Correcting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

Fears about the coronavirus vaccines are spreading, but most aren't valid

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines reported more than 90% efficacy in phase III clinical trials and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency use authorization for both. The first doses of the Pfizer vaccine were administered at UCLA Health on Dec. 16 and the Moderna vaccine is days away from being delivered.

But as the world watches the latest COVID-19 vaccine developments, misinformation and falsehoods continue to circulate online.

We spoke with Otto Yang, MD, professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, to correct some of the misinformation associated with the COVID-19 vaccines.

The vaccine will not give you COVID-19.

Dr. Yang: There's no way that you're going to get COVID-19 from the vaccine. For COVID-19 to spread, the virus must multiply in the body.

When you receive the vaccine, you’re only given one little piece of the RNA from the virus, which is unable to replicate itself. That little piece of RNA doesn’t have any of the components it typically needs to spread or infect the rest of your body.

What the RNA does is signal the immune system to recognize a “threat” and produce antibodies, which will protect against future infections.

It is better to get vaccinated than to contract the virus naturally.

Dr. Yang: With the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, you get only one piece of the RNA: which encodes the spike protein. This small piece is not able to replicate itself, or spread.

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus – the virus that causes COVID-19 – infects a cell, it injects all of its own genetic material into the cell to begin replicating itself.

Getting the actual COVID-19 disease is much, much worse than just having one dead protein from the virus. Contracting the virus naturally can cause both direct damage to cells and inflammation due to your immune system reacting, which can cause harm throughout the entire body.

Messenger RNA vaccine technology is new, but not unknown.

Dr. Yang: While we don’t yet know how much safer mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines are compared to other types of vaccines, the theory is that they are likely less dangerous.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that small early-stage clinical trials using mRNA vaccines have been carried out for the flu, Zika, rabies and cytomegalovirus (CMV). Advancements in biology and chemistry have improved mRNA vaccine safety and efficacy.

Although this is the first time COVID-19 vaccines have been used, the platform or structure for which the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were made have been studied for years.

Think of it like a printing press: You set up a process with letters, ink and paper in place. All you need is for a book to come along to get printed.

It’s a similar process here. The technology was already in place – all scientists had to do was put together the relevant RNA sequence.

Messenger RNA vaccines cannot alter your DNA.

Dr. Yang: There is no way that injecting the vaccine will alter your genetic information, or DNA.

The pathway for RNA only works in one direction – you can make RNA from DNA, but you cannot make DNA from RNA. RNA is a short-lived temporary messenger in your cells.

You will not become more susceptible to other illnesses.

Dr. Yang: There is no reason to think that you would become more susceptible to other illnesses.

Our immune system is constantly being bombarded with things all the time – it's the natural state of things to face one infection after the other. To our knowledge, there's no reason to believe that it would be any different here.

If you’ve had COVID-19, you should still get vaccinated.

Dr. Yang: There’s precedent for people getting vaccines after they’ve had the illness, with flu vaccines being one example.

I think many, if not most, scientists believe that immunity against COVID-19 will eventually wane and people will be able to get reinfected. Our lab at UCLA has studied how antibodies eventually go away – so if you’ve had COVID-19, it makes sense to get a vaccine as a booster for the antibodies that may be fading from your system.

If you have antibodies, you may still be able to spread the virus.

Dr. Yang: A positive antibody test itself does not necessarily mean that you are immune. There is likely a certain level of antibodies needed for protection and we don’t yet know the level of antibodies that are protective. The tests that are done don't tell you how many antibodies you have or if you're resistant.

We don't know for sure that the vaccine prevents asymptomatic infections that could be contagious; all we know from the way the studies were designed is that symptomatic illnesses are reduced. It's likely, we hope, that asymptomatic infections are also stopped, but that remains to be seen.

Theoretically, you could have a positive antibody test and still be susceptible to getting infected and be contagious.

But if you do get infected with the coronavirus after getting the vaccine, the antibodies in your system should mitigate the infection and prevent you from coming down with severe symptoms of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 vaccines will not lead to sterilization.

Dr. Yang: There’s absolutely no evidence that the vaccine interferes with fertility or pregnancy.

The vaccine is basically expressing just one protein of the virus and your immune system is responding against it. In our daily lives that's happening all the time, and it is a natural function of our body and our immune system.

Although pregnant women are at increased risk for serious disease, it does not look like the virus crosses the placenta or infects babies, except maybe very rarely. Even the virus itself doesn't seem to have a big effect on pregnancy, so there's absolutely no reason to worry or think about the vaccines affecting pregnancy.

There will likely be some warning about not getting the vaccine while you're pregnant based on just being extra cautious about unknowns, but there's no reason to suspect that it would be a problem.

The vaccine isn’t being enforced as mandatory.

Dr. Yang: Just like getting the flu vaccine is not mandatory, getting the COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory either – though it will likely be highly encouraged.

I think people should consider this a group effort, just like wearing masks. The vaccine is as much to protect those around you, as it is for yourself.

Getting vaccinated will not mean the pandemic automatically ends.

Dr. Yang: Once you receive the vaccine, you should continue physical distancing or wearing a mask when around others, until hopefully we are lucky enough that the virus stops circulating.

The vaccine is going to be rolled out gradually as the supplies are available, with the hope of eventually generating herd immunity.

We need to aim for about 70% of the population being immune all the time and if that’s the case, that’s enough to stop the virus from spreading in our community.

Think of herd immunity being similar to preventing a fire in a forest. If you make 70% of the trees fire-proof, there are not enough vulnerable trees for the fire to continue its spread. Even trees that are not fireproof are much less likely to burn down.