Wave of false info follows updated COVID-19 vaccine approval

September 18, 2023

Welcome to the second edition of the Health Care Infodemiology Brief, a new newsletter for clinicians and other health care providers. On September 12, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted 13-1 to back updated Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for all adults and children over 6 months. The decision followed the FDA’s approval of the new vaccines on September 11.

In response to the announcements about updated vaccines, a surge of false information is currently spreading online. You’ll find summaries of those claims, plus talking points that you can use in real-time conversations with patients, below.

For even more resources, check out the menu above for real-time insights, training resources, and more. Specifically curated for doctors and other health care providers, these links provide actionable content to help navigate today’s information landscape.

Concerning narratives from the past month  

Wave of false information follows updated COVID-19 vaccine approval
Concerning narratives about the updated vaccines began circulating within minutes of the CDC signing off on the FDA’s authorization. False claims that the new vaccines are unnecessary, ineffective, and unsafe have been brewing for months. Now, trending social media posts incorrectly argue that the vaccines don’t protect against current COVID-19 variants, have safety “red flags,” and cause more harm than good in children and teens. These narratives are particularly concerning because uptake of last fall’s bivalent booster was far lower than previous COVID-19 vaccines, with children having the lowest vaccination rate. Moreover, fear about safety issues is a leading cause of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, especially where children are concerned. Read the fact check here and here.

Conspiracies circulate that the US will reinstate pandemic measures
As emerging COVID-19 variants fuel a rise in infections in the U.S., multiple politicians and political commentators are promoting the theory that the U.S. government plans to institute COVID-19 restrictions. Speculation about COVID-19 restrictions is frequently paired with skepticism about emerging COVID-19 variants and opposition to updated vaccines. Read the fact check here.

Flawed studies create false narrative about COVID-19 vaccine safety
Vaccine opponents used two recent studies to advance the myth that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. A Swiss paper published in July claims that 1 in 35 study participants who received Moderna COVID-19 boosters experienced “myocardial injury.” In fact, the paper exaggerated the clinical significance of the elevated troponin levels in the blood of some mRNA vaccine recipients, which were in the normal range of what exercise can produce. A second non-peer-reviewed study authored by several prominent promoters of vaccine misinformation claimed that the vaccines were responsible for 74 percent of deaths after COVID-19 vaccination. The study became an anti-vaccine talking point when it was removed from a medical journal’s website for violating screening criteria. Vaccine opponents routinely use non-peer reviewed, low-quality, and retracted studies to circulate vaccine misinformation. Read the fact checks here and here.

What to say in response

The CDC and FDA recommend updated vaccines for everyone over 6 months because they are safe and necessary to protect against COVID-19.

  • After carefully reviewing safety and efficacy data, officials agreed that the benefits of the updated vaccines far outweigh potential risks for all age groups.
  • The updated vaccines are effective against 90 percent of circulating variants, providing much-needed protection as COVID-19 infections rise and immunity wanes.
  • COVID-19 still poses a risk to children. Hospital data shows infants have the second highest COVID-19 hospitalization rates after adults 75 and older, and COVID-19 hospitalization of children is at similar or higher rates than other diseases that children are routinely vaccinated against.
  • Updated COVID-19 vaccines are safe. Based on available data, myocarditis was not a safety concern for children and young adults who received last fall’s bivalent boosters.

New COVID-19 variants and waves of infections will continue to emerge as long as the virus circulates.

  • Emerging COVID-19 variants are driving a late-summer wave of infections that will likely continue into the fall.
  • These new variants—and the updated vaccines to combat them— are the result of a rapidly evolving virus, not a government conspiracy to bring back pandemic measures.
  • Staying up to date on vaccinations is the best protection against the new and emerging COVID-19 strains.

Peer-reviewed studies and health authority data are the most credible sources on vaccine safety; low-quality studies and unverified data are not.

  • Vaccine opponents use unreliable sources such as weak and non-peer reviewed studies, unverified safety data, and anecdotes to bolster their claims.
  • The overwhelming consensus of nearly three years of research is that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and serious side effects are extremely rare. Over two-thirds of the world’s population has been safely vaccinated against COVID-19, with no evidence of widespread safety concerns.

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