From the moment COVID-19 entered our consciousness, the virus has spread an epidemic of rumour and conspiracy theory. An overwhelming abundance of information – not all of it accurate – is constantly emerging, which sometimes makes it challenging to unearth the truth.
Some people diligently seek advice from reliable sources. Others, sometimes unwittingly, share unsafe half-truths with their loved ones on WhatsApp.
Claims have ranged from the downright absurd, such as the baseless “plandemic” conspiracy theory, to others that could be perceived as potentially containing a grain of truth. The sharing of misinformation is just as dangerous as the virus itself, according to the World Health Organization. Beyond the obvious risks of shoddy health advice, the information shared can be hugely toxic to social harmony and has motivated hate speech, conflict and violence.
To flatten the infodemic curve, we spoke to experts to debunk the five most common COVID-19 myths and questions that have, alas, survived longer than the virus does on surfaces.
‘WILL THE VACCINE DAMAGE MY FERTILITY?’
A screenshot of a fabricated news story shared across social media in early December stoked fears that the vaccine will cause “female sterilisation”. The myth gained traction when early government advice for healthcare professionals said it was “unknown” whether the vaccine had an impact on fertility.
The guidance has since been changed to recommend that those trying to become pregnant, those who are breastfeeding, and those who are pregnant and high risk should receive the vaccine. Yet more than a quarter of 18- to 34-year-old women told a UK survey at the end of December they would refuse the vaccine, and several mentioned fertility concerns as the reason.
There’s no reason to believe the vaccine will affect fertility and quite a few reasons to believe it won’t, says Dr Victoria Male, a lecturer in reproductive immunology at Imperial College London.
“The vaccine works by instructing our bodies to make antibodies that bind to a viral protein called spike,” she explains. “This stops the virus from infecting our cells. The claim that the vaccine might reduce fertility came from the idea that there are proteins in the placenta that have some similarities with spike, so the antibodies that block spike might also attach to the placenta. But the viral and placental proteins are not similar enough that we would expect this to happen.”
Trials also provide evidence that the vaccines do not damage fertility. Although pregnant volunteers were excluded, several of those taking part accidentally became pregnant during trials. Male says: “Those women have been very carefully followed, and they’ve had no problems with their pregnancies.
“We also have data from where the vaccine has been given either to pregnant rats or rats that weren’t pregnant but were later introduced to male rats, and the vaccine didn’t have any impact on fertility or the outcomes for the babies.”
‘AREN’T HOSPITAL ADMISSIONS ARE ALWAYS BAD THIS TIME OF YEAR?’
The NHS winter crisis makes headlines almost every year, but demand this winter has been dramatically greater.
Looking at the worst recent year for winter flu in 2017/18, the number of hospital admissions in England was 46,000 over 28 weeks between September and March. That many people were admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in England in the last fortnight alone.
Dr Matt Webster, head of the School of Allied Health at Anglia Ruskin University, works with all the hospitals in the east of England and both the east of England and London ambulance services. He is not a hospital clinician but has seen how the impact is being played out.
“The week before last –over New Year – was truly bad, the worst pressure I’ve seen colleagues in hospitals under in my career,” Webster says. “A number of spaces such as operating theatres have been converted to intensive care beds. The ambulance service has suffered from the number of staff off sick too.”
‘HAVE CORNERS HAVE BEEN CUT TO MAKE THE VACCINE QUICKER?’
The speed at which the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines were developed and approved for use in the UK has triggered doubt among some over their safety.
Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious diseases scientist, did nothing to allay those fears when he said Britain’s medicines regulator had “rushed” approval. (He later apologised, adding that he has “a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint”.)
Those familiar with the details of the vaccine and regulatory process in the UK, including Dr Male at Imperial College London, are clear that “no corners have been cut”.
“Usually, vaccines take a long time to develop because there’s very limited money and manpower,” she explains. “On this occasion, we threw money and manpower at it because the virus is such a big problem. We’ve also run different phases of the trials simultaneously and that’s something we wouldn’t usually do because if it were to fail at phase 2, you don’t want to waste money doing a phase 3.”
The ongoing pandemic has also accelerated the development and approval time. “It is often the case that by the time a vaccine is ready to test, the outbreak has died out, meaning you have to test on a lot of people over a long time just to get enough data to prove a vaccine works,” Male says. “But so many people are getting ill with COVID-19 in such a short time it has speeded things up.”
‘DO THE VACCINES CONTAIN ANIMAL PRODUCTS?’
Fake news circulating on social media and WhatsApp claims the vaccines contain animal produce. It is feared these myths are religiously targeted as they disproportionately affect certain groups – for example, eating pork and beef goes against the religious beliefs of Muslims and Hindus respectively.
Christina Marriott, the chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said in December: “We have known for years that different communities have different levels of satisfaction in the NHS and more recently we have seen anti-vaccination messages have been specifically targeted at different groups, including different ethnic or religious communities. But these are exactly the groups which have suffered most through COVID. They continue to be most at risk of getting ill and most at risk of dying.”
Dr Harpreet Sood, a GP who is leading an NHS anti-disinformation drive, says neither of the two vaccines approved for use in the UK contains any material derived from foetuses or animals. If you’re in any doubt, the ingredients are published openly by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
“We have been working closely with community and faith leaders who endorse the vaccines, and we would not pursue this course of action if there was anything along those lines [the vaccines containing any components of animal origin],” Sood says.
“There are other suggestions about the vaccines containing alcohol. There is no alcohol, but that’s another common myth we’re hearing. These all need to be dispelled to say they are safe and effective vaccines.”
‘IS THE NEW VARIANT ACTUALLY REAL OR ANY MORE INFECTIOUS?’
No sooner had the words “new variant” left Matt Hancock’s lips in the middle of December than the rumour mill started to churn. The health secretary’s bombshell, and subsequent placing of London and vast swathes of southeast England in the country’s toughest COVID restrictions, was immediately viewed with scepticism.
National newspapers and scientists were among those suggesting claims of a new variant were misleading, and conspiracy theorists loved it. As more new variants are discovered, such as those from South Africa and South America, each one gets dismissed as “fake” in dark corners of Facebook and Twitter.
There certainly are new COVID-19 variants, says Dr Webster of Anglia Ruskin University, and “at present, the variants cause no more severe disease than the original one”.
While the latter point is good news for those who do fall ill, Dr Connor Bamford, a research fellow in virology at Queen’s University Belfast, warns new variants could cause problems on a community and countrywide level as more people become infected.
“We have good epidemiological and genetic data on the UK variant that backs up that it is more transmissible, it is out-competing others, and is present in higher levels in people’s noses and swabs,” Bamford says. “Combined with the lab data we have, this suggests these viruses are different and might have a difference in terms of how well vaccines work against them.”
It’s not all bad news, though. “There is plenty more scientific work to be done,” Bamford says, “but we think the vaccines will mostly be effective.”