Although the Covid-19 vaccines offer hope in controlling the pandemic, they have been the subject of myths and misinformation that have contributed to vaccine hesitancy.
This article clarifies the facts surrounding some of the common myths, which the writer has encountered in interactions with patients, colleagues and friends.
Facts: The development of vaccines, like medicines, require compliance with global regulators’ safety protocols and adequate testing.
The Covid-19 vaccines were tested in rigorous clinical trials involving tens of thousands of volunteers in many countries to ensure that they complied with safety standards, and protected adults of different ages, gender and ethnicities.
There was no shortage of volunteers, which was facilitated by social media.
None of the usual steps in testing procedures were omitted, but instead, were conducted on overlapping schedules to enable faster data collection and analysis.
As Covid-19 was so widespread, it did not take long to determine if the vaccines worked for vaccinated volunteers.
A critical factor was the large amounts of financial resources available to the vaccine projects as governments and donor agencies invested in the research and/or paid for the vaccines in advance.
This is unlike the research and development of other vaccines, which is usually funded by the company’s own resources.
Regulators worldwide reviewed and continue to monitor the safety of the vaccines – no public health safety concerns have been found thus far.
Facts: All Covid-19 vaccines stimulate the body’s immune system to recognise and fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus if there is an infection.
Sometimes, the process can cause temporary symptoms like fever, but these symptoms are normal and a sign that the body is building protection against the virus.
The mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccines do not contain the live SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Instead, they instruct the body’s cells to produce a protein that is a part of the virus.
This helps the body recognise and fight the virus if infected.
The protein does not cause any infection and is eliminated from the body in about 72 hours.
Another type of Covid-19 vaccine is the inactivated vaccine.
This traditional method of producing vaccines involves the use of killed or inactivated SARS-CoV-2 viral particles to stimulate the body’s immune system without causing serious disease.
It takes a few weeks for the body to develop an immune response following vaccination.
This means that it is possible that a person could get infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus just before or just after vaccination, and still get sick.
This is because the vaccine has not had enough time to provide protection.
Facts: mRNA is not the same as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
mRNA, which is found in all living cells, acts as a chemical intermediary (or messenger) between DNA in the cell nucleus and the cellular machinery that produces the proteins needed for bodily functions.
mRNA instructs this machinery to produce these proteins.
The mRNA vaccines do not alter or interact with DNA in any way.
It only enters the cell cytoplasm.
It does not enter the cell nucleus where the DNA is located.
This means that it cannot affect or interact with the body’s DNA.
The mRNA instructs the body’s cells to produce the viral protein that stimulates an immune response and is eliminated from the body after its work is done.
Facts: The mRNA technology has been developed over the past two decades.
It has been used to produce certain cancer medicines, and studied in other infectious diseases like influenza, Zika, rabies and cytomegalovirus infection.
The use of this technology has facilitated large scale production of vaccines, which is needed in managing the pandemic as quickly as possible.
Facts: The Covid-19 vaccines contain normal vaccine ingredients, e.g. fats that protect the mRNA, salts and a small amount of sugar.
They were not developed with foetal tissue, and do not contain any materials like implants, microchips or tracking devices.
Just like other vaccines, there are short-term mild or moderate side effects.
They usually resolve without complications or injury.
These side effects include discomfort at the injection site for a day or two; muscle ache; headache; and fatigue or fever after vaccination.
These are usual reactions to any vaccine and indicate the immune system is responding.
Most symptoms resolve within days.
There is no perfect vaccine, just as there is no perfect medicine, without any side effects.
When hundreds of millions of people have received the Covid-19 vaccines, it is inevitable that some adverse events will occur in the days and weeks after vaccination.
As such, careful investigation is necessary to determine if the vaccine was the cause or if it was coincidental, i.e. the adverse event was not related to the vaccine, but may be attributed to it erroneously as it occurred soon after vaccination.
When evaluating such reports, it is important to check the denominators and not just the numerators.
There has been media hype about blood clots in those who had the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, which has prompted investigations and vaccination pauses in some countries.
The UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) received 30 reports from 18.1 million doses administered as of March 24 (2021).
One case and five cases were reported among the more than 400,000 doses administered in Australia and Holland respectively.
The World Health Organization (WHO), UK MHRA and European Medicines Agency (EMA) reviewed the reports and concluded that the benefits continue to outweigh the risks.
The EMA added that unusual blood clots with low blood platelets should be listed as very rare side effects of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, following a review of 62 cases of cerebral vein thrombosis (blood clot in the cerebral vein, which drains blood from the brain) and 24 cases of splanchnic vein thrombosis (blood clot in the splanchnic venous circulation, which drains blood from the digestive system) in the European Union (EU) drug safety database as of March 22 (2021), from about 25 million doses administered.
Facts: The death rate of Covid-19 varies and is influenced by age, gender, co-morbidities (concurrent illnesses) and social deprivation.
Covid-19 is now recognised as a multi-organ disease with a broad spectrum of manifestations.
Data from the United Kingdom found that more than half of Covid-19 patients had long Covid symptoms three months after discharge from hospital, with worse outcomes among those younger than 50, women, and those with higher pre-Covid fitness levels.
Another study reported that discharged patients had higher risks of new respiratory disease (six times), major cardiovascular disease (three times), chronic liver disease (2.8 times), chronic kidney disease (1.9 times), and diabetes (1.5 times), than matched controls from the general population.
These risks were higher in those younger than 70 and in non-white individuals.
There were similar reports from other countries, but no published Malaysian data.
Take home message
Getting the Covid-19 vaccine is important to prevent infection and serious disease, which may have long-term consequences.
It may also prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to others.
Anyone who has any doubt about getting vaccinated would benefit from a discussion with their general practitioner (GP) or family doctor.
Dr Milton Lum is a past president of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners Associations and the Malaysian Medical Association. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Information in this article was accurate at the time of its writing. Due to the fluid nature of the Covid-19 pandemic, scientific understanding, along with guidelines and recommendations, may have changed since the original publication date. The views expressed do not represent that of organisations that the writer is associated with. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.