So much misinformation around Covid… but what does the science say?

Everyone studies science as part of their schooling. Some love it (like me) and others don’t take to it. Still, it’s important to get a basic understanding of biology, chemistry and physics. Why? Because it ensures we are all equipped to understand what is real and what is not, based on actual evidence that has been held up to unbiased, rigorous scientific scrutiny. 

Importantly, by year 3 or 4 all UK pupils are taught about the ‘fair test’ which is central to scientific experiments. In turn, this helps to develop critical thinking and how it’s important to consider the evidence when it comes to one’s own beliefs. 

However, social media has started to undermine the importance of scientific evidence, with people instead reporting hearsay and personal anecdotes (e.g. “My friend’s mum is a nurse and she said…”) as “proof” of whatever opinion or belief they are Tweeting or blogging about. But this is not evidence. 

Evidence comes from a considered, careful experiment, with controls and comparisons. The mainstream media tends to employ big headlines leading to exciting click-bait and potentially incorrect statements. 

Demonstrators put their weight behind science, in response to the anti-vaxxers.. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

A recent example is a well meant but misleading Tweet by ITV’s Robert Peston (12 September, 2021) who had himself recently contracted Covid despite being double vaccinated. His Tweet cites the government statistics, but draws an erroneous conclusion (about more people in the older age group contracting Covid after being vaccinated than those still unvaccinated) because it fails to recognise that in the 40+ age group, well over 80% of Britons had been fully vaccinated by the end of August. 

Certainly, his Tweet was not intended to spread misinformation. But many could have accepted his misinterpretation of the stats unquestioningly, and then gone on to spread the misinformation more widely.

“I was worried when my son was born … but I know it was important to look at the evidence”

Misinformation regarding scientific discoveries is not new. So why are humans seemingly so susceptible to it? I believe it is often about fear. When I was pregnant with my second child, I attended a yoga class. During the class, the anti-vaccination agenda was shared and, despite my scientific training in biology and my reasonably sound knowledge of immunology, I was worried.

When my son was born (in 2005 – seven years after the since-discredited Andrew Wakefield report had been published) I worried about the MMR. I worried about the vaccine and what was in it.  I felt that I would do anything to protect my child, but knew it was important to consider the scientific evidence.

The concerns about the MMR vaccination had already been widely debunked and, before that, concerns regarding the whooping cough vaccine had also been reconsidered and laid to rest. But the damage had been done. The issue is that, once a doubt is cast, people tend to err on the side of “safety”, especially when it comes to the health of their own children. 

A counter viewpoint from Christian right. “Truth eating Darwin” by crazytales562 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

People will therefore often avoid a vaccine even when the risk of the disease is far worse. This is something that has manifested recently with the seemingly endless questions and conspiracy theories being peddled online about the Covid vaccination. Even though the initial vaccine sceptics are small in number – possibly as few as 12 people globally in the case of Covid-19 – there is often another agenda involved. Anti-vaxxers quickly start to question the background, reasons and motivation of those pushing the vaccination, resulting in convoluted yet quite gripping narratives akin to those found in Dan Brown thrillers. This is how conspiracy theories are formed and spread. 

Therefore, I would like to take the time to explain the background to the vaccines – perhaps my own attempt to help combat the disinformation. Vaccinations were first prescribed following the realisation by Edward Jenner that infection with the relatively benign cowpox provided resistance to the much more severe and deadly smallpox

Above, a child being treated for the effects of polio – before the vaccine was introduced in the 1950s, thousands of children were crippled by polio each year in the UK “48-22_3802(3)” by FDR Presidential Library & Museum is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Since then, a more specific vaccine was developed and smallpox has been eradicated from the population of the world. Polio is another success story where poliomyelitis (a devastating condition that can result in paralysis) remains only in a few countries. Furthermore, closer to home, measles, mumps and rubella are thankfully relatively rare

But what is a virus? A virus is an infectious agent that is composed of a capsid, or coat, made mostly of proteins. The proteins on the surface are known as antigens.  Within the coat or capsid is the genetic material, which can be made of DNA (like the genetic material in human cells) or RNA (e.g. as in HIV). The virus binds to the cells of the infected animal (the host) and then enters them and uses host proteins to generate new coat proteins from its own genetic material, along with other proteins that are needed for the virus to reproduce itself. 

A terrible beauty: artistic impression of a coronavirus.https://pdb101.rcsb.org/sci-art/goodsell-gallery/coronavirus

Vaccinations rely on the immune system of the host (animal) responding to the vaccine and thus becoming vaccinated. How? The vaccine raises an immune response from the host. This means, for example in the case of a human, the vaccine alerts the immune system and encourages it to respond to the foreign substance by making antibodies that are suitable for fighting the virus.

These antibodies specifically recognise the proteins on the surface of the virus and so can tackle the infection and prevent further spread.  Most vaccines provide either: a weakened version of the virus (known as attenuated); an inactivated virus that lacks any active genetic material but contains the coat proteins; or materials from the coat alone.

These antigens are what the immune system can respond to. Some vaccines require “adjuvants”. These are additional materials added to the vaccine to try to provoke a suitable immune response, which may otherwise be weak and ineffective. 

Science has provided us with the best protection we can get against the virus. Photo by CDC on Unsplash

More recently, new vaccines have been developed and introduced for Covid that utilise the RNA message (mRNA) that can be converted into a protein by the host. This enables vaccination without the use of any virus, but using only the message needed to produce the antigen itself. This advance has been made possible by the advent of lipid nanoparticles that provide a protective capsid for delivery.

Importantly, an RNA vaccine cannot alter a person’s DNA. The mRNA delivered provides the message needed to produce a specific protein – that of the coat protein antigen known as the “spike protein”. It cannot be converted into DNA in humans or other mammals.

“There is an idea that those who are vaccinated shed the virus… this is not possible”

A major area of misinformation is the idea of those being vaccinated shedding the virus. This is not possible. As explained above, those who have been vaccinated, either by conventional inactivated virus, or by mRNA vaccine, mount an immune response to the antigen spike protein. This means that if the individual is exposed to the actual virus they will mount an immune response to this specific protein. Those vaccinated, therefore, produce antibodies. 

They do not produce the virus, nor even make excess spike protein that can affect anyone else.

So, how can we tell the difference between a scientific fact and misinformation? Well, it can be difficult, especially when posts on social media appear to be such an authority on issues relating to health. Perhaps the best way to assess online assertions is to apply the principles of the “fair test”. All scientific work must be peer-reviewed and any scientific study must have been conducted with controls and been repeated to ensure reproducibility of the findings (the “fair test”). Credible claims should, therefore, always be backed up by checkable, reputable sources – i.e. peer-reviewed professional publications, replete with links to the scientific data.  

Certainly, all click bait headlines, random quotes, interviews, or anecdotal heasay like: “I know a person who knows a nurse who said…” should be considered with caution.