The coronavirus MRNA vaccines might be the light at the end of the tunnel in the battle against COVID-19. However, because they were developed so quickly in relation to past vaccinations and are unlike traditional vaccines, many questions and myths have been circulating about their possible impacts.
“Myths around the vaccine have arisen because most people do not understand how vaccines work, especially the new RNA vaccines which is a new platform technology,” says Dr. Amit Kumar, vaccine expert, scientist and CEO of Anixa Biosciences, a company that is developing therapies and vaccines that are focused on critical unmet needs in oncology and infectious disease.
We talked with experts to discuss some common myths around the new vaccine.
Myth #1: COVID-19 vaccines will give you COVID-19.
“None of the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in the US are made using the live virus that causes COVID-19,” says Catherine Waalkes, geneticist and development scientist at CRI Genetics. “There is no pathogen used anywhere in the production process of the vaccines so they cannot give you COVID-19.”
Dr. Kumar says the approved vaccines use approaches to produce or introduce the spike protein into your body. “The spike protein is only one component of the virus and is not capable of causing infection or disease. The spike protein is recognized by your immune system as an invading protein and the immune system learns how to attack it with antibodies and T-cells which are key components of the immune system.” While he says some people might get mild side effects such as a fever and some minor aches and pains, the reaction is not an infection, but simply the result of the immune system attacking the spike protein. “These reactions are temporary and usually clear in a day or two. A very small number of people might have an allergic reaction, but this also resolves quickly.”
Myth #2: Getting the COVID-19 vaccine will cause you to pass the virus to family and friends.
“Since the vaccine does not cause an infection, there is no way to pass on the disease to anyone else from vaccination,” says Dr. Kumar. “At the current time, we do not know if the vaccine simply eliminates the symptoms of the disease if exposed to an active virus or if it completely inhibits infection.” Dr. Kumar says most likely, a vaccinated individual cannot carry the disease “but we are not absolutely sure yet. It’s possible that a vaccinated person who is exposed to the virus will not get sick, but they may still carry and pass on the virus to an unvaccinated person.”
Myth #3: COVID-19 vaccines will cause you to test positive for COVID-19.
This depends on the type of test used, says Dr. Kumar.
“The PCR test looks for the genetic material of the virus itself. Vaccination will not cause you to be positive on the PCR test because there is no virus in your system. That being said, a very small number of tests might come up positive but that is due to performance characteristics of the test, not an infection.” One of them is the serology test, which looks for antibodies to the virus.
“These tests are designed to evaluate whether the immune system has seen the virus or a vaccine in the past,” says Dr. Kumar. “Those who have been vaccinated will come up positive on this test especially if the test is performed shortly after vaccination. This does not say you have the disease, it simply says that you have either had the disease in the past or have had the vaccine.”
“If you are mounting an immune response to the vaccine — which is the objective of the vaccine and is a good thing — then it is possible to test positive on some antibody tests,” Adds Waalkes. “This shows you have built up some protection against the virus.” Waalkes says scientists are still looking into how vaccination will affect antibody test results down the line.
Myth #4: Receiving an mRNA vaccine will alter your DNA.
“Your DNA will not be altered if you receive an mRNA vaccine,” says Dr. Kumar. “DNA is the coding molecule that directs the formation of mRNA that enables the formation of proteins. It does not go the other way around.” He adds that since mRNA is not a highly stable molecule, it exists for only a short time period and then is broken down by design. “That is the main reason that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have such stringent cold storage requirements,” he says. “If those vaccines were not kept cold, the mRNA would break down and the vaccine would be ineffective.” When the mRNA vaccines are administered, the mRNA is taken up by your cells and the spike protein is produced. “But very quickly the mRNA is degraded so you are not constantly making the spike protein.”
Myth #5: People who have recovered from COVID-19 do not need to get vaccinated.
“It is possible to get re-infected with COVID-19, so you still need to get vaccinated even if you have recovered from COVID-19,” says Waalkes. “Natural immunity, and the temporary immunity you gain following an infection, varies from person to person and typically does not last very long.”
While people who have had the disease will have some immunity to the disease, says Dr. Kumar, since it’s uncertain about the length of immunity conferred, “These people will still benefit from getting vaccinated.”
Myth #6: After an individual is vaccinated, they no longer need to wear a mask and practice social distancing.
“All individuals should continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing, whether they have been vaccinated or not,” says Waalkes. “Experts still need to study how the vaccines work in real-world conditions. Until we fully understand how much protection the COVID-19 vaccines offer in real-world conditions, we need to do everything possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including wearing a mask, avoiding crowded places and poorly ventilated areas, staying at least six feet away from others, and washing our hands often.”
However, Dr. Kumar says, eventually, we may get to the point where masks and distancing are not required. “The mRNA vaccines are over 90 percent efficacious. That means most properly vaccinated people will not get the disease, but a small number might.” Additionally, since it will take some time to vaccinate everyone in society, wearing a mask will help keep infection from spreading to people who have not been vaccinated. Another thing to consider is the emergence of new variants, which Dr. Kumar says, is “normal as the virus is adapting to humanity, which is its host.”
“While most mutations are either harmless or not beneficial to the virus, some mutations will give rise to variants that are more robust,” he says. “We have no way of knowing when or if a new variant, that can escape the vaccines, will arise. So until most of the population is vaccinated, masks and distancing are still beneficial. Finally, we do not yet know how long immunity lasts. We will have to monitor infection rates in vaccinated people to see if immunity wanes with time.”
If you still have questions about the vaccine, Waalkes says the best resources are those coming from reliable, verified sources, like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
This kids face mask gallery is a good place to start shopping!