By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Indeed, as new variants continue to form, testing the powers of science to combat them, so have new lies about the disease, testing our powers of critical thinking to distinguish authentic sources of credible information—from falsehoods.
Northwest Asian Weekly chose six more of the top myths about COVID-19 circulating around the Asian communities and on social media and again found an expert from a top medical school to explode them.
Saahir Khan is an infectious disease specialist at the Keck Medical School of the University of Southern California. Khan has both an M.D. and a Ph.D., making him a member of the elite class of physician scientists, with decades of training and research.
Responding to questions from Northwest Asian Weekly, he debunked the myths posed to him, sometimes with a single verdict, like a sword blow, other times, with a more scrutinizing and searching series of observations, like multiple dagger thrusts.
But the myths are persistent—and pervasive.
Some are as slippery as gauze. They seem to come close to reality, thus making them even harder to debunk. Others draw upon dark corners of the Internet where conspiracy theories appeal to our most frightened imaginative faculties.
All in all, such myths are a threat to public health because they discourage vaccination—the single most important way to prevent serious symptoms and hospitalization from SARS-CoV-2–the virus that causes COVID-19.
If vaccines are effective, why do we need to get this one so frequently compared to other vaccines? And why do we need boosters?
Myth #1 busted
Dr. Khan reminds us that it is not only COVID-19 vaccines that need to be repeated, as the virus changes.
“The virus that causes COVID-19 mutates frequently,” he said. “But this is like the influenza virus and many other respiratory viruses.”
Indeed, flu shots are updated to match new strains of the virus each year.
“So,” he continued, referring to the updated COVID-19 vaccines. “We need to update the vaccine to target the most recent strains of the virus each year.”
Updated vaccines now available
On that note, the updated version of the COVID-19 vaccine is now available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed another round of updated coronavirus vaccines this week for everyone 6 months and older.
The current variant spreading in the majority of cases in this country—known as BA.2.86–may be more transmissible than earlier strains. However, the CDC is still gathering data to confirm this initial supposition.
In the meantime, it is known that this variant spreads “in the same way” as earlier variants.
Thus, the CDC still recommends the following actions to protect against infection:
- Get your COVID-19 vaccines, as recommended
- Stay home if you are sick
- Get tested for COVID-19 if needed
- Seek treatment if you have COVID-19 and are at high risk of getting very sick
- If you choose to wear a mask, wear a high-quality one that fits well over your nose and mouth
- Improve ventilation
- Wash your hands
Some vaccinated people died, and we’re not sure of the real cause.
Myth #2 busted
So many people have received a vaccine against COVID-19 that there are indisputably those who died for other reasons, unrelated to the vaccine.
Said Khan, “Among billions of people who have received this vaccine worldwide, statistically a number of people will die of causes other than the vaccine.”
It doesn’t make sense to automatically assume that just because someone died, in a period after getting the vaccine, that the cause was the vaccine—especially when research showed there was no connection.
As a blunt example, if someone died in a car crash after getting the vaccine, can we attribute that to the vaccine? What about if they passed away due to their other preexisting health conditions?
Scientists tested for side effects that could lead to death—and found none.
“In large clinical trials and in post-approval studies including a large database of vaccine adverse effects, the COVID-19 vaccines were not associated with increased risk of death compared to people who did not receive the vaccines,” said Khan.
Vaccinations are not necessary if you boost your immune system by other means.
Myth #3 busted
To understand Khan’s response to this myth, it may be helpful to first wash ourselves in the enlightening waters of Microbiology.
Vaccines work because they “activate” our immune system to develop a “memory” of a threat—such as an invading virus.
According to the American Society for Microbiology, when an invader enters the body for the first time—whether in the form of a vaccine or a natural infection—“some immune cells develop a ‘memory’ of the invader.”
Next time the invader enters, the body’s immune system recognizes it at once and is thereby able to mount a stronger defense.
As Khan points out, vaccines prime the immune system without causing damage to the body. By contrast, the virus itself—if it enters without a warning bell sounded by previous vaccination or natural infection—can bring catastrophe.
So why wouldn’t you want to get vaccinated?
“The only other way to boost immunity against COVID-19 is to get infected with the virus, which carries risk of severe disease or death,” said Khan.
Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines on the Washington state DOH website (available in multiple languages).
The COVID-19 vaccine is not safe for children.
Myth #4 busted
One background to this myth is distrust in mRNA (“messenger” RNA) vaccines, in general, which many of the public mistakenly think are new.
In fact mRNA vaccines were first tested in the 1990s—over 30 years ago—on mice for a flu vaccine.
What took them so long to get to actual use was due to a mechanical problem which had already been resolved, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
mRNA vaccines deliver a code to the body’s cells that tell them to start manufacturing proteins that are necessary for the body to build a defense.
But the body’s natural defenses, under normal circumstances, would “degrade” the messenger code before it could do its work.
Like a child being tricked into swallowing a bitter pill by sugar coating it, scientists developed a way to coat the messenger code with a kind of fatty droplets that would protect it long enough so it could deliver its message—and the body could start work on protecting itself.
The first mRNA vaccines were developed against Ebola, according to Johns Hopkins, a virus mostly found in some African countries—so they were less well known in the U.S.
As for COVID-19 vaccines, made with mRNA, these “have been studied and shown to be safe and effective in children aged 6 months or older,” said Khan.
Vaccination for females can result in infertility.
Myth #5 busted
It has long been known that women’s immune systems, if they become pregnant, actually decrease in effectiveness.
According to researchers at Stanford University, this is to prevent the immune system from mistakenly assuming the fetus is an invader—and attacking it. But this also means that pregnant women are at higher risk for being very sick.
So, on the contrary to the implications of this myth, women contemplating pregnancy are at a greater need of protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.
As for the myth that a vaccine prevents a woman from getting pregnant, this was feared because in some cases the vaccine causes inflammation. Any inflammation can upset the cycle of menstruation—even throwing it off.
But, said Khan, this has no connection with women not being able to get pregnant.
“There is no medical evidence in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility,” he said.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.
Made possible in part by the Washington State Department of Health through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This information does not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Washington State Department of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services.