Debunking Common Covid-19 Vaccine Myths

Dr. Nina Shapiro, her book Hype

Dr. Nina Shapiro; Shapiro’s 2018 book, Hype

Dr. Nina Shapiro clears up our questions about the Covid-19 vaccines

If trying to keep up with Covid-19 news and findings has your head spinning, you’re not alone. The World Health Organization has dubbed the constant flood of information, whether true or false, an “infodemic” that is leaving people confused and unsure of where to turn. KCM talked to Dr. Nina Shapiro, Professor the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the author of Hype: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims and Bad Advice: How to Tell What’s Real and What’s Not, about some of the misinformation surrounding Covid-19 vaccines.

We discussed the safety of Covid-19 vaccines for pregnant women, the feasibility of vaccine requirements, and what Dr. Shapiro hopes we’ve learned for the next pandemic.

KCM: What are some of the most widely spread myths you’ve seen tied to the Covid vaccines?

Dr. Nina Shapiro: One of the most common things that I hear is that it will alter your DNA. The reason for that is we hear “mRNA” in two of the three approved vaccines, which are the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines. We think, Oh, mRNA, DNA that’s the same thing, it’s going to get into our cell and it’s going to alter our genetic makeup. That’s completely false. The J&J vaccine, which is a viral vector of DNA material similar to the virus, also does not impact our DNA.

Can you explain the current thinking on vaccinating pregnant women, and whether the vaccine impacts fertility?

That myth came about when somebody posted on some website that the antibody to the virus’s spike protein that we create will interfere with the binding of the placenta during pregnancy, so it will cause either pregnancy loss or infertility. Obviously there are plenty of people who are either wanting to get pregnant or are pregnant or may be pregnant so that became a huge myth. There is no connection between the vaccine protein and placental binding protein so that was completely false. 

The good news is that if you receive a vaccine during pregnancy,we have now seen that Covid-19 antibodies can be transmitted from mother to baby through the umbilical cord, which means the baby does receive some protection from the virus if their mother gets a vaccine during pregnancy. 

The other good thing is that if the mom has the vaccine sometime when she’s nursing, there’s going to be antibodies in the breast milk as well, so that will provide some protection, too. 

As with any medical intervention during or after pregnancy, the individual should always check with their doctor individually to make sure the timing is right for whatever reason, but this is not new. We’ve always recommended flu shots for pregnant women, we’ve recommended Tdap [tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis] boosters during pregnancy to help provide some protection for the newborn.

The other group of people there’s confusion about is children and when they will be able to get the vaccine. What can we expect that timeline to be?

The recent data came out of the Pfizer vaccine trial for children ages 12 to 15 years. They followed a little over 2,000 children after receiving two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. They found there were 18 cases of coronavirus infection and those were all in the placebo group, or the group that did not receive the vaccine, so 0% of the children who received the vaccine came down with illness during this period of time. Just as the vaccines had to go through a process with the FDA to get Emergency Use Authorization, that still needs to happen with the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds. If you ask me today when it will be available for this adolescent group, I would estimate in the early summer.

Do you think requiring Covid-19 vaccination is an adoptable policy in schools?

It’s not a new phenomenon to require vaccines for school, so I think it’s very, very feasible. There will be people who can’t get the vaccine for various reasons and they will have medical exemptions and there will probably be people who just do not want to get the vaccine for whatever personal reasons, and I think the schools are just going to have to deal with those on an individual basis.

There have been a number of studies about the impact of Vitamin D on Covid. What do we know and what do we not know?

Early on, what they found is that people who have Vitamin D deficiency had evidence of poorer outcomes than those who were not Vitamin D deficient. So it’s a question of, is Vitamin D protective or is Vitamin D deficiency associated with other issues going on with somebody’s overall health? Vitamin D is a pretty harmless supplement so if you take it, it’s probably not going to hurt you as long as you don’t megadose on it. I just don’t want people to hang their hats on Vitamin D supplements as being the protector from severe Covid-19 infection.

How should the average person best identify misinformation and what resources do you think they should look to?

I still recommend the CDC website. If there’s any sort of change in recommendations or change in, for instance, travel restrictions, the CDC is a great resource for everybody. As far as the news sites, even really reputable news sites can skew a headline. It’s really hard to find an absolutely pure site, except for the CDC, that doesn’t have some slight political audience. More is always better and if anything sounds so amazing or so terrible, don’t use that information as your only source.

Everybody can access studies online, and If you just read the summary or the abstract of a study without necessarily teasing through some scientific journal, it’s very clear, and for the most part unbiased, as far as what they’re really saying.

Are you afraid there’s going to be a revitalization or a new wave of anti-vaccine rhetoric?

I think there already is. As soon as the vaccines were under study, the anti-vaxxers came out pretty loud and clear. They’re currently starting studies on children ages six months to 11 years. Once those are completed, which will probably be several months from now, maybe not even until early 2022 when the data comes out, then I think the issue of vaccines and autism will come up. I think it will become an issue when vaccines become required for schools, for universities, obviously the big question about whether there should be vaccine passports, I think that’s going to be a big issue for anti-vaxxers.

Recently the CDC said people who are vaccinated can travel at low risk to themselves. Are you concerned that little benchmarks like that will open the floodgates to making people think everything’s okay?

We’re already seeing that as things open around the country. We’re starting to see many little pockets and not so little pockets in big cities with newer surges and it’s due to everyone moving around the country. We do have vaccines to help squash these surges, but the vaccines are not outpacing the mobility people have. People feel safer, pandemic fatigue is real, and we’re also hearing that it’s safer to move around, so it’s a fine line. We don’t want to keep the country locked up indefinitely and things are getting better, but with that, we’re going to see some case numbers going up. We already are.

How concerned are you about the variants?

The variants are very concerning because some of them are much more infectious. For the most part, the vaccines will offer some or all protection against these variants, but it’s a matter of how fast these vaccines can be administered given how infectious these variants are. It’s just a matter of how much we can keep ahead of these. The more the variants are thriving, the more we’ll see newer variants off of these variants.

We’ve talked to people who have said we’ve entered a “pandemic era. What do you think is in store for the next pandemic?

I agree, I think this is not the last pandemic. Hopefully we can move more quickly and more efficiently in the future and know what we can and cannot do to minimize the devastation that this one has caused.

How do you feel about where we are now?

It’s great that things are moving in the right direction for the most part, but I feel like we’re at mile 21 of the Boston Marathon. We just crossed heartbreak hill but we still have those brutal five miles to get through. They’re so critical because we’re just so tired, but if we don’t do these last miles right, we’re not going to finish.