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8 myths about the COVID-19 vaccine — Dr. Wen explains

The United States crossed the terrible milestone of 400,000 deaths from coronavirus early last week, and there are currently over 2.1 million reported deaths worldwide, Johns Hopkins University data shows.

There are also new variants with mutations that could make Covid-19 even more transmissible and possibly even more deadly. However, there is also encouraging news, with two vaccines authorized for emergency use so far by the US Food and Drug Administration that are safe and very effective.

Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say they will try to get vaccinated and currently demand far outstrips supply, but 30% of Americans stated they will not, according to CNN poll results released January 21.

For those who are vaccine hesitant, what are some common myths about the vaccines, and how can each of us work to address these misconceptions?

We spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, about how everyone can debunk myths, ease concerns and spread accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccines.

CNN: Why is it important for everyone to know what myths are circulating about coronavirus vaccines?

Dr. Leana Wen: One of the key principles in public health is that the messenger is often more important than the message. You are the most trusted messenger to someone. It could be your parents, your work colleagues or your friends. Getting people vaccinated is our best hope of ending this pandemic, and we need everyone’s help to convince people to do so.

Another principle of public health is to meet people where they are. That means seeking to understand why someone may have hesitancy about the coronavirus vaccine. How you approach someone is going to be completely different if they are concerned about whether the vaccine is safe versus if they don’t believe coronavirus is real. Listening to someone’s concerns and then addressing them, with compassion and empathy, is crucial.

There are common myths I often hear from my patients, but there are things that each of us can say if someone around us expresses these myths.

CNN: Let’s talk about vaccine safety. There must be a lot of myths around that.

Wen: A common myth is that getting the coronavirus vaccine will give you coronavirus. I hear this every year when it comes to the flu vaccine, too: Often, patients will say they don’t want to get the flu vaccine because they think they’ll get the flu from it.

Neither is true. If someone is concerned about this, you can say that none of the coronavirus vaccines being tested in the US contains live virus. So it’s not possible to get coronavirus from the coronavirus vaccine.

Another set of myths is around the mRNA platform that is used for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. I’ve heard people worry about whether the vaccine will somehow affect their genetic code and alter their genes.

This is not true. It’s helpful to explain what the mRNA technology is. The term “mRNA” stands for messenger RNA, which is a portion of the genetic code that teaches cells how to make a protein. The protein that’s made by the mRNA then activates an immune response, teaching our bodies how to respond to coronavirus if we come into contact with it in the future.

What’s very important to understand is what the mRNA does not do: It never enters the nucleus of people’s cells, which is where our DNA is contained. That means the vaccine does not interact with people’s DNA at all, and therefore will not alter our genetic code.

CNN: The mRNA technology is a new technology. Many have concerns that it’s too new and that it was developed too fast.

Wen: There are two points here and two ways to address this concern. First, the mRNA technology has actually been in development for well over a decade. Second, I think it’s critical to explain that no shortcuts were taken in the scientific research or approval processes. Yes, scientists did develop the vaccines in record time. But that’s because the entire global scientific community went to work. They didn’t start from scratch; after SARS and MERS outbreaks, a lot of work already went into starting the vaccine development.

The US government and other governments invested a lot of money in the research. And, frankly, we got lucky with the research to have two vaccines already that are safe and so effective. But every phase of the clinical research was followed as it is for other vaccines, with tens of thousands of volunteers in the clinical trials. External committees of independent scientists vetted the data and there were no shortcuts taken in vaccine authorization.

CNN: What about allergic reactions? Isn’t there also a myth that these vaccines provoke too many allergic reactions and are therefore not safe?

Wen: It is true that there have been some reports of allergic reactions to the vaccines. Allergic reactions can occur to virtually any medical product. In the ER, we treat allergic reactions to food and medications all the time. They are much easier to treat than COVID-19.

At the moment, it’s not clear as to why these very rare allergic reactions are happening. That’s why everyone getting the COVID-19 vaccine is required to stay around for 15 minutes after receiving it. And if you have a history of severe allergic reactions, you might be required to wait 30 minutes. If a severe allergic reaction occurs, it can be treated with an EpiPen.

The remote possibility of a rare allergic reaction is no reason not to receive the vaccine. The very real and substantial benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the highly uncommon (and treatable) risks of allergic reactions. Those with food and medication allergies can still get the vaccine. The only reason you shouldn’t get the vaccine is if you have a specific known reaction to a component of the vaccine itself.

CNN: Here’s another myth — we don’t know how long the vaccine provides immunity, so there is no point in taking it.

Wen: This is where acknowledging that the myth comes from a place of some truth is a good starting point. It is true that we don’t know how long the immunity from the vaccine will last. Studies thus far suggest that it should last at least for several months, but we don’t know whether immune protection from the vaccine wanes over time. It’s also possible that enough mutations might arise that new vaccines need to be configured, and people who received the vaccine already may need a booster shot — as is the case with a tetanus shot. It may be that coronavirus vaccine becomes something that you have to get every year, like the flu vaccine.

But just because you may need to get the vaccine again at some point again doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get it the first time. Think about the flu vaccine: Just because you have to get it every year doesn’t mean you should never get it at all.

CNN: What about young and healthy people saying that it’s only those who are elderly or with underlying medical conditions who should get the vaccine?

Wen: Right now, when there is limited supply of the vaccine, we should prioritize those who are more likely to become severely ill to get the vaccine first. Eventually, when there’s enough supply, we want everyone to get the vaccine.

Here’s why. First, even those who are young and healthy may contract coronavirus and become very ill. It’s less common, but deaths do occur in this population, too. Second, we need to strive for herd immunity through vaccination. That’s the level at which the virus will substantially slow, and hopefully even stop, its spread. Public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have estimated that we need about 70% to 85% of the population vaccinated to reach that point.

The sooner we get people vaccinated, the earlier we can all return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy and end the devastation of this disease. And that requires not only the elderly and more vulnerable, but all of us getting the vaccine.

CNN: I’m sure you’ve encountered folks who think they can stop wearing a mask after they get the vaccine.

Wen: Our understanding right now is that the COVID-19 vaccine prevents someone from getting ill, and the vaccine also guards against severe illness that results in hospitalization and deaths. That’s really important. But we don’t know whether the vaccine prevents someone from being a carrier of coronavirus who could infect others. Also, the vaccine appears to be 95% effective, which is amazing, but it’s not 100%.

That’s why people still have to use caution even after they are vaccinated. At some point, though, as we approach herd immunity through vaccination, we will be able to do away with masks. In the meantime, think of vaccines as a tool that doesn’t replace other tools but is essential to saving lives.

CNN: What about people who say they are worried about the long-term effects, and think that as long as enough people get the vaccine, they don’t need to bother?

Wen: This point of view that’s based on some truth must be approached with compassion and empathy. Multiple surveys show that many Americans prefer not to be the first to be vaccinated. There are plenty of Americans who do want to be first, and right now, demand is far greater than supply.

Over the course of the next few months, many millions will be vaccinated. It’s reasonable to point to these examples of people to say that we’re showing, not just in tens of thousands of research participants, but in tens of millions of people, that the vaccine is safe and effective. You yourself getting vaccinated when it’s your turn, and showing other examples of people in the community who are vaccinated, will also go a long way toward persuading reluctant friends and relatives.

Humility and honesty are key. We should acknowledge that the vaccines are relatively new so we don’t know the long-term consequences. But then add that there is no reason to believe that the vaccines will cause ill effects long-term. We have a long history of developing vaccines, and scientifically, there is no evidence for long-term harm with those vaccines.

We know that COVID-19 can cause severe disease and death. We know that thousands of Americans are dying every day. These, too, are our family members, friends and colleagues. That’s why getting the vaccine is so important. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and it takes all of us to protect ourselves and to protect others, too.

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