Experts Debunk Untrue Coronavirus Vaccine Conspiracies And Myths
Earlier this week, the UK government reported that more than 78% of those aged 80 or over have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
So far, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has approved two vaccines for use in the UK: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
While the ramped-up vaccination programme means that more than 7.5 million people have now received their first doses, myths surrounding the long-term side effects, lightning speed turn-around of the vaccines and their efficacy have been rampant online.
In a bid to shed some light on these key concerns, we spoke to experts to find out how much truth there is behind them.
The vaccine could have long-term side effects
One of the most prevalent concerns when it comes to the coronavirus vaccines is the possibility of long-term side effects. The honest answer is that we simply don’t know if there will be long-term side effects, but it is highly unlikely, says Sarah Pitt, a Principal Lecturer at the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Science at the University of Brighton and Fellow of the Institute of Biomedical Science.
This is because they are brand-new vaccines. She explains, however, that the science behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca treatment has been around for decades.
‘In simple terms, the concept takes genetic material from one organism – in this case the code for the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus – puts that code into another microorganism and then puts that into the body.
‘The idea is that this harmless organism will go through its normal replication cycle inside you and will produce everything it normally produces, including this spike protein, which you will then make an immune response against,’ she continues.
She assures us, however, that it’s harmless, and says, ‘Your body will recognise it as a foreign agent and just destroy it. It’s not going to hang around in your body because your immune system will notice it.’
The principle has already been used in a hepatitis B vaccine since 1989.
‘If there were going to be side effects of using that kind of principle, we would know about it by now. I’m not saying there won’t, but there’s no good reason to suspect there will be lasting effects,’ she adds.
Pitt explains this is also partly why two doses of the vaccine are needed. saying, ‘That’s why you need boosters you see, because it just doesn’t hang around.’
As for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, this is even less likely to give side effects. Unlike the Oxford vaccine, this does not inject you with the spike protein; rather a strand of Messenger RNA (mRNA).
As the name suggests, this single strand molecule simply delivers a message, or recipe, that says ‘make spike protein’ to your cells, tricking your own body into producing the protein. Consequently, our bodies then produce an immune response to this foreign agent.
‘mRNA is made all the time in the body as a recipe for various proteins and it gets degraded within your cells very quickly,’ Pitt says.
This also explains why the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored at extremely low temperatures and be administered very quickly.
‘It goes off in the test tube, let alone in your body, so it’s really fantastic that it’s worked so well. It’s an amazing feat of science,’ she adds.
How can we trust a vaccine that was developed in such a short time?
The record-fast development of the coronavirus vaccine can largely be attributed to two factors. As the coronavirus pandemic took the world by storm, forcing whole nations into multiple lockdowns, all scientific research that wasn’t coronavirus-focused was abandoned. Additionally, unlimited funds were injected into finding a vaccine.
‘Ten months since first finding this virus to having a vaccine rolled out is an incredible achievement,’ says Sarah Caddy, a Research Fellow at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease.
The way this has been done is simply by running lots of the usual stages that take place in vaccine development at the same time.
‘Traditionally, what happened in the pre-pandemic era is that you would do experiments on animals, wait for the results and then think about moving forward and doing a small trial on humans. You would organise that and wait for those results.’
‘Each step in clinical trials could take a couple of years. It was only after this, right at the end, you would think about finding a manufacturer and get the vaccine licensed,’ Caddy continues.
During the coronavirus outbreak, this routine was abandoned.
‘As soon as the mouse stage showed any promise, the human trials started straight away,’ she says.
Even manufacturing began while trials were still being carried out. ‘The manufacturers basically took a big gamble, hoping that it works. They started making it just in case,’ she adds.
Pitt explains that in part, the vaccine had a kickstart because of research that was already being carried out.
‘The Oxford team had already been working on a vaccine for SARS-CoV-1, which went away in 2003. This wasn’t particularly well funded, because why waste time making a vaccine against a virus that doesn’t exist anymore?’ she says.
Separately, they were also working on a vaccine for MERS, another coronavirus that is quite deadly, but only sees small annual outbreaks in parts of the Middle East.
‘When the genetic code from COVID-19 was published, everything they had done on MERS, they swapped it in for coronavirus. So, they were one-third of the way there before they even started,’ she explains.
Additionally, the rollout of Phase III trials was faster due to the sheer number of coronavirus cases worldwide.
‘During Phase III, you give the vaccine to lots of people and send them out into the world to get the disease. But of course, this depends on how much disease is out there. By the time we got to Phrase III in August and September, there was a distressingly high number of cases in India and South Africa and other parts of the world. So, your trial works very well because lots of people are getting coronavirus,’ she adds.
What’s the point of taking the vaccine if it doesn’t guarantee immunity?
Some people have also expressed concerns about the efficacy of the vaccines, especially in light of new variants.
‘The data says the vaccine is 80-90% effective, which is really brilliant, but even if it turns out to only be 50% effective, for a vaccine that’s really very good,’ Pitt explains.
The current vaccines being rolled out in the UK both have an efficacy rating of more than 70%.
‘Vaccines are one of the tools in the toolbox for trying to control the virus; we’re not expecting them to do the work all by themselves,’ she adds.
Due to the nature of the virus and how quickly it spreads, even those who are not elderly or do not have pre-existing health conditions will need to be vaccinated.
‘Everyone’s thinking about, ‘What’s the effect of the vaccine on me?’ We’ve got to understand it is a global pandemic, and we’ve got to work together to get rid of it,’ she adds. ‘If you have protection from the vaccine, the chances of the virus growing inside you and getting to levels that it can spread to others should be much less. So young people will need to have the vaccine too because we need to get the virus under control.’
Earlier this week, the UK government said it will be introducing mandatory quarantine hotels for those arriving from red-list countries, where new variants of the coronavirus are prevalent.
Some of these mutations could give the virus an advantage to avoid our body’s antibody response.
Researchers are currently testing antibodies from people who have been vaccinated, to see if they can still prevent these new variants of the virus from replicating.
‘Generally, results have been encouraging. Some of the variants are not blocked by antibodies in the lab quite as well but the reduction in efficacy is only small,’ Caddy says.
She explains that it’s a development that vaccine manufacturers will be watching very closely.
‘This virus isn’t going to go away. I don’t think we are going to eradicate it from the UK. It’s going to become endemic, so I hope we can develop a series of vaccines that can be updated,’ she adds.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Most Read StoriesMost Read