If you’ve spent as much time scrolling through the dark, foreboding trenches of social media as I have, you may be aware that (gasp!) not everything you’ll read there is totally accurate. And in the age of COVID-19, many of the false claims being disseminated through social media, in forwarded email chains, and even (in an old fashioned, Laura Ingalls twist) by word of mouth, have to do with the virus. There are myths about how it’s contracted, about its symptoms, and, of course, about the COVID-19 vaccines.
The misinformation isn’t surprising, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project. “Vaccine hesitancy... has been a persistent problem for many years,” she notes. She points to since-retracted 1998 study that falsely linked the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism as one major source of modern anti-vaccine sentiment, though it even existed in colonial times, in response to the smallpox vaccine.
“Many of these myths have been used for decades,” says Glen Nowak, PhD, a director at the University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication, who formerly worked in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Immunization Program. “They tend to come from websites and people who are actively working to seed vaccine hesitancy and reluctance. Social media increases the visibility and sharing of those claims.” While the misinformation stems from many different sources, at least some misleading claims seem to be spread by the same websites and people that disseminated election-related falsehoods, The New York Times reports.
We asked Dr. Nowak, Malaty Rivera, and other experts to identify — and debunk — the most common misconceptions they come across. But if you hear a surprising or suspect claim that didn't make this list, Dr. Nowak suggests asking your doctor if it’s true before believing it.
Myth: The COVID-19 vaccines aren’t safe because they were developed and tested too quickly.
Fact: Although Operation Warp Speed cut much of the bureaucratic red tape that often holds up proposals for a new vaccine, the process of testing the vaccines through clinical trials was no less rigorous. For example, vaccine makers were authorized to conduct pre-clinical trials (which test the vaccine in animals) and phase one clinical trials (which test the vaccine in humans) at the same time, rather than one after another, to save time, Malaty Rivera notes. But each trial lasted as long and looked at as many subjects as it normally would have. “Every single milestone and objective that needed to be met was,” Malaty Rivera stresses.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also required that manufacturers monitor trial participants and gather safety data for eight weeks post-vaccination before applying for emergency use approval, to guarantee there were no adverse effects, a supremely cautious move given that most adverse effects crop up within minutes or days of the jab, Malaty Rivera adds. What’s more, researchers have been studying mRNA, the foundation of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, for more than a decade.
“Honestly, Operation Warped Speed was a terribly named initiative,” Malaty Rivera admits, echoing a sentiment Anthony Fauci, MD, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed this fall. “But I’m grateful it happened, it provided a continuous flow of financial resources to keep the research going.”
Myth: The COVID-19 vaccines could give you COVID-19.
Fact: The vaccines that have gotten emergency use authorization in the U.S. don’t contain the virus that causes COVID-19, so they can’t give it to you. You might experience some side effects, including pain at the site of the injection, headaches, chills, fatigue, and muscle pain, but these are symptoms of your body’s reaction to the vaccine, not the virus.
Myth: The negative side effects of the vaccines can be fatal.
One twist on this myth is the claim that COVID-19’s mortality rate is “only” 1%, and therefore not all that dangerous. But “a 1% mortality rate is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” the Mayo Clinic points out. “In addition, the mortality rate can vary widely and is influenced by age, sex, and underlying health condition.” The bottom line: The vaccines save lives.
Myth: The COVID-19 vaccines could alter DNA.
Fact: This just isn’t true. The misconception may come from the fact that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines contain messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), genetic material our cells use to “read” proteins. The mRNA in the vaccine helps the body recognize and fight back against a key piece of the virus that causes COVID-19; it doesn’t interact with or have anything to do with your cells’ DNA. The mRNA that’s in the vaccine will be broken down and flushed from your body over time.
Myth: The COVID-19 vaccines can cause infertility or miscarriages.
Fact: No evidence has linked the vaccines to infertility and miscarriages, but fear-mongering misinformation campaigns continue to call the COVID vaccine “female sterilization.” “There is zero science to this claim,” Malaty Rivera says. “This is a myth that is so damaging. It’s made up to incite fear, and is ripped straight from the anti-vax playbook from the HPV vaccine. It’s an unoriginal and unscientific claim.”
More than 69,000 pregnant people have been vaccinated to date, and early data being tracked by the CDC indicates that vaccines are likely safe and effective during pregnancy. Pregnant people are eligible to get the vaccines in more than 40 states now, and a new study from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that the vaccines offer strong immunity to people who are pregnant.
Myth: The COVID-19 vaccines were developed using fetal tissue.
Fact: None of the vaccines contain aborted fetal cells or tissue, and no fetal tissue was used in the development or production of the vaccines. The confusion comes from the use of what are called fetal cell lines, which are lab-replicated fetal cells. They are derived from cells taken from elective abortions that took place decades ago, which have multiplied into new cells over the course of decades.
Fetal cell lines offer a way to test treatments on human cells, and are often used medically. They’ve been used, for example, to test treatments for conditions like Parkinson’s. Pfizer and Moderna used fetal cell lines in their vaccine testing, and Johnson & Johnson used them in development and production. But the vaccines themselves contain no fetal cells.
Even the Vatican has said that it’s okay for Catholics to get all three vaccines. The Church has hinted that Catholics should try to get a vaccine other than the J&J one if possible, but ultimately says that Catholics have a moral duty to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus by being vaccinated. “If someone wants to morally object to an abortion that happened 50 years ago, that’s one thing,” Malaty Rivera says. “But to prevent life-saving therapies and treatments for people because of one event seems actually morally more reprehensible to me.”
Myth: You don’t need a vaccine if you’ve already had COVID-19 and recovered.
Fact: You should get one of the vaccines whether or not you've already contracted the virus. Although coming down with COVID appears to give you some immunity to the virus, we still don’t know how long that immunity will last, how powerful it is, and how much it will protect you from other COVID-19 variants, Saskia V. Popescu, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University, previously told Refinery29.
The CDC gives two exceptions: If you’re currently COVID positive, you should wait to receive a vaccine until after you’ve quarantined and have recovered; and if you were treated for the virus with monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma, you should wait for 90 days post-treatment to get your jab.
Myth: The COVID-19 vaccines are injected with a bar code or microchip to keep track of people.
Fact: Although this would make a great sci-fi movie, it’s not true. This bizarre claim originated in a widely distributed Facebook video that contains manipulated footage of Bill and Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, and calls out a company called ApiJect, which in November received a $590 million USD loan to produce injectors for the vaccines.
ApiJect does offer optional “Radio Frequency Identification chip” technology. These chips are meant to go on a syringe’s label and confirm that a vaccine is authentic, unexpired, and unused, Steve Hofman, an ApiJect spokesperson, told Reuters. They would never be injected into a human.
Myth: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine isn’t as effective as the other two vaccines.
Fact: Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine has been shown to be 66% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 globally, and 72% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 in the U.S. This efficacy rate was technically lower than Moderna’s and Pfizer’s (both are above 90%). But J&J’s vaccine was shown in the trial to have 100% efficacy against hospitalizations and deaths 28 days after vaccination, and that’s the more important figure.
“People see the numbers in the headlines, but they miss the nuance,” says Bruce Gellin, MD, MPH, the president of Global Immunization at Sabin Vaccine Institute. The three vaccines being used in the U.S. right now can’t be compared directly, since the trials were conducted at different times, in different parts of the world, and with different COVID-19 variants in play. (For more background info, check out Vox’s comprehensive explainer.) All we need to know is that they were all deemed protective enough to be approved by the FDA, and that they’re all great at keeping us alive. With that perspective, you can’t go wrong — except by not getting vaccinated at all.