A bandage has been placed on the injection site of a patient who received a vaccine. CDC / Unsplash.

“The vaccine might give you the virus.”

It is impossible for the vaccines currently provided to individuals to cause disease. The vaccine only contains a harmless portion of the virus — enough for a body to identify it and create antibodies but not enough to actually cause infection.

COVID-19, the disease, is caused by the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2. Viruses are composed of three basic parts: 1) a fatty membrane; 2) spike proteins on the membrane; and 3) genetic material housed inside the membrane. 

The only goal of a virus is to replicate itself and spread. When SARS-CoV-2 is inhaled, the virus latches onto a healthy cell using the spike protein, which acts like a key and allows it to infiltrate the cell. 

Once SARS-CoV-2 is inside a cell, it does the exact same thing as any other virus — it hijacks the cell to make copies of itself.

The virus injects its own genetic material into the host cell and uses that cell’s machinery to make copies of itself, producing thousands more viruses. Eventually, the host cell becomes weak and dies, and all the new coronaviruses leave to inject new cells and repeat the process. 

The mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) act in a similar way to a virus, but the important distinction is that they only contain a single piece of the virus’s genetic code. 

Specifically, the mRNA vaccines only contain the code for the spike proteins that sit on the outer shell of SARS-CoV-2. When you receive the vaccine, it enters the cells and delivers the genetic code of the spike protein, which the cells then produce.

Once the spike proteins are produced, the immune system detects them. Because the immune system does not recognize the spike proteins, it then begins the process of creating antibodies to recognize and destroy the spike proteins. 

It takes several days to weeks to produce enough antibodies to provide immunity, but once they are present, the immune system is prepared to jump into action if a real SARS-CoV-2 particle ever enters the body. 

Any side effects such as fever, fatigue and headaches are caused by the body’s immune system. Experiencing these does not indicate infection. 

Some people have died from the vaccine.

It is true that some people have received the vaccine and subsequently died. According to the latest data available via the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, 453 have been reported to have died sometime after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine as of Jan. 29. A close look at the details of these deaths shows they are very likely unrelated to the vaccines. 

“In science, we often call this ‘true, true, and unrelated,’” said Dr. Cindy Gay, who led the phase 3 Moderna clinical trials at UNC Health. 

Gay said that when you are vaccinating millions of people, it is very likely that coincidences will occur. As of Jan. 31, an estimated 30 million doses of vaccine had been distributed in the United States.

An analysis of the deaths reported in VAERS shows that, of the 453 people across the country who have died after receiving the vaccine, at least 405 of them were older than age 60 and a majority of them had serious preexisting conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, chronic heart disease, cancer or diabetes. It is highly likely that those diseases, not the vaccine, contributed to the deaths. 

Further evidence that the vaccines are not related to these deaths: There does not appear to be any trend to the circumstances of these deaths. Some individuals suffered heart attacks, some passed away in their sleep, some had strokes, and at least 20 appear to have contracted COVID-19 and passed away before they were able to build immunity from the vaccine.

If the vaccines were contributing to any deaths, it would be likely that there would be some pattern, which does not exist here. 

A large number of the VAERS database entries on deaths even note the person entering the information does not believe the death was related to the vaccine, but health care providers are legally required to report adverse events that occur after vaccination.

According to Gay, providers intentionally include many events, even when they personally believe it is unlikely that they are related, so as to avoid any biases and obtain the best data possible. 

No deaths or serious reactions were reported in either of the clinical trials, which enrolled a combined total of 70,000 participants. 

The vaccine can cause infertility or pregnancy problems.

There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine causes infertility. Because there have not yet been clinical trials that intentionally enrolled pregnant women, scientists will caution that they technically do not have the data to make a conclusive safety statement. But there is currently no reason to believe that the vaccine will have any effect on pregnancies or fertility. 

This concern appears to be based on the claim that the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 shares a similar genetic makeup to a protein called syncytin-1, which plays a role in forming the placenta during pregnancy. 

It is true that syncytin-1 and the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein both share a short strand of five amino acids. However, proteins are often very long, complex chains of dozens or hundreds of amino acids strung together, so having a small group of five in common does not necessarily mean that the two are similar. 

Like two people whose phone numbers end with the same three digits, the proteins have a similarity, but they are distinct.

“Pregnant women have not yet been included in the initial clinical trials, but our expectation is that it [the vaccine] will not cause a problem for them,” said Dr. John Sanders, who led the phase 3 clinical trials for the Moderna vaccine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

“The biological plausibility of antibodies preventing pregnancy is very low, so low that all the major medical professional societies are recommending for pregnant women to consider vaccination,” he said. 

Though no pregnant women were enrolled in clinical trials, 23 women enrolled in the Pfizer clinical trial became pregnant after they were enrolled. Of those 23, only one woman was reported to have had a pregnancy complication, and she was in the control/placebo group, meaning she did not receive the vaccine.

Antibodies produced in response to the vaccine are the exact same antibodies produced naturally when one recovers from COVID-19, so if antibodies to COVID-19 did disrupt the placenta, scientists would expect to see pregnancy problems in all women who have recovered from COVID-19 naturally. There is no evidence of mass pregnancy complications. 

There is a very important risk assessment to be made by pregnant women when considering the vaccine, Dr. Sanders noted. There is no evidence supporting the theory that a vaccine will cause pregnancy complications, but “we have very clear evidence that pregnant women do worse with COVID-19 infection,” Sanders said.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Based on what is known at this time, pregnant women are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to nonpregnant women,” and infection “might have an increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth.”

While there is no trial data on pregnant women, there is evidence that pregnant women are at greater risk of serious illness caused by COVID-19, making vaccination more appealing to some women. 

“Pregnant women have a higher risk of a bad outcome caused by infection … and there appears to be no enhanced risk to the woman or the baby for getting the vaccine,” said Dr. Sanders. “So, if you were to ask me, as a doctor, I would say yes, I recommend vaccination.”

mRNA vaccines will alter your DNA.

Messenger RNA, or mRNA, does not enter the nucleus and will not alter DNA. The mRNA creates harmless spike proteins and then naturally degrades.

DNA is housed inside the nucleus, a protective envelope inside each cell. Messenger RNA is normally created inside the nucleus of a cell, and then specialized transport proteins act like shepherds to export the mRNA so that it can be read by ribosomes and then degrade and be recycled by the cell.

Once mRNA leaves the nucleus, it is unable to get back inside. Otherwise, damaged mRNA would be able to enter the nucleus and cause problems with DNA naturally. 

When an mRNA vaccine delivers mRNA to cells, those same rules apply. The mRNA enters the cell, is read by ribosomes, which create proteins, and then the mRNA is destroyed. It cannot enter the nucleus, nor can it alter DNA. 

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Christian Green is the lead Carolina Public Press contributing writer reporting on healthcare and health policy in North Carolina. He obtained a master’s degree in neuroscience at Wake Forest University’s Graduate School for the Arts and Sciences, where he worked in the Laboratory for Complex Brain Networks. He is based in Raleigh. Contact him at cgreen@carolinapublicpress.org.