Coronavirus: Doctors beg anti-vaxxers - and even other doctors - to stop spreading COVID misinformation

Doctors are sick of having to answer questions from Kiwis who've been fed lies and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite numerous studies into the efficacy and safety of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab being rolled out in New Zealand finding little to be worried about, the Royal NZ College of General Practitioners says GPs are getting "dozens of questions every day" about it.

They include, 'Does it cause disease?', 'Does it alter my DNA?' and 'Does it interact with medication I'm already taking?'

It's frustrating, said medical director Bryan Betty, blaming anonymous people spreading misinformation online - and even some doctors. 

"The misinformation being spread by individuals and groups who often hide behind the internet is one thing. The problem becomes harder to address when it comes from those who have medical or science backgrounds. This is a group that needs to be unified in their goal to keep New Zealand COVID-free."

In recent months a group called Voices for Freedom has distributed flyers, posted videos online and held events promoting a range of falsehoods regarding the vaccine. One flyer in particular had 17 specific claims, none of which were true according to scientists Newshub spoke to. 

The group recently misrepresented the findings of a scientific study which detected the brief presence of microscopic protein fragments in patients' plasma, falsely claiming it was evidence the virus' spike protein could get into blood vessels. 

But the Royal NZ College of GPs is particularly concerned about doctors  spreading unfounded claims about the vaccine rollout.  Last month dozens of health professionals signed a controversial open letter about the Pfizer vaccine, 1 News reported, described as "misinformation, or incomplete [information] and taken out of context at best".

"GPs are the first point of contact for health advice in our communities," said president Samantha Murton. "We have a clear responsibility to ensure patients get evidence-based advice and understand how the vaccine will protect them, their whānau, and others we encounter daily so they can make an informed choice."

Voices for Freedom has repeatedly refused to name the scientists it claims to have on board, saying they would "swiftly [find] themselves under the review of the relevant council or governing body". 

The AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.
The AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines. Photo credit: Getty Images

A number of vaccines for COVID-19 were developed in record time, and to date, the Pfizer jab has one of the best records in terms of both efficacy and safety. 

A study out this week conducted by scientists in the UK and New Zealand looking at millions of doses doled out in Scotland found even the maligned AstraZeneca vaccine only had a very small increased risk of a minor blood condition called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, and no increased risk of the highly-publicised blood clots. The Pfizer jab - which uses a new technology called mRNA - raised no such concerns. EVen with the AstraZeneca jab, the risk of developing serious illness is far more likely with a COVID-19 infection. 

"The short answer is that the vaccine is well-tested, safe and effective," said Dr Betty, urging people to get vaccinated when given the chance so the borders can safely open sooner, rather than later. 

"No one, especially those of us in the health sector, wants to go back to the situation of dealing with a huge caseload of COVID-19 testing and patient uncertainty when we're also trying to deliver great healthcare to our communities."

While New Zealand's rollout is officially well ahead of schedule, ours lags behind those in other countries we like to compare ourselves to, including the UK, US and Australia. Unlike those countries, New Zealand has no known community transmission of the virus. 

'Does it cause disease?'

There is no known way the Pfizer jab can cause disease. Unlike some other vaccines which use inactivated or severely weakened virus shells to deliver their payloads, the Pfizer jab contains no virus material at all. All it has is instructions for our cells on how to make the COVID-19 virus' spike protein, which gets broken down and displayed on the cell's surface, before being destroyed by the immune system. 

While recent studies have shown the spike proteins on their own can damage blood vessel linings, there's no evidence to suggest the spikes produced by our own cells, after being vaccinated, get into the blood. 

'Does it alter my DNA?'

No. The mRNA code - the instructions inside the vaccine - has no way of entering the cell's nucleus, where our DNA resides. 

"Some viruses like HIV can integrate their genetic material into the DNA of their hosts, but this isn't true of all viruses, and HIV can only do so with the help of specialised enzymes that it carries with it," according to Gavi, one of the groups behind the international COVAX vaccine sharing initiative.

"mRNA vaccines don't carry these enzymes, so there is no risk of the genetic material they contain altering our DNA."

'Does it interact with medication I'm already taking?'

This is perhaps a more reasonable question, but nothing emerged in the trials - which included people on a range of medications - that raised any significant concerns. 

While no specific large trials have been done to date, real-world use hasn't exposed any adverse outcomes. 

It's been widely recommended people avoid getting the Pfizer vaccine too close in time to another vaccine - the main reason being it could reduce the effectiveness of one or both.