Myths and facts about COVID-19 vaccines

Dr. Emma Dion is a pharmacist who is passionate about making accurate, scientific information more accessible. She is the Medical Communications & Publications Manager at Everlywell, and she earned her Doctor of Pharmacy degree at the University of South Carolina.


From when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, to when a New York nurse became the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside a clinical trial on December 14, 2020, the COVID-19 vaccine has dominated the news and our conversations.

Just this past week the US government announced plans to buy 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to ramp up vaccination efforts by summer, meaning your time to receive a COVID-19 vaccine may be closer than you think.

As anyone who has played the “Telephone” game knows, the original message is not always the message that reaches the person at the end of the line. Information on the COVID-19 vaccine is no different. With that, Dr. Dion is here to drop the facts and bust the myths about COVID-19 vaccines.


I heard authorized COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19.

FACT

There are three authorized and recommended COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States. All vaccines appeared to be highly effective in preventing COVID-19 among people of diverse age, sex, race, ethnicity, and among people with underlying medical conditions.

  • Two doses of BNT162b2, an mRNA vaccine manufactured by Pfizer, Inc. and BioNTech, provided 95% protection against symptomatic COVID-19 in people 16 years of age and older
  • Two doses of mRNA-1273, an mRNA vaccine manufactured by Moderna provided 94.1% protection against symptomatic COVID-19 in people 18 years of age and older
  • A single dose of JNJ-78436735, an adenovirus vector vaccine manufactured by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson provided 66.9% protection from moderate to severe/critical COVID-19 in people 18 years of age and older at least 14 days after vaccination. More specifically, within US study participants alone, the vaccine provided 74.4% protection from moderate to severe/critical COVID-19.

Fast Fact: As early as the 1990s, scientists realized the potential of messenger RNA (mRNA) as a target for vaccines and drugs. One manufacturer of an authorized COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna, has been working with this technology since 2010. mRNA vaccine technology has been studied in numerous viruses including, Zika, rabies, and HIV.

I heard a COVID-19 vaccine can make me sick with COVID-19.

MYTH

None of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines or vaccines in development in the United States contain the live virus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19.

It’s important to know that it does take the body a few weeks to build up immunity after vaccination. This means it is possible for a person to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the week or two before or after they receive a COVID-19 vaccine

I heard it is possible to experience side effects after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

FACT

Vaccines help our bodies develop immunity to a virus without us having to get the illness. Different types of COVID-19 vaccines work in different ways, but all of them teach our immune system how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19. In doing so, this process can sometimes cause side effects within the first day or two of getting the vaccine. These side effects are a sign that the body is building protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.

The most common side effects reported in clinical trials were pain, swelling, and redness in the arm where the person received the vaccine. Fatigue, headache, muscle aches (myalgias), and fever were also reported. Most side effects were mild to moderate and resolved within one to three days.

It should be noted that monitoring for side effects does not just stop when a vaccine clinical trial is over. After a vaccine has been authorized or approved for use, vaccine safety monitoring systems continue to watch for adverse events (possible side effects).

Fast Fact: As a participant in one of the COVID-19 vaccine trials, I experienced a mild fever the evening after I received my second dose of the vaccine. I also experienced some muscle pain in the arm that I received the shot in after both doses. With both doses, these side effects resolved within one day. My friends and family might argue the only lasting side effect is that I tell everyone I meet that I received the vaccine now!

I heard I will test positive for COVID-19 after getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

MYTH/FACT(IT DEPENDS ON THE TYPE OF TEST)

There are two types of tests available for COVID-19. For an in-depth review check out our post on COVID-19 testing, for now here’s a quick refresher:

  • Viral Tests including RT-PCR tests, like the Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit DTC*, and antigen tests that diagnose active SARS-CoV-2 infection.
  • Antibody Tests that show if you’ve been infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the past or are recovering from a recent infection

None of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines or vaccines in development in the United States can cause you to test positive on viral tests.

If your body develops the intended immune response from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, there is a possibility you may test positive on some antibody tests. Experts are still trying to determine the extent to which a COVID-19 vaccination may affect antibody testing results.

I heard the vaccine is not safe for females who would like to get pregnant at some point.

MYTH

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that biological females who are trying to become pregnant now or who plan to try in the future may receive the COVID-19 vaccine. COVID-19 vaccines are being studied carefully and will continue to be studied for many years, but experts currently believe they are unlikely to pose a risk to a person trying to become pregnant in the short or long term.

The COVID-19 vaccine, like other vaccines, instructs our bodies to develop antibodies to fight against the virus that causes COVID-19. Some people have incorrectly claimed the vaccine contains a protein, syncytin-1, that plays a role in human placenta development (check out the ingredients for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine), and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

None of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines or vaccines in development in the United States contain this protein and the rumor that the vaccine causes the body to fight against syncytin-1 and destroy the ability to develop a functional placenta is false.

There is currently no evidence that antibodies formed from COVID-19 vaccination cause any problems with pregnancy, including the development of the placenta. In addition, there is no evidence suggesting that fertility problems are a side effect of ANY vaccine.

Take away the false information that is circulating, and the topic of fertility can still be overwhelming! Check out our post on family planning during COVID-19 for additional information. If you are currently pregnant and wondering whether you should receive a COVID-19 vaccine when you become eligible, it is recommended you discuss the CDC’s Vaccination Considerations for People Who are Pregnant or Breastfeeding with your healthcare provider.

I heard I will still need to wear a mask and social distance in public after I have received the vaccine.

FACT

Stopping the spread of the virus requires multiple tools. The combination of getting vaccinated and continuing to follow CDC recommendations for slowing the spread of the virus are the best ways to protect you and others from COVID-19 at this time.

I heard by the time I’m eligible for the vaccine we will have achieved herd immunity.

MYTH

Herd immunity refers to when a significant portion of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease and the risk of the disease spreading from person to person decreases. Those who are not directly immune are indirectly protected because ongoing disease spread is small.

The percentage of people who need to have protection in order to achieve herd immunity varies by disease and experts are still trying to understand what percentage is needed to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19.

Fast Fact: Speaking of herds—the word vaccine traces its roots to the Latin word for cow “vacca”. In the 1700s, English physician Edward Jenner pioneered the concept of vaccines after observing milkmaids were naturally protected from smallpox after having suffered from cowpox (a milder cousin of smallpox).

Jenner used the cowpox lesions of one dairymaid to inoculate a healthy individual. Vaccination came to be applied to this procedure of inoculation with cowpox. Since then, the meaning of the word has broadened to include inoculation of other viruses and virus-like substances.

I heard a COVID-19 vaccine will alter my DNA.

MYTH

COVID-19 vaccines do not change or interact with your DNA in any way.

mRNA vaccines contain messenger RNA (genetic material) from SARS-CoV-2 that instructs our cells how to make a harmless protein unique to the virus. This protein is recognized as a foreign invader by our immune system and “attacks”. Ultimately, our body produces antibodies in response that will protect us if and when our body sees the protein from SARS-CoV-2 again.

This entire process occurs in the cytoplasm (the area of a living cell excluding the nucleus). This means the mRNA from a COVID-19 vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell, where our DNA is kept, and cannot affect or interact with our DNA in any way.

Viral vector vaccines also deliver a gene from SARS-CoV-2 that instructs our cells to make a harmless protein unique to the virus. To deliver this gene, these vaccines use a modified version of a different virus (the vector). In the case of JNJ-7843673, the viral vector is an adenovirus and has been modified so that it poses no threat of causing illness in humans. The protein delivered triggers our body to produce antibodies that will protect us if and when our body sees the protein from SARS-CoV-2 again. At no point in this process, does the genetic material from the virus become integrated into our own DNA.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that the COVID-19 vaccine may not be recommended for certain individuals. While you “wait in line”, check-in with your healthcare provider to see if it is recommended you receive a COVID-19 vaccine.


Haven’t been able to get a COVID-19 vaccine yet, experiencing symptoms, have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or just want to test proactively to have peace of mind? Find out whether you are infected with SARS-CoV-2 with the Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit DTC*.

*This home collection kit has not been FDA cleared or approved. This home collection kit has been authorized by the FDA under an EUA. Read more at www.everlywell.com/products/covid-19-test.

*This blog was last updated on 2/1/2021. The provided information may change as new developments are announced by the CDC and FDA.


References

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Information about the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine. Updated January 25, 2021. URL. Accessed January 28, 2021.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Information about the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine. Updated January 25, 2021. URL. Accessed January 28, 2021.

3. Moderna. Company History. Updated August 2020. URL. Accessed January 28, 2021.

4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about COVID-19. Vaccines. Updated January 20, 2021. URL. Accessed January 28, 2021.

5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ensuring the Safety of COVID-19 Vaccines in the United States. Updated January 19, 2021. URL. Accessed January 28, 2021.

6. Omer SB, Yildirim I, Forman HP. Herd Immunity and Implications for SARS-CoV-2 Control. JAMA. 2020;324(20):2095–2096.

7. Merriam Webster. ‘Vaccine’: The Word’s History Ain’t Pretty. URL. Accessed January 28, 2021.

8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Testing Overview. Updated December 7, 2020. URL. Accessed January 28, 2021.

9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work. Updated January 13, 2021. URL. Accessed January 28, 2021.

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