Coronavirus: How to protect anti-vax loved ones from the torrent of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

On September 1, COVID-19 vaccinations will finally be open to all New Zealanders no matter their age, occupation or health status. 

But at the same time as New Zealand is facing the wrath of Delta, we are facing another growing epidemic - the wrath of misinformation, something that is almost impossible to escape. 

Myths, conspiracy theories and out-right lies about the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine are constantly circulating the internet. This disinformation is causing rifts between family, friends and work colleagues, despite some of our most trusted sources - medical professionals and the government - doing their best to shut it down. 

So how do you persuade your loved one the best thing they can do to protect themselves and New Zealand against COVID-19 is to get the vaccine?

Newshub spoke to Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist based at the University of Auckland, to bust some of the myths circulating the internet. 

'The COVID-19 vaccine is experimental, and was a rush job'

Petousis-Harris says once the vaccine was approved for use - Pfizer was approved for use by MedSafe in February - it was no longer 'experimental'. 

"However, it will continue to be studied for the entire time we are using it and probably beyond, just like other vaccines. My team is studying a vaccine that has been used for over fifty years," she explains. 

Petousis-Harris explains that vaccinologists constantly monitor vaccines, no matter how old they are, and are always studying potential adverse effects. 

"When vaccines cause adverse effects, they usually occur right after the vaccine has been administered. We know this from all of our experiences with vaccines over a long period of time. 

We are also actively studying any sign of adverse events, all over the world," she says.

"At the moment, serious events are extremely rare, and the small risks posed by the vaccine are a drop in the ocean compared to the risks posed by the disease in any age group."

The "adverse effects" Petousis-Harris is referring to is the chance of feeling unwell after your jab, and can include a headache and body aches. These effects only last a maximum of 48 hours. 

'Why would I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I can still catch and spread the virus?'

Petousis-Harris says while the vaccine won't stop everyone from catching COVID-19, it will stop some transmission, and those that do transmit the virus seem to be infectious for a shorter amount of time. This means the vaccine creates less transmission overall. 

"One of the most important things is that hardly anybody who gets two doses of the vaccine ends up going to hospital," she says. 

"Almost everyone who ends up in hospital is not vaccinated. The best group to be in is the vaccinated group."

'It's not much worse than a bad flu' 

Petousis-Harris says this rhetoric is simply "not true".  

"You only need to look overseas, to countries who are very wealthy and have incredible health systems being brought to their knees because of how sick people are," she says.

"There's a much higher proportion of people that get COVID who go to hospital, compared to the flu. There's a much higher proportion who unfortunately die."

The long-term effects of COVID are also something that have plagued thousands of people across the globe, with researchers finding more than three-quarters of hospitalised patients still suffer symptoms six months after falling sick.

Common long-term symptoms include fatigue, breathing difficulties, chest pain, joint pain, heart palpitations, dizziness and brain fog, depression, anxiety, and hair loss - just to name a few. 

"This is not a benign virus," says Petousis-Harris. "It's nasty."

University of Otago molecular biologist Emeritus Professor Warren Tate told Newshub in February that although he believes some of those suffering with long COVID will recover, it's not an easy fix.

"There's going to be a long journey for most of them I think."

'The virus will eventually go away, we should open up the country and wait'

Petousis-Harris believes this view is a "pretty callous way to look at something". 

"A lot of people who succumb to the virus are the ones that you love. If you think that you can just let it run for a while, and then we will all be immune, then you have to think again."

An example of a country who "let it run" is Sweden, who never formally introduced lockdowns, and instead encouraged their citizens to stay at home if they were sick. Their COVID-19 response has been labelled a "fatal mistake", with the country recording over 1 million cases and 14,641 deaths at the time of writing. 

"You only have to look overseas to see what happens when you let it rip," says Petousis-Harris.

"You have an enormous amount of collateral damage, by way of loss of life, not to mention the massive economic impacts. You will bring the country to its knees."

'My immune system is better than the vaccine'

There have been many people across the world who have succumbed to COVID-19, despite being young and having no pre-existing conditions. 

"The vaccine is actually giving your immune system a heads up on the virus, and giving it the very best opportunity to respond," Petousis-Harris explains. 

"One of the things that causes the damage is actually your immune system itself responding so vigorously. So you can't count on your immune system getting this right, there's always a chance it could over respond and kill you off."

'The mRNA technology inside the vaccine will mess with my DNA'

Petousis-Harris says this theory is actually "biologically impossible", and whoever came up with it "was not paying any attention at school". 

"Your DNA, which is the code for your life, is retained inside a special compartment inside the cell called the nucleus. Messenger RNA [used in the vaccine] cannot go from outside the nucleus to inside the nucleus. It's got no way of getting in there," she says. 

"Even if it did, this mRNA has no instructions or ability to integrate itself in any way with the DNA. This misinformation is preying on people's lack of knowledge of genetics."

'Once the vaccine is injected, it messes with your organs, even your reproductive system' 

When the vaccine is injected into your arm, it "ceases to exist". Petousis-Harris explains the scientific journey the vaccine takes around your body.

"People have this image that the vaccine flies around your body and cooks up trouble, but it's just not true," she says. 

"You get it injected into your arm, and at that injection site it is taken up by some specialised immune cells and you start to get a sore arm. Those cells then translate that message into a spike protein," she says. 

"The mRNA then disintegrates, and the spike protein that has just been made disintegrates into little fragments. Then it is displayed on the outside of that immune cell, which takes it to your local lymph nodes around your body."

"It then is presented for a specific immune response. There's nothing left of either the mRNA or the spike protein, within hours to days."

The increase in misinformation around vaccines 

Petousis-Harris says the response to the COVID-19 vaccine has been "unprecedented". 

"It's something we have never seen before. It's important for people to understand that the science was there and ready before the pandemic, in terms of being able to develop a vaccine," she explains.

"The science was not actually new. What's new is the removal of the obstacles, which are so huge normally. Getting things like a new vaccine through a clinical trial process and authorised for use - those obstacles are enormous. That's the difference, they were removed."

As for whether Bill Gates is monitoring vaccinated people with a microchip injected along with the vaccine - Petousis-Harris has a simple answer. 

"You can not get a microchip into needles used to administer vaccines."