7 Myths About the COVID Vaccines Debunked

More than half of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but the Delta variant's grip on the nation has led to an alarming increase in new coronavirus cases and record-breaking hospitalizations in states like Florida and Oregon.

The strain's rapid transmission has also presented a new and more challenging obstacle for COVID vaccines to overcome. And while new federal recommendations for booster shots and higher rates of breakthrough cases among the vaccinated may seem to undermine the vaccines' efficacy, health experts are calling on more people to get their shots and to learn more about not only how COVID vaccines work but how immunization has progressed in the past.

Newsweek spoke with four doctors treating coronavirus patients across the country about the truth behind the vaccines and where people are getting it wrong.

Myth No. 1: The vaccines were developed too quickly to be safe

When the pandemic first began, many feared that the painstaking and often lengthy process of developing and approving vaccines would mean a long road ahead for scientists studying the virus—which is why many people were taken aback by the quick rollouts that came less than a year after the first lockdowns.

However, experts explained that the collective international effort to end the pandemic allowed researchers to tap into more resources that expedited the vaccines' development.

"The reason the vaccine was rolled out fairly quickly is because the funding for this research was readily available from multiple countries around the world," Dr. Nikhil Bhayani, an infectious diseases specialist at Texas Health Resources, told Newsweek. "That's why we were able to have plenty of funds to carry out this research, hence the name Operation Warp Speed."

Bhayani emphasized that speeding up the process didn't mean the vaccine developers skipped the rigorous approval process that other shots have to undergo,

Dr. Hany Atallah, chief medical officer of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Florida, said he has no doubts that the vaccines were heavily researched before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization last winter.

"I know for a fact it was studied. I was at an institution that was part of the study institution," Atallah said. "When we look at the speed at with which [the vaccine] was developed—every day that we weren't able to give someone that vaccine because it wasn't even under emergency use authorization at that point was a day that we put the lives of people who work in ICUs at risk."

He went on, "So was speed of the essence in the development of the vaccine? Yes. Was it tested adequately as we thought was necessary for emergency use authorization? Again, the answer is yes. Now that the Pfizer vaccine is fully FDA approved—which is no easy task—that should tell people it's safe, it's effective."

On Monday, the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, and federal officials hope that step will undermine vaccine hesitancy and lead to more Americans getting vaccinated.

Pfizer Vaccine FDA Approval Myth Debunked
The COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer was the first to receive full approval from the FDA. Above, a patient receives a Pfizer booster dose at an Oakland County Health Department vaccination clinic in Southfield, Michigan, on Tuesday. Emily Elconin/Stringer

Myth No. 2: If vaccines work, we wouldn't need booster shots

Last week, the federal government announced it was prepared to begin offering booster shots for people who received one of the two mRNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, as early as late September.

Officials cited waning immunity as the reason for the new recommendation, but some people thought it meant that the vaccines don't work in the first place.

Dr. Matthew Sims, the director of infectious disease research at Michigan's Beaumont Health, said this isn't the case. Rather, he said, the need for booster shots is threefold.

"Number one, the virus itself—Delta is probably not as well covered by the vaccine as Alpha," Sims explained. "There were changes, and Lambda, which is in the U.S. now but not as prevalent as Delta, has even more changes. Then behind Lambda there's more variants out there."

"Number two is maybe now, after nine months, there may be some waning of the antibodies," Sims said. He added that while antibody levels from a vaccination may have decreased, "there's other parts of the immune system that are probably taking over for the antibody cells."

The third factor, Sims said, is that people are now being much more exposed to the virus than they were when vaccine studies were completed.

Not only is the Delta variant much more transmissible than the original strain that the vaccines had been developed for, but the rollout of vaccines in the spring has led people to mask up less and socially gather more.

Sims referred to an analogy used by Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor at George Washington University, who said the vaccine is much like a raincoat: It is enough to keep you dry from a light rain (or the virus's initial strain) but not as effective when you're stuck in the rain all day (exposing yourself to someone who may have the virus). And a vaccine is less effective when you're in a thunderstorm (or exposed to the Delta variant).

Doctors also mentioned that booster shots are common among all vaccines—a fact they say people tend to forget or overlook.

"Vaccine-induced immunity for most vaccines doesn't last forever," Dr. Dean Blumberg, the University of California, Davis' chief of pediatric infectious diseases, said. "You generally do need booster shots."

For example, the human papillomavirus vaccine started with four strains but now has nine. The meningitis vaccine initially covered three strains and now covers four.

"This is sort of the natural way things go with vaccines," Sims said. "The flu—we give a new vaccine every year—which has four strains in it. Every year, we have to change it to meet the new strains that are circulated, and that may end up being the way things go with COVID."

Booster Shot Vaccine Pfizer Modern mRNA Myth
The CDC is recommending that Americans get a booster shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine eight months after their second dose. Above, a nurse reaches for a vial of the Pfizer vaccine at a pop-up vaccination clinic in the Arleta neighborhood of Los Angeles on Monday. Robyn Beck/AFP

Myth No. 3: The vaccine will protect you from getting COVID-19

While no one in the medical field has been surprised by the breakthrough cases, many Americans have been left confused, and some discouraged, about how vaccinated individuals are still contracting COVID-19.

As the number of breakthrough cases seems to grow, experts say the vaccine was never about stopping the spread of the virus. It was designed to prevent severe illness and hospitalization.

"Some people are moving the goalposts," Blumberg said. "The vaccines were developed to decrease hospitalization and death due to COVID. If people recall, earlier in the pandemic we had horrific scenes of hospitals being overwhelmed in Italy, in New York and several other areas, where there was just no capacity."

He continued, "The vaccines were developed in order to avoid that, and we didn't really mind if there were breakthrough cases as long as they were mild, like cold or flu."

Atallah pointed out that in public health, there are almost never any guarantees with a medical treatment.

"There's nothing that's 100 percent in health care. There really isn't," he said. "Would I take 93 percent immunity—which is about the rate that the initial vaccines gave us—over being zero percent protected by not taking a vaccine? I would, definitely."

Myth No. 4: If I've already had COVID-19, I don't need the vaccine

Although an infected person has antibodies against COVID-19, those antibodies are not the same as the ones that result from the vaccines. The main difference? The ones in the vaccine are much stronger.

"The immunity you get after you've had the virus, in many cases, can wear off after a short period of time," Atallah said. "Versus a vaccine that might give you more prolonged immunity to it."

He added, "Just because you had the infection, and you in theory have antibodies, it doesn't mean you're immune for the rest of your life."

He said that other factors, like age or health, won't provide immunity against COVID-19 either, now that Delta has affected hospitalized populations.

Early in the pandemic, it was believed that severe cases of COVID-19 predominantly affected older populations or those who are immunocompromised. But experts say those assumptions have been flipped on their head by the Delta variant.

Children are now being hospitalized in record numbers across the U.S., and pediatric cases have reached their highest levels since the country started tracking admissions among children. Last week, the figure peaked at an average of 303 new hospitalizations a day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"All [people] need to do is look at the news and look at the number of younger people who are getting it, who are potentially dying from it," Atallah said. "There are 19-year-olds who have gotten [COVID], who have died. Just because you're young and healthy doesn't mean 100 percent that it's not going to impact you."

He added that when people get a mild case of COVID-19, it does not mean they won't get much sicker if they were to contract the virus again. That is why most doctors encourage COVID-positive individuals to get a vaccine as soon as they are no longer contagious, or 14 days after testing positive for the virus.

Kids Children COVID Vaccine Hospitalizations
Last week, children's hospital admissions for COVID-19 peaked at an average of 303 new hospitalizations a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Above, EMS medics from the Houston Fire Department prepare to transport a 2-year-old girl with COVID-19 to a hospital on Wednesday. John Moore/Getty

Myth No. 5: The COVID vaccines affect fertility

"There's no evidence that any fertility problems are a side effect of COVID-19 vaccines," Blumberg said. "There was some confusion that occurred when there was a false report on social media that stated the spike protein in the coronavirus is the same as another spike protein, called syncitin-1."

Syncitin-1 is involved in the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy. Misinformation about the vaccines claimed that the protein in the COVID vaccines would cause a woman to fight this syncitin-1 spike protein and affect her fertility.

"The two spike proteins are completely different and distinct," Blumberg explained. "Getting the vaccine will not affect fertility in women. In fact, during the preauthorization for the vaccine, there were women who got pregnant in both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine trial."

In the Pfizer trials, 23 women became pregnant during the study. The one woman who did suffer a pregnancy loss did not receive the actual vaccine but a placebo.

Myth No. 6: You can treat COVID with ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, zinc, vitamin C or vitamin D

Although some have suggested that the virus can be treated with drugs and other substances, doctors warn that none of these "cures" have proved to be effective.

"No studies have shown they work," Sims said. "People take these broad population-based things, like 'In this country where ivermectin was used, the numbers are better.' Well, it doesn't necessarily mean that's why the numbers are better."

He added, "When they've done randomized double-blind controlled studies, most of them don't show any benefit. Most of the studies that have been done show the opposite."

Sims said the drugs, at best, can improve COVID cases by 10 to 15 percent. He explained that these treatments were used at the beginning of the pandemic, when little was known about the coronavirus.

"There's a grain of truth in there, but it's kind of pseudoscience," Blumberg said about non-vaccine treatments. "Although hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin do have antiviral activity against COVID, they don't have that activity at the concentrations that are achieved in humans."

He continued, "You'd really have to take an overdose in order to have any antiviral activity. People can talk about how they have antiviral activity, but [the drugs are] just not going to be effective at the doses that can be reasonably used in humans."

Blumberg said that he would not recommend that patients use hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin, especially since none of the physicians he works with have been using them. Currently, most hospitals are using standard therapies, like remdesivir or monoclonal antibodies, to treat patients.

Hospital Doctor COVID Treatment. Hydroxychloroquine Ivermectin
Most hospitals are using standard therapies, like remdesivir or monoclonal antibodies, to treat COVID-19 patients and not hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin. Above, registered nurses care for a COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles on July 30. Mario Tama/Getty

Myth No. 7: Masks don't provide extra protection for vaccinated people

While there was a short period during which the CDC said vaccinated people would not need to wear masks, even indoors, that guidance has changed since the emergence of the Delta variant.

On July 27, the CDC reversed its mask policy, recommending that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in places where the coronavirus is surging.

"The Delta variant, in mid-June to July, became the predominant circulating strain, and it accounts for 99 percent of the strains in the U.S. now," Blumberg said. "It is so darn infectious—it's like measles or the chickenpox in terms of how infectious it is. It takes extra layers of protection."

He went on, "It's like when we drive. We've got seat belts and airbags. I think it's appropriate at this point in the pandemic to be vaccinated and to wear a mask when you're with people outside of your household and can't social distance."

Sims stressed that face masks are not harmful, despite the misinformation about them.

"The idea that masks are harmful—that they increase carbon dioxide, decrease oxygen—has never been shown. Nothing in any kind of clinical relevance," Sims said. "Surgeons have been wearing these things for many, many hours a day for their entire 50-plus-year careers. We've never seen a problem where they get too much carbon dioxide or not enough oxygen."

He added, "Masks work, and they're safe for kids, for adults, for everybody. And they're not that big of an imposition."

Update (8/31/21, 11:40 a.m.): This story was updated to note that Dr. Leana Wen originated the raincoat analogy used by Dr. Matthew Sims.