Here’s Your COVID Vaccine Rumour Roundup

Here’s Your COVID Vaccine Rumour Roundup
Illustration: Elena Scotti

Two COVID vaccines are now available in the US, and are currently being administered to healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities. But it’s new, and new things are scary, and both COVID and its vaccine have been relentlessly politicised. Rumours are flying.

If people in your life are doubting the safety of the vaccine, or still wondering if the coronavirus is a hoax, we have some tips on talking to them here. There are still a lot of unknowns about the vaccine, so just because somebody has doubts or questions does not mean they are an anti-vaxxer. If you have questions yourself, or if you’d like to talk to people in your life who do, we’ll break down some of the myths and facts for you here.

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Was it rushed?

The vaccine was developed quickly, and it was rolled out and distributed far faster than any other vaccine in history. But that doesn’t mean that it’s untested or that corners were cut.

Each of the two vaccines was tested in a study of over 30,000 people, in which half got the vaccine and half did not. Bottom line, there’s plenty of data to back up the belief that the vaccine is safe and effective.

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The vaccine cannot give you COVID

Both vaccines contain a piece of mRNA that our bodies can use to make the spike protein, a tiny piece of the virus. The shot only contains the mRNA and some ingredients that help the mRNA to make it into your cells. That means:

  • It does not contain the virus itself.
  • It does not contain any of the proteins from the virus.
  • It does not contain the virus’s full RNA, just the part that codes for the spike protein.

This all means that it does not and cannot give you COVID. The virus just isn’t there. The virus is also not involved in the process of producing the vaccine. (Some other vaccines use modified or killed viruses; the COVID vaccine does not use any viruses at all in its production.)

The mRNA in the vaccine cannot alter your DNA

The coronavirus has RNA for its genetic material, and we have DNA for ours. But the two are not interchangeable. Your DNA is safe.

Your DNA lives in the nucleus of each of your cells, and our bodies make mRNA copies of our DNA as part of the normal daily business of keeping us alive. The vaccine introduces a new mRNA that wouldn’t normally be there. mRNA does not alter DNA.

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Now, there are other viruses in the world that are called retroviruses, that can make DNA from RNA and that can, in some cases, insert themselves into DNA. But that’s not relevant here because the coronavirus is not a retrovirus. It uses RNA but does not know how to make DNA.

Neither the virus nor the vaccine includes a reverse transcriptase, a special molecular machine that is necessary to make DNA. Even if reverse transcriptase were to be present in the cell somehow, neither the viral RNA nor the vaccine mRNA include the necessary binding sites for for the reverse transcriptase to work.

Or if you’d like an analogy, think about your DNA as a reference library. The books stay in the library, but you can take notes on your own notebook paper for use elsewhere. (The notebook paper is the RNA.) There’s no way for your notebook to somehow become part of the library’s permanent collection.

What is actually in the vaccine?

Both vaccines are astoundingly simple. The ingredient lists for both contain just three types of ingredients:

  • the mRNA
  • lipids with very long names (these are basically fancy oils and they form the coating around the mRNA)
  • sugars, salts, and/or simple chemical buffers

In the Pfizer vaccine, the third category includes potassium chloride, monobasic potassium phosphate, sodium chloride, dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate, and sucrose. These may sound scientific, but three of them you probably have in your kitchen (sucrose is sugar, sodium chloride is salt, and potassium chloride is sodium-free salt). Here is the fact sheet for the Pfizer vaccine, which includes the ingredients list.

The Moderna vaccine is formulated with different ingredients, but along the same formula. Besides the mRNA and lipids, it includes tromethamine, tromethamine hydrochloride, acetic acid, sodium acetate, and sucrose. Again, these are extremely common simple ingredients in medical solutions. Tromethamine is just Tris buffer, which you may have used in science class. Acetic acid is the sour component of vinegar. Sucrose is sugar. Here is the fact sheet for the Moderna vaccine.

But I heard it contains…

Even before COVID, there was a lot of misinformation floating around about vaccines. Sometimes, people heard that a certain ingredient was in some vaccines and jumped to the conclusion that it must be in all vaccines. Like mercury, for example, which is only in a very few vaccines. (It used to be in more.) So let’s go through a few items that are not in the COVID vaccine:

  • The COVID vaccines do not contain aluminium or mercury.
  • The COVID vaccines do not contain any preservatives.
  • The COVID vaccines do not contain fetal cells.
  • The COVID vaccines do not contain microchips.

Let’s talk about those last two for a sec.

There are no microchips in vaccines

The idea that vaccines contain microchips is just flat-earth-calibre wrong. There’s a whole conspiracy theory that was whipped up from thin air about microchips, and it was shared in groups that discuss Qanon conspiracies and anti-vaccine propaganda. It is not based on any real-world truths whatsoever.

There are injectable microchips in this world, and your pet can get them at any vet’s office. (They also don’t really do anything, since they don’t have a battery; their only job is to store a serial number.) Sometimes pets get their microchip at the same appointment where they get a vaccine. Maybe that’s where the rumour started?

If you’ve ever seen a microchip injected, you’ll know that they’re a little bigger than a grain of rice, and the needle that delivers them is sized to match. In other words, the inside of the needle is big enough to fit a grain of rice. Meanwhile, the needles that deliver vaccines are extremely thin, less than 1 millimetre wide. Here is Vice President Pence getting his COVID shot in front of news cameras. You can see the needle is normal sized. There’s no microchip in there.

There are no fetal cells in the COVID vaccines

Some vaccines are developed in cell lines that are grown in labs, and in some cases those cells are descended from cells that were originally grown from human fetal tissue. This has led to a myth that “pieces of aborted babies” are in vaccines, which is not true at all.

The COVID vaccines are not grown in cells, fetal or otherwise. Remember, they’re just an mRNA. Lab machines can synthesise those without getting any cells involved whatsoever. Both Pfizer and Moderna did use some foetus-derived cell lines for some of the testing they did in the process of developing the vaccine.

If this is an issue for you or your loved ones, a Pope-approved statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops may help to understand how a vaccine tested on fetal-derived cell lines fits in with an anti-abortion religious framework. The bishops argue that the “remote connection” of vaccine development to abortion should not interfere with the fact that “being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbour and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.”

There’s no evidence that the vaccines will harm fertility or pregnancy

The trials for both COVID vaccines excluded people who were pregnant, so we have limited data on their safety and effectiveness during pregnancy. But based on how these vaccines work, scientists and doctors say there is no reason to believe the shot would be harmful to people who are pregnant, lactating, or planning to become pregnant.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has stated that it believes the vaccine “should not be withheld” from people who are pregnant even though the trials did not include them. The CDC agreed when they wrote the vaccine recommendations, saying that people who are pregnant have the choice of taking the vaccine and should talk to their provider to decide whether it makes sense for them.

Meanwhile, there is a rumour going around that the spike protein mRNA bears a similarity to a protein in the human placenta. If true, that would suggest that antibodies to the coronavirus would also react to the placenta, and could interfere with pregnancy. If you’ve heard the incorrect statement that the vaccine can “make you sterile” or “cause infertility,” this is probably the myth the person is thinking of.

But, again, this isn’t supported by evidence. In fact, we have a pretty good reason to believe it is not the case. The spike protein encoded by the mRNA is the same as the one on the actual coronavirus. So if antibodies to the coronavirus could cause problems with pregnancy, that would be just as true for people who got the virus naturally as for those who got the vaccine. But that turns out to be a moot point because there does not seem to be any meaningful match between the spike protein and placenta.

But don’t just take my word for it. If you’re pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, talk to your doctor about what risks and benefits the COVID vaccine could pose for you personally.

Are there scary side effects?

For most people, the side effects of the COVID vaccines are what you’d expect from an immune reaction. Those include soreness and possibly redness or swelling in the arm where you got the vaccine, and potentially a day or two of fatigue and fever. As with other vaccines, the severity of these side effects varies from person to person.

If you’ve heard about serious side effects, they fall into two categories: ones that are real or plausible, and ones that are just made up to scare people on social media.

Here are some of the ones that doctors and public health experts are genuinely concerned about:

If you’ve heard of anything else that is weird or scary, chances are it was probably made up for clicks. Don’t just trust blindly; look into it. For example, a nurse fainted after receiving the vaccine (people faint after injections sometimes, it’s fairly common), and a rumour has been circulating that she died. She did not.

Or to take another example, a woman who was in a vaccine trial developed a scary skin condition on her feet, and posted online that she thought it was because of the vaccine. It turned out that she was in the placebo group, and had not received the vaccine at all. But her story kept circulating.

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