Since the first day we heard about the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus making its way across our globe, there has been confusion about the virus, its spread, how deadly it is, and how to prevent getting COVID-19.
I understand why. A pandemic is a complex math and science problem, and most people aren’t well-versed in either subject. That’s why we have experts.
However, while confusion is understandable, the spreading of misinformation is not.
I’ll never forget the first time I spotted false information about COVID-19. It was in March of 2020, right after lockdown began here in Colorado. I was on Facebook, where a well-intended individual re-posted a fact sheet about the novel coronavirus, sourced from Johns Hopkins University. People were desperate for information, and here it was.
I read through it, and it appeared professional at first glance or two and contained useful, correct information… until I spotted an error. And then another. Errors that a layperson would miss but no expert would ever make. When I tried to hunt down the original article, it was nowhere to be found. Within a week or two, another “fact sheet” appeared, also claiming to come from Johns Hopkins, also professional-sounding but with a couple of (new) errors.
Those “fact sheets” were only the first of what would become a long and painful list of false statements about a pandemic that would impact the globe in all sorts of ways. In the last year, I’ve seen more false and misleading information about COVID-19 than I’ve seen about any other health topic in my lifetime. Given how much reading I’ve done on health-related topics, that’s saying a lot.
Now that we’re into 2021, the misinformation has shifted from the virus itself to its treatment: vaccines. Vaccines are already a dumpster fire of misinformation, but the COVID-19 vaccines have taken that to a new level.
Part of good health is having good information from which to make decisions about what you put into your body. It’s hard to do that when you’re getting bad information.
There are several different COVID-19 vaccines, but here in the US the most popular are the two mRNA vaccines: Pfizer and Moderna. In this article, I will debunk the most common myths about these vaccines and show you, in detail, why they’re wrong.
Myth #1: The COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines are Experimental/Untested
An “experimental” drug, therapy, or vaccine means it’s been developed but never been fully tested to determine if it’s effective and/or causes unanticipated problems. The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are not experimental; they have undergone testing through large-scale clinical trials.
For example, the Moderna clinical trial included ~30,000 participants ranging from 18 to 95 years old. The trial was randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled, like any good clinical trial. Participants were followed up after two months, and it was found that:
- Vaccine efficacy after 2 doses was 94.1% in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 among those with no evidence of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection.
- Efficacy was good for preventing COVID-19–associated hospitalization
- They didn’t find much evidence that it protects against asymptomatic COVID-19. However, a later study offered preliminary evidence that the vaccine is effective in preventing asymptomatic COVID-19 as well.
Results for Pfizer were similar.
So Why the Confusion?
Some of it stems from the fact that the mRNA vaccines were approved via emergency use authorization (EUA) rather than the lengthier FDA approval. Facing an emergency, the EUA was granted in order to get the vaccines distributed to the public as quickly as possible.
And that’s HUGE. Moving quickly is everything with a pandemic because of the exponential spread of the virus. Once the spread goes too far, it leads to overwhelm of medical resources, resulting in countless unnecessary deaths, not to mention vast economic consequences.
This happened in other countries—e.g., Italy—and they warned us to avoid following in their footsteps.
FDA approval is, of course, what we prefer before using any kind of drug or vaccine. However, FDA approval requires a longer follow-up period than an EUA (6 months rather than 3), then many more months for the FDA to issue final approval. The EUA exists for those emergencies when time is not on our side.
The EUA is no slouch, though. It too requires rigorous testing in the form of well-designed clinical trials. The clinical trials for Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines clearly showed that 1) the vaccines work, and 2) the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh their risks.
Vaccine manufacturers will eventually need to obtain FDA approval for these vaccines. And in fact, as of May 7 Pfizer has already begun doing so for their vaccine.
But the Technology is So New!
A related concern is that mRNA vaccines are the new kid in town, and not everyone trusts the new kid. But NEW (hasn’t been around as long) is not the same as EXPERIMENTAL (hasn’t been adequately tested). mRNA vaccine technology has actually existed for decades, and COVID-19 provided the opportunity to take this well-researched technology and put it to good use.
BOTTOM LINE: Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines have been properly tested in large clinical trials and were found to be very effective in protecting against COVID-19, and therefore are not experimental.
Myth #2: The COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines Aren’t REAL Vaccines
I’ve seen rumblings from folks claiming that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines aren’t “true” vaccines. While these mRNA vaccines are different from the ones you grew up with, they’re still vaccines. Here’s why.
Merriam-Webster’s defines a vaccine as:
A preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body’s immune response against a specific infectious disease.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines clearly do this. So where does this myth come from?
It comes from the fact that many of the vaccines we’re used to and have grown up with contain live pathogen that’s been weakened or inactivated, or contain parts of the pathogen. Exposure to the weakened/inactivated pathogen or its parts then stimulates your immune system to mount a defense. Then, if in the future you’re exposed to that pathogen, your body will recognize it and conquer it.
The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines contain no pathogen or pathogen parts at all. Instead, they contain the instructions that allow your body to create the pathogen part itself, which will signal your immune system to develop antibodies.
In other words, you can give people the pathogen/pathogen parts, or you can give people the instructions to make the pathogen parts themselves. Either way, the result is the same: the body mounts a defense in preparation for any future infection.
Pretty cool, when you think about it.
So cool, in fact, I wrote an article detailing how mRNA vaccines work, step by step.
If you aren’t yet fully convinced, here’s the kicker. Not ALL vaccines you’ve been exposed to even contain pathogen or pathogen parts. Tetanus and diphtheria don’t, for example, and you’ve probably received both of those many times… and called them vaccines.
BOTTOM LINE: Pfizer and Modern mRNA vaccines are real vaccines in every sense of the word because they stimulate the immune system into mounting a defense.
Myth #3: COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines are a Form of Gene Therapy
This myth surprised me the most. Because it’s the one that makes the least amount of sense, scientifically speaking. mRNA vaccines bear no resemblance to gene therapy. For so many reasons.
First, let’s get some terminology straight. When you talk about “genetic material” and “genes,” you’re talking about DNA. You’re talking about your genome, the map that transforms you from a fertilized egg (i.e., a zygote) into a fully functioning human.
mRNA vaccines don’t involve any changes in your DNA. In fact, they don’t involve your DNA at all. Even if they did, that still wouldn’t qualify them as “gene therapy.”
To show you why, let me explain what mRNA vaccines do.
I won’t do a full spiel on how mRNA vaccines work, since I cover that in detail in its own article. However, for the sake of illustration, here’s the quick-and-dirty breakdown of how mRNA vaccines function in the body:
1. The SARS-CoV-2 virus genome is used to create an mRNA molecule that provides the instructions to create the virus spike protein. Spike proteins are those funky rods that stick out of the virus, and are used to invade our cells when the virus gets into our bodies.
2. To protect the new spike protein mRNA from destruction before it can do its job, they coat it in lipid (fatty) nanoparticles.
3. After injection into a human, the coated mRNA particles fuse to cells and the mRNA is released inside the cell. The body recognizes them and, as with any mRNA, the translation process begins and the virus’s spike protein is created. The introduced mRNA is then destroyed by the body.
4. The new spike protein heads to the surface of the cell. Your body sees it as a foreign invader and your immune system begins creating antibodies.
5. If you’re infected by SARS-CoV-2, the antibodies created after vaccine injection will recognize the virus’s spikes, and go after it.
As you can see, your DNA isn’t involved in this process. It’s stowed away in the cell’s nucleus, away from the action.
Gene therapy, on the other hand, definitely involves your DNA.
I like the National Human Genome Research Institute’s definition of gene therapy:
Gene therapy is an experimental technique for treating disease by altering the patient’s genetic material. Most often, gene therapy works by introducing a healthy copy of a defective gene into the patient’s cells.
Again, “genetic material” and “genes” refer to DNA. A gene is just a specific sequence at a specific location in your DNA, not unlike a specific mile marker on a cross-country interstate highway.
Not only does gene therapy directly affect your DNA, it does so in a very specific way by intentionally targeting a specific gene.
How does this work? I’ll outline it briefly here (for more detail, see 5 Cool Facts About Gene Therapy You Never Knew):
When a patient has a disease caused by a “bad” gene, you introduce a “good” version of that gene into the patient’s genome (i.e., into their DNA). The good gene is injected into the patient and incorporated into their genome through a vector, a “vehicle” of sorts, typically a modified virus that doesn’t cause disease.
Ideally, the good gene will then code for a good protein to correct the disease.
Because genes affect so much about how our bodies function, there are much larger consequences when you tinker with DNA. This is why, as of this writing, only a small number of gene therapies in the US are FDA-approved.
BOTTOM LINE: Gene therapy, which involves changing your DNA to treat disease, is a whole different ballgame from an mRNA vaccine, which doesn’t affect your DNA at all.
Myth #4: The COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines Don’t Work Long-Term
This myth is interesting, because unlike Myths 1-3, this one isn’t as clear-cut. To say that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines don’t work long-term is false.
However, to say they DO work long-term is also false.
The truth is, we don’t (yet) know how long the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines will continue to be effective after injection.
Initial clinical trial reports for both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines stated this. And it makes perfect sense; these are new vaccines, and we can’t know how long they will continue to provide protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus until enough time passes that we can conduct studies with vaccinated individuals.
Good research takes time.
However, more recent information has surfaced from Pfizer. An April 1, 2021 report shared study results showing that protection from the vaccine will last at least 6 months. Moderna found similar results.
Once we get more people vaccinated and enough time passes that more studies can be done, we’ll have even more information.
So what happens if the vaccine doesn’t prove effective long-term? Some don’t, and you go back to get another one, like we do with other vaccines. Same with viral variants: you get a booster down the road to protect you.
BOTTOM LINE: How long the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines will provide protection against SARS-CoV-2 is yet to be determined, but is at least six months. Future shots can protect us against decreased effectiveness and variants.
There you have it, folks. Four myths, debunked. Make the world a little safer and better—go get your vaccine today.
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Mayo Clinic: Gene therapy
Moderna clinical trial overview
Moderna clinical trial details
Pfizer clinical trial results