LEXINGTON, Ky. – The COVID-19 vaccine has encountered some roadblocks in terms of how fast it is being distributed and administered, but navigating a sea of misinformation about the vaccine has become another hurdle for healthcare experts to negotiate.

What You Need To Know

  • Vaccine misinformation creates another hurdle to combating COVID-19

  • Healthcare experts trying to dispel myths

  • False claims could spur more hesitancy

  • Most common misconception: Vaccine gives people COVID-19 

Myths about the vaccine portray it as dangerous and deadly, part of a government plan to track citizens, causing infertility, that it can’t be effective because it was developed too quickly, that it alters people’s genetics and DNA, and that it gives those receiving it the coronavirus.

None of that is remotely true, according to multiple healthcare experts, and a large-scale campaign is underway to debunk those myths and encourage people to get a vaccine – both the Moderna and Pfizer versions were approved for emergency use and have been proven to be more than 95% effective.

Vince Venditto, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutical Science has extensive expertise in vaccine design and is attempting to debunk the more common myths. 

“We are seeing a concentration of vaccine hesitancy because everybody in the world needs to be vaccinated right now,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of stories that are popping up about all of these myths, about it being rushed out and we don't know what's in it. I know that there's this constant underlying hesitancy about vaccines, but because every single person in the world needs one, I think a lot of this stuff is coming to the surface and we're seeing it more.”

Vitriol claims aimed at undermining people’s confidence in the vaccine have gained traction online, perpetuated particularly by skeptics on social media and alternative health websites, according to NewsGuard, an online misinformation tracking firm. The London, England-based Center for Countering Digital Hate said anti-vaccine groups have grown much faster over the past two years than pro-vaccination groups. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook made decisions in late-2020 to remove vaccine information that contradicts the claims of public health officials.

Kacy Allen-Bryant is a public health nursing lecturer at the University of Kentucky and a 12-year member of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department Board of Public Health. She said the health department is attempting to instill confidence in the vaccine by using all local mediums, social media, and encouraging people to use the agency’s call-in line (859-899-2222) to ask questions.

“I’ve heard all kinds of random conspiracy theories – that it's the government's way of injecting a substance in people to track them to it's just a hoax to get people to kind of calm down in terms of COVID,” she said. “Mostly what people are saying, though, is they feel uncomfortable with the vaccine because it was developed so quickly; that's probably the predominant objection that I've heard.”

Allen-Bryant said she tries to convert skeptics by assuring them that although the vaccines were developed quickly they both went through rigorous clinical trials under the scrutiny of the Institutional Review Board, which examines protocols for all type of research and to make sure that at the end of the day that the subject the participant is protected and safe.

“Whenever there's a new technology, a new idea, you have those people who are the first in line to get the new iPhone, and then there are other people that want to wait and see how well the iPhone really works. Whether it's a new technology like an iPhone, or a vaccine, everybody's gonna be in their various stages of how well they adapt to something new, and it's no different with this COVID vaccine.”

Health experts also claim unanswered questions about the vaccine may be damaging people’s confidence and public health officials are making a concerted effort to be clear about what the vaccine does and does not do. One popular misconception is the vaccine gives people COVID.

“You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine,” said Dr. Maria Braman, chief medical officer at Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH). “The vaccines that are currently available are both mRNA vaccines, and they do not use live virus. The side effects should not be confused with getting the virus. You may have heard reported that once you get the vaccine, which is two doses, with the first dose people tend to have mild symptoms. With the second vaccine, people are having a little bit stronger symptoms. These are part of your immune response because what the vaccine does is get your body's immune response to be able to identify COVID and react to it and be ready to stop it if it enters your body. Those side effects are from your immune system working and that's a good sign. Those side effects go away quickly, usually within one or two days.”

Dr. Fares Khater is an infectious disease specialist at ARH and he addressed the myth that the vaccine alters people’s DNA, saying it never enters the nucleus or any genetic material.

“What the COVID vaccine does is a messenger RNA (mRNA) that gives our immune system instruction to produce natural immunity in a very controlled and regulated environment,” he said. “Our body actually destroyed the material injected from the vaccine within 24 or 48 hours. But usually, after one to two days, the vaccine is not there anymore. It’s just immunity being produced.”

The lack of research and speedy development are also myths surrounding the vaccines people have used to deem them unsafe. Jeffrey Akers, ARH system director of pharmacy, said research included two large-scale trials with nearly 75,000 people and Khater emphasized that mRNA technology is not new even though the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the first two using the technology to hit the market.

“The mRNA technology was discovered over 30 years ago,” Khater said. It has been studied for vaccines before now – for almost two decades, early-stage trials using this technology have been studied for the influenza vaccine, the Zika virus, and for the rabies virus.”

Not getting a vaccine because COVID-19 will go away on its own is another often-touted myth, and one Venditto says may be debunked by comparing the virus to the common cold.

“It is unlikely that COVID-19 will go away on its own,” he said. “Just like the common cold, which is also a coronavirus, it continues to make kids sick every year, but as we age and continue to be exposed, we generate an immune response that prevents us from getting sick. The vaccine helps to accelerate this process to protect us. However, we are only a year into this pandemic and scientists will continue to monitor how many people are infected each year.”

Venditto also participated in a three-part podcast aimed at convincing people the vaccine is safe.

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