COVID-19 Vaccinations: Distilling truth from the Murk of Misinformation

Dr Candice Royal, Paediatrician and Allergist

‘We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge’. This famous quote from John Naisbitt, whilst penned 30 years ago, could not be more pertinent today. We are living in the misinformation age where excess opinion can overwhelm the facts. Misinformation is information, which may be partly true, that is presented out of context and draws the receiver to a faulty conclusion. As COVID-19 vaccination is now available for all South African adults, vaccine hesitancy presents itself as the next stumbling block in the fight to curtail the pandemic. Here are a few points clarified:

  • The vaccines were made too quickly: Whilst it is true that it usually takes 10-15 years to develop a vaccine, never before has the world collaborated and invested so much into creating one. Coronaviruses, including those responsible for the SARS and MERS epidemics, have been studied by scientists for over 50 years. The COVID vaccines were developed with a firm foot up from years of prior research. The fact that they were developed quickly is a fact that we should celebrate!
  • Corners must have been cut to roll out the vaccines so fast: All regulated medications, including vaccines, undergo rigorous research that enforces strict protocol to ensure corner cutting is not possible. Once again, the reason the COVID vaccine trials progressed so quickly was that these trials were prioritised above all other research. This meant that the necessary steps could take place at a far faster rate, but please note no steps were missed. The studies furthermore attracted large numbers of volunteers, meaning the process of recruitment (which can take months or even years on other trials) took place at record speed. Lastly, in order to show results about effectiveness, the disease must be abundant in the community. Due to the high prevalence of COVID-19 disease across the globe, results were gathered rapidly.
  • We don’t yet know if the vaccines work: To date 4.93B doses of COVID vaccine have been administered worldwide. There are published and unpublished data that support that the vaccines are effective. This research undergoes vigorous peer review before it can be published to ensure the findings presented are accurate. Pfizer’s vaccine is 95% effective against severe COVID disease whilst the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was shown to be 86% protective against severe disease in the US. Our own research based on J&J vaccination in healthcare workers showed a 91-96% protection against death and 71% against hospitalisation.
  • We don’t know what’s in the vaccines: This is just not true. The contents of the vaccines are widely published and can be found on the manufacturer’s website, from the FDA and the CDC and many other regulatory bodies. They do not contain any animal components and the rubber stoppers are latex-free.
  • I have allergies so I shouldn’t get the vaccination: Having environmental or food allergies is most definitely not a reason to stop one from being vaccinated. Anaphylaxis from vaccines is rare- usually estimated at 1 in a million- and whilst this may be slightly higher in with the COVID vaccines (4.5 per million) many of these reactions did not fulfil the diagnostic criteria for anaphylaxis when further explored by health authorities. Having allergies to food (there are no food components in the COVID vaccines) or environmental allergens means that you can receive the vaccine in a standard fashion, with a 15-minute observation period. Individuals with a prior severe reaction to a COVID vaccine or component thereof (polysorbate or PEG) should see an allergist to ensure they are vaccinated safely.
  • I do not consider myself at risk and therefore am not ready to have the vaccine because of potential side-effects. There is excellent safety data for the vaccines from millions of recipients. Any adverse effect needs to be reported and thoroughly investigated. The few serious side effects that have been reported are extremely rare. And without doubt do not outweigh the risks of morbidity from COVID-19 disease. Without 80-90% of the population having immunity from vaccination or infection, SARS-CoV2 will continue to be prevalent in the community. There will be ongoing mutations potentially leading to further waves with more severe or transmissible virus. Vaccination is the only way to safely prevent this scenario and to restore a degree of normality to our lives. Vaccination is thus for the protection of our families and selves but critically important for the people of our country at large.

Vaccination is your way of contributing to the fight against a pandemic that has taken far too much. Let’s bring South Africans out of the darkness the COVID-19 pandemic has cast on our rainbow nation.