Sifting fact from fiction: Virologists debunk myths surrounding Covid vaccine

By Zainul Dawood Time of article published Jan 14, 2021

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DURBAN - THE discipline of virology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal has debunked the myth and conspiracies surrounding the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines at an online webinar yesterday.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health held the Vaccine Webinar to clarify the negative vaccination or vaccine rumours on social media.

The KZN MEC of Health Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu dispelled misleading rumours about Covid-19 vaccines and explained the potentially damaging myths surrounding it.

Simelane-Zulu said part of the conversation in South Africa was about the vaccine. She said that previously, little was known about the virus and people became vulnerable to narratives that were misleading and dangerous to a point where no clear information was given to the public.

“False information became the gospel truth at an alarming rate in the past year making it more difficult for the public to identify with or get them from trusted sources. People are active on social media platforms. They are meant to inform society but this has not happened.

“We noted with serious concerns anti-vaccine sentiments and posts about 5G and Covid-19 vaccines. Neither do Covid-19 vaccines have the 666 mark of the Beast,” she said.

“We urge people to disregard and stop sharing false and fake news. Vaccines have been used to cure many infections and viruses in the past. Travellers and babies get vaccinated regularly. Vaccines are given in the best interest across the globe. We are in direct talks with vaccine makers,” she said.

“Vaccines cannot be infused with demons or bewitched. Let us sift out fact from fiction. Report and identify the potential wrong information. We are warning perpetrators they could be criminally charged for spreading fake news,” she said.

Simelane-Zulu said the number of daily infections,this week had dramatically gone down by 20000 and without scientific evidence she could not state whether SA had passed the peak or it was just a slump.

Touching on the deployment of Cuban doctors in KZN Simelane-Zulu said 26 of the 240 doctors were assigned to the province.

“Each district has one or two doctors in Covid facilities. These patriots have done a lot of work. We benefited with some of the specialists including epidemiologists. They did not mind being sent into rural areas,” she said.

University of KwaZulu-Natal virologist Dr Nokukhanya Msomi said debunking or demystifying the myths was a crucial initiative to educate the community. Msomi said false news and conspiracy theories are concerning and driving vaccine hesitancy.

She spoke on vaccine terminology, active vs passive immunisation, principles of vaccination, the goals of vaccination, what is herd immunity, how does herd immunity work, the impact of the vaccination, the evolution of viral vaccine development and gave examples of molecular biology driven vaccines.

She also touched on steps in the vaccine development and actions taken to ensure a new vaccine is safe and works well.

Msomi also spoke on Covid-19 vaccine accelerated development, an unprecedented timeline, types of SARS CoV2 vaccines and currently emergency use registered SARS CoV2 vaccines. She also notified areas of ongoing research.

Vaccines are preparations containing antigens derived from a pathogen such as a virus which on administration will stimulate active immunity and protect against disease.

Vaccination is the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.

“Vaccines shorten the response time to a virus. A still healthy body is primed or taught how to respond to that pathogen. Next time they encounter it they act faster and counteract and overpower the virus,” she explained.

The goal of the vaccination was to safely induce a vaccine-specific immune response capable of either preventing infection or attenuating illness, induce herd immunity, both individual and public health benefit – preventing or reducing the spread of infection in a population. The ultimate goal is disease elimination, eradication e.g smallpox eradication.

What is herd immunity?

Protection afforded to non-immune individuals due to interruption of the chain of transmission by those who are immune. The estimated vaccine coverage required to achieve herd immunity for SARS CoV2 is 70%.

How does herd immunity work?

When no-one is immunised the disease spreads through the population. When some of the population is immunised the disease spreads through some of the population. When most of the population is immunised the spread of the disease is constrained.

Impact of vaccination

“We were losing livelihoods. Losing lives. The World Health Organisation did an analysis on the economic and social value gained, averted costs of illness and deaths averted annually as a result of vaccinations against 10 diseases. We should rally behind the initiative of getting our communities vaccinated,” Msomi said.

Evolution of viral vaccine development

Vaccines have always been the cornerstone in the control of viral infections. Crude vaccination method in 18th century was for small pox. Inactivated and live attenuated vaccines in 19th and 20th centuries eg rabies, yellow fever, polio, measles, chicken pox and influenza. Advanced molecular biology driven vaccines of 21 century eg hepatitis and Ebola.

“There are steps taken in vaccine development. It goes through preclinical studies, and three phases of clinical trials, post marketing surveillance and human challenge studies. These actions are taken to ensure a new vaccine is safe and works well,” Msomi said.

“There are ongoing studies after the vaccine is approved and licensed to monitor adverse events and to study long term effects of the vaccine in the population,” she added.

Msomi said there was an explosion of knowledge, readily available technology, funding and scientific sharing of information that made the vaccine available within a year.

The four vaccines currently emergency use registered are the Pfizer mRNA vaccine, Morderna mRNA, Sputnik V vaccine and Oxford/Astra Zeneca.

Some Covid-19 vaccines myth debunked:

1 MYTH: The Covid-19 vaccine is not sage because it was rapidly developed and tested.

FACT: The emergency situation of Covid-19 pandemic warranted an emergency response. The worldwide impact of Covid-19 pandemic prompted many pharmaceutical companies and governments to invest significant resources into quickly developing a vaccine.

2 MYTH: There are severe side effects of the Covid-19 vaccines.

FACT: Early phase studies of vaccines show that they are safe. There may be a short term mild vaccine reaction that resolves without complication or injury.

3 MYTH: The Covid-19 vaccine was developed to control the general population through microchip tracking.

FACT: There is no vaccine microchip and the vaccine will not track people or gather personal information into a database.

4 MYTH: Covid-19 vaccines will alter my DNA.

FACT: Injecting mRNA vaccine into the body will not do anything to the DNA of cells. Human cells break down and get rid of the mRNA soon after they have finished using the instructions.

5 MYTH: I am allergic to eggs so I shouldn't get the Covid-19 vaccine.

FACT: None of the EUA Covid-19 vaccines contain egg nor were eggs used in their production. However, those with history of severe allergic reactions to any substance (i.e anaphylaxis) are encouraged to remain after vaccination.

“Similar to a baby getting a vaccination you will have pain around the site where the vaccine was given. It is a short term mild reaction.The risk does not outweigh the benefits of the vaccine,” Msomi said.

Msomi said there were still areas of ongoing research. Are current Covid-19 vaccines likely to protect against the new variant and wow long does the vaccine protection last? She said we will only know in due course.

The director for the Institute for Worker Justice (IAWJL) Songezo Mazizi said they were concerned that there has been little to no consultation with the workers directly. Mazizi said no one should be forced to accept a vaccine should they wish not to.

“The Institute calls on the government to consult the workers directly in the implementation of the vaccination project. As an organisation that looks out for the interest of the most marginalised workers of the country in these times of the growth of what we term the precaritariat, we welcome any means that help in the fight against Covid-19,” Mazizi said.

“Frontline and healthcare workers will be vaccinated first then the elderly and those with comorbidities. The distribution of the vaccine plan and programme to follow in detail. Nobody will be forced to take it,” Simelane said.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the Health Department's Ministerial Advisory Committee, told ENCA yesterday that people must deal with facts. He said all vaccines manufactured contain elements that enable doctors to recognise the virus. They have no microchips at all.

“The myth on 5G went viral in the US. It is stoked by individuals who thrive by promoting these kind of conspiracy theories. There is no link between anything your cellphone does or any of the waves that it uses. This pandemic is due to a real virus. One that we can see under the electron microscope. One that we know how it causes disease,“ Karim said.

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