars were poured into the development of the COVID vaccine, making it possible to significantly speed up the process.
Finding trial participants was also easier than with most vaccines. The vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTecH studied around 43,000 people. To get emergency-use authorization, biopharmaceutical manufacturers must follow at least half of the trial participants for at least two months after the vaccine is administered to ensure the vaccine is safe and effective. Additionally, FDA scientists and the independent scientists on the Advisory Committee on Immunization have conducted in-depth safety and data reviews.
Myth 2 - The COVID-19 vaccine will alter my DNA and control the population.
This is a combination of two common misconceptions, but both of them stem from concern that the government is using the vaccine for nefarious purposes.
After Bill Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a major supporter of vaccine research and development, made comments regarding a digital certificate of vaccine records, rumors began about the vaccine containing a microchip or “nanotransducers” to track those who have been vaccinated.
The COVID vaccine does not contain a microchip or any method of tracking personal information. Also, the technology referenced by Bill Gates has not in any way been implemented in the development, testing, or implementation of the vaccine.
There is also a misconception that the COVID vaccine will alter DNA. This is possibly due to the relatively new mRNA (messenger RNA) technology used to develop the vaccine. Messenger RNA is made in your body all of the time and its purpose is to make a mirror-image copy of your DNA to then produce the proteins every cell makes all of the time. Viruses also hijack this same protein-making process, making innumerable copies of the entire virus. These vaccines are using the mechanism to allow your own cells to make only a part of the virus – the spike protein – which your body then recognizes as a non-human protein and activates your natural immune response.
This does not in any way affect the DNA of the body’s cells. mRNA is very fragile (hence the extra-cold storage) and breaks down quite soon after causing the protein to be manufactured in the cell. It does not enter the nucleus where the DNA resides.
Myth 3 - The COVID-19 vaccine has severe side effects.
The fact is there are side effects possible with any vaccine. Those who are leery of the COVID-19 vaccine have focused on a few isolated and unusual incidents to manufacture fear of the vaccine.
In truth, early-phase studies of the Pfizer/BioNTecH vaccine show that about 15% of participants developed short-term, mild to moderate reactions without complications. Most of these reactions are at the site of the injection and include soreness, redness, and swelling. Half of those who had side effects developed reactions such as headache, chills, fatigue, muscle
Myth 4 - We will no longer have to wear masks if we get the COVID-19 vaccine.
While the development of the vaccine means that no longer wearing masks in public is on the horizon, continuing to take precautions will be necessary until more real-life data is available about the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing carriage and shedding of the virus. While you may be immune to the virus, there’s still a possibility that you can carry and transmit the virus to others after vaccination.
Also, a certain percentage of the population will have to be vaccinated before herd immunity is achieved. That percentage is not yet known. And since the vaccine is only available to a portion of the population currently, it’s important to continue wearing a mask and practicing social distancing until everyone who wants a vaccine can get it.
Myth 5 - Those who have already had COVID-19 don’t need to get the vaccine.
A lot is still unknown about the COVID-19 virus, including how long it takes to build up natural immunity. There have been cases of people who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19 getting the virus again. For this reason, the CDC recommends that even those who have had the virus get the vaccine when it is available.
Dr. Melanie Mouzoon is the managing physician for Immunization Practices at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. She’s also a board-certified Pediatric hospitalist at Kelsey-Seybold’s Woman’s Center and is a fellow of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine.