COVID-19 vaccines save lives. What to know about anti-vax misinformation

We debunk the false claims spreading on social media.

Oscar Gonzalez Former staff reporter
Oscar Gonzalez is a Texas native who covered video games, conspiracy theories, misinformation and cryptocurrency.
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Oscar Gonzalez
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Social media continues to be the launchpad for much of the COVID-19 vaccine misinformation that has spread online throughout the pandemic. Even with nearly 70% of US adults fully vaccinated, some people still refuse shots and share false information about the vaccines. 

Facebook, Reddit, YouTube and Twitter have tried to stop the spread of misinformation on their platforms, but the problem remains. In July, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy described COVID-19 misinformation as an "urgent threat" to public health.

We're going to debunk some common false claims being posted on social media, and we'll explore the facts about COVID-19 vaccines.

Watch this: COVID-19 boosters and the delta variant: What you need to know

False: Scandinavian countries banned vaccines for young people

In early October, Norway and Sweden decided to no longer use the Moderna vaccine for men younger than 30 and everyone under 18. The reason cited was a possible link between the vaccine and a rare side effect of heart inflammation, known as myocarditis.

This news, however, has been taken by COVID misinformation peddlers as proof that all the vaccines are dangerous. They fail to acknowledge that the Pfizer vaccine is still cleared for use with those under the age of 30

The CDC hasn't paused the use of Moderna vaccine and still recommends them for those 18 and over. 

False: The vaccine kills more people than COVID

A common misconception about COVID-19 vaccines is the idea that they're causing a high number of deaths. To back up this false statement, conspiracy theorists often point to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The system works as a vaccine surveillance program to "detect unusual or unexpected reporting patterns of adverse events for vaccines." 

The latest numbers from VAERS show 7,653 reported deaths as of Sept. 24. That's 0.002% of the 380 million doses administered. 

These recorded events don't directly link death to a vaccine and can be submitted by anyone, whether it's a patient, family member, health care provider or vaccine manufacturer. The CDC receives these reports, and if there's a pattern, it investigates further. By comparison, nearly 660,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US as of Sept. 15 according to the CDC. 

"Reports of death after COVID-19 vaccination are rare," according to the agency. The US Food and Drug Administration requires health care providers to report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, "even if it's unclear whether the vaccine was the cause," the CDC says. "Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem. A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines."

The agency does note that there may be a causal relationship between the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and a rare blood clotting condition called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or TTS, which can be fatal. But the CDC says the condition is so rare that the benefits outweigh the risks. However, it adds that people, particularly women under 50, should be aware of TTS and of other available COVID vaccines, such as Pfizer's or Moderna's, for which a risk of TTS hasn't been seen.

False: The vaccines have microchips in them

The myth that vaccines contain microchips is nothing new. In 2014, a conspiracy theory spread online that radio frequency identification (RFID) chips were added to the Ebola vaccine. This conspiracy began circulating again before the COVID-19 vaccines were made available, erroneously claiming that former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates was at the center of a nefarious plot to inject people with tracking microchips. 

The false claim about vaccines made headlines again last week, but this time from the NBA. As training camps begin, approximately 50 to 60 players are yet to be vaccinated. Some of those unvaccinated players are spreading conspiracy theories in NBA locker rooms and group chats about microchips in the vaccine, according to a report from Rolling Stone on Sept. 25.  

What's in the mRNA vaccines is fairly simple, with the exception of the actual mRNA protein. For the Pfizer vaccine, there are lipids, or fats, that protect the mRNA protein and help it enter cells; salts to maintain the acidity in the body; and sugar, which keeps the molecules in shape while frozen. The Moderna vaccine has the same ingredients, although it adds acetic acid and acid stabilizers to keep the vaccine stabilized. 

False: We don't know the long-term effects of the vaccine; people could die in three years

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine following a regulatory review. With such reviews, the agency evaluates data on vaccines to determine their "quality, safety and effectiveness." The vaccine was previously being given under an emergency use authorization, which is still in place for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. 

False claims saying people who received the Pfizer vaccine will die in three to five years have no scientific basis. Though there are known side effects to the mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer's, the CDC says serious long-term effects are "extremely unlikely."

In the case of most vaccines, side effects happen not long after the injection. 

"I usually start by saying, first of all, there are no vaccines that we know of that have long-term side effects," said Dr. Allison Arwady, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health. "Where we really are concerned about side effects is especially right at the beginning there, and then typically where you see a problem, it will happen in the first couple of weeks, even with a brand-new vaccine. And in fact, that's part of why the FDA wants the six months of monitoring, because if you've monitored somebody for six months afterward, really there's no biological reason that you would expect there to be any long-term concerns from the vaccine."

As for the COVID vaccines themselves, they've been studied since the start of the pandemic. 

"The specific vaccines for COVID have been under study, essentially since we knew what the virus was and had its RNA sequences (January 2020), with the first candidate vaccines ready in February 2020," said Dr. Julie Parsonnet, a professor of medicine and epidemiology and population health at Stanford University. "The first big trials began in July 2020. The studies are HUGE compared to most clinical trials," she said, hundreds of times larger.

False: There's a 99.9% chance of surviving COVID, so there's no need to get vaccinated

A false claim made for most of the pandemic is that COVID-19 has a 99.9% survival rate. This number comes from a CDC planning document from September 2020. This claim, however, misses a lot of context. 

Nearly 660,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the US. One study, published last October, puts the mortality rate at 1.15%.  For younger people, the rate goes down significantly, while the rate increases for older people or those who have certain medical conditions, like cancer or heart disease.
However, the more infectious delta variant could change those numbers. There have already been growing numbers of younger people hospitalized with COVID-19 this summer due to the delta variant. Those who do survive can also suffer from symptoms past their recovery, from not being able to taste food to more severe effects referred to as post-COVID syndrome, also known as "long COVID."

False: The creator of the mRNA vaccine says it's dangerous

One person spreading misinformation about COVID vaccinations claims to be the inventor of mRNA vaccines, like Pfizer's and Moderna's. Dr. Robert Malone has appeared on right-wing talk shows and conspiracy-theorist podcasts claiming that the mRNA vaccines cause spike proteins to spread in the body, leading cells to die. There's no evidence for this

Malone's Twitter bio suggests he's the creator of mRNA vaccines, but this is misleading. In 1989, he wrote an important paper about developing mRNA vaccines, but this doesn't make him their creator. Moreover, the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna weren't developed with Malone's input.

The mRNA in the vaccines is a genetic sequence that gives instructions to cells to make the coronavirus spike protein. Once these spikes poke out of the cell, the body's immune system goes to work creating antibodies to prevent an infection. This process doesn't change a person's DNA.

False: There's no reason to bother with the vaccine when you can use ivermectin

Ivermectin has yet to be proved to help treat COVID-19. The CDC, the FDA and the World Health Organization haven't listed it as a treatment for the disease. 

The anti-parasitic drug became popular over the summer as a small number of doctors have claimed it improves the conditions of patients infected with COVID-19. But studies backing up their claims are either lacking in data, have a small number of participants or have yet to be peer-reviewed. Those studies that have been reviewed were found to have questionable methodology, ethical concerns and plagiarism. 

Some individuals insisting on taking ivermectin began using a version of the drug intended for animals. This resulted in an increased number of calls to state poison centers due to side effects from the higher dosage contained in the animal version of the drug. 

False: Masks don't work

Like the vaccines, masks have been a fiery and political subject for some people. Since vaccinated people still can be contagious, and on rare occasions can become infected with COVID-19, the CDC began recommending in April that vaccinated people wear masks while indoors

This has led some people opposed to vaccines to propagate false claims that face masks don't work. Cloth masks offer some protection, and surgery masks and N95/KN95 masks provide scientifically proven protection against the spread of the virus as long as everyone within close proximity of one another wears one. 

There's also no scientific evidence to back the claim that wearing a mask reduces oxygen levels or causes wearers to inhale carbon dioxide. 

False: The vaccines go against the Nuremberg Code

Another commonly repeated false claim is that the vaccine goes against the Nuremberg Code. The code was created by the judges overseeing the United States of America v. Karl Brandt case at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. In the Brandt proceedings, also referred to as the "doctors' trial," a number of doctors and Nazi officials were accused of conducting human experiments and participating in mass murder. 

The first item in the code is one that people against COVID vaccines point to, and it says:

"The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision." 

But Nuremberg Code is specifically addressing medical experiments, and what the pushers of this false claim fail to grasp is that the vaccines aren't experimental. The COVID vaccines went through rigorous testing for months before they were made available to the public. Also, before any injection can take place, a person needs to consent to the shot in the first place. A mandate may make the vaccine a condition of employment or a prerequisite for engaging in a particular activity, but a person still would have the right to refuse the shot.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.