COVID-19 Vaccine: Myths and Facts

The Rocky Mountain MS Center at University of Colorado has received numerous questions from patients and caregivers about COVID-19 vaccines and whether or not MS patients should receive the vaccine when they have an opportunity to do so. Unless you have had an allergic reaction to ingredients in the vaccine, the MS Center recommends that everyone who can get a COVID-19 vaccine should get one. We’ve compiled the following list of common myths and facts to help clarify this recommendation for you.

MYTH: I can’t get vaccines, I have MS/take MS medications.

FACT: You can get most types of vaccines if you have MS, whether you are taking a disease modifying therapy (DMT) or not. It is not recommended to get some live virus vaccines; however, none of the COVID-19 vaccines approved or in advanced phases of testing are live virus vaccines. Therefore, unless you have had an allergic reaction to ingredients in the vaccine, the MS Center recommends that everyone who can get a COVID-19 vaccine should get one. The MS Center also recommends that everyone get the flu shot this year, but not the live attenuated/nasal version for individuals who have MS.

MYTH: They skipped safety trials/protocol/etc. in order speed up the development and approval.

FACT: The FDA review process was accelerated but the drug companies were still required to go through all of the normal safety trials and protocols with the COVID-19 vaccines. Also, development was faster than normal for these vaccines because the federal government spent significant resources supporting early development, they overlapped some phases (started phase 2 clinical trials as soon as they knew phase 1 was safe enough, started preparing for manufacturing and distribution before approval) and because so many companies made it their priority.

MYTH: The risk of significant adverse side effects is high.

FACT: It is true that side effects are common, but the most common side effect is short-term soreness of the arm. Others may have low-grade fever, fatigue, headaches and muscle aches. The risk of a serious adverse reaction such as anaphylactic shock is 11 per million with the Pfizer vaccine and 2 per million with the Moderna vaccine. In the trials, there were a small number of cases of other serious side effects, however, those numbers were extremely small. The risks of COVID-19 (where the death rate from documented COVID-19 infection is currently 16,000 per 1 million population) are much higher than the risks of the vaccine.

MYTH: The mRNA vaccines will alter my DNA or are gene therapy.

FACT: mRNA vaccines do not alter your DNA in any way. They work by delivering the instructions for making a bacterial or viral protein to our cells. Our immune system then responds to these proteins and develops the tools to react to future infections with the pathogen. mRNA vaccines only carry the information to make a small part of a pathogen and therefore cannot cause you to develop COVID-19.

MYTH: If I’ve ever had an allergic reaction to anything, I shouldn’t get this vaccine.

FACT: If you have had severe allergic reactions to foods, drugs, or other things you may be at higher risk of anaphylaxis with a COVID vaccine, but the risk is still quite small. Usually you can be observed for some time (typically 15 minutes) after you receive the shot in case you have a reaction. This is a good idea if you have a history of allergies. If you are going to have an allergic reaction, it will happen quickly. These usually start with a rash, itching, scratchy throat, or shortness of breath. The vaccine does not contain nuts, dairy, gluten, penicillin, etc… so allergies to these and other things should not stop you from getting vaccinated.

MYTH: Ocrevus, Rituximab, and Kesimpta decrease the efficacy of vaccines so I shouldn’t bother to get this one.

FACT: While B-cell depleting drugs do reduce the efficacy of some vaccines in terms of the amount of anti-viral antibody made, they do not neutralize the vaccine effects. Also, antibody production is only one of the mechanisms whereby vaccines help confer protection against infection. We do not have evidence that these medications prevent development of the other important immune effects that vaccines have. The approved mRNA vaccines are 95% effective, and even a reduction in that percentage will give you a measure of protection that is worth the minimal safety risks of the vaccines.

MYTH: Once I have the vaccine, I don’t need to wear a mask or social distance anymore.

FACT: The CDC recommends continued social distancing and mask wearing after you have received the vaccine because we don’t yet know if vaccinated individuals can spread the virus if they come into contact with it. The vaccine prepares your body to fight off the virus and thus lowers your reaction to it, but we do not yet know if a person can transmit the virus after they’ve been vaccinated. The CDC will likely recommend relaxation of basic safety measures only once herd immunity is achieved and it is clear the vaccine is adequately long-lasting.

MYTH: The COVID vaccine causes infertility.

FACT: There has been no evidence that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines affect fertility and there is no known mechanism of the vaccine that would affect fertility.