As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout ramps up in the United States, more and more cases of adverse reactions to the injection are being reported. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, 484 vaccine-related incidents have been reported in Florida since vaccination began. The side effects are relatively the same for both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, including pain, swelling and redness at the site of vaccination, as well as chills, tiredness and headaches. In some much rarer cases, anaphylaxis has been reported shortly following the first dose of the vaccine.
While common vaccines before COVID-19 also had the possibility of side effects, the politicization of the pandemic has led to widespread misinformation about the virus and its vaccine in particular, including its effects. Conspiracy theories range from believing the vaccine injects you with a microchip, to believing the vaccines actually created new strains of COVID-19. These falsehoods have the potential to do damage on vaccination campaigns. A study published Feb. 5 in Nature Human Behavior showed the impact of misinformation on the general public’s willingness to accept the vaccine. The study demonstrated that prior to exposure to misinformation, 54.1 percent of participants would “definitely” accept the vaccine, but after exposure, that number dropped by roughly 6 percentage points in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Not only will misinformation have a deleterious effect on the possibility of reaching herd immunity via vaccination, it will also prevent the general public from appreciating the scientific marvels that are the COVID-19 vaccines.
A common misconception surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines is that they actually contain the coronavirus, which might lead to a full-blown infection. The reason for this is the fact that traditional vaccines as we know them can contain the virus they are fighting against. According to the CDC, common types of vaccines can be either live and attenuated, meaning the virus is weakened, or inactivated, meaning the virus is dead. These vaccines imitate a natural infection because the virus is still entering the body, but because it is weakened or deadened altogether, there usually are very minor symptoms or none at all.
What is so astounding about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they contain no virus at all, and this has the capacity to completely transform the way we create immunizations. The two vaccines that are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC for use against COVID-19 are mRNA vaccines, the first of their kind available for widespread use. They contain mRNA, or messenger RNA, a type of nucleic acid that is read by ribosomes in cells and leads to the production of the protein that it encodes. When our body receives the vaccine, it processes that mRNA to produce a spike protein found on the surface of the coronavirus itself. The mRNA quickly degrades following spike protein production. Once our immune cells identify the spike protein as foreign, our bodies launch an immune response and build antibodies, molecules that identify foreign bodies. To do this, they bind to the viral antigens or molecules typically found on the exterior of a pathogen. This recognition results in the production of more antibodies. Upon a later exposure, these antibodies will be able to recognize that a foreign entity like the coronavirus has entered the body and launch an immune response faster, almost like acting from memory. The rest of the immune response will be devoted to destroying the antigens.
The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are a breakthrough technology, but the concept behind mRNA vaccines has been around for a long time. The first successful use of an mRNA vaccine occurred in 1990 when mRNAs were injected into mice and led to protein production. These results were promising, but because mRNAs degrade quickly, concerns over their stability in vaccine form prevented their widespread use. Still, mRNA vaccines have been considered for a host of diseases like influenza, Zika, rabies and more.
Other COVID-19 vaccines, like the Sinovac vaccine CoronaVac, use the inactivated virus, the more traditional mode of vaccine delivery. But these vaccines do not compare to the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. CoronaVac was reported to have 50.4 percent efficacy by researchers in Brazil. Meanwhile, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines show approximately 95 percent efficacy. There are various factors that could contribute to the relatively low efficacies of the DNA-based coronavirus vaccine. On the other hand, mRNA vaccines actually generate a stronger immune response because they stimulate the production of both antibodies and killer cells, according to Harvard Health. The strong performance of mRNA vaccines developed in 11 months — a record time for immunization development, which typically spans multiple years — indicates their potential to revolutionize the way we develop vaccines for a host of other diseases, like Ebola and melanoma.
While the mRNA vaccines are an incredibly exciting development, media outlets and conspiracy theorists have unfortunately tainted the conversations surrounding these vaccines. Inaccurate discourse on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram is partly to blame. Yes, there have been instances where people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine died shortly after. Yet while the CDC has not found that the vaccines themselves have been the cause of any person’s death, conspiracy theorists and the misinformed public alike still claim the vaccines can kill you. Recently, rumors circulated that the COVID-19 vaccines even cause infertility, which is categorically false. Documentation on the CDC website shows how hard health officials have to work to dissuade fears over the vaccine. For example, on the organization’s website titled “Understanding mRNA Vaccines,” the CDC has emphasized that the vaccine does not contain the live virus. This might be related to another falsehood about the mRNA vaccines that the CDC rejects on its website: It alters our DNA. However, because mRNA degrades rapidly and it never enters our cells’ nuclei, which contains our DNA, there is no chance of mRNA altering or interacting with our DNA.
The reaction to the COVID-19 vaccines has shown the harm that misinformation is capable of, the most damaging consequence being skeptics’ refusal to get vaccinated. Not only does this have the potential to worsen and lengthen the pandemic, but misinformation also diminishes the awe that these mRNA vaccines deserve. The potential to use mRNA vaccines to treat diseases beyond COVID-19 is exciting in itself, let alone its capability to completely transform the trajectory of this pandemic. The vaccines are scientific feats, from their speed-run development to the technology and theory behind them, and every rumor and falsehood chips away at the hard work it took to develop them.