Truth or Scare?

Fotostorm—Getty Images

There’s a question that’s been doing the rounds on my social media lately: Will you get the Covid-19 vaccine? A range of concerns have been voiced by people who answer “no”. The speed of vaccine development has been one key reason for hesitation. The matter was not helped by the revelation, published in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, that in November there had been dosage errors in the AstraZeneca/Oxford trials. Then, there was unease about how this information was disclosed.

In mid-January, media outlets including ABC News in Australia reported that a cluster of nursing home deaths in Norway appeared to be caused by adverse reactions to the Pfizer vaccine. Later that month, Newsweek revealed that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had investigated and declared there was no causal link, but uncertainty about the vaccines persists in the community.

More recently, the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia has prompted concerns after two individuals suffered fatal blood clots after receiving their vaccine doses. Despite the vaccine causing blood clots less frequently than the common contraceptive pill, the frequent media coverage has many worrying whether there will be new vaccine side effects we have yet to discover – questioning whether the first dose of their Covid-19 vaccination could trigger an adverse immune response. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have advised Americans to continue taking the vaccine, and the Australian government has highlighted that the vaccine is an important tool in fighting the coronavirus pandemic (though they note the increased risk that those over 50 have of clotting with the AstraZeneca vaccine and state they should attempt to get the Pfizer instead), many people remain skeptical.

How long will their protective effect last? Will they stop us spreading the virus to others? Even the vaccine’s designers acknowledge we don’t yet have answers to some of these questions. While the belief that the vaccines are being used to inject us with tracking microchips is obviously absurd, some people are genuinely worried that the vaccines can alter our DNA. How do we make sense of all the conflicting claims and information on this, or any, topic? Has it become impossible to sort fact from fiction? And does Christianity have anything to say about this?

Halfpoint—Getty Images

The World We Live In

The term “post-truth era” was coined in 1992 and is now commonly used to describe times we live in. There seems to be an increasing reliance on emotion rather than reason. But it’s more than that. With the internet giving a platform to anyone who wants it, the task of sifting out unreliable information can appear insurmountable. Between fake news, social media “chatbot” accounts, misinformation and disinformation, clickbait tabloids and sensationalism in reporting, sloppy research, doctored photos and even “deep fakes”, the truth is becoming a very slippery eel.

Identifying quality information has become harder as more information is available than ever before. We have learned to question, and not accept things without proof. We have become a society of doubters, a culture where scepticism is encouraged and valued. Many of society’s institutions have abused our trust through a variety of scandals, so this scepticism is now aimed at those we once trusted implicitly—government, science, education, corporations, religion and mainstream media.

These traditionally reliable entities are now viewed with suspicion and cynicism. At the extreme end of the distrust are people who see themselves as real-life characters from the Matrix trilogy; they’ve swallowed the red pill and they know the truth. “The Awoke people see through the lies! The programmed will follow like sheep! FOOLS!!” (Actual comment from a social media post.) They refer to the “plandemic” and suggest that the Covid-19 vaccines were already conveniently lined up and ready to go. This claim may seem absurd considering the information that exists regarding the vaccine trials and the problems with Australia’s rollout (which one would assume to not exist should the vaccine have been pre-prepared), but whether people believe it or not, it creates a backdrop of suspicion and mistrust which compounds the difficulty in extracting truth from a confusing mire of internet misinformation.

Using simple evaluation techniques—checking my sources’ trustworthiness, asking about purpose/biases and authority/expertise—I decided to go hunting for some answers.

Altered DNA

Let’s consider the claim that Covid-19 vaccines can alter our DNA. It sounds frightening—but
is it true? TIME magazine (available online through state libraries) published an article in January detailing the various methods used to deliver vaccines: injecting related viruses, weakened viruses, inactivated viruses or a small part of the virus (easier to produce and safer to inject), such as the protein spike on its surface. All these methods enable our cells to develop a defence against that virus—ready to quickly activate that defence if the actual virus ever turns up.

More recent technology has aimed to get human cells to make for themselves the protein spike of the virus, rather than injecting it. The DNA in our cells contains instruc- tions for making proteins, but the instructions have to be taken outside the nucleus, into a place in the cell called the rough endoplasmic reticulum(who named that thing?!) A molecule called Messenger RNA (mRNA) runs this errand—taking the instructions from the DNA out into the cell where the proteins are made.

And that is the basis of both the Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna vaccines (which are known as mRNA vaccines): injecting mRNA, carrying the recipe for the protein spike, into the cell. It doesn’t go into the nucleus (that’s the beauty of it; getting stuff into the nucleus is really tricky) so it goes nowhere near the DNA and it certainly doesn’t alter our DNA.

It sounds like that fear has been thoroughly debunked. But let’s be cautious and ask is TIME magazine authoritative? Could the article be biased? The author is writing a book on the biochemist who worked out the molecular structure of RNA—so at the very least he has a deep interest in the topic. According to a media bias chart, TIME is reliable for news, but has a lot of opinion content.

It also leans a little to the left (progressive rather than conservative). Certainly, in the article referenced above, the author confesses his “deep interest in the wondrous new roles now being played by RNA” (italics supplied), and he glosses very quickly over the problems in the AstraZeneca trials. Despite this, the essential facts are easily verified.

To combat concerns about bias, students are advised to read widely, from multiple, good quality sources. Another place to look–easy to read if you don’t have a PhD in science—is The Conversation, with articles written by university academics, industry professionals and quality journalists. The Conversation claims to have a commitment to reliable, fact-based information, free of commercial or political sway.

You can also get online access to many science journals—and other great resources—from your state library. If we’re serious about making well-informed decisions and conclusions, we need to look beyond heavily biased websites or social media platforms authored by individuals with minimal expertise.

Norway Deaths

As a second case study, let’s go back to the nursing home deaths in Norway. In mid-January, the Norwegian Medicines Agency (NOMA) reported that 23 elderly patients had died following administration of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, and that adverse reactions may have contributed to deaths in frail patients. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) investigated, and within two weeks announced via a vaccine safety update that the deaths were not linked to the vaccine. How did they determine that? According to Newsweek, they “took into account the presence of other medical conditions and the death rate for the corresponding age groups in the general population”. I found that explanation a little unsatisfying so I tried to find out greater detail by looking for the EMA Safety Update in which they’d announced the findings but I struggled to find any EMA documentation that mentioned Pfizer.

Georgiy Datsenko—Getty Images

After stumbling around the internet for what seemed like hours, I eventually discovered that the Pfizer vaccine has a name: Comirnaty. This led me to the relevant EMA safety update, and also their Comirnaty fact sheet. Neither contained the detail I’d hoped for. Instead, the key points seemed to be that the patients experienced known side effects, and that because the trials included people in or close to the same age group, the situation added nothing to the safety knowledge base and required no change to the safe use advice. Further, the deaths were not deemed to be caused by the vaccine, because pre-existing diseases seemed to be a plausible explanation—”in many cases”. One of the patients had even started palliative care. Would the patients have died, when they did, if they hadn’t had the vaccine? I still didn’t feel the question had been clearly answered. I kept looking.

Eventually, on the NOMA website, I found weekly reports on adverse reactions, and some of the extra detail I was looking for, including a detailed analysis of one sample case. These reports highlighted the fact that Norway’s vaccination program commenced with an exclusive focus on nursing home patients, a setting in which there are roughly 45 deaths every day in ordinary circumstances. The deaths following vaccination occurred 1–12 days after the injection, and no link to the vaccine was suspected in many of the cases–only in those who experienced adverse events after the shot.

It should be noted that reactions such as fever, and localised pain and swelling, are normal and even desirable responses to vaccination, as are reactions and symptoms caused by actual viral or bacterial infections—it’s evidence of our immune system mounting its defence. It should also be noted that while much discussion revolves around the potential safety concerns that the vaccines may raise down the line, there is also many questions to be raised about the long-term side effects of Covid-19 experienced by those previously infected.

By persevering I had eventually found detailed information which filled in most of the blanks.

Finding Truth

While Christians are sometimes portrayed in the media as dim-witted buffoons (think Ned Flanders from The Simpsons), the Christian tradition encourages earnest study of matters of importance, beginning with an understanding of God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Wisdom is held in high regard throughout the Bible, most overtly in Proverbs. “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!” (Proverbs 16:16). Jesus often taught His followers using puzzling parables, and when His disciples asked Him to “Please explain”, He often layered another cryptic clue on top. He really wanted them to use their brains and think deeply!

I’m glad I didn’t put my questions in the too-hard basket and I encourage you to search further than social media hysteria in important matters like this. There are many questions still to be answered.

Julie Hoey is a qualified science/maths teacher and librarian. She lives in Mulbring, NSW, with her husband and tween daughter.