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Vaccine shedding doesn't cause infertility

By: Isabella Asselstine, Queen's University

Despite wide-spread vaccine availability in the US and Canada, many individuals remain hesitant to get vaccinated. In the US, the national vaccination rate is plateauing despite less than 50% of the population being fully vaccinated.

In a puzzling turn of events, a growing number of vaccine-opposed individuals are not just fearful of the vaccine itself, but also of those who choose to be vaccinated. These fears can be attributed to an increasing number of false COVID-19 vaccine side effect claims widely circulating on social media.

One such claim is the belief that recently vaccinated people expel the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in a process called shedding. A shockingly large community of people, predominantly on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, believe that this shedding can disrupt the fertility of others, resulting in expectant mothers fearing the vaccinated. Many people peddling this conspiracy cite anecdotal evidence and grossly misinterpreted studies to corroborate their beliefs, asserting that mainstream media is not a reliable source of information. Additionally, many believers in the theory are convinced that public health agencies are actively trying to suppress the truth about the dangers of the mRNA vaccines.

mRNA vaccines, such as those manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, work by instructing cells to make the COVID-19 spike protein and present it on the cell surface. This allows the immune system to recognize and create antibodies against the spike protein, therefore providing protection against infection from the actual virus. Though vaccine shedding is a real phenomenon, it only occurs with a type of vaccine that contains a weakened version of a virus. This is called a live attenuated vaccine.

As none of the approved COVID-19 vaccines in the US or Canada are live attenuated vaccines, viral shedding following administration of a COVID-19 vaccine is impossible. Furthermore, the fragile nature of mRNA molecules mean that they are rapidly degraded after being introduced into your cells. So, even if they were somehow dangerous, the risk wouldn’t last long. Despite claims of harmful COVID-19 vaccine shedding being unfounded, there are still numerous accounts of people on social media sharing personal experience with fertility issues that they attribute to being in contact with vaccinated people. Without proper regulation, this false association spreads quickly and blurs the line between fact and fiction, further enforcing vaccine hesitancy.

COVID-19 misinformation is just the latest example of the vast the influence social media has on determining public opinion. Though Facebook is making an effort to counter misinformation through fact-checking systems and the removal of harmful accounts, far more needs to be done. Going forward, it is essential that public health agencies work closely with social media platforms to ensure that reliable, science-based information is being shared. After all, in a world where the choice to get vaccinated has direct public health implications, the key to ending this pandemic may just be found in our screens.

Edited by participants of the 2021 Science Writing Internship program and B.G. Borowiec. Header photo from Unsplash.

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