This special report has been provided to Britannica by NewsGuard, which offers the service HealthGuard to fight online health care misinformation. It was written by John Gregory and originally published at newsguardtech.com. Kendrick McDonald and Chine Labbe contributed reporting. It was last updated February 10, 2021.
Scientists and researchers managed to produce vaccines to protect against COVID-19. Vaccine candidates have recently been approved in some countries and are in the approval process in others, yet misinformation about the safety and effects of any future vaccine is already threatening its rollout. In this report, we catalogue the top myths about a COVID-19 vaccine that have appeared in NewsGuard’s ratings of more than 6,000 news and information sites worldwide.
MYTH: The mRNA vaccines being developed for COVID-19 will alter human DNA.
THE FACTS: Several COVID-19 vaccine candidates rely on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), which carries genetic information needed to make proteins, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute. These vaccines would instruct cells to produce a protein that resembles part of the COVID-19 virus, triggering the body’s immune system to respond and produce antibodies.
MRNA vaccines are a new technology, but it is not possible for those vaccines to alter your DNA. “This cannot change your genetic makeup,” Dr. Dan Culver, a pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic, told The Associated Press in September 2020. “The time that this RNA survives in the cells is relatively brief in the span of hours. What you are really doing is sticking a recipe card into the cell making protein for a few hours.”
MYTH: COVID-19 vaccines are not being tested against a placebo in clinical trials.
THE FACTS: The final phase of clinical testing for COVID-19 vaccine candidates are Phase 3 trials, in which the vaccine is given to tens of thousands of patients. Researchers then compare how many patients become infected with COVID-19 compared to a separate group of patients who received a placebo, to determine the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. All 10 vaccine candidates that have begun Phase 3 trials as of Nov. 3, 2020, are being tested against a placebo, according to the World Health Organization.
MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccine will use microchip surveillance technology created by Bill Gates-funded research.
THE FACTS: There is no vaccine — for COVID-19 or otherwise — with a microchip or other surveillance feature. In December 2019, researchers at MIT, who had received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, published a paper about technology that they developed that can keep a vaccination record on a patient’s skin with an ink-like injection that could be read by smartphone. The technology does not have the capacity to track patients’ movements, Kevin McHugh, a Rice University bioengineering professor who worked on the study while at MIT, told FactCheck.org. The Gates Foundation told FactCheck.org that the research is unrelated to COVID-19.
It is true that Gates has said that “digital certificates” could be used as part of a larger vaccination effort, but there is no evidence that he or his foundation has created technology to track recipients of a COVID vaccine. Digital certificates are used to send encrypted information online, and the Gates Foundation told Reuters: “The reference to ‘digital certificates’ relates to efforts to create an open source digital platform with the goal of expanding access to safe, home-based testing.”
Gates himself denied the claims during an interview on CBS News on July 22, 2020. “There’s no connection between any of these vaccines and any tracking type thing at all. I don’t know where that came from,” he said.
MYTH: Dr. Anthony Fauci will personally profit from a COVID-19 vaccine.
THE FACTS: There is no evidence that Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has personal investments in vaccines being developed for COVID-19. Fauci’s agency is working with pharmaceutical company Moderna on a potential vaccine — one of 202 that are currently in development, according to the World Health Organization — but PolitiFact found no record of a business relationship between Fauci and Moderna in an April 2020 search of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s database.
MYTH: A new law in Colorado will force parents into a government-run re-education program if they refuse to give their children a COVID-19 vaccine.
THE FACTS: The School Entry Immunization Bill, signed into law by Colorado’s governor in June 2020, does not make any reference to COVID-19 or a COVID-19 vaccine. The law did toughen the state’s process for obtaining a religious or personal belief vaccine exemption, requiring parents requesting such an exemption to either submit a form signed by a health care provider, or complete what the law calls an “online education module” about vaccine science, produced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccine has been proven to cause infertility in 97 percent of its recipients.
THE FACTS: This claim appears to have originated with British YouTuber Zed Phoenix, who claimed that an unnamed source at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline told him that 61 of the 63 women tested with a COVID-19 vaccine became infertile and that a separate, male-specific vaccine “resulted in decreased testicular size, drop of testosterone levels, and marked atrophy of the prostate.”
Phoenix’s statements about the alleged effects of these vaccines appear to have been taken verbatim from an unrelated 1989 study from the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi, India, according to Reuters. This research examined the use of anti-fertility vaccines on baboons in discussing future treatment options for human cancer patients whose tumors are affected by fertility hormones. None of the COVID-19 vaccine candidates are gender-specific or are in any way related to fertility.
MYTH: COVID-19 vaccines will contain aborted human fetal tissue.
THE FACTS: Existing vaccines for diseases such as chickenpox and rubella are produced using cell lines descended from fetuses aborted decades ago. According to a June 2020 article published in Science magazine, at least five COVID-19 vaccine candidates are using fetal cell lines: one descended from a fetus aborted in 1972 and another from an abortion performed in 1985.
However, no additional fetal cells are required for the production of any of these vaccines, including those being developed for COVID-19, and no actual fetal tissue is present in these vaccines. The National Catholic Bioethics Center, which consults with the Vatican and Catholics on medical ethics issues and opposes abortion, has stated, “The cells in these lines have gone through multiple divisions before they are used in vaccine manufacture. After manufacture, the vaccines are removed from the cell lines and purified. One cannot accurately say that the vaccines contain any of the cells from the original abortion.”
MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca will turn people into monkeys.
THE FACTS: This false claim is based on the fact that Oxford and AstraZeneca’s vaccine relies on a modified chimpanzee adenovirus intended to generate an immune response to the virus that causes COVID-19. According to The Times of London, the claim is being promoted through memes and video clips as part of a disinformation campaign involving officials in Russian state agencies, specifically targeted at countries where Russia wants to sell its own COVID-19 vaccine.
MYTH: Government food stamps will be denied to those who refuse COVID-19 vaccines.
THE FACTS: The pseudoscience and conspiracy-oriented website Natural News first reported that President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force had announced such a policy. However, the article relied on outdated and inaccurate information. Dr. Luciana Borio, a member of the task force, helped write a report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in July 2020 that mentioned government food stamps in a larger discussion about COVID-19 vaccines. However, the report was not part of the task force, and it did not advocate the denial of food stamps to people who decline to take a COVID-19 vaccine. The report’s lead authors said in a statement to FactCheck.org in November 2020 that they “do NOT advocate that such social supports ever be withheld in connection with an individual’s vaccination status.”
MYTH: The U.K. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will use artificial intelligence to monitor the safety of COVID-19 vaccines because the agency knows that vaccines are extremely dangerous.
THE FACTS: It is true that MHRA has awarded a contract to the company Genpact to create an artificial intelligence tool to monitor reports of adverse effects to COVID-19 vaccines. However, the agency states that this is not evidence of foreknowledge of dangers posed by vaccines. Moreover, an adverse event report does not prove that the event or reaction was caused by a vaccine.
In a November 2020 statement to NewsGuard, the MHRA said, “We have a range of resources and technology to support the safety monitoring of any COVID-19 vaccination programme. The use of AI will be one element of that. We take every report of a suspected side effect seriously and we combine the review of these individual reports with statistical analysis of clinical records.”
The agency continued: “Based on the available published reports from the Phase One and Two clinical trials, we don’t currently anticipate any specific safety concerns with COVID-19 vaccines. We expect the general safety profile to be similar to other types of vaccines. A COVID-19 vaccine will only be deployed once it has been proven to be safe and effective through robust clinical trials and approved for use.”
MYTH: A document on the FDA website shows that two participants died as a result of “serious adverse events” from an experimental COVID-19 vaccine.
THE FACTS: There were two deaths among the 21,000 people in the trial who received Pfizer and BioNtech’s COVID-19 vaccine, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not attribute those deaths to the vaccine.
According to a December 2020 FDA document describing the circumstances of the deaths, “one experienced a cardiac arrest 62 days after vaccination #2 and died 3 days later, and the other died from arteriosclerosis 3 days after vaccination #1.” The document also said in the case of the second death, the participant had “baseline obesity and pre-existing atherosclerosis,” or a narrowing of the arteries.
There were also four deaths reported among the 21,000 trial participants who received a placebo. The deaths “represent events that occur in the general population of the age groups where they occurred, at a similar rate,” according to the FDA document.
To determine the safety of the vaccine, the trial recorded what are called “serious adverse events,” defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as any medical event that results in death, hospitalization, or interferes substantially with normal life functions. The FDA document said among the serious events reported in the Pfizer/BioNTech trial, it considered only two as possibly related to the vaccine: a shoulder injury and swollen lymph nodes, a common and typically benign condition.
MYTH: The virus mutates so fast that a vaccine will never work.
THE FACTS: While all viruses mutate constantly, the World Health Organization said in December 2020 that, “SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, tends to change more slowly than others such as HIV or influenza viruses.” The more rapid changes in influenza viruses are one reason why the flu vaccine is updated annually.
Preliminary laboratory studies released in January 2021 on the first two COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. — one made by Pfizer/BioNTech, the other made by Moderna — found that their vaccines are still effective against a mutation first identified in the U.K known as the B.1.1.7 strain. Although the studies did suggest vaccines being less effective against the B.1.351 mutation found in South Africa, there was no evidence that the mutations would negate the vaccines’ benefits entirely.
“You could diminish the vaccine-induced antibody efficacy by a few fold and still be well within the protective range of the vaccine,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a White House briefing on Jan. 27, 2021.
MYTH: The head of research at Pfizer said the company’s COVID-19 vaccine contains a protein called syncytin-1 that will result in female sterilization.
THE FACTS: This claim was based on a petition to the European Medicines Agency from a doctor named Michael Yeadon, apparently the aforementioned “head of Pfizer research.” In fact, Yeadon had left the company in 2011, according to a December 2020 article by The Associated Press.
The petition speculated that the vaccine may create an immune response against a protein vital for the formation of the placenta during pregnancy. However, the vaccine does not contain syncytin-1 and there is no evidence connecting the COVID-19 vaccine to infertility.
Moreover, there is no evidence that the spike protein in the virus that causes COVID-19 and that is being targeted by the vaccine will create an immune response against syncytin-1, scientists say. “Any hint of similarity between syncytin-1 and the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein (which is used as part of the vaccine) is extremely remote,” Brent Stockwell, a biological sciences and chemistry professor at Columbia University, told PolitiFact in December 2020. “There are hardly any parts of the two proteins that are even vaguely similar, and they are far more distinct than would be needed for cross-reactivity of immune responses.”
In a December 2020 statement to The Associated Press, Pfizer spokesperson Jerica Pitts said the company’s COVID-19 vaccine had not been found to cause infertility. “It has been incorrectly suggested that COVID-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a shared amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 and a placental protein,” she said. “The sequence, however, is too short to plausibly give rise to autoimmunity.”
MYTH: COVID-19 vaccine injections, shown during press events being delivered to health care workers, are fabricated, using syringes with “disappearing needles.”
THE FACTS: These claims were made in Twitter posts and YouTube clips, using real videos from press events where health care workers received COVID-19 vaccines. One tweet that promoted this claim, using BBC footage of a worker receiving a COVID-19 vaccine injection, attracted 394,000 views between Dec. 16 and 17, 2020.
According to the BBC and Vice News, the injections of the COVID-19 vaccine shown in these videos were delivered using retractable syringes, not “disappearing needles,” where the needlepoint automatically retracted into the barrel of the syringe once the dose of medication was delivered. Retractable syringes are typically used to reduce needlepoint injuries, such as a nurse or a lab worker accidentally puncturing their skin with a used needle and potentially exposing themselves to infection.
Retractable syringes have been in use for years before the COVID-19 vaccine was introduced. A patent for a “retractable needle hypodermic syringe” was granted in the U.S. in 1992.
MYTH: A nurse in Alabama died hours after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
THE FACTS: According to fact-checking website LeadStories.com, this claim first appeared in screenshots of a text message conversation shared on Facebook on Dec. 15, 2020, by a Facebook account using the name Danielle Tyler.
Facebook posts that shared the screenshots claimed that a 42-year-old nurse who received the COVID-19 vaccine was “found dead eight hours later.” The source for this claim, according to the Facebook posts, was “not an internet rumor, my FB friend’s friend’s aunt.”
In a Dec. 16, 2020, statement to LeadStories.com, the Alabama Department of Public Health said it “has reached out to all hospitals in the state which administered the COVID-19 vaccine and confirmed there have been no deaths of vaccine recipients. The posts are untrue. No person who received a COVID-19 vaccine in Alabama has died.”
The emergency use authorization for the first COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, requires that serious adverse events following vaccination, including deaths, have to be reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which is co-operated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In an Dec. 16, 2020, email to PolitiFact, CDC spokesperson Kristin Nordlund said, “I can confirm that as of 4 p.m. ET today that VAERS has received no reports of death after COVID-19 vaccines.”
MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccines violate the Nuremberg Code, which bans medical experiments from being performed on humans without their consent.
THE FACTS: The Nuremberg Code created a set of medical research ethics principles for what it calls “permissible medical experiments.” According to a June 2020 article by FactCheck.org, the code was created in response to Nazis performing medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners without their consent.
Vaccines that have gone through multiple rounds of testing in clinical trials and have then been approved for widespread use by regulators are not in violation of the Nuremberg Code’s principles. For example, the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech was authorized for emergency use by the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2020 only after it went through multiple clinical trials to demonstrate its safety and efficacy, with the final Phase 3 trial involving 43,000 patients.
“The Nuremberg Code is about doing human experiments, not vaccination,” Dr. Jonathan Moreno, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told Agence France-Presse in a May 2020 article. “The Nuremberg Code is perfectly compatible with vaccination.”
MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccines will cause “pathogenic priming” or “disease enhancement,” meaning that vaccinated individuals will be more likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19 if they are infected with the COVID-19 virus.
THE FACTS: COVID-19 vaccines went through multiple clinical trials to determine their safety and efficacy before being authorized for emergency use by regulators.
The final phase 3 trials for two COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the U.S. as of January 2021 — one developed by Moderna and another from Pfizer and BioNTech — involved a combined 36,000 people receiving one of the two vaccines.
Contrary to the claim that the vaccines cause more severe cases of COVID-19, out of the 36,000 people who received the vaccines, only one developed a severe case, according to the results of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines’ clinical trials, which were both published in the New England Journal of Medicine in December 2020. The single instance of severe COVID-19 among vaccine recipients was observed in the Pfizer/BioNTech trial. Both vaccines were found to be approximately 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.
In a November 2020 article published on fact-checking website Health Feedback, Walter Orenstein, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, stated that “thus far, there are no data supporting vaccination as a cause of vaccine-induced enhanced disease.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report inaccurately stated there were two severe cases of COVID-19 observed among the 36,000 people who received either the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Only one severe case of COVID-19 was reported among vaccine recipients in either trial, both of which were published in December 2020, with the single instance coming in the Pfizer/BioNTech trial. NewsGuard apologizes for the error.
MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccine can cause people to develop COVID-19.
THE FACTS: None of the vaccines authorized for widespread use in the U.S. or Europe as of January 2021 contain the live virus that causes COVID-19 virus. “This means that a COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated on its website.
However, the CDC did note that the available vaccines require two doses, and it will take some time after vaccination for the body to build immunity against the COVID-19 virus. “That means it’s possible a person could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or just after vaccination and still get sick,” the CDC stated. “This is because the vaccine has not had enough time to provide protection.”
COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated individuals are still possible, because none of the available vaccines have been found to be 100 percent effective in preventing symptomatic cases of COVID-19. Additionally, the vaccines might not prevent asymptomatic infection, meaning vaccine recipients might be able to get infected, show no symptoms, and unwittingly spread the virus, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
MYTH: The mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 do not fit the CDC and FDA’s definitions of a vaccine, which state that vaccines have to both stimulate immunity and disrupt transmission of a virus.
THE FACTS: This claim was promoted by David Martin, a financial analyst and self-help entrepreneur who operates a YouTube channel pushing COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
As of January 2021, research is ongoing to determine whether COVID-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus. However, contrary to Martin’s claim, neither U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stipulate that vaccines must both provide immunity and block transmission of a virus.
“There are many ways to define it, but CDC describes a vaccine as a product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease,” CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund told NewsGuard in a January 2021 email. Similarly, a page on the FDA’s website explaining how vaccines work only mentions preventing disease, not transmission, stating, “Vaccination stimulates the body’s immune system to build up defenses against the infectious bacteria or virus (organism) without causing the disease.”
The two mRNA vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. as of January 2021 would fit those definitions, as clinical trials found that both vaccines are approximately 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.
MYTH: Hank Aaron’s death is linked to the COVID-19 vaccine.
THE FACTS: Baseball Hall of Famer and Major League Baseball’s one-time home run king Hank Aaron received the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 5, 2021, at the Morehouse School of Medicine. He told The Associated Press at the time that he hoped his willingness to be vaccinated would reduce vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans.
The 86-year-old Aaron died on Jan. 22, 2021. Before his cause of death was disclosed, anti-vaccine activists Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Del Bigtree, both of whom have repeatedly spread false claims about the safety of vaccines, suggested without evidence that Aaron’s death was caused by the COVID-19 vaccine.
Morehouse College of Medicine spokesperson Nicole Linton denied these claims in an email to NewsGuard, stating, “His passing was not related to the vaccine, nor did he experience any side effects from the immunization. He passed away peacefully in his sleep.”
Three days after his death, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office reported that Aaron died of natural causes. Additionally, Fox 5 Atlanta reported that officials at the medical examiner’s office do not believe the COVID-19 vaccine had any adverse effect on Aaron’s health and did not contribute to his death.
MYTH: A Tennessee nurse named Tiffany Dover died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine on live TV.
THE FACTS: Dover, a nurse at Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, received her COVID-19 vaccine during a live broadcast on WRCB-TV on Dec. 17, 2020. During a subsequent interview with the station, she fainted, which she later explained was a common occurrence. “I have a history of having an overactive vagal response and with that, if I have pain from anything, hangnail or if I stub my toe, I can just pass out,” she said.
The Daily Beast reported in a January 2021 article that multiple relatives of Dover have confirmed on social media that she is alive, in response to online harassment from anti-vaccine activists. Elisa Myzal, a spokesperson for the Chattanooga Police Department, told the Daily Beast, “The police department isn’t involved in this at all because there’s no crime, no death, no nothing.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Feb. 1, 2021, to include new information about the COVID-19 vaccines’ effectiveness against virus mutations.