The rapid development and approval of COVID-19 vaccines for use in the U.S. was a truly remarkable scientific accomplishment that really cannot be marveled at enough. Millions of Americans have now been fully (or at least partially) vaccinated as more states expand vaccine eligibility to all adults. Many of the roadblocks that hampered the vaccine rollout early on are gone.
But one that remains is vaccine hesitancy and distrust. Recent polling suggests that 1 in 4 Americans would flat-out refuse a COVID-19 vaccine if they were offered one, and 5% are undecided. That is a whole lot of Americans who are still on the fence.
HuffPost spoke with several experts about some of the biggest myths still circulating about the immunizations:
Myth #1: COVID-19 vaccines were ‘rushed,’ so they could still be unsafe.
The speed of the vaccines’ creation was pretty unprecedented, but that does not mean researchers skipped important steps.
“These vaccines were not ‘rushed’ through development,” said Linda Yancey, an infectious disease expert at Memorial Hermann Health System in Texas.
Instead, drug manufacturers and the government simply removed many of the bureaucratic inefficiencies that typically slow the process, she explained.
Drug manufacturers were also able to basically drop everything else they were working on and put all of their scientists on this one task around the clock, Yancey added.
That said, “there are parts of vaccine development that you cannot rush. You cannot rush the safety trials, and that was why we waited, then they published those results in the summer,” Yancey said of those phase 1 and phase 2 trials.
“Then you cannot rush the efficacy trials, so that was what we were waiting on during the fall,” Yancey said, referring to the larger scale phase 3 trials. “And those went really, really well.”
Federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are continuing to monitor COVID-19 vaccine safety in real time as the vaccines are distributed ― not because they are worried that they haven’t been sufficiently studied, but as a (standard!) added layer of protection.
Myth #2: You can get COVID-19 from the vaccine.
None of the vaccines that have been approved for use in the U.S. contain the live virus that causes COVID-19.
Which means it is simply not possible to get sick with COVID-19 as a result.
This is a persistent misconception that also follows other vaccines, like the flu shot. Many people feel unwell after getting vaccinated for the flu and believe they have the virus itself. But the flu vaccine is actually made from inactivated or “dead” viruses.
Likewise, it’s common to develop symptoms after getting vaccinated against COVID-19 that may seem similar to those infected individuals get, but they are not the same thing.
Some people are understandably confused by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is a viral vector vaccine. That means that yes, it relies on a modified version of a different virus (in this case the virus that causes the common cold) to deliver important instructions to your cells so that they know how to recognize and fight the coronavirus.
No matter which vaccine you receive, you should expect some side effects. (Though if you don’t feel any, that doesn’t mean it’s not working.) “You’re going to have a nice brisk immune response,” Yancey said. “So yes, your arm is going to hurt. Yes, you’re probably going to run some fevers and feel achey for a few days. That is a good thing. That means you’re getting a good immune uptake and you’re going to get that high level of protection.”
Myth #3: The vaccines can change your DNA.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both use messenger RNA, or mRNA. This technology teaches the body’s cells to make a harmless piece of the “spike protein” found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That triggers an immune response that produces antibodies, protecting against COVID-19 infection.
But mRNA vaccines don’t interact with a person’s DNA.
“One thing I hear that people are concerned about is that it’s going to impact their DNA, and I can see why people would make a connection like that,” said Nicole Iovine, chief epidemiology officer at University of Florida Health Shands Hospital. “But there are a number of reasons why that can’t happen.”
For one, our DNA is protected by a membrane that prevents things from passing through easily, she explained. “This messenger RNA just goes into the outer part of our cell, called the cytoplasm. And it doesn’t enter into the nucleus, so it doesn’t have access to our DNA.”
Also, messenger RNA doesn’t even stick around in our cells for very long, Iovine added.
Myth #4: The COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should get the COVID-19 vaccine. And now there’s finally some real, hard evidence showing that the vaccine is safe during pregnancy and that it can confer some protection to babies, too.
It’s also safe and recommended for women who are considering getting pregnant. Experts stress that there is absolutely no evidence that getting vaccinated causes infertility. That’s a lie often spread by anti-vaccination activists about various vaccines, Yancey said.
And again, there’s mounting evidence that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 could be really important for moms and their babies.
“I think one of the things that isn’t being talked about is the potential benefit to fetuses and babies,” said Linda Eckert, an obstetrician-gynecologist and infectious disease expert with UW Medicine in Washington. “There’s antibodies that we anticipate will cross through the cord blood, to the baby, and offer some protection. And also that it should pass through breast milk and offer protection.”
Myth #5: You don’t have to get vaccinated if you’ve already had COVID-19.
The CDC says that anyone who has had COVID-19 and recovered (and otherwise qualifies for vaccination) should be offered the vaccine — although the agency adds that reinfection is unlikely in the first 90 days, so it may make sense to wait a few months.
In part, that is because there are still a lot of questions about how long natural immunity lasts, as well as how robust it is. But the evidence shows the vaccines are very good at prompting a significant immune response — and that they provide robust immunity for at least 6 months.
“When you get the vaccine, because you’re just making the immune response to the part of the spike protein — which is the target for preventing infection — your immune response is entirely focused on responding to just that key part of the virus. So you get this really, really strong, really focused response against the right part,” Iovine said. “That’s why people who have had COVID infection should still benefit from the vaccine.”
Myth #6: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is “not as good” as the others.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been a game changer in the U.S.′ vaccine distribution efforts for several reasons.
It’s the only single-dose shot available in the country right now, which is a very big deal for people who may have a hard time coming in for two doses because they can’t get out of work, or because they can’t find childcare, and on and on.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also has easier storage requirements. And it’s stable, meaning it doesn’t have to be rushed immediately into people’s arms.
No, it does not have the same efficacy rates as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines when it comes to preventing COVID-19 (it’s about 66% effective, as opposed to over 90% for the mRNA vaccines.) But crucially, as the CDC points out, it’s incredibly effective at preventing severe illness and death. No one in the clinical trials required hospitalization.
Myth #7: Severe reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines are common.
It’s alarming to hear that individuals have had severe reactions to COVID-19 vaccination, but the percentage of people who have had those responses is low.
“Anaphylaxis after COVID-19 vaccination is rare and occurred in approximately 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated in the United States,” says the CDC, using data from its Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS.
More mild allergic responses are possible within four hours of getting the shot, the CDC says. And the agency urges anyone who has had allergic responses to other vaccines to talk to their doctor about what this means for COVID-19 vaccination. It also states that everyone, regardless of their health background, should be monitored by their physician for at least 15 minutes after they receive a dose.
Myth #8: You should wait until you can choose the exact type of vaccine you’d like.
Iovine said she has been regularly fielding questions from patients who are wondering whether they should pick one particular vaccine. But experts say the best shot for you is the one you can get the soonest — particularly because the country is in a real race between vaccination and the rise of COVID-19 variants.
“Whatever you’re offered,” Iovine said, “you should absolutely get it.”
This story has been updated.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.