COVID-19 Vaccine Myths

With the Delta Variant of Sars-Coronavirus 2 becoming more common and the threat of more infectious and deadly strains looming, we thought we would clear up some common misconceptions about the Covid-19 vaccines.

1. The COVID-19 vaccine is gene therapy and permanently changes my DNA.

According to the FDA, Gene Therapy is define as a “technique that modifies a person’s genes to treat or cure disease” which can work by “replacing a disease-causing gene with a healthy copy of the gene, inactivating a disease-causing gene that is not functioning properly, or introducing a new or modified gene into the body to help treat a disease.“ The last point raises confusion because, while Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccine do not use DNA, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses a viral vector to introduce DNA so your cells can make the coronavirus spike protein, and your body can subsequently make antibodies against it. Once the vector DNA is transcribed, it is degraded.

The mRNA vaccines work in a similar way and with a full understanding of the mechanism of action of the vaccines, the argument of its classification as ‘gene therapy’ or not boils down to semantics. Just like the J&J vaccine, the mRNA vaccines do not have any chance of modifying cellular DNA in any way.

2. The COVID-19 vaccine has a high probability of causing infertility.

This misconception is relatively common due to a few articles misinterpreting a study claiming that over 80% of pregnancies end in miscarriage after COVID-19 vaccines. These articles have flawed logic, and their mistake is well summarized in this article:

3. Because COVID-19 has animal reservoirs, it is impossible to eradicate.

This claim was popularized through a video of someone complaining to what looks to be a city council about the city’s guidance around COVID-19 spread prevention measures. Just because a virus can infect certain animals does not mean that it is common or highly transmissible in that species. Many factors contribute to the eradication of a virus, these are summarized well here:

4. Because there are no long term studies with the vaccine, there is a high chance that there are long term negative effects.

While it is true that vaccines do carry some risk of adverse effects, this risk is most commonly associated with an autoimmune response of some kind. These kinds of reactions would be evident very soon following administration and are very rare. You are much more likely to develop long term side effects from COVID than the vaccine.

5. Natural immunity is more powerful than vaccine induced immunity and it is not necessary to receive the vaccine if I have had COVID-19.

Vaccine induced immunity has been shown to last longer on average and provide more protection against variants than immunity from infection. One reason for this is that when your body creates antibodies against the virus, it gets rid of all of the antigens that can be used to create more antibodies. On the other hand, when your body makes antibodies against the spike protein produced by a vaccine, your body continues to produce the spike protein because the synthesis system is decoupled from the protein. This means you are likely to make more and more varied antibodies with vaccine induced immunity.

6. Because pharmaceutical companies are protected from legal challenges related to the side effects of the vaccine, they can lie about its safety and get away with it.

This is false, if a pharmaceutical company is shown to have engaged in ‘willful’ misconduct (e.g. lying or covering up facts indicating the vaccine is unsafe), the company is liable.

7. The vaccine is responsible for enhancing the spread of COVID-19.

This claim stems from two separate arguments, one of them is analogous to the phenomenon of bacterial resistance and another is concerning the phenomenon of antibody-dependent enhancement. If a bacterial colony is treated with an antibiotic, one problem that can arise is that if there are bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic in the colony, they will be the only ones to survive and may grow into a new antibiotic resistant colony. Some are claiming that this phenomenon occurs with viruses as well, meaning that an antibody will only kill viruses that it can bind to and mutant strains which the antibody cannot bind to will survive and flourish. This is much less likely than antibiotic resistance for several reasons. The primary reason is that many times, individuals have several different variations of antibodies against the same virus. Moreover, the antibodies that one individual has will be different than the antibodies that another individual has. Thus, it is unlikely that every epitope on a virus that population antibodies bind to will mutate. Thus, assuming the population is vaccinated relatively quickly, the virus will likely not accumulate enough mutations to spread easily in the population. This is not true in bacteria because everyone in a population usually only has one or a few antibiotics to select and the mechanisms behind bacterial resistance are usually more elaborate than a simple mutation.

The second claim is that the vaccine causes antibody-dependent enhancement. This phenomenon occurs when the antibody assists the virus in replicating rather than marking it for destruction; however, it is extremely rare and has only really been observed under unnatural conditions. There is certainly no evidence of this in the cases of the currently available coronavirus vaccines.