The United States just passed a COVID-19 vaccination distribution milestone as 3 million Americans each day are now receiving a dose of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine. As vaccine eligibility in California opens on April 15 to all individuals 16 and older, though, a large portion of the population remains skeptical of the vaccine.
According to Dr. Victor Waters, the Chief Medical Officer at Dignity Health St. Bernardine Medical Center, social media is the catalyst for misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine.
“A quarter of a million false medical information, according to Modern Healthcare, is distributed on social media,” he said during an informational webinar with Annenberg Media’s Dímelo. “People just don’t know the difference between fake and real, fake and truth. There is just so much information.”
Annenberg Media’s Intersections South L.A. compiled some of the most common conspiracy theories and debunked them below.
“The Vaccines Cannot Be Trusted Because They Were Rushed”
Under Operation Warp Speed, the United States has produced and approved distribution at record speed in less than a calendar year. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the three currently circulated vaccines by emergency authorization, this does not mean they circumvented the entire approval process. In fact, the vaccines produced by Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson all went through Phase III clinical testing, meaning that they were on the verge of approval already. Phase IV testing typically begins after approval and studies the longer-term impacts of the vaccine.
The vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna were the first vaccines to be distributed to the public, and a contributing factor to this speed was the new mRNA technology that has been studied for years prior to the pandemic. This new genetic technology allowed for the COVID-19 vaccine to be developed at a speed that all previous vaccines could not accomplish. In a February “Meet the Press” interview, White House Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci said of the vaccines, “All three of them are really quite good, and people should take the one that’s most available to them.”
“The Vaccine Will Cause Infertility”
This theory was likely created by a former employee of Pfizer named Michael Yeadon. Yeadon co-authored a letter in 2020 to the European Medicines Agency (equivalent to the FDA of Europe) in which he claimed that a certain protein in the vaccines could cause infertility or miscarriage. Yeadon was correct that the Syncytin-1 protein does lead to birth defects, but the protein is not in any of the vaccines. However, the small shred of truth in this story created enough traction for it to catch on and spread over the internet across the world.
In a webinar hosted by Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism, panelist Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, said that, “the way that people choose to present numbers can have an enormous influence on the story, the thing is few of us have the training to see through that kind of quantitative misinformation.”
South L.A. resident and social worker Sandra Hernandez’s concerns fell on the impact that the vaccine might have on breastfeeding her infant daughter. After extensive research and conversations with providers and pediatricians, she said she felt that “the benefits outweighed the risks.”
“I felt from the research that I did and the conversations that I had with others, I felt comfortable being able to take it,” Hernandez said. “But of course, I was nervous on how my body was going to react, how my baby was going to react. Thankfully, she was fine. She didn’t show any type of reaction to it.”
“The Vaccine Will Alter My DNA”
This theory likely emerged from the fact that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA) to establish an immune system response to the virus. The vaccines are essentially teaching our cells how to create a protein that would help the immune system to fight off the infection. While this technology in vaccines is quite new, the CDC says that the vaccine never actually enters the nucleus of the cells which is where DNA is stored. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does not use this technology and is a more common viral vector vaccine, which tells the cells to create a harmless spike protein that is found on the COVID-19 virus that our body will then recognize and be able to fight off.
“The Vaccine Will Give Me COVID-19”
In order to become infected with COVID-19, an individual must be exposed to a live virus. According to Dr. Eloisa Gonzalez, specialist in Preventive Medicine and Public Health with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, none of the vaccines “contain the virus in any form.”
“They do not have live viruses, they do not have attenuated viruses,” Gonzalez said to Annenberg Media. “They do not have dead viruses. They do not have the virus period. So, for that reason it is impossible to get the COVID-19 disease through having received the vaccine.”
However, Gonzalez did explain that people may experience secondary symptoms after receiving the vaccine. She said that these secondary symptoms typically last anywhere from one to two days. The CDC has confirmed that possible side effects can appear as a reaction to the vaccination. These common side effects include pain, redness, and swelling at the site of the shot, and overall tiredness, muscle pain, chills, fever or headache.
“None of these symptoms when you experience them daily or two days after being vaccinated indicate that you are sick with COVID-19,” Gonzalez said. “These symptoms are normal and they draw our attention to the fact that our bodies are in force learning to be immune to give us the defense against COVID-19.”
“The Vaccine Contains A Microchip”
A conspiracy theory circulating online that the vaccine contains a microchip likely started because of Bill and Melinda Gates’ large donations to vaccine research worldwide. A video was shared on Facebook depicting the COVID-19 vaccine as containing a microchip, and this video was proved to be false and doctored with out of context videos and manipulated commentary from the Gates family to deceive the public.
The microchips outside of the syringe of a vaccine that is to track the distribution of where the vaccines are taking place has been misunderstood across social media as a microchip inside of the vaccine. This theory most likely began due to the barcode label with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips that was on the outside of syringes made by ApiJect. In an interview with the executive chairman of ApiJect, barcodes and RFID chips are explained as a means to track vaccine distribution.
“We Do Not Really Know What Is In The Vaccine”
There are three vaccines that have been approved for use in the country: Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. All three vaccines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
And have gone through trials to ensure safety to the public. Each vaccine was made independently, but have some similarities. For example, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines operate using mRNA technology which essentially teaches your immune system how to detect the spiky coronavirus protein and how to fight it. This new genetic technology is new in terms of public use, but has been studied for over three decades. Overall, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines share very similar ingredients and both share the same active ingredient of mRNA.
The Johnson & Johnnson vaccine is different from the previous two because it does not contain mRNA. This vaccine operates like more traditional vaccines, such as the flu vaccine. Instead of mRNA, this vaccine uses a disabled adenovirus which delivers instructions to cells which allow them to fight against the virus. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine require two doses within about a months period, but the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose.
What Comes Next
A report conducted by Carnegie Mellon University concluded from survey results that the most effective way to promote the vaccine is by addressing concerns about side effects, taking a state-specific approach to vaccine messaging and emphasizing local healthcare workers’ recommendations surrounding the vaccination.
In Dímelo’s recent Facebook Live, “Gen-uine Chats: Vaccine Myths & Misconceptions,” Annenberg Media reporter and editor Steven Vargas interviewed three health professionals about the misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as how to navigate conversations surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccine in efforts to address common misconceptions.
One of these health experts was Dr. Tasha Dixon, the lead family medicine physician at Martin Luther King Outpatient Center in Los Angeles. She said that there are many L.A. vaccine websites offered in both English and Spanish to ease language barriers for patients. Dixon also said that it is important for people to get their COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are eligible and share their experience with others who might be hesitant.
“Lead by example … ‘I got my shot, I felt fine and you should get yours too,’” Dixon said. “When you get your call that it is time for your shot, get that appointment and don’t say, ‘Let me wait until next week.’”
For South L.A. resident and social worker, Sandra Hernandez, she did exactly that. After getting her vaccine, Hernandez shared her experience with her mother who was worried about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Being OK with the nervousness and accepting that and just having the conversation of the risk and benefit, like the benefits outweigh the risk, you know, it’s way more riskier to get COVID. The risk of getting sicker with COVID is a lot worse than the vaccination symptoms,” she said. “So being able to normalize and have those conversations because, honestly, it took several conversations with my mom, not just one.”
After having conversations with her mother about the vaccine, Hernandez was able to take her mother to get her vaccine and walked her through the process to put her mind at ease. Hernandez says that she understands the “fear” behind the vaccine, but that openly acknowledging those fears with health professionals and loved ones is key.
“It’s a sense of responsibility too,” she said. “Just take it seriously and really consider that you’re doing a public service and if not for yourself, do it for your family. And if not for your family, do it for someone, you know, to be a good human really.”