I’ve researched autism for more than a decade. Specifically, I’ve investigated how some antibodies in expecting mothers could complicate fetal development and lead to the condition. Through all my research and that of my colleagues, one thing is clear: Vaccines are not the cause of autism. And yet, that connection is on the tip of many tongues.
None of the claims have proven to be true when it comes to autism, and there’s no reason to think they are any more valid with the Covid-19 vaccines.
Unfortunately, the fabricated link between autism and vaccines has made all vaccines suspect in the eyes of some skeptics. Now that Covid-19 vaccines are finally rolling out, the disinformation is clouding the science and adding fuel to the vaccine hesitancy fire.
A recent Pew Research Center poll reports that 39 percent of people say they definitely or probably wouldn’t get a coronavirus vaccination. This endangers more than the people who don’t get shots; we need a large though as-yet-undetermined percentage of people to be vaccinated before we see a slowdown in the virus’s spread and with it the indirect protection known as herd immunity. Meanwhile, vulnerable groups whose immune systems are too compromised to be vaccinated are unprotected.
“Vaccine scares” have existed ever since the first smallpox vaccine was developed. Religious beliefs and distrust in medicine dissuaded some from inoculations; others believed they violated their personal liberty. Legally mandating vaccines in the mid-19 century galvanized these objectors into anti-vaccine movements, members of which claimed the right to make their own decisions about their children’s bodies and their own.
The autism variant of these historical conspiracy theories started in 1998 with a report in a prestigious medical journal suggesting that 12 children developed autism shortly after they received the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine. But the findings were plagued with problems: The research of the lead scientist was funded by a lawyer suing a vaccine manufacturer, while the researcher himself held a patent for a new MMR vaccine. He altered the children’s medical histories to boot. Since then, scores of medical research findings have invalidated the report, and the researcher’s license was revoked.
Yet anti-vaxxers continue to cling to this infamous mythology, resulting in U.S. outbreaks of life-threatening diseases, such as whooping cough and measles, thought to be well-controlled and even eradicated. Today, so-called vaccine truthers continue to claim that vaccines overwhelm the infant immune system, that natural immunization is better than vaccination and that vaccines themselves contain toxins or actually give you the disease.
None of the claims have proven to be true when it comes to autism, and there’s no reason to think they are any more valid with the Covid-19 vaccines. With the stakes so high, it’s important to understand just how and why vaccine doubters are wrong.
It’s true that the Covid-19 vaccine went through an unprecedentedly rapid process — for which we should all be grateful, given the urgency. And while there’s concern that the Covid-19 vaccines were rushed and that that means they haven’t been properly vetted or that their safety is otherwise in question, it’s simply not the case.
A chief reason for the speedy turnaround was a decision the federal government made to expedite delivery of the vaccine — which has nothing to do with the scientific validity of the drug itself. The government allowed the drugmakers to mass-produce the vaccine while still conducting clinical trials. This was a gamble: If the Food and Drug Administration deemed the vaccines not safe and effective, those doses would be no better than trash. But it’s a bet that seems to have paid off.
Another concern stems from the talk that the medical technology involved is “novel.” Other vaccines, like that for the flu, use forms of inactivated or weakened viruses. In contrast, the Covid-19 vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna deliver a small snippet of messenger RNA into the body. Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is a genetic coding material the body uses as instructions to make specific proteins. Once a protein is made, it is displayed on the surface of the cell. The body then recognizes the foreign protein and develops an immune response to fend off future infection.
It’s the first time such a vaccine technique has been authorized, but that doesn’t mean it’s unknown. In fact, RNA-based platforms to deliver vaccines have been researched since the 1990s. Having this technology and know-how in place allowed for speedy development during a pandemic and should be applauded.
The coronavirus vaccines do have side effects — but that doesn’t mean they’re harmful. It actually means they’re working. We know from Pfizer’s clinical trials that short-term side effects occurred within 24 to 48 hours, especially after the second dose. Sixteen percent of people ages 18 to 55 and 11 percent of people over 55 reported fevers after the second dose. Even more people reported having fatigue, headaches and joint pain. (The Covid-19 vaccine hasn’t yet been approved for children under 16.)
While such symptoms can be unpleasant, they are transient and not dangerous. They don’t mean you’re sick with Covid-19; they mean the vaccine has triggered your immune response to create the “bodyguards” that fight future Covid-19 infection.
A very small number of people have suffered from allergic reactions after vaccination that require medical attention, such as rashes, shortness of breath, racing heart, puffy eyes and lightheadedness. These people received standard medical treatment for allergies and were released from the hospital within a short time. Although that may sound scary, clinics are equipped to deal with such reactions in real time.
In contrast to the hyped-up concerns about what the Covid-19 vaccine might do, we have incontrovertible evidence about the harm that the virus itself really does.
What about long-term effects? At this point, there’s no reason to worry about those, either. While we don’t have a full two years of safety data to confirm the lack of unexpected long-term side effects, severe or extreme side effects have appeared within weeks rather than years of previous vaccines’ being given. It has been over 14 weeks since the completion of the second dose in Pfizer clinical trials, while the nation has been vaccinating for more than two weeks and we have not seen those responses, though monitoring systems are in place to follow up after vaccination.
I’ve also heard of concerns that the vaccine may cause cancer in the long term, particularly from anti-vaxxers worried about what other ingredients in the vaccines can do. First, unlike non-mRNA-based vaccines, Covid-19 vaccines don’t contain other components. Second, mRNA-based vaccines can’t make changes to the human genome and therefore are extremely unlikely to induce new genetic mutations in the cells of the kind that lead to cancer.
In contrast to the hyped-up concerns about what the Covid-19 vaccine might do, we have incontrovertible evidence about the harm that the virus itself really does. So far in the U.S., 345,000 people have died, while countless others are still suffering from health complications. Millions of people have lost their jobs and businesses and homes. It is our responsibility as a society not to believe misinformation so that we may leave 2020 behind us.
Lior Brimberg, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research. Her research focuses on the role of the in utero environment in autism.