“Why don’t you want to get the vaccine?”
It’s a question people around the world have likely found themselves asking their loved ones who fear the COVID-19 vaccine.
As countries across the globe rush to inoculate their populations, governments face a complicated issue: confronting — and addressing — vaccine hesitancy.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the 10 greatest threats to global health, noting that vaccination prevents 2-3 million deaths a year. It defines vaccine hesitancy as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.”
As misinformation surrounding COVID-19 began to spread last year, the anti-vaccine movement gained traction with groups who believe the pandemic is a scam and that COVID-19 vaccines will make people sick, according to the New York Times. However, it is important to understand the distinction between being anti-vaccine and vaccine hesitant — and to find ways to foster open conversations.
Global Citizen spoke with Dr. Lorna Thorpe, a leading expert in population health surveillance and director of the division of epidemiology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, to dispel five common myths about the COVID-19 vaccine to help you with conversations you might be having with vaccine-hesitant family or friends.
1. I’m nervous about the vaccine because I have heard of cases where people have become infertile or died after getting it.
Across social media, misinformation abounds — particularly concerning rumors about the COVID-19 vaccines. A video circulated on social media late last year that made various claims about the pandemic, including that the COVID-19 vaccine will cause infertility, according to Reuters.
“There is no evidence of COVID-19 vaccines being linked to infertility, nor are there plausible reasons for such a link,” Thorpe told Global Citizen.
Regarding the question of whether people have died after getting a COVID-19 vaccine, Thorpe acknowledges that countries have reported deaths of recently-vaccinated individuals, but lists several important caveats that must be taken into account.
First and foremost, no investigations into those deaths have been definitively linked to vaccines.
“Not all [of the deaths] have been independently verified,” Thorpe said. “[But] many have been among older adults with other underlying health conditions, and exact cause [of] death has not been determined.”
“In some instances, deaths were later determined to be due to COVID transmission in the five to six days prior to vaccination (during the incubation period), or before the vaccine protection took full effect (first ~10 days), particularly in settings where vaccinations were being administered to residents of nursing homes or equivalent congregate settings where the SARS-CoV-2 infections were actively taking place,” she added.
2. I don’t trust any of the vaccines because I heard they were rushed through trials.
Many people point to the fact that vaccines are being approved across the globe at the fastest rate the world has ever seen as reason for being hesitant. The US Food and Drug Administration issued an explainer on its website to help people understand why it issues emergency use authorization (EUA) for approved vaccines, highlighting that clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines were conducted according to the FDA’s rigorous standards and that no corners had been cut in the process.
COVID-19 vaccines, like the one developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, withstood several clinical trials involving thousands of participants.
And while experts agree the development of a COVID-19 vaccine was the fastest they have ever seen, they point out that their speed is not from clinical trials skipping important milestones — but from developers building off of decades of research with an incredible amount of global support.
3. You can still get COVID-19 after being vaccinated, so the vaccine is pointless.
While several COVID-19 vaccines appear to have high levels of efficacy, no vaccine is 100% protective, according to the WHO.
“Immunity after vaccination takes up to 10-14 days to take full effect,” Thorpe said. “So it is plausible for someone to become infected immediately after vaccination.”
However, the use of approved vaccines worldwide have shown encouraging results. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was found to be 95% effective at reducing COVID-19 infections, is currently being used in 66 countries, according to the New York Times. And earlier this year, researchers reported that antibodies from the Covaxin vaccine — approved for emergency use in India — can block the UK variant of the coronavirus.
4. I heard that the vaccine changes your DNA.
The WHO’s Dr. Katherine O’Brien addressed the rumor that COVID-19 vaccines can alter a person’s DNA compilation on an episode of the organization’s “Science in 5” video series, in which WHO experts explain the science related to COVID-19.
“We have two vaccines now that are referred to as mRNA vaccines, and there's no way that mRNA can turn into DNA. And there's no way that mRNA can change the DNA of our human cells,” Dr. O’Brien said. “What mRNA is, it's the instructions to the body to make a protein. Most vaccines are developed by actually giving a protein or giving a small, tiny component of the germ that we're trying to vaccinate against.”
“This is a new approach where instead of giving that tiny little part, instead, we just give the instructions to our own bodies to make that tiny little part and then our natural immune system responds to it,” she added.
5. COVID-19 will be around for a long time because of the new variants, so I shouldn't bother getting a vaccine now.
As more vaccines continue to be rolled out and given to a greater percentage of the world’s population, it is important to acknowledge the limits of the vaccine, without allowing skepticism to cloud the facts.
“Current vaccines are highly effective at preventing disease,” Thorpe explained. “We are, however, still learning about the extent to which different vaccines protect one from becoming asymptomatically infected and transmitting or passing on infection to others.”
“This uncertainty does not mean that the vaccines are not working. It is extremely important for as many people to become vaccinated as possible to not only reduce illness, but also slow transmission and reduce opportunities for the virus to propagate and potentially continue to mutate,” she added.
The WHO says that evaluating the effectiveness of the vaccines will be critical for continuing to optimize their use and to further the development of even more effective vaccines. The organization also calls for the continuation of all public health measures that work — such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing — even as COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out.
The next time your friends or family members express skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccines, have an open conversation to learn what aspect of the vaccine rollout concerns them and point them in the direction of credible sources, such as the WHO, the CDC, or public health experts.