Since March 2020, public interest in healthcare has skyrocketed. Prior to the pandemic, much of the population had little to no interest in the results of immunological clinical trials, possessing limited understanding of virology, vaccines and pharmaceutical developmental processes, and any knowledge of antibodies had been long forgotten post-A-level biology. Yet overnight, the mass use and often misuse of such scientific jargon by the media became the norm, and the understanding of such convoluted subjects was no longer considered a requirement limited to health professionals only.
As restrictions were put in place, mistrust in the government gradually increased, and fear for the future continued to linger, the public turned to its most readily accessible resource – the internet – to try to comprehend a world in which normal was no longer so normal.
As a source of information, the internet inarguably plays an imperative and beneficial role in the distribution of evidence-based intelligence. During the pandemic, the sharing of educational resources and often-simplified clinical data has been a key component in the government’s strategies for encouraging public compliance with necessary restrictions and tackling vaccination hesitancy. What became increasingly apparent, however, was the concerning mass-accumulation of false information surrounding COVID-19 and the alarming rate at which this information was circulating online.
Factually incorrect information has always existed on the web. However, when coupled with heightened emotions, social isolation, and increased social media usage, the seeds of misinformation are given the opportunity to flourish.1
Virtually overnight we were catapulted into arguably the most impactful infodemics in history, one which has had tragic global health implications. Inaccurate information circulates on average six times faster than its accurate counterpart, often filling information voids and amplifying harmful messages. In the case of COVID-19, these messages have overshadowed public health response efforts and encouraged disengagement with vital vaccination programs and voluntary social efforts, resulting in a recent dramatic rise in case numbers in many parts of Europe.2,3,4
As a medical communications agency, this bothers us to say the least. Our role is to create digestible, engaging, but most importantly accurate scientific content. It’s for this reason that we asked our team about the vaccination myths that they have heard, giving us the opportunity to debunk the junk and encourage the circulation of fact.
Below you can find some of our favorite (or should we say least favorite), along with evidence-based explanations to highlight exactly where these myths well and truly get it wrong.
Vaccines can cause autism
A classic and favorite of team anti-vax, the widespread concern that vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism originally stemmed from a study published by Andrew Wakefield, a British surgeon. The study suggested that children who had received the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine had an increased chance of being diagnosed with autism. Unfortunately, the article was published in the trusted medical journal, The Lancet, awarding the study and its speculative conclusions unmerited credibility.
After the study’s publication, a series of compromising errors made throughout the study were highlighted, immediately discrediting the study’s validity. Such invalidating errors included procedural errors, purposefully undisclosed conflicts of interest and serious ethical violations; for example, Wakefield had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.5
In addition, 10 of the 12 co-authors retracted their interpretation of the original data, stating that “no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.”5
In light of these findings, The Lancet refused to endorse the study and the paper was retracted. Andrew Wakefield later lost his medical license after being found guilty of fraudulent scientific representation as well as serious ethical violations, including the performance of invasive investigations on children without obtaining the mandatory ethical clearances.6,7
Following the claims made by Andrew Wakefield, several epidemiological studies have been conducted, all of which have failed to demonstrate a single link between vaccines and the likelihood of developing autism.8-11 What we do know is it that there is no single cause of autism, with research suggesting that autism develops from a combination of genetic and nongenetic influences, none of which have an association with vaccines.11
The COVID vaccine can cause infertility
Because when your brother’s, uncle’s, best friend’s, brother-in-law said it, there’s no way it isn’t true.
Regardless of whether you are a fan of Nikki Minaj’s music, you probably heard the uproar surrounding the Twitter announcement that her ‘cousin in Trinidad’s friend’ became impotent following receipt of the vaccine – a ballsy thing to post on Twitter where falsehoods are 70% more likely to get retweeted than accurate news.2 According to Nikki’s tweet, the poor gentleman’s fiancé called off their wedding as a result of his ‘swollen testicles’, causing mass concern for all soon-to-be newlyweds and hopeful parents-to-be.
Nikki’s claim links a pharmaceutical cause to a result that is detrimental to one’s health. Essentially, the statement ‘my brother took a paracetamol in the morning that caused the cancer he was diagnosed with later that afternoon’ arguably follows the same logic.
The ironic cherry on top of this myth is that infection with COVID-19 has been shown to be associated with decreased sperm count, testicular inflammation, sperm duct inflammation, and testicular pain in men of reproductive age, so refusing the vaccine that protects you from COVID-19 puts you more at risk of potentially being left at the altar.12 The science behind these observations is not completely clear; however, current research suggests that the reproductive system possesses some of the receptors that coronavirus must bind to in order to penetrate and deliver its genetic material into healthy cells, rendering it susceptible to the effects of COVID-19 infection.13
In summary, there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines could affect male or female fertility.14
This one is just a little… nuts.
Vaccines are used to embed microchips that track you via 5G networks
With 4G connections now accounting for over 50% of mobile connections globally, one might assume that exposure to mobile frequencies isn’t of primary concern to much of the population.15 Nevertheless, from March to April 2020, ‘#5GCoronavirus’ consistently trended on the serial-culprit platform, Twitter – also thought to be the conspiracy’s birthplace.
Although the study of a sample of 233 tweets using this hashtag showed that most tweets were from non-conspiracy theory supporting users, telecoms engineers were the subject of verbal and physical attacks and there were 77 arson attacks on phone masts, the majority of which were not even 5G enabled.16,17
Microchips can be used to detect location, but not in the way you might think. For example, the RFID chips used in dogs do not allow a ‘live’ location of your furry best friend.
The reason that microchips do not work like GPS systems is because RFID tags only transmit information, whereas for a chip to have tracking capabilities it must receive information, typically from signals via cell towers. To facilitate such a power-intensive transaction would require a power source to be connected to the chip that has supposedly been injected. The needles used to administer COVID-19 vaccines have internal diameters of 0.26–0.41 mm, so the technical feasibility of this myth can be immediately discounted.18,19
Additionally, the reason that signals from RFID chips can be detected at levels high enough to interact with another computer system – for example, during a contactless transaction – is because the chip is implanted very close to the surface of the skin. Like most vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines are administered intramuscularly, meaning that if 5G chips were to be administered via the vaccine, any signals able to interact with the outside world would be lost immediately upon injection.
We get it – nobody likes being followed. However, if being tracked is of serious concern, we would suggest first deleting your social media accounts and turning the location setting off on your phone.
Vaccines don’t work because vaccinated people still catch COVID-19
This is not so much a myth, but more a lack of understanding of the fundamental principles behind vaccination.
In short, COVID-19 vaccines, or any vaccine for that matter, do not offer a guarantee that you will not catch the virus. They instead reduce the chances of infection and dampen the severity of symptoms of infectious individuals – maintaining low transmission rates, sustainable hospitalization numbers and minimal deaths.20-22 Paired with compliance with quarantine, we can prevent diseases with infection and death rates equivalent to that of a global health crisis.
To understand how and why this happens, we need to go back to the basics of immunology. When a virus enters the body, the body identifies the proteins displayed on the virus’s surface – also known as antigens – as foreign, thus eliciting an innate immune response.23 The cells primarily involved in this response are white blood cells (WBCs), a group comprised of macrophages, B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes.23,24
Following exposure to a virus and the subsequent immune response, T-lymphocytes (memory cells) store information about the virus’s antigens, acting as the body’s own blueprint for fighting that specific virus.25 What this means is that when the body comes into contact with the virus (or a substance that displays the same surface antigens) again, the body already knows how to produce the required antibodies, and B-lymphocytes involved in ‘attacking’ the virus can be produced at a rate far faster than if there had been no prior exposure.23,25 After all, a chess game is more easily won if you already know your opponent’s tactics and strategy.
In summary, because of prior exposure to a virus and its antigens, the body is distinctly more effective and proficient at attacking the virus, thus reducing symptom severity.23-26
In addition to dampening the severity of symptoms, vaccinations also play a role in reducing transmission rates, primarily because the chances of becoming infected significantly reduce upon vaccination, along with a reduction in severity of symptoms that encourage transmission, such as coughing.26
What all of this means is that the eradication of diseases as a result of vaccines is reliant on most of the population receiving the vaccine – regardless of whether individuals are at-risk or not.
So, there you have it – the not-so-good, the painfully bad, and the outright ridiculous vaccination myths we’ve most likely all encountered. We hope that this article has provided the necessary information to instil you with the reassurance that vaccine safety is not taken lightly, Bill Gates has no interest in tracking your midnight walk to the fridge, and your testicles have little to worry about.
For the latest information on the UK government guidance, please visit https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus, and to book your vaccine, please visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-vaccination/book-coronavirus-vaccination/.
- Wong A, et al. The use of social media and online communications in times of pandemic COVID-19. J Intensive Care Soc. 2020;22(3):255-260.
- Vosoughi S, et al. The spread of true and false news online. Science. 2018;359(6380):1146-1151.
- John Hopkins University and Medicine. Understanding Vaccination Processes. Available at: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/vaccines/international [last accessed December 2021].
- BBC. Covid: WHO says it is very worried about Europe surge. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-59358074 [last accessed December 2021].
- Sathyanarayana Rao T.S, et al. The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction and fraud. Indian J Psychiatry. 2011;53(2): 95–96.
- Kmietowicz Z. Wakefield is struck off for the serious and wide-ranging findings against him. BMJ. 2010;340:c2803.
- Taylor L, et al. Vaccines are not associated with autism: an evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies. Elsevier. 2014;32(29):3623-3629.
- Institute of Medicine (US) Immunization Safety Review Committee. Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2004.
- Hviid A, et al. Association between thimerosal-containing vaccine and autism. JAMA. 2003;290(13):1763-1766.
- Madsen KM, et al. A population-based study of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and autism. N Engl J Med. 2002;347(19):1477-1482.
- Autism Speaks. What causes autism. Available at: https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-causes-autism [last accessed December 2021].
- Rajak P, et al. Understanding the cross-talk between mediators of infertility and COVID-19. Reprod Biol. 2021;21(4):100559.
- Lee WY, et al. Potential effects of COVID-19 on reproductive systems and fertility. Hong Kong Med J 2021;27(2):118–26.
- RCOG. RCOG and RCM respond to misinformation around Covid-19 vaccine and fertility. Available at: https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/news/RCOG-and-RCM-respond-to-misinformation-around-Covid-19-vaccine-and-fertility/. [last accessed December 2021].
- GSM Association. The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020. Available at: https://www.gsma.com/r/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/GSMA-State-of-Mobile-Internet-Connectivity-Report-2020.pdf. [last accessed December 2021].
- Ahmed W, et al. COVID-19 and the 5G Conspiracy Theory: Social Network Analysis of Twitter Data. J Med Internet Res 2020; 22(5):e19458
- Business Insider. 77 cell phone towers have been set on fire so far due to a weird coronavirus 5G conspiracy theory. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/77-phone-masts-fire-coronavirus-5g-conspiracy-theory-2020-5?r=US&IR=T [last accessed December 2021].
- Hamilton. Needle Gauge Chart. Available at: https://www.hamiltoncompany.com/laboratory-products/needles-knowledge/needle-gauge-chart [last accessed December 2021].
- Gov UK. Characteristics for COVID-19 Vaccine Pfizer/BioNTech Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/regulatory-approval-of-pfizer-biontech-vaccine-for-covid-19/summary-of-product-characteristics-for-covid-19-vaccine-pfizerbiontech [last accessed December 2021].
- Nature. Can COVID vaccines stop transmission? Scientists race to find answers. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00450-z [last accessed December 2021]
- Lacobucci G. Covid-19: How is vaccination affecting hospital admissions and deaths? BMJ. 2021;374:n2306 https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2306
- Antonelli M, et al. Post-vaccination SARS-CoV-2 infection: risk factors and illness profile in a prospective, observational community-based case-control study. MedRxiv. 2021.
- Informed Health. The Innate and Adaptive Immune Systems. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279396/ [last accessed 2021].
- CDC. Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/how-they-work.html [last accessed 2021].
- Janeway C. Immunobiology. New York: Garland Science; 2007.
- KCL. Vaccination reduces the risk of severe COVID-19 infection. Available at: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/vaccination-reduces-the-risk-of-severe-covid-19-infection [last accessed 2021].