10 Biggest COVID-19 Vaccine Myths
Does the COVID-19 vaccine change your DNA? Can you ‘undo’ an unwanted vaccination with a borax bath? Read on to see how well you can distinguish between myth and truth.
We live in an age of disinformation and misinformation, with falsehoods proliferating on social networks, gaining legions of believers. Even as vaccines designed to protect people from COVID-19 are being distributed across the nation, rumors and fantastical notions about the inoculations are also widely circulating.
“The internet has many advantages in that it puts information at our fingertips, but the problem in my opinion is that people aren’t able to assess the reliability of the information they’re receiving,” says Henry Bernstein, DO, a pediatrician with Cohen Children’s Medical Center Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York. “That is where we run into difficulties in trying to gain people’s trust.”
For Dr. Bernstein, who serves on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), public trust is essential to making the vaccination program a success and putting an end to the pandemic. To gain this trust, people need to be able to distinguish accurate information from misconceptions.
Unfortunately, when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, the problem may be getting worse. According to a survey of more than 3,000 physicians in 26 countries, released in mid-November, 53 percent of the doctors noted patients coming to them with vaccine misinformation, up from 45 percent in June.
Here are some of the major COVID-19 vaccine myths disseminated on the internet, and comments from doctors distinguishing fact from falsehood.
Top COVID-19 Questions: Should I Believe the Vaccine Skeptics on Social Media?
Myth 1: The New Vaccines Were Developed So Quickly That Drug Companies Cut Corners on Safety
Although the virus that causes COVID-19 was first reported at the end of 2019, scientists had already conducted years of research on related coronaviruses that cause SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and developed vaccines to fight these viruses.
The COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer (in conjunction with BioNTech) and Moderna are a direct result of that research.
“The vaccines rely on a technology, mRNA, that has been studied for over a decade, since at least the initial outbreaks of MERS,” says Jennifer Horney, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and a core faculty member at the disaster research center at the University of Delaware in Newark.
Dr. Horney adds that researchers at Pfizer and Moderna conducted rigorous clinical trials of their vaccines involving tens of thousands of participants to evaluate both safety and effectiveness.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that serious adverse events related to the new vaccines have been rare, and that the most common side effects — including pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever, or nausea — last just a few days.
Some people have had severe allergic reactions following vaccination, and a very small number have experienced complications such as myocarditis and pericarditis (inflammation of the heart), blood clots, or Guillain-Barré syndrome, the CDC reports. These incidents tend to make headlines, but they have been rare.
Myth 2: The Vaccines Change Your DNA
The new mRNA vaccines were created using genetic technology, but they do not affect a person’s DNA in any way. The CDC explains that the mRNA in the vaccine gives cells instructions on how to produce a piece of a protein called a spike protein, which is similar to a protein on the surface of the coronavirus. This triggers the immune system to produce antibodies, which remain in the bloodstream ready to fight any future coronavirus infection.
The mRNA from the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell and does not affect or interact with a person’s DNA, the CDC affirms.
Myth 3: The Vaccines Can Infect You With the Coronavirus
The mRNA vaccines do not contain a live virus and do not carry a risk of causing disease in the vaccinated person.
“Getting the virus from the vaccine would be like getting a chicken from scrambled eggs,” says Jill Foster, MD, a pediatric infectious-disease physician and a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. “It can’t happen. There’s no virus in the vaccine.”
Hayley Gans, MD, a pediatric infectious-disease physician with Stanford Medicine in Palo Alto, California, elaborates: “The way these vaccines work is to expose your body to a protein that the virus has on its surface, but the rest of the virus is not present. Therefore you’re not getting infected with a virus, and it can’t turn into a virus.”
Myth 4: People Who Are Inoculated Can ‘Shed’ Toxic Vaccine Components
In October 2021, the Centner Academy in Miami told parents to keep their kids at home for 30 days if they had been vaccinated because, school officials claimed, these children could “shed” a potentially harmful vaccine component onto others.
A few months earlier, Airbnb suspended a host who denied accommodations to a vaccinated couple because of the false belief that the vaccine is “transmitting to unvaccinated people and causing them to become unwell.”
The CDC stresses that this concept of COVID-19 “vaccine shedding” is not based in fact: “Vaccine shedding is the term used to describe the release or discharge of any of the vaccine components in or outside the body. Vaccine shedding can occur only when a vaccine contains a weakened version of the virus. None of the vaccines authorized for use in the United States contain a live virus.”
Myth 5: The Vaccines Increase the Risk of Autism or Cancer
“No vaccines we currently have cause autism or cancer — that has been definitively proven — despite what the internet might tell you,” says Dr. Foster. “There’s no reason based on the science for these vaccines that they would cause either [condition].”
Foster explains that in the United States, a reporting system is in place to identify any rare adverse effects of COVID-19 inoculation. “This [reporting system] has been around for decades, but is really being ramped up for these vaccines,” he says. One of the main jobs of the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office is to discover if adverse events that are reported by doctors, vaccine manufacturers, and the public are truly caused by the vaccine.
Myth 6: You Don’t Need to Get a Vaccine if You’ve Already Had COVID-19 or if Other People Get Inoculated
The CDC states that there is not enough information currently available to know for how long after infection someone is protected from getting COVID-19 again; the agency recommends that people get vaccinated even if they already had COVID-19 and recovered. The journal Science reported in November 2020 that more people were getting the virus twice.
Myth 7: The Vaccines Can Cause Infertility
Rumors have been flooding the internet that COVID-19 vaccines could cause infertility in women because of an ingredient that interferes with the development of the placenta. Again, Bernstein says, “There are no data to support this hypothesis. Experts believe mRNA vaccines are unlikely to pose a risk to a pregnant woman or her fetus.”
The CDC has also addressed unfounded concerns that simply being near a vaccinated individual can affect a person’s menstrual cycle. Many things can affect menstrual cycles, including stress, schedule changes, problems with sleep, and variations in diet or exercise, but being near a vaccinated person does not have any impact.
Myth 8: Microsoft Cofounder Bill Gates Wants to Use the New Vaccines to Implant Microchips in People
A YouGov poll of 1,640 people found that 28 percent of respondents believed the microchip conspiracy theory. Earlier this year, conspiracy theorists circulated a diagram of what they said is a 5G chip inside the COVID vaccine. As Popular Mechanics pointed out, the diagram illustrates the inner workings of a guitar pedal.
The CDC stresses that none of the COVID-19 vaccines contain software or microchips, and the vaccines are not being used to track people.
Myth 9: Vaccines Can Make You Magnetic
In July 2021, the Ohio doctor and conspiracy theorist Sherri Tenpenny falsely claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines were “magnetizing” people because a protein in the vaccine had a metal attached to it. She told lawmakers that vaccinated individuals could put a key to their heads and it would stick — a falsehood that was widely spread on the internet.
The CDC emphasizes that none of the vaccines contain metal or any other components that can create a magnetic field, so they will not make you magnetic.
Myth 10: Vaccines Can Be Deactivated or Eliminated Through Home Remedies Like Borax Baths or Cupping
Some so-called "anti-vaxxers" have been promoting remedies to “cure” vaccination in skeptics who were compelled to get the shot because of mandates.
NBC News recently presented a roundup of such pseudoscientific treatments being peddled on the internet. One, promoted by Carrie Madej, an osteopathic physician who no longer practices, claims that toxins, nanotechnologies, and radiation from vaccination can be cleansed from the body in a bath of baking soda, Epsom salt, and the household cleaner borax.
As with other false notions, a treatment like this will not “undo” the vaccine or remove these nonexistent elements from the body. In fact, borax may cause physical harm to eyes and skin.
Other people opposed to COVID-19 vaccination have recommended removing vaccine through cupping (an alternative therapy involving the creation of a suction force to pull blood into the skin), making cuts in the skin, and using an empty syringe to “uninject” the vaccine. None of these methods do what advocates claim, and they could cause harm.
Why do some people believe these unproven ideas regarding vaccines? Foster partially attributes it to fear. “It’s quite reasonable to be afraid of vaccines,” she says. “Deep in our primitive brains is a place that is saying, ‘Hey, it’s dangerous to have a stranger stick you with a sharp object and inject a foreign substance into you.’”
She explains that fearful people are looking to validate their emotion, and so they are more likely to accept outlandish claims.
Better communication of scientifically proven, accurate information to the public may help. The doctors interviewed here underscore the need for individuals to make sure they get their health facts from reliable sources.
“People can make up any theories they want about anything,” says Dr. Gans. “Get your information from an authoritative source.”
Bernstein encourages people to rely on organizations such as the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians.