Fake news resides between the lines of what is stated versus what is not, often subverting facts just enough to make fantasy plausible. Scientific study, essentially the collection of observations and evidence to determine fundamental truths about the physical and natural world, probably makes for an easy victim because its basis for studying “what if” questions is so broadly fictionalized in popular culture.
Vaccines are legendary fake news targets because the science of medicine is rarely absolute, allowing even the faintest hint of exception to fester into something that can undermine an entire result. Every human being is different and unique in some way, leading medical studies to depend on statistical data and probabilities to describe how a vaccine will most likely function under various conditions. By their nature, study results leave open the possibility that an extraordinary someone will respond in a very different way than anyone else.
Misinformation about vaccines tends to align with one of three distinct fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) characteristics. When researchers are able to collect vaccine data under a specific condition, fake news purveyors will focus on the statistical outlying probabilities and supposed exceptions to subvert data quality — the “something bad can still happen” fantastic personal harm argument. More insidious is when fake news challenges the vaccine supply chain integrity by exploiting preexisting prejudices and biases — the “something bad could have happened before” imagined conspiracy argument. Lastly, one can seek to undermine vaccine safety by correlating unrelated information to question study quality — the “something bad is already happening” beautiful mind argument.
Lesson Learned: Imagining a line between two dots doesn’t mean that it should be drawn.
A recent viral COVID-19 vaccine claim follows the third argument by falsely comparing a vaccine ingredient to something else that could potentially cause infertility in women. As with most fake news instances, this one manipulates scientific fact to form a plausible fantasy narrative. According to this analysis on WebMD and this one at Full Fact, the SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19) “spike protein” that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine targets to prevent infection shares genetic code with a protein (syncytin-1) believed to be critical to placenta development. Social media fake news purveyors amp up the connection to build an alternate reality connecting an unsubstantiated but plausible belief (the proteins are nearly the same) to a scientific fact (fetuses need a placenta to develop). In some instances, they then gaslight the details by questioning why pregnant women were not specifically included in the COVID-19 vaccine studies. Both threads take advantage of public ignorance to promote a false foundation that furthers broader anti-vaccination legitimization efforts.
The shared genome argument seems rooted on a request that German non-practicing physician, politician, and long-time pandemic skeptic Wolfgang Wodarg posted on a known conspiracy theory blog to delay Pfizer vaccine study and approval in Europe. Though genetic code the proteins share is incredibly small and medically insignificant, anti-vaccination advocates are using social media to exaggerate the minute similarity as enough to warrant extraordinary caution. A simple online search would reveal interviews with many experts that have repeatedly debunked that notion, essentially arguing that the similarities are like sharing one ingredient in a complex recipe. After all, though they may both contain a teaspoon of salt, a cookie and a pasta are not the same.
To the second misleading thread, excluding pregnant women from the early phase clinical studies is a standard, though ethically controversial, practice. It should be of no surprise that emergency use authorization on any of the COVID-19 vaccines may include language like, “it is unknown whether the vaccine has an impact on fertility,” as the UK initially stated in its Pfizer vaccine notice. Regardless of the language, a small number of study participants did conceive during the research period without reporting any extraordinary complications. What’s more, experts note that the vaccine triggers the same immune response that the body naturally develops from a SARS-CoV-2 infection. If there were truly an infertility risk derived from the vaccine, then a similar risk would arise from a natural COVID-19 bout. There is absolutely no evidence that fertility rates have changed due to the illness.
This fake news story continues to propagate despite all of the counter evidence. Ignoring it only empowers the message and allows it to gain the perception of legitimacy. Rather, patiently and politely countering it on social media with contrary evidence from reputable sources helps subvert the false narrative and encourages others to challenge their personal biases. Doing so may not stop the spread, but it will taint the credibility of the source and may encourage others to seek more reputable information.