Last reviewed 13 August 2021

Paul Clarke addresses the main misunderstandings and misinformation around the coronavirus vaccine. This is part 1 of a two-part feature.

Well before the current pandemic, a 2017 article in the infectious diseases journal Germs pointed out that as long as there have been vaccines there have been vaccine resisters. The author, Richard Stein, argued that vaccines have in fact become victims of their own success. One of the most effective interventions in the history of medicine, vaccination led to the global eradication of smallpox, the near global eradication of polio and a drastic decrease in the morbidity and mortality associated with other infectious diseases. Where previous generations rightly feared outbreaks of measles, for example, many people are now unaware of the threats that such diseases posed for their grandparents.

I saw this online

Add to this the explosive growth of social media in recent years and we are some way towards understanding why a significant number of people are not only wary of vaccines, but are willing to actively campaign against their use. That they do so with evermore bizarre arguments is no barrier to these fictions being repeated, liked and retweeted. For example, one claim that went viral was that the former head of Microsoft, Bill Gates, and Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were using the pandemic, and the vaccination programme, to seize political power.

Hundreds of thousands of people believe these stories and repeat them to friends, family and followers. As one medical researcher said, when patients have shared their reasons for not taking the vaccine, the answer is invariably always the same; they have been persuaded by misinformation on social media. According to one YouGov Poll, more than a quarter (28%) of Americans believe that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips in people. And if that seems implausibly high, the figure for Republicans is 44%. That this is not a new phenomenon can be seen in reports from the last century showing that one-third of Americans were also convinced that their Government had created AIDS to kill people from minority groups.

This article examines the 10 main reasons being advanced by people who are either hesitant about getting jabbed or ideologically opposed to the whole idea of vaccination. It looks at the basis of these objections, considers if they have any reasonable standing and examines the scientific and statistical arguments that governments and health authorities have used to promote greater vaccine take-up.

Myth 1: These vaccines are “experimental”

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is one of the most famous in the world, including Nobel laureates and National Academy of Science members among its research and teaching staff. Its senior director of infection prevention and the director of its Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response were asked if the vaccines are safe, given that they were authorised for “emergency use” by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They replied that the testing had indeed been done with unprecedented speed but that all three vaccines — Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna — had nevertheless gone through the full range of tests and been found to be safe and effective.

“We view all three vaccines as highly effective in preventing serious disease, hospitalisation and death from Covid-19,” the two directors said. They mentioned that rare cases of myocarditis were associated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines but stressed, as so many of their colleagues across the world have done, that the benefits far outweigh the risks. They also highlighted that all three vaccines continue to undergo continuous and intense safety monitoring.

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have, since April 2021, been more than 1000 reported cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining outside the heart) happening after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines in the United States. However, doctors insist that these figures must be seen in the context of the fact that hundreds of millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered which makes the risk far, far lower than that of becoming seriously ill with the coronavirus. The CDC has calculated that there have been 11.1 cases of anaphylaxis per million doses of vaccine administered, a similar risk of severe reactions to the contrast agent that hospitals use every day for CT scans.

In the UK, the NHS has repeatedly made the same points and has also made sure to acknowledge that, while the most likely side-effect is a sore arm from the injection, there are very rare cases of serious problems. One of these is blood clotting, which led a number of countries to stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine. However, a recent Spanish study involving six million people found that there were also rare cases of blood clots occurring after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and in neither case could it be proved that the vaccine was responsible.

Also in the UK, the Professor of Medication Safety at the UCL School of Pharmacy, has echoed the point about vaccines having been developed, tested and approved at a very rapid rate. This was not, she emphasised, at the expense of quality or safety. The vaccines have in fact been tested in huge numbers of people “according to clinical trials best practice”.

The UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) publishes weekly vaccine safety reports. This data shows that the vast majority of reported side effects are mild and all are in line with what would be expected from most types of vaccine, including for seasonal flu. These include sore arms and mild “flu-like” symptoms, which reflect a normal immune response to vaccines and are short-lasting. While the MHRA had received reports of 1143 deaths following vaccination, as of 5 May 2021, this was after almost 35 million people had received a jab. The majority of these cases were elderly people or those with underlying illness. It is also worth noting that, in the year ending June 2019, 1870 people were killed in road accidents so the risk of driving to the vaccination centre is, statistically speaking, higher than the risk of the vaccine once you arrive.

The one thing on which all the major scientific papers and studies agree: it is far safer to take the vaccine than to get the disease.

Myth 2: The vaccine affects fertility or causes problems for pregnant women

This is a particularly prevalent argument against being vaccinated and it is one that can be traced back to a seemingly well-informed source. Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, a physician and former chief scientist for allergy and respiratory therapy at Pfizer, petitioned the European Medicines Agency to ask it to stop the release of vaccines. He argued that the spike protein on the coronavirus was the same as the spike protein that is responsible for the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy. It was therefore possible that the immune system would not be able to differentiate between the two and would attack the placental protein.

However, this was shown to be not the case as the overall makeup of the placental protein is very different from the coronavirus spike protein. In addition, 23 women volunteers had reported becoming pregnant after they had taken part in Pfizer vaccine tests.

Dr Samantha Wild, Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP, has highlighted that there is currently no evidence to suggest that Covid-19 vaccines could affect male or female fertility. If that seems a rather cautious statement, the Royal College of Midwives and Royal College of Gynaecologists have said there is “not a plausible way in which there could be an effect”. The British Fertility Society and Association of Reproductive and Clinical Scientists have also spoken out on this subject. When asked, should people of reproductive age receive a Covid-19 vaccine, their simple answer was yes.

In February 2021, they said: “There is absolutely no evidence, and no theoretical reason, that any of the vaccines can affect the fertility of women or men.” They also state that the vaccine can be taken during fertility treatment (including IVF, frozen embryo transfer, egg freezing, ovulation induction and intra-uterine insemination).

The NHS has advised pregnant women to have the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine but this is purely because these vaccines have been more widely used during pregnancy in other countries and no safety concerns have been identified. Otherwise, it is quite clear: anyone can have the vaccine if they are pregnant or think they might be, if they are breastfeeding or if they are trying for a baby. “You cannot catch Covid-19 from the vaccines,” the NHS advice states, “and cannot pass it to your baby through your breast milk.”

Myth 3: The vaccine puts a micro-chip into you

An image that went viral (how appropriate!) on social media was said to be a diagram showing the inner workings of a 5G chip that had been inserted into coronavirus vaccine. Then someone pointed out that it was actually a circuit board for a guitar pedal. Working this out did not in fact involve a great deal of technical knowledge as the diagram actually includes the terms “bass”, “treble” and “footswitch.” But researchers from George Washington University have shown that Facebook groups are more successful at influencing vaccine sceptics than healthcare professionals so that diagram is still being used to “prove” that having the vaccine means having a micro-chip injected into your body.

If the myth needs further debunking, the chief scientific officer of a data company addressed it after he had been vaccinated. He pointed out that the putative chip would have to be small enough to pass through the needle being used for the injection. While there are some experimental ones that are sufficiently tiny, they would need “a pretty hefty energy source right near the injection site”. Furthermore, it would still be impossible for the microchip to actually transmit any data as it would have to communicate through an inch of muscle, and muscle is “basically a big bag of conductive fluid, notoriously fatal to radio signals”.

Add to this rebuttal of the technical possibilities the argument that can always be mounted against this sort of conspiracy theory: how can all the people and organisations that would have to be involved in this scheme possibly be sworn to silence? One whistleblower could wreck the whole project. Then there is the fact that millions of chips would have to be sourced during a global semiconductor shortage before introduction into vaccines being manufactured by companies with everything to lose and nothing to gain by being associated with such a plan.

One final point, if more is needed, has been raised by numerous experts: why would any government or organisation go to such extreme lengths to keep tabs on the population? Far easier to access, as many already do, social security details, Facebook data, cellphone usage, home video security systems or information given to mortgage companies and banks.

But, protesters might say, what about the viral video showing a pet scanner actually detecting a microchip from the Covid-19 vaccine in a person's arm? Good point, except that the person who originally posted the video to TikTok in June 2021 said that it was meant as a joke and surely no-one took it seriously? Oh yes they did. Eventually, CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky had to go on television to stress: “We are not being injected with chips. What we’re being injected with is this incredible scientific breakthrough that keeps us safe and is effective against something that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans over the last 15 months.”

Myth 4: The vaccine can change your DNA

In May 2020 a doctor describing herself as an Osteopathic Internal Medicine Physician, “blending traditional and holistic medicine for optimal health”, produced a widely-shared video in which she claimed that the vaccines will change recipients' DNA. Dr Carrie Madej also described those promoting the vaccines as committing crimes against humanity for which they would eventually answer in something akin to the Nuremberg trials. The McGill University Office for Science and Society (OSS), an academic organisation devoted to tackling fake news in the world of science, said that her claims were “so ridiculous that it is hard to believe she has had any scientific education”. Its counter-argument focuses on the key claim made by Dr Madej, that the mRNA vaccines are going to convert people into “genetically modified organisms” by altering their DNA.

The OSS writer, Dr Joe Schwarcz, pulls no punches, describing the video as scandalous and the claims about DNA as absolute nonsense. In the vaccines, he explains, mRNA does not get incorporated into DNA. All it does is code for the production of the virus’ spike protein which in turn stimulates antibody production thus protecting the recipient from getting infected if the real virus enters their bodies. In the UK, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has made similar points. DNA, it stressed, is not the same as mRNA and, as the latter does not enter the cell’s nucleus, it is impossible for it alter someone’s DNA. What is more, the BHF points out, after the genetic instructions in mRNA and adenovirus vaccines have been delivered to the cells, they are broken down by those cells and simply disappear from the body within a few days.

As recently as July 2021, Dr Madej was livestreaming her views about vaccines and DNA via Freedom International Livestream, a platform which also featured Professor Dolores Cahill who received her Ph.D. in Immunology from Dublin City University. The European Commission had asked Professor Cahill to resign from a leading European Union scientific committee after earlier claims that deaths and illnesses during the pandemic could have been prevented by extra vitamins. She was also an early supporter of the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19, an idea enthusiastically backed by President Donald Trump and rubbished by the wider scientific community.

The President of the National Society of Genetic Counsellors has spoken out against misinformation being spread online with regard to vaccines affecting DNA. “mRNA-based vaccines are a bit like standing in your kitchen and thinking what to make for dinner,” Sara Riordan said. “So you download a recipe online, put everything together using ingredients and equipment you already have in your kitchen and eat your dinner. The vaccines are simply the recipe, injecting it into your arm is simply giving specific information to your cells and letting them read it.”

The problem remains that, across the world, scientists, universities and experts are explaining these simple facts about the difference between mRNA and DNA while dozens of people, many with “Dr” in front of their names, are online with nothing approximating to proof but simply insisting to their hundreds of thousands of readers that their DNA will be changed by the vaccines. And they are being believed.

Myth 5: You can catch coronavirus from the vaccine

Another seemingly valid concern that is at the root of vaccine hesitancy in a number of people. Why should I risk contracting the disease by having the injection when I feel fit and healthy, they ask. To which the answer is that this is impossible: none of the authorised vaccines contain the live virus that causes Covid-19, nor do they contain any other infectious material. The vaccines teach the body’s immune system how to recognise and fight the virus that causes the disease and, sometimes, this process can cause symptoms such as a fever. This has caused a good number of people to take to Facebook and Twitter to say that they were fine until they had the jab and now they “have Covid”. Except that they don’t: what they have are the signs that the body is building protection against the virus.

What all the companies and scientists involved have been quick to emphasise is that a very small number of people will catch Covid-19 after they have been fully vaccinated. These are called “vaccine breakthrough cases” and they highlight that, although operating at a very high effectiveness rate, no vaccine offers 100% success. As Dr Anthony Fauci said: “You will see breakthrough infections in any vaccination when you're vaccinating literally tens and tens and tens of millions of people.” What is certain, however, is that even the unlucky ones who do contract Covid will be less sick, less likely to need hospitalisation and less likely to die than those who have not been vaccinated.

According to the ongoing REal-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT-1) programme, led by Imperial College London, fully vaccinated people in the July 2021 testing round had between a 50% and 60% reduced risk of infection, including asymptomatic infection, compared to unvaccinated people. Its August 2021 report, based on a study of 98,000 volunteers, found that fully vaccinated people were three times less likely than unvaccinated people to test positive for Covid-19.

Sir Peter Horby, who chairs the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) said: “It’s really important for people to realise that, as we increase the vaccination rates and most older people are vaccinated, we will see breakthrough infections. That does not mean that the vaccines don’t work — breakthroughs were expected. What we want to do is to prevent hospitalisations and deaths, and the vaccines do that very effectively.”

See Part 2 of this article covering Myths 6 to 10.