Immunize yourself against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

February 01, 2021
Dr. Kuppalli showing her vaccine card
Dr. Kuppalli showing her vaccination card

Krutika Kuppalli, M.D., an infectious disease expert at MUSC with a background in emerging infections, global health, pandemic response and biosecurity, has helped to lead MUSC’s clinical response to the pandemic and rollout of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. She weighs in on some of the challenges facing the vaccine rollout and provides science-based guidance on the way forward, dispelling myths circulating about the COVID-19 vaccines.  

Q. What would you say to people who are hesitant to get vaccinated once they are eligible?

There’s a lot of vaccine hesitancy still, a lot of people with questions about the vaccine. I sit on a number of national panels where we talk about this reluctance. With the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines, you have a perfect storm where a vaccine was created in record time using a novel platform – messenger RNA (mRNA) – that people don’t understand.

People who are not in science hear that the vaccines were developed in record time and worry that corners were cut at the cost of safety and efficacy. That’s not the case. The vaccines were authorized quickly in part because researchers were able to combine certain phases of the clinical trials of these vaccines that didn't affect the efficacy or safety. The federal government also took a gamble, which paid off, in ramping up production of the vaccines as they entered phase 3 of the clinical trials. Because of that, millions of doses were available and ready to ship when the vaccines proved to be safe and effective in the phase 3 trials.

There’s also a lot of misinformation about how the mRNA vaccines work. I’ve received calls and emails from people who have been misled into believing that the vaccine is unsafe, can cause COVID-19 and will affect their genetic makeup. The amount of misinformation on social media is unbelievable. People should know that the mRNA platform used for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been in development for over 30 years. There are trials using these types of vaccines in other infectious diseases, and the technology has been heavily invested in prior to this pandemic.  

Although there have been only a few reports of people experiencing adverse events after the vaccine, such as anaphylaxis, there have been many stories written about them, leading to a misperception that this is a common problem. In reality, given the number of people who have been vaccinated, the proportion of those who have developed anaphylaxis is very low. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection reported in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released on January 15, 2021 that, out of 1,893,360 individuals who had received the COVID-19 vaccine, there have been just 21 cases of anaphylaxis reported. While it is understandable that people might be concerned about this potential side effect or others, I want to assure the public that the vaccines are in fact extremely safe.

Q. What has caused delays in the administration of available doses of the authorized vaccines?

One of my friends compares the situation to building a Lamborghini but not having the gas to make it go. That is the case with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout – we have this great vaccine, but the logistics of trying to roll it out are extremely complicated. We have a great team at MUSC working hard to get the vaccine out into the arms of our healthcare workers and the public. However, there are parts of the state that have rural and indigent populations. The logistics of reaching these populations is complicated and challenging, not just for South Carolina, but for every vaccine rollout program in the nation. It’s something we are all trying to tackle.

We have asked our states, hospitals and communities to roll out the most complicated vaccine administration program we have ever had in our country but have not given them the resources to do it. Unfortunately, public health is not well-funded in this country, which is why we need to look at developing public-private partnerships and relationships with federally qualified health clinics, working with community leaders and leveraging programs that are already in place to help disseminate the vaccine. We also need to remember that, in order to administer the vaccine, we need supplies such as syringes, needles, saline, cotton swabs and band aids, many of which are also in short supply. We need to think about the production of these items, and I am hopeful that the invoking of the Defense Production Act will mean that we won’t have to worry about where these precious resources will come from.  

Q. Does receiving the vaccine mean that you don’t need to follow public health precautions anymore?

No. Right now, we understand that the COVID-19 vaccines prevent you from getting severe Coronavirus infection, but we still don’t know whether they prevent you from transmitting it to others. That’s why it is so important for all of us to continue to adhere to the important public health precautions we’ve been talking about for the last year. Even after you have been vaccinated, it is important to continue to wear an appropriately fitting face mask, adhere to good hand hygiene, maintain appropriate physical distance and avoid crowds of people. The vaccine is not a magic bullet, but instead another tool in our box that can be used with our public health measures to help to control the pandemic.  

Q. How would you suggest that people keep themselves informed about the vaccines and their rollout while avoiding misinformation?

I would encourage people to go to reputable sites and not rely on social media posts unless they are by recognized experts in the field. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization  and the Infectious Diseases Society of America all have excellent sites.  I have also spent a lot of time working on our website and on FAQs about the vaccine, and I think it is also a good resource.