Two Truths and a Lie: COVID-19, vaccination and fake news

Misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine has been rampant on the internet. Photo by from Pexels.

I was watching YouTube videos during a homework break when I saw a video of a few extremist YouTubers I was familiar with discussing COVID-19 vaccines. This should be good, I thought, planning to watch their protests as a source of entertainment. As a future scientist, I pride myself on my dedication to facts and proceeded to mentally debunk their claims… until they mentioned the vaccines’ “potential link” to infertility. 

I had never heard this from any traditionally credible sources, but it had just enough “science” in it to sound true. All three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S. target the virus’ spike protein, which shares small stretches of the same genetic code with syncytin-1, an essential component of the placenta in mammals. If vaccines cause us to develop antibodies against the spike protein, could they cause us to destroy placentas during pregnancy? 

It turns out that this is a wildly misleading claim and has no legitimate scientific backing to it at all. Jill Foster, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, claims that the genetic similarities are not enough to cause an antibody against the spike protein to attack syncytin-1. She says that it is “like two people having phone numbers that both contain the number 7… you couldn’t dial one number to reach the other person”. A very high degree of similarity in structure is needed to make an antibody bind to two different proteins, a fact I should have known as a Structural Biology major. 

In the moment, however, emotions can take over. Fear is a powerful force. I want to have children, and the thought of the vaccine interfering with that was enough to make me second-guess my excitement to get immunized. It is easy to focus on the fear of the unknown associated with taking the vaccine rather than the unknown long-term side effects of contracting COVID-19, even for younger populations. 

Misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine has been so rampant on the internet that the World Health Organization (WHO) has “declared a parallel infodemic” to describe it and its potential to interfere with COVID-19 prevention and treatment. While initial data indicated that the elderly are more likely to spread fake news about the virus, younger people are actually more likely to believe it. Newer generations have been raised to be more cynical of information. While this can protect people from absorbing conspiracy theories and other fake news, it has also fostered a distrust of the mainstream media, where the voices of doctors, researchers, and other professionals are more likely to be represented. 

If too many people opt out of taking the vaccine, we will not be able to grow the herd immunity that we need to effectively slow the spread, keep vulnerable populations safe and return to a semblance of “normal” life. While many argue that where there is risk, there should also be a choice; however, emotionally manipulating people into fearing vaccination is in essence a form of domestic terrorism. Not only are you putting people at risk of getting seriously ill, you are endangering the communities around them. One comment or theory on the Internet can spread to millions of people, creating widespread damage even if the majority push the fake news aside. 

What can we do to combat fake news about vaccination and COVID-19 in general? To combat specific threats, WHO urges people to report misinformation they see online, providing links to do so for many social media platforms. On a more preventative front, psychological research suggests that information is most effectively debunked before a person has been exposed to it. This process is known as “prebunking” and is in essence a misinformation vaccine, teaching people false information and why it is false before a person can try to convince them otherwise. Pamphlets, articles and other sources of scholarly information should be provided so people can learn about vaccination in a manner that is based in facts and not fear. 

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