Covid-19 Vaccines Mythbusting — Part 1: Vaccine Side Effects are Normal

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Vaccine rollouts for COVID-19 vaccines are moving at an extraordinary pace; but a staple of the 21st century, fake news, is also rolling out at an extraordinary pace as well. The Covid-19 pandemic is the first pandemic in history in which technology and media have been used at a massive scale to keep people informed, safe, and protected. However, one of the biggest problems of the 21st century is fake news and the same technology that is being used to keep people informed is also being used by a group of people with an agenda to create an ‘infodemic’ of fake news that continues to jeopardize the global efforts to control the pandemic.

Multiple studies have pointed out that fake news disseminated among people older than 45 is almost 4x higher than the amount of fake news disseminated among those younger than 30. In a study titled ‘Social media and vaccine hesitancy’ published in the British Medical Journal, the authors inferred that there has been a 15% rise in negative tweets about vaccines in the past three months alone (not including retweets and the same information being disseminated in other media sources). In multiple polls done by Ipsos since August (one of the leaders in global market research and opinion polling), we have seen a consistent drop in the number of people willing to vaccinate themselves despite strong scientific backing available for all the vaccines that have been approved in various countries around the world.

A survey by the reputed LocalCircles showed that in the last week of January close to 60% of the people in India are hesitant towards getting a Covid-19 vaccine. The main reason behind this hesitancy is the increased level of fearmongering about the vaccines spread on Whatsapp and Facebook, and the lack of understanding about vaccines.

Of the people who have been unwilling to vaccinate, 40% to 66% of the people (varies among states) are hesitant because they are worried about the ‘side effects’ of the vaccines.

Let’s begin by discussing the side-effects of vaccines in general and see if they are worrying enough to fear so much about the vaccines.

Almost all the vaccines that you took when you were a baby had side-effects and the vaccines that your children received when they were babies, had/have side effects too. Vaccines are medical products and like any other medical product, vaccines have side effects too. The antibiotics that you take have mild side effects. The medicine that you take for some neurological issues has mild side effects. No one seems to worry about that and frankly, those mild side effects aren’t even a big issue.

But why do we take medicines if they have side-effects? Well, the benefits of you taking those medications for treating some disease or disorder that you have, far outweigh the consequences that you will face if you don’t take that medication. For example, a lot of antibiotics cause loss of appetite, but that isn’t an issue because these minor side effects are a sign that the medicine is working and these absolutely do nothing to your long-term health. The majority of the side effects don’t require any medical attention and you need medical attention only if these side effects last beyond a few days, which is extremely rare.

Similarly, vaccines are just another group of medical products have mild side effects too. All vaccines do.

Let us have a look at the side effects of the vaccines that you took when you were a small child.

Almost 70% of the children who take the Vicinia vaccine (smallpox vaccine) are expected to get a fever of over 100 Degree Fahrenheit while 15% of the children are expected to get a fever of over 102 degrees Fahrenheit. About 1 in 1900 people who take the vaccine are expected to have secondary blisters all over their body. All these side effects are a sign of the vaccine working and only a small percentage of the people who take this vaccine will not develop any side effects and that is fine as well.

For the MMR vaccine, people who get a shot of it are expected to have a sore arm at the place where you got the shot or mild fever or mild rash or joint pain in some people as well.

As I already mentioned before, the side-effects are actually a sign of the vaccine working. That doesn’t imply that all side-effects are fine. But these side effects extending for more than a few days is extremely rare and the benefits of taking a vaccine like the polio vaccine or the small pox vaccine far outweigh any mild side effects that these vaccines cause.

When the vaccines enter the trials, the side effects are monitored. The medical pre-conditions that might cause serious side effects are also studied that’s why when you take any vaccine, doctors ask if you have those pre-conditions or test for those pre-conditions before taking any vaccine.

The one thing that intrigues me the most is that people face these side-effects for all medications, but the kind of fear-mongering on social media by people specifically for covid-19 vaccines, has caused us to ignore all the scientific evidence and information that we already know and give in to the fear. We don’t even take time to go online, look at reputed university sources to check if the information that they read is true, and understand the science behind these information. It also saddens me that some doctors (I want to stress on ‘some’) are also spreading unverified information on social media.

Now let’s look at the side effects of the vaccines that have been approved in India. I’m writing this post on 15th March 2021 and in India, only two vaccines have been approved; Covishield from Oxford-Astrazeneca and Covaxin from Bharath Biotech.

For both the vaccines, the side effects have been studied and documented well and are continuously being monitored as well. Let’s look at the side effects of the vaccines individually.

For Covaxin, the potential side effects that we know about after comprehensive trials are:

The vaccine has been tested for various pre-conditions, and that is why before you take the vaccine, the doctor administering it to you will ask you about your medical history before administering it to you. For Covishield, the potential side effects are:

You can see that the side effects of Covishield are almost similar to Covaxin and that is because these are common side effects for a lot of the vaccines. These side effects may last for a few days and it isn’t a problem at all. Even if the side effects last for more than 3 or 4 days, there is no reason to immediately blame the vaccine without clinical observation because not everything your body faces is linked to the vaccine. Consult your doctor and they will diagnose the issue. By blaming the vaccine for everything, you might be overlooking some other medicine issue in your body. Please don’t spread misinformation before you can conclude that the side effects you face are linked to the vaccine.

As per the studies published by Bharath Biotech and AstraZeneca, you should not take the vaccine if you are pregnant, immunocompromised (or if you are taking another medicine that affects your immune system), have any bleeding disorder, have allergies, or if you have taken another vaccine for Covid-19. Otherwise, you will be fine.

The side effects are very normal and there is no reason to fear them. The other concern that people have asked is, “Will we find out about new side effects later?”. Well, it is extremely rare to learn about new side effects of medicines after Phase-3 trials. The science behind vaccines isn’t new. We’ve studied mRNA for decades, about adenovirus-based vaccines and Whole-Virion Inactivated Vero Cell technology for years. The vaccines that we use now are built on top of those technologies that we have a comprehensive understanding of. That is how we can be certain about the safety of the vaccines.

People were never afraid of the side effects of the other vaccines that we took when we were children. It was not because those vaccines were tested in a different way than the Covid-19 vaccines. It is just that people, especially those above the age of 45 (sorry mom, dad, uncles, and aunts) spend more time reading and forwarding misinformation on social media rather than reading information from trusted university sources that disseminate information from authorities in the field of Immunology and Drug Discovery. It is disheartening to watch doctors on TV spreading unverified information about vaccines.

You might have also read that in October a volunteer from Brazil who participated in the vaccine trial (for Oxford-AstraZeneca) died during the trials. The autopsy report showed that the vaccine had nothing to do with the vaccine. There have been similar incidents in the past few months and none of them who died during the trials faced fatal complications because of the vaccines. And it is likely that you’ll see people on social media blaming the vaccines for the death. If a person takes a vaccine and after 4 days the person has a cardiac arrest, it doesn’t imply that the vaccine was in any way responsible for the cardiac arrest. All medicines are tested for these implications and only then are they approved. Random incidents like the above aren’t a sign of causality. We’ve studied those deaths and the vaccines are in no way the cause of those deaths. Statistical anomalies exist in every study and we don’t have to cherry pick those to generalize the nature of a medicine. Instead we must look into the reasons behind those deaths and see if the vaccines were the cause for it and based on the studies that were done, the vaccines were in no way responsible for those deaths.

Another misconception that is prevalent among common people and even doctors is that Covishield by AstraZeneca is superior to Covaxin by Bharath Biotech. This claim has no data-based backing. Based on the interim phase-3 results, Covaxin has an efficacy of 81%. Based on large-scale clinical trials, the efficacy of Covishield has varied between 63.1% in those who received two standard doses and 80.7% in those who received the low dose plus the standard dose. With more data, we can zero in on a more accurate number, but there is no evidence to prove that Covishield is superior to Covaxin and vice-versa.

Despite data being publicly available, I’ve seen so many forward messages on social media, some even reshared by biologists and doctors that claim that Covishield is superior to Covaxin. This has no data to back this claim, but these misleading texts have caused people to wait for Covishield to be restocked even if Covaxin is readily available for people to take. In Tamil Nadu, for example, only 23.5% of those allocated Covaxin received the shots on Jan. 19, compared with 56% for the Serum Institute’s Covishield.

Both vaccines are effective against the virus, so please, whichever vaccine is available, get vaccinated if you are eligible so that the people who are behind in line can get themselves vaccinated. The thing about the pandemic is that, “It is not just about just you”. Even if the vaccines don’t make you completely immune to the virus, it will definitely help avoid severe illness when you are infected by the virus and will also reduce the spread of the virus. When you get vaccinated and wear masks, you don’t spread it to other people and that’s what matters the most.

But, one question that people ask is, “Where do we find trusted information?”. Well, here you go: health.harvard.edu, http://www.hub.jhu.edu/, http://www.covid19.mit.edu/ . Those are the portals where the leading researchers from Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, and MIT respectively post their findings and inferences from various studies done on not just Covid-19 but other medical research as well. But the only difference between misinformation on social media and these portals is that misinformation is forwarded to you personally by people you know, while in the case of these portals you must take time and have the patience to get yourself informed with detailed explanations. The latter is always better because misinformation is dangerous while detailed explanations with proper citations.

I’ll keep you posted about vaccines with new posts as a part of this series. Until then, stay safe, and please get yourself vaccinated if you are eligible for one.

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