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Does speed mean less safety? - Debunking myths about vaccines


Covid vaccine is on the way (stock photo)

Covid vaccine is on the way (stock photo)

Covid vaccine is on the way (stock photo)

The UK yesterday became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

With the rollout expected to start there next week, attention has turned to disinformation about the vaccine process.

Within hours of the news, both 'Thalidomide' and 'Bill Gates' began trending on Twitter. Both related to widely-circulated but false claims from opponents of vaccination. Here, we debunk some of the myths surrounding the vaccine.

MYTH: The speed with which the vaccine was created means it's not clear if it's safe.

FACT: Most vaccines usually take several years to be developed. However, as England's deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam explained, this is usually because they are produced by companies that make an "investment decision about whether to move on" at each stage.

"But with Covid vaccines it's clear we have a global public health emergency on our hands, and even waiting five years for a vaccine if we don't have to is completely the wrong thing to do."

Mr Van-Tam said this meant governments have invested hundreds of millions "to try and speed it up".

The standards for safety and effectiveness have not changed due to the speed of production and testing - and it is still subject to independent regulation.

In the UK's case, this comes from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which approved the Pfizer vaccine yesterday.

MYTH: Didn't the regulators cut corners to test the vaccine quickly?

FACT: No. Part of the reason the MHRA was able to test the vaccine faster than usual is because clinical trials overlapped rather than happening one by one at the end of the process.

This work enabled more than 1,000 pages of data to be examined in tandem with the progress of scientists, meaning the work could be completed far more quickly. The safety checks, however, were still the same.

Additionally, most adverse side-effects to a vaccine occur shortly after receiving it, rather than after many months.

MYTH: The Oxford vaccine contains parts of aborted foetus.

FACT: A Facebook user falsely claimed a separate vaccine developed at Oxford uses MRC-5 cell lines, which were "originally developed from research deriving lung tissue of a 14-week-old aborted Caucasian male foetus".

AstraZeneca has confirmed its vaccine was not developed using MRC-5 cell lines, but does use a different cell strain, taken from a female foetus aborted in the 1970s.

The cells are used to propagate the virus for the vaccine, but these cells do not make it into the final jab.

MRC-5 cells are not the same cells from an aborted foetus. They are cell lines that have been grown in a laboratory from a primary cell culture originally taken from a foetus.

MYTH: Vaccines alter your DNA.

FACT: No they do not. They comprise mRNA that gives the body instructions on how to make proteins on the surface of the virus.

MYTH: Dr Elisa Granato, one of the first participants in the Oxford vaccine trial, has died.

FACT: Dr Granato was one of the first participants in human trials of the AstraZeneca and Oxford University vaccine, and is very much alive.

The false claims of her death prompted her to tweet that she was "having a cup of tea".

MYTH: Bill Gates is using the vaccine to secretly microchip the world

FACT: Gates is regularly the subject of conspiracy theories due to his charity's work in vaccine development.

However, there is no evidence that the Microsoft founder is trying to implant microchips in anyone through vaccines.

Mr Gates has also repeatedly denied these claims.

MYTH: The Covid vaccine is another repetition of the Thalidomide scandal.

FACT: Thalidomide is a drug that was marketed as a treatment for morning sickness in pregnant women in the late 1950s and early '60s and later caused birth defects.

This has understandably prompted distrust in Government guidance on public health issues.

However, Thalidomide is not comparable to a vaccine. Thalidomide went directly into the bloodstream, whereas the Covid-19 vaccine gives antibodies which help fight off the virus.

Thalidomide was not properly tested and never went through the monitoring system as the Covid-19 vaccine has done.

EveryDoctor, a campaigning organisation run by doctors, tweeted: "There is little reason to suggest the Pfizer Covid vaccine approval by the MHRA is anything but robust."