Debunking common COVID-19 vaccine myths in an age of misinformation

As of July 28, 81.10 per cent of adults in Ontario have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and 69.22 per cent are fully vaccinated.

Despite these positive vaccine rates, there are still reluctant residents. More than 2.5 million eligible Ontarians have not yet been vaccinated.

Misinformation has been rampant throughout the pandemic and is partially responsible for COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. Some residents are also unaware of how a vaccine works, which is discouraging them from receiving it.

“A vaccine works by introducing pieces of a virus into your body so that your immune system recognizes the virus and establishes memory,” Stephanie DeWitte-Orr, associate professor in the departments of health sciences and biology at Wilfrid Laurier University, explained. 

If there is an infection in the future, these established memory immune cells would activate quickly and work to eliminate the virus.

In Canada, three COVID-19 vaccines have been approved: Pfizer and Moderna, which are mRNA vaccines; and AstraZeneca, which is a viral vector vaccine. The mRNA vaccines are currently more in use.

DeWitte-Orr explained that these vaccines weren’t developed with mixing in mind; however, there have been applications in the past, such as HIV vaccine trials, that show evidence of better immunity after mixing vaccine platforms. Public health has evaluated the risk of mixing platforms as much lower than the risk of the virus and have gone ahead with it.

One of the common myths about the COVID-19 vaccine is that it was produced “too quickly,” which makes it unsafe.

DeWitte-Orr clarified that the technology behind the vaccines has been around for a long time.

“Scientists have been working on these technologies for decades. It’s just that our original platforms, the inactivated or attenuated vaccines, have worked thus far so we didn’t really need to change platforms; but now that we have this virus where the traditional vaccine platforms don’t work very well for various reasons, we needed to change platforms,” DeWitte-Orr said.

“As for safety concerns, the vaccine still had to go through the same steps of approval as any other vaccine, they just were given priority.”

The misconception that the vaccine gives the recipient COVID-19 has also been a cause of worry, but it is untrue.

“The vaccines that we are administering now do not contain SARS-CoV-2 … both the RNA and the virus vector vaccines are just using pieces of the S protein … you’re not going to be able to get a live SARS-CoV-2 virus from these vaccines. You’ll never get an infection of SARS-CoV-2 from the vaccines. It is physically not possible,” DeWitte-Orr said. 

Furthermore, there are beliefs that the vaccine alters DNA, but the vaccine does not even enter the nucleus where DNA resides.

“The nucleus is like a bank vault and nothing is getting in there unless it has a special code to get in,” DeWitte-Orr explained.

“The vaccines do not have this code, and even if they did, the RNA cannot recombine with our DNA; our cells are not capable of doing that.”

Long-term effects of the vaccine have also been a concern, especially regarding women’s fertility.

DeWitte-Orr clarified that the RNA in the mRNA vaccines have a short half-life, meaning they are only going to remain active in the body for a couple of days.

After the muscle cells take up the RNA, they make the S protein. This stimulates immune cells to remember it so that they can recognize it in the future on a real virus and shut the virus down. After one or two weeks, only these memory immune cells remain in the body, meaning there is nothing left that can cause long-term effects.

If you were going to see [long-term effects on fertility, the cardiovascular system, or the pulmonary system], it would only be in a short period of time within a week or two of vaccination. After that, there’s no S protein left, there’s no mRNA left, it’s all been degraded.

Stephanie Dewitte-orr

“If you were going to see [long-term effects on fertility, the cardiovascular system, or the pulmonary system], it would only be in a short period of time within a week or two of vaccination. After that, there’s no S protein left, there’s no mRNA left, it’s all been degraded,” DeWitte-Orr said.

For Canadians who have previously contracted the virus, there is a belief that they are protected from future infections because an immune response has been triggered.

While this may be true for other viral infections, it is not the case for COVID-19. Antibody levels against the virus, which are an indicator of immunity in the body, decrease rapidly for people who have had mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, meaning they are not protected.

“If you’ve been infected and you have a mild case, you likely don’t have protection after a few weeks to months. Whereas so far, with the vaccine, we’re seeing protection [from the clinical trial that was happening last year] … protection by the vaccine is actually lasting longer than what we’re seeing for people who were actually infected,” DeWitte-Orr said.

Vaccine hesitancy is normal in the community, but public health must ensure that communities are well-informed.

“Public health is trying to communicate the need for vaccines in a simple way … I think that the community wants more, yes we’re not all scientists, but we’re human beings who can understand if you explain to us, and I honestly think public health could probably step up their game in explaining why [we need to get vaccinated], like addressing these concerns in a very clear way,” DeWitte-Orr said.  

“We need to create simplified scientific concepts so that the general public has confidence and they can evaluate some of this themselves.” 

She also emphasized that people with autoimmune disorders or pre-existing health concerns should speak with their healthcare provider, and eligible residents should do their research using multiple reputable sources to see what the majority says.

“If I believed that these vaccines weren’t safe, I would say something,” DeWitte-Orr reassured.

This is true for other scientists and scholars as well.

During this critical time in the pandemic, it’s important to vaccinate the majority of people to get herd immunity and stop the virus from replicating. Otherwise, the virus will eventually create a variant that is far from the reference vaccine strain and our vaccines will not protect us from it. 

Eligible individuals should ensure that they are getting vaccinated to protect themselves from getting sick and to protect their community from a potentially dangerous variant of COVID-19 lurking in the future.

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