4 common myths about COVID-19 vaccines, debunked

Dr. James Hamblin, a medical doctor and editor at the Atlantic magazine, recently tweeted a pair of statistics: “So far, global deaths from COVID are, very roughly, 2.7 million,” he wrote. “So far, global deaths from COVID vaccines are, less roughly, 0.” As of this writing, there have been about 123 million confirmed COVID-19 cases compared to about 445 million COVID-19 vaccines administered.

No medication is 100% risk free but statistically the risk of suffering a poor outcome after contracting COVID-19 versus receiving the vaccine aren’t comparable. Vaccines are not only safe, but very effective at protecting against a bigger threat. (This video does a good job of putting the mechanism and risk of vaccines, generally, in perspective.)

We understand it may not feel that way, though. Psychologically, we’re wired in such a way that the risks and rewards are skewed. The virus we’ve been living with for a full year now seems less dangerous than it actually is, and new vaccines seem much riskier than they are.

This natural tendency is made far worse by the avalanche of misinformation we’re contending with on a daily basis. Here are a few of the most common myths about COVID-19 vaccines, debunked.

1. The vaccines were developed too quickly to prove their safety

Of the myths on our list, this is the most plausible sounding. These vaccines were designed, tested and manufactured faster than any vaccines in history. Pharmaceutical companies, researchers and regulators did in weeks and months what traditionally takes several years.

Most vaccines take years because there are pauses to acquire necessary funding and because there is relatively little pressure to speed through validation. Here, not only was funding not an issue, but there was unprecedented urgency to complete the necessary processes. But—and this is key—none of those processes were skipped or compromised.

According to the World Health Organization, each approved COVID-19 vaccine has gone through the same rigorous, multi-stage testing as other vaccines, including large phase III trials that involve tens of thousands of people (Pfizer’s phase III vaccine trials involved 43,000 people). These trials include high risk patients and are specifically designed to identify any common side effects or safety concerns.

2. The vaccines could affect fertility

There is an extensive history of claims that vaccines affect unborn children. Perhaps most famously, a 1994 paper published in the Lancet by a now-discredited researcher suggested the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine increased the risk of autism. Even after the paper was retracted and multiple corrections were published, the myth continues to circulate.

The fear that new COVID-19 vaccines might affect fertility is built on some of those persistent anxieties. According to the Mayo Clinic, this myth about COVID-19 vaccines has been linked to a sophisticated disinformation campaign started by a former scientist with anti-vaccine views. It claims that antibodies to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID-19) produced by the vaccines will bind to placental proteins and prevent pregnancy.

But according to guidance from Association of Reproductive and Clinical Scientists and the British Fertility Society published in the BMJ, there is “absolutely no evidence” that COVID-19 vaccines can affect the fertility of women or men.

“These (online) postings are not scientifically plausible, as COVID-19 infection has not been linked to infertility,” the Mayo Clinic writeup explained. “Also, no other viral infection or vaccination-inducing immunity has been shown to cause infertility.”

3. The vaccines are made with harmful chemicals

Some have claimed these vaccines are made with antifreeze or with toxins used in lethal injections. But these are misunderstandings or misrepresentations.

For example, potassium chloride—a drug that is part of the cocktail in lethal injections—is present in trace amounts in Pfizer’s vaccine, but not enough to pose any risk. Potassium chloride is also frequently found in other inoculations in safe quantities. It’s also used as a medication itself, administered intravenously in higher doses to treat potassium depletion.

As for the antifreeze claim, one Toronto toxicologist explained that antifreeze is ethylene glycol, which is toxic, but polyethylene glycol is found in ordinary medications such as laxatives. (The mix-up is reminiscent of an old April Fool’s day bit in which a paper in Michigan caused a small panic when it reported that “dihydrogen monoxide” was found in the city’s water pipes; “dihydrogen monoxide” is, as you may have guessed, an unfamiliar chemical name for H2O.)

If you’re curious there are many resources where you can find out more about the ingredients in COVID-19 vaccines. But remember to rely on reputable sources such as healthcare institutions, regulatory bodies and accredited medical personnel and, if possible, check their claims against other reputable sources.

4. The vaccines are being used to track us

This myth appears to have started with comments made by Bill Gates last March. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has helped administer vaccines throughout much of the third world in an effort to eradicate polio. Gates suggested the creation of digital vaccine records to show who’d recovered, who’d been tested, and who received a vaccine—record-keeping that is crucial to fight the spread of any contagion. He made no mention of microchips.

None of the vaccines contain any implants, microchips, or tracking devices.