On December 8, 2020, Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old British woman, was the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine outside of a trial. It marked the beginning of mass vaccination of populations around the globe. And with that came the impetus for a new wave of infodemic. The spread of fake news about vaccines against the new coronavirus continued throughout the year. Some were extremely absurd and simple, and others were complex manipulations. This article will look at the most common myths about vaccinations against COVID-19.
What are mRNA vaccines, and why is there so much fear?
mRNA vaccines work by injecting the body with “instructions” to produce antibodies. These instructions are a matrix or messenger RNA sequence that helps cells build disease-specific antibodies.
What makes mRNA vaccines special? mRNA vaccines had not been used in human medicine before the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why the first fake stories said they were dangerous and possibly ineffective. They argued that no mRNA vaccine had been licensed for use before, and so those preparations could not be trusted. However, that is not true.
mRNA vaccines are safe and effective. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were the first COVID-19 mRNA vaccines approved for use. Indeed, such vaccines had never been approved by regulators before because such preparations and vaccines were not in existence. However, mRNA vaccines may even be safer than common vaccines because they are made without any infectious agents.
As for the effectiveness of this technology, studies show that mRNA vaccines have elicited potent immunity against infectious disease targets in animal models of influenza virus, Zika virus, rabies virus, and others. In addition, RNA-based vaccines are relatively quick and inexpensive to develop. The production process is easily standardized and scaled. Therefore, it helps respond quickly to outbreaks of viral diseases. Scientists expect to use mRNA vaccine technology to help cure HIV, cancer, herpes, and autoimmune diseases.
One of the most common and popular fake news stories about mRNA vaccines says they may affect a person’s genetic code. But in reality, mRNA vaccines do not alter DNA. Many fake news stories on this topic are trying to back up this allegation with “reliable” sources. However, any such findings are manipulated.
- For example, one of the fake news items goes back to the US Supreme Court’s ruling that natural DNA cannot be patented. However, it did allow for DNA manipulated in a lab to be patented (as is commonly known, genetically modified plants and animals are patented). Nonetheless, this decision does not apply to human DNA. It does not follow from this that the vaccine’s mRNA alters DNA.
- Some fake stories refer to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., although he denied any involvement in the allegations of DNA alteration.
- Sometimes the sources of information are fake doctors who lost their medical licenses due to propagating scientifically inaccurate ideas. However, those disseminating false claims do not report this fact, of course.
In reality, mRNA vaccines do not in any way interact with our DNA: mRNA never enters the cell nucleus containing DNA. mRNA vaccines stimulate cells to make antibodies and T cells that will destroy the virus in the future, immediately or almost immediately upon entering the body of someone “encountering” the virus. Thus, a person will either not get sick or get over it more easily than if they were not vaccinated.
Why do mRNA vaccines have lipid shells? When the mRNA nanoparticle enters the body with the vaccine, the lipid membrane protecting it merges with the target cell’s membrane. Then its contents enter the cell as a kind of instruction to teach the cell to synthesize viral protein antigens. “Packing” mRNA into a lipid envelope is the latest innovation that Pfizer and Moderna began using in Covid-19 vaccines. Their vaccines have shown slightly higher efficacy than those manufactured by “traditional” means.
Independent fact-checkers from Snopes explained in more detail how mRNA vaccines work and why they cannot alter human DNA. To better understand the principle of the vaccine, you must first understand how cells work and the genetic material they contain.
A cell has the nucleus and non-nuclear parts (organelles) “floating” in the cytoplasm. The body’s primary genetic material is a series of DNA molecules, called chromosomes, located in the nucleus. The code contained in these chromosomes is transmitted to new cells. Because a change in nuclear DNA will be transmitted during the copying of the cell, it will need to be modified to alter human DNA.
However, mRNA molecules injected with the vaccine cannot penetrate the cell nucleus and therefore cannot alter human DNA. The mRNA from the vaccine will get into the cytoplasm of the cell and “instruct” the ribosome to make the proteins that constitute the SARS-CoV-2 viral spikes. Once the body cells can produce these proteins, the immune system will learn to recognize and attack them. In addition, mRNA introduced into the body cannot be replicated, being a one-off “instruction.”
How do COVID-19 vaccines affect our bodies?
We now know that vaccines cannot alter human DNA. However, the fake claims about the vaccines’ dangers do not end there. Anti-vaxxers are constantly inventing new “dangers” of vaccinations. As with the previous false claims, some quite complex stories make it difficult to determine whether they are manipulation or untruth immediately. However, there is a lot of outright absurdity. Consider the following examples:
- According to the social networks, vaccination is being jabbed with cancer DNA since all vaccines are allegedly grown on cancer tissues. Of course, it is not true. Vaccines do not contain a cancer gene. This false claim grew out of a misinterpretation of a study published by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration). The study focused on innovative methods to detect carcinogenic viruses in cellular substrates used to make vaccines. Vaccine manufacturers detect such viruses and therefore do not use such substrates for production.
- According to a “bugaboo” popular among anti-vaxxers, the COVID-19 vaccine could sterilize or cause infertility. There is no evidence of this. Like other false claims, they invented this fake news item to manipulate people’s emotions.
What do the COVID-19 vaccines contain?
It is argued that graphene oxide, heavy metals acting as chips, and prions are the dangerous substances found in vaccines. In particular, mercury and aluminum. If you do not read information about the composition of drugs, you could believe the following false claims on social networks:
- The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine contains 99% of graphene oxide (a hazardous material obtained from the oxidation of graphite). This false claim is illustrated with fake microscope images and “testimony“ from a former Pfizer employee who left the company long before the COVID-19 vaccine was developed.
- Thimerosal (a mercury compound) and aluminum adjuvants used as vaccine preservatives are hazardous. We explain what is wrong with this fake allegation below.
- Vaccines contain prions that cause neurodegenerative diseases, i.e. abnormal protein folding in the brain.
In reality, information about the composition of vaccines is publicly available: none of them contains graphene oxide or prions. And overall, prion disease is extremely rare. About 300 cases are recorded annually in the United States.
Mercury and aluminum compounds are indeed included in some vaccines as preservatives. However, they are safe for the body in small doses.
For example, vaccines made by Sinovac and Sinopharm, Indian Covaxin, and Russian EpiVacCorona contain aluminum salt. Aluminum salts have been used safely in vaccines for over 70 years and do not pose a health risk.
Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative that has been used safely in vaccines for over 80 years (except for children’s vaccines, since 2001). There is no evidence of harm of thimerosal in vaccines at low doses. Only minor reactions such as redness and swelling at the injection site are possible. Thimerosal does not accumulate in organs, and it is not harmful to health.
Overall, adjuvants make it possible to use lower amounts and fewer vaccine doses. VoxCheck explains more about adjuvants here. Most importantly, adjuvants do not harm the human body or cause serious illness.
Why do the US, WHO, EU, and UK systems report so many side effects if the vaccines are safe?
All major COVID-19 vaccines have been tested and approved by regulatory authorities. They are safe to use and effective. False rumors of side effects from the vaccination appearing on social media are mainly based on data from the VAERS (USA), VigiAccess (WHO), EudraVigilance (EU), and YellowCard (UK) vaccination monitoring systems. The post authors claim that these systems confirm the vaccine’s harmful effects: death (including in adolescents and children), miscarriages, and adverse side effects.
However, these systems contain only user messages, not verified medical information. None of these systems determines whether the vaccine is the direct cause of an adverse event. Yet, they make it possible to identify issues that require careful study.
It will be reminded that vaccines may cause side effects, which is quite normal. These symptoms usually disappear within a few days. They attest that the vaccines work, and the immune system “learns” to attack the virus. However, the absence of side effects does not mean that the vaccines have no effect. The extent of adverse reactions depends on the individual characteristics of a person. The most common side effects from COVSD-19 vaccines are weakness, chills or fever, headache, muscle aches, and nausea. Occasionally, there may be swelling and redness at the injection site on the shoulder, and it may hurt. Serious side effects are extremely rare.
Will we all be chipped?
And lastly, the evergreen theme: chipping through vaccinations. However absurd claims about chips in needles or the vaccine itself may sound, such false claims will keep being spread. Each time, anti-vaxxers come up with something new: magneto protein contained in the vaccines and acting as a chip; coins attracted to the injection site; vaccination databases publicly available on the Internet; and phones with NFC and RFID scanners detecting chips in those vaccinated. Let us sift through all the absurdities on social networks:
- Genetically engineered magneto protein is not found in any of the COVID-19 vaccines. It has never been tested on humans.
- COVID-19 vaccines do not contain metals or microchips that could attract a magnet. To check whether coins are attracted to the vaccination site, conduct your own experiment.
- Open vaccine databases have turned out to be merely a joke from IT specialists. In the video, the fake claim’s authors showed the console (command-line interface) of the Linux operating system.
- We want to emphasize once again that vaccines do not contain chips and that experts thoroughly edited the video showing NFC compatible phones and RFID scanners reacting to chips (actually not so thoroughly, the editing can easily be seen). It is not difficult to put another device outside the camera’s view, change its name or simply change a part of the video if you need to spread another conspiracy theory.
Fake news items about vaccines are disseminated by different people – both convinced anti-vaxxers and Russian bots willing to create another point of tension in Ukrainian society and the problem of exceeding the healthcare system’s capacity for the government. As we can see, standard techniques are employed to make false claims about vaccines sound true to draw our attention: appealing to emotion, manipulating the findings of genuine research, referring to fake authority figures, or attributing statements to famous people which those never made, using obscure terms to sound “scientific,” and the direct manipulation of photos and videos.
So be vigilant: read VoxCheck, look for information from reliable sources, and don’t be too lazy to fact-check everything you see on social networks or hear from friends, acquaintances, or on television.
The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations