The eight most common myths about Covid vaccines

Opinion: Helen Petousis-Harris takes apart eight of the most dangerous and untrue pieces of propaganda currently circulating in NZ about Covid-19 vaccines.

The image show a close-up of a gloved hand holding a vial of Covid-19 vaccin and inserting a syringe: Claims that suggest an alarming rate of “deaths and serious injury” caused by the vaccines are deeply misguided, writes Helen Petousis-Harris. Photo: iStock
Claims that suggest an alarming rate of “deaths and serious injury” caused by the vaccines are deeply misguided, writes Helen Petousis-Harris. Photo: iStock

There is a flyer with a list of falsehoods being posted widely into homes across Aotearoa New Zealand: It is headed with the statement ‘8 IMPORTANT COVID VACCINE FACTS YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T HEARD’.

Actually, the “facts” listed are eight of the most common myths about Covid-19 vaccines. Some have been around so long they probably qualify as zombie myths. The golden rules of propaganda are followed in the flyer: use intense emotions, create a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” and avoid data and rational discussion.

I will address each claim in this dangerous flyer of misinformation:

Claim 1: Deaths and cases of serious injury are being reported around the world at an alarming rate

The Covid-19 vaccines for which New Zealand has pre-purchase agreements appear very safe. There have been some very rare blood-clotting events detected following administration of the viral-vector vaccines (Astra-Zeneca and Janssen) and these are being intensively investigated. Claims that suggest an alarming rate of “deaths and serious injury” caused by the vaccines are deeply misguided and rely of the intentional abuse of data from spontaneous vaccine safety surveillance systems. Implying that all adverse events that occur after a vaccine is devious; one could just as well say deaths after eating marmite on toast for breakfast were all caused by the marmite and toast. I have previously written about how this sort of data is distorted. Here is a fact check and here is a guide to interpreting the data (clearly ignored by the claimants). Apart from the risk of severe allergic reactions, there are no other serious adverse events associated with the Pfizer mRNA vaccine at this time after hundreds of millions of doses. We continue to watch closely.

Claim 2: Medsafe’s Pfizer report highlights concerns about genotoxicity and serious autoimmunity

Medsafe (New Zealand’s regulatory agency) has reviewed all the data available on the Pfizer vaccine and scrutinised the safety data. This is a task the agency is highly qualified to undertake and is responsible to do on our behalf to keep us safe. Medsafe continues to monitor the vaccine but the claim it has concerns about genotoxicity and serious autoimmunity is false. Claimants are misrepresenting Medsafe’s position on the vaccine, this is called a strawman argument. Medsafe is satisfied with the safety profile of this vaccine so far and it has not identified any concerning or unexpected events. Here is the agency’s monitoring process.

Claim 3: It is unknown if the vaccine will cause cancer, sterility or mutate cells

There has never been an authorised vaccine that has caused cancer, sterility, or dangerous mutation of cells. Ever. However, several vaccines prevent these things, for example HPV and HepB vaccines prevent cancer. Claiming there is no proof that any vaccine will not cause something far in the future is akin to asking me to prove to you that there are not fairies at the bottom of my garden. I will never be able to prove to you that there are no fairies in my garden. This is also the impossible expectation. You cannot prove a negative – the Russell’s Teapot analogy explains this well. The onus is on the proponents of these claims to prove them, not for anyone else to disprove them. There is not even a hint of a reason to think that the Pfizer mRNA vaccine might cause these things.

Claim 4: Animals in prior coronavirus vaccine trials became very sick when exposed to the wild virus

Animal models are used to assess vaccines early in development. This gives scientists an opportunity to look at safety outcomes and also, if there is an appropriate animal model available, to vaccinate them then expose them to the infection. To understand the phenomenon of vaccine-associated enhanced disease – where a vaccinated animal or person gets enhanced disease should they become infected – animals such as hamster and ferret were used, and enhanced disease was observed when non-adjuvanted inactivated coronavirus vaccines were used. This enabled the scientists to understand the mechanisms for this and avoid the risk by designing vaccines that did not induce this effect. Claiming that because coronavirus vaccines have induced enhanced disease in animals is true by insinuating that it was the vaccines we are using is misleading. There is no evidence in animals or humans that authorised Covid-19 vaccines induce a risk for enhanced disease. Here is a consensus statement from experts looking at this issue.

Claim 5: The only reason given to take the vaccine is that it might reduce symptoms

The Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine prevents death, severe disease, mild disease, and asymptomatic infection in most people who receive it. Taking the vaccine protects not only you, but also those around you and the general community. Claiming that the only reason to take it is that it might reduce symptoms is completely misleading. The Pfizer vaccine is highly effective in preventing Covid-19 and the spread of infection. The higher the proportion of people vaccinated, the faster we can get back to normality.

Claim 6: The vaccine has not been shown to stop you catching SARS-CoV-2 or passing it on to others

The vaccine has been shown to prevent you from catching SARS CoV-2 and passing it on. Claiming that it has not is false. Data from countries that have achieved high coverage are able to report the effects such as Israel and the UK.

Claim 7: All Covid-19 vaccines are currently experimental, and some trials won’t end until 2023

The authorised Covid-19 vaccines are not ‘experimental’ any longer. The endpoints required for authorisation for use were met last year (safety and efficacy). Clinical trial participants are a valuable source of data and following them up for as long as possible is desirable and normal in vaccine trials. Also, new vaccine trials are kicking off all the time. Vaccines are used in experiments for their entire life, which can be many decades. Claiming that the Covid-19 vaccines are ‘experimental’ in a bid to scare people is misinforming them. There have been over one billion Covid-19 vaccines administered with safety and effectiveness closely monitored.

Claim 8: Vaccine companies are exempt from all liability

Once a vaccine is licensed for use, most countries have a system for injury compensation, should someone suffer a vaccine-related adverse event. If every person who believed they had been injured by a vaccine sued the vaccine manufacturer, nobody would make vaccines because it costs millions to deal with these things. In New Zealand, ACC provides this cover. But to say “vaccine companies are exempt from ALL liability” is wrong: A vaccine company can still be held accountable if there is wilful misconduct such as fraud or deceit. However, if there are unforeseen problems, then no. During a pandemic there is already precedent set for indemnifying vaccine manufacturers. This does not mean the vaccines are not safe. Here is an RNZ report summarising the indemnity granted by the New Zealand Government.

This article first appeared on Dr Petousis-Harris’s blog site, Diplomatic Immunity

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris is a vaccinologist, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences and the Director of the Vaccine Datalink and Research Group. 

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom The eight most common myths about Covid vaccines 30 April 2021.

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