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Five myths about coronavirus vaccines

  • Author: Peter Hotez, Maria Elena Bottazzi
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 19
  • Published March 19

FILE - In this March 13, 2021, file photo, patients are given the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Lumen Field Events Center in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi are professors of pediatrics and molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine, where they are also co-directors of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. They co-chair a Lancet commission coronavirus subgroup on vaccines and therapeutics.

Three coronavirus vaccines have been authorized for emergency use in the United States, including two mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna and an adenovirus-vectored vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Two more are expected to be authorized later in the spring - a second adenovirus-vectored vaccine, from Oxford-AstraZeneca, and a protein particle vaccine from Novavax. These five vaccines will be used to immunize the American people and are expected to stop or slow the epidemic in the United States. But even before the vaccines were approved, myths were spreading about them.

Myth No. 1: Some vaccines are better than others and worth waiting for.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan turned down an initial shipment of 6,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this month, saying the city’s residents should get the “best” shots — which he indicated were the mRNA vaccines. Many people seem concerned about which shot to get, since the more recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine did report lower overall efficacy rates — 66 percent protective against moderate to severe disease, and 85 percent against severe disease, compared with 95 percent protective against symptomatic covid-19 for Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

But they all work by the same principle. Protection against the virus depends on inducing strong immunity to the coronavirus spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells in our bodies. All of the vaccines deliver this spike protein, prompting our immune systems to make a specific type of antibody that blocks virus attachment or invasion. And the three vaccines authorized so far all produce high levels of protection to keep you out of the hospital; it’s likely that they all also inhibit asymptomatic transmission.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose, unlike the mRNA shots, may have other benefits, too. We already know that it’s partially protective against the B.1.351variantthat arose in South Africa - whereas we don’t know that for sure for the two mRNA vaccines, which were tested before that variant emerged. We also don’t know yet which of the vaccines induces longer-lasting protection. And all of the vaccines may require additional boosts in the fall or next year.

Myth No. 2: Young people don’t need it, especially if they’re healthy.

Vaccine skeptics have argued that people who aren’t senior citizens and are generally healthy have no need to be inoculated. Former Major League Baseball player Aubrey Huff said on Twitter that he wouldn’t take it, because his “44 year old jacked body, and strong immune system works just fine.” In Israel, officials said young people were much slower to get vaccinated than older people because of perceptions that they didn’t need to: “We’re reaching out to the younger public, and some people don’t understand the vaccine’s importance.”

While younger people are less likely than older ones to die of covid-19, the disease can still be dangerous for them. A study published in February found that almost 30 percent of adults between 18 and 39 with covid-19 suffer from “long-haul” symptoms, including fatigue, brain fog, and loss of taste or smell. Many of these young adults had only a mild illness when they were first infected. And the claim that only those over the age of 65 are likely to die of covid-19 is false: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that among non-White and Hispanic populations, about a third of the deaths occur in those younger than 65. While maintaining a healthy lifestyle and remaining fit can help strengthen your immune system, this alone will not provide the antibodies to keep you out of the hospital. For that, a coronavirus vaccine is required.

Myth No. 3: The vaccines were so rushed, we don’t know they’re safe.

“I’m actually beginning to have doubts,” Fox News host Sean Hannity said in January. “I’ve been telling my friends I’m going to get the vaccine. Half of them agree, and the other half think I’m absolutely nuts. They wouldn’t take it in a million years.” Fellow Fox personality Tucker Carlson raised alarms about the “glitzy entrance” and “too slick” marketing effort for the vaccine. On social media, viral videos and posts have alleged that the vaccines were developed too quickly or that they were delivered to states before the Food and Drug Administration authorized them — implying that regulators didn’t really have time to verify that they were safe and effective. In part because of company news releases and statements coming out of the White House in 2020, many Americans do have the impression that these vaccines appeared, like magic, out of nowhere.

But scientists have been working on vaccines to protect against various coronaviruses for at least a decade, during which they identified the spike protein as the soft target of the virus and figured out how to deliver it. (This 10-year research and development program is similar to the time frame for other vaccines.) If it weren’t for all that important work, the pharma companies could not have hit the ground running. And the clinical trials used to test the safety of the new vaccines were large and carefully controlled, roughly the same size as those used to test other vaccines.

Myth No. 4: The vaccines have unsafe or unethical ingredients.

Facebook posts claiming that the vaccines contain microchips to track people have gone viral. The Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans advised believers not to get the Johnson & Johnson shot if they could avoid it because it was developed and produced using “morally compromised cell lines created from two abortions” - though the Vatican later clarified that Catholics should take it if other effective coronavirus vaccines were not available.

In reality, none of the vaccines uses material from aborted fetuses. The Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are prepared in cells that have been propagated for decades in test tubes. Those cell lines did originate from two fetuses aborted in the 1970s and the 1980s,but there are no fetal remnants used in the research, development or production of the shots. The viruses used in other vaccines, such as the chickenpox vaccine, were developed using similar types of cell lines.

As for injecting microchips, this is obviously impossible, as they wouldn’t fit through a needle; resistance to vaccinations is often conspiratorial in nature. Some microchips are used in the vaccine distribution system to track doses and ensure that they’re not expired or counterfeit. But those are on the outside of the syringes or packages, and they’re not injected into anyone.

Myth No. 5: The mRNA vaccines change your DNA.

Anti-vaccine groups and social media posts have claimed that the mRNA vaccines may cause infertility or autoimmune disorders by modifying recipients’ genes or changing their DNA - that the injected vaccine somehow becomes part of our genetic material. Several posts making this claim have been taken down by Facebook starting last year, before the vaccines were even authorized for emergency use.

The claims about infertility and autoimmune issues are more or less copied and pasted from earlier false assertions about the HPV vaccine. There’s no scientific basis for them. And the mRNA delivered through lipid nanoparticles in a vaccine does not enter our genome. It becomes a template for cells to make compounds of amino acids on molecules called ribosomes in the cytoplasm compartment of the cell, outside the nucleus (where the DNA resides). Our immune system then responds to the new peptide, which resembles the spike protein on the coronavirus. Therefore, it’s not correct to say that the mRNA vaccines are equivalent to “gene therapy,” as some critics of the vaccines have claimed.

Originally published by The Washington Post

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