Don’t Believe These COVID-19 Vaccine Myths

The vaccines can’t change your DNA or give you the disease. Get the facts you need to protect yourself and your community.

Updated on March 16, 2021 at 12:30pm EDT.

As of March 2021, three COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use in the United States: one made by Pfizer and BioNTech, another developed by Moderna and a third developed by Johnson & Johnson. All three vaccines were shown to be safe and highly effective in clinical trials.

In most cases, the vaccines have relatively mild side effects, including fatigue, muscle and joint aches, headache, and injection site pain, redness or swelling. Although severe allergic reactions have been reported among those who've received the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, these events are rare.

These vaccines will play a critical role in controlling the pandemic that has gripped the world for the past year. Getting vaccinated can prevent you from getting COVID-19. It will also protect vulnerable people in your community who are at high risk for a severe case of the disease. Even if you become infected with the coronavirus, being vaccinated could prevent you from getting seriously ill.

Still, these new vaccines were developed in record time. This has prompted a wide range of questions and misconceptions about how they were made, how they work and how the body reacts to them.

So, when making the decision to vaccinate, it’s critical to separate fact from fiction, according to Scott Hammond, MD, a primary care physician and medical director emeritus at Westminster Medical Clinic in Westminster, Colorado.

Here are several of the myths and conspiracy theories that are swirling—and why they’re not true:

Myth: If you’ve already had COVID-19, you don’t need to be vaccinated.

Fact: Even those who have recovered from COVID-19 need to be vaccinated against the disease.

“You still need to get the vaccine—even if you’ve had COVID-19,” says Dr. Hammond who is also president of the Colorado Center for Primary Care Innovation and a clinical professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“Having COVID once does not mean that you won’t get it again,” Hammond explains. “People do get COVID more than once.”

Scientists are still working to understand how long people are protected after they recover from the infection. Some evidence suggests antibodies may last eight months.

Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine could make you sick with the live version of the coronavirus.

Fact: The COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. So, they can’t give you the disease.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines. They work by using mRNA to deliver a piece of genetic material that carries instructions for making the protein that the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) uses to infect cells. This triggers an immune response in the body.

“It’s not possible to get infected because there’s no infectious material in the mRNA vaccines,” Hammond explains. “These vaccines really just provide the code that tells your body to make one protein from COVID-19.” This process makes you immune to the disease but there is no live virus in the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, he adds.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine works differently. It’s a non-replicating viral vector vaccine. Rather than using mRNA, it uses a modified version of another type of virus as a vector (or mode of delivery) for genetic material that codes for a piece of the coronavirus in order to trigger a protective immune response.

The viral vector used by the J&J vaccine is a common cold virus called adenovirus 26. But the vaccine does not cause an infection with either this virus or the coronavirus.

Myth: The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines could alter your DNA.

Fact: Getting the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine will not change your DNA.

“That’s not possible because mRNA is a completely different type of molecule. mRNA is actually made by DNA in a process that cannot be reversed. mRNA cannot backtrack into DNA,” Hammond says.

“There are some viruses that are RNA viruses that do get into your DNA, like HIV,” he adds. “RNA viruses that get into DNA have a certain enzyme that allows that to happen. That enzyme does not exist in mRNA.” 

Myth: If you got the flu shot, you don’t need the COVID-19 vaccine.

Fact: Everyone (with rare exceptions) should receive both the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID-19 and the flu are completely different viruses. They don’t overlap,” says Hammond. “The flu shot provides no protection from the coronavirus.”

Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine has a microchip in it that can be used to track people and control them.

Fact: There is no microchip in the vaccines. Efforts to vaccinate against COVID-19 are intended to protect public health and put an end to the pandemic.

“As a family physician for 40 years, I can only tell you about the facts that are real to me. I believe this myth came from a statement from Bill Gates when he said that they were looking into tracking vaccination in Africa. Because of the lack of medical records in Africa, they could use infrared light to see if a person had gotten the vaccine or not. It had nothing to do with a microchip or tracking people,” Hammond says.

“It was just an idea that was put out, and it never came to fruition,” he adds. “There was no development of it and no trials. So there are no microchips in these vaccines. In fact, technologically it’s not even possible to make a microchip small enough to get into a vaccine.”

Myth: The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines were developed with fetal tissue.

Fact: The vaccine was not made with any fetal or other types of organic tissue.

“The mRNA vaccine is actually made synthetically in the laboratory.” Hammond points out. “There was no use of any kind of organic fetal tissue, any viral cultures or any live matter involved with making this vaccine. It’s purely synthetic using sugars and nitrogen and other chemicals.”

Myth: Getting COVID-19 is less risky than the possible side effects of the vaccines.  

Fact: In the vast majority of cases, the COVID-19 vaccines have relatively mild side effects.

“That’s a pretty big gamble to take,” notes Hammond. “The death rate from COVID is about ten times as high as the death rate from the flu.”

In December, a child younger than one-year-old died from the disease in the UK. “No one really knows why some people die and some people don’t,” Hammond adds.

Ongoing safety monitoring by the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System identified 21 cases of severe allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, after roughly 1.9 million first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. That’s 11.1 cases per 1 million doses, the CDC reported. In 71 percent of these events, reactions occurred within 15 minutes of vaccination.

Overall, however, the side effects of the two mRNA vaccines available in the United States are relatively mild. J&J's vaccine has milder side effects than Pfizer and Moderna, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

There are also increasing reports of post-acute or chronic COVID-19, sometimes called “long COVID,” among those who’ve been diagnosed with the disease. “Long COVID” can saddle people with symptoms that may drag on after the worst of the acute illness ends.

“These people are called long-haulers and they have pretty significant misery and problems that can damage their heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys," Hammond explains. "The majority of people with long-haul or post-COVID syndrome had mild to moderate disease. These folks are really suffering, and there is no treatment for it.”

Myth: Racial and ethnic groups as well as older people who are scheduled to receive the vaccine first are being used as guinea pigs.

Fact: It will take time to produce and distribute enough COVID-19 vaccines to go around. For that reason, U.S. health officials provided recommendations to states and local governments about who should be prioritized and receive the vaccine first. This guidance was based on the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which is an independent panel of medical and public health experts. Frontline healthcare workers, nursing home residents, essential workers and those at highest risk for severe COVID-19 are scheduled to be first in line for the vaccine.

“I understand that concern, but these vaccines have been developed with incredible transparency and oversight from numerous agencies organizations,” Hammond explains. “About 40 percent of the people vaccinated [in the Pfizer and Moderna trials] were from minority ethnicities. So now we know that the vaccine works in all groups with equal efficacy. People getting these vaccines now are all ethnicities in high risk groups.”

Myth: Even healthcare providers are afraid to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Fact: Across the country, those who know anything about medicine and science are lining up to be vaccinated.

“I will be getting the mRNA vaccine when it’s available in my office,” Hammond says.

“Yes, some unknowns exist, and people have to make their personal choice. But the clear and present danger is here. You have to decide what sort of risks you want to take.  How long do you want COVID to go on? The sooner you take the vaccine the sooner you can get back to some sort of normalcy,” Hammond advises. “Even though you’ll need to wear a mask, at least you can go out knowing that you’re not going to get sick.”

Myth: After you're vaccinated, you won't need to wear a mask anymore.

Fact: Yes, even after you’re vaccinated against COVID-19, you’ll still need to wear a mask in public places.

By definition, people are fully vaccinated if:

  • It’s been at least two weeks since they got their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

OR

  • It’s been at least two weeks since they got the Johnson & Johnson shot.

But even then, you’ll still need to wear a mask when you’re out in public and around other people, Hammond cautions.

“After the second shot, there’s no evidence at this point whether the vaccine will protect you from being a silent carrier of COVID-19,” Hammond explains. “You still may be able to transmit COVID even if you don’t get a serious illness from it. So it looks like masks will be needed at least until fall and winter of 2021, until most of the population is vaccinated.”

Medically reviewed in January 2021.

Sources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 Vaccine Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) Fact Sheets for Recipients and Caregivers.” Dec 15, 2020.
Pfizer. “PFIZER AND BIONTECH CELEBRATE HISTORIC FIRST AUTHORIZATION IN THE U.S. OF VACCINE TO PREVENT COVID-19.” Dec 11, 2020.
Moderna. “Moderna Announces FDA Authorization of Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine in U.S.” Dec 18, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 Vaccines and Allergic Reactions.” Dec 31, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Allergic Reactions Including Anaphylaxis After Receipt of the First Dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine — United States, December 14–23, 2020.” Jan 6, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Benefits of Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine.” Jan 5, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Facts about COVID-19 Vaccines.” Jan 4, 2021.
University of Minnesota: Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. “Two studies find that COVID-19 antibodies last 8 months.” Dec 23, 2020.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Debunking the myths about the COVID-19 vaccine.” Dec 21, 2020.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.” Dec 29, 2020.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine.” Jan 6, 2021.
Harvard Medical School. “The tragedy of the post-COVID “long haulers.” Oct 15, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When Vaccine is Limited, Who Should Get Vaccinated First?” Jan 8, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What to Expect after Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine.” Jan 10, 2021.

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