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Debunked: No, Pfizer's head of research did not say the Covid vaccine is 'female sterilisation'

Social media posts making the claim have been shared thousands of times in recent days.

debunked

SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS claiming that the “head of Pfizer research” said the pharmaceutical company’s Covid-19 vaccine would cause sterilisation in women have been shared thousands of times in recent days.

The incorrect claims appear to have originated on a blog called Health and Money News, which regularly promotes conspiracy theories and misinformation.

The post in question has the headline: Head of Pfizer Research: Covid Vaccine is Female Sterilization.

Screengrabs of the post, and its misleading headline, have been widely shared on several social media platforms, since it was published on 2 December. 

Screenshot 2020-12-10 at 14.55.28 Source: Health and Money News

The post includes comments attributed to Michael Yeadon. According to his LinkedIn profile, Yeadon previously worked for Pfizer as the vice president and chief scientist of the division for allergy and respiratory conditions, but left the company in 2011.

On 1 December, Yeadon and German doctor Wolfgang Wodarg wrote to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) about vaccine trials.

Both men have shared misinformation about Covid-19 in the past. Yeadon contributes to a blog called Lockdown Sceptics and recently falsely claimed the “pandemic is effectively over”. Wodarg has previously said the coronavirus is no more harmful than the flu, which has been widely disproven by experts.

In their letter to the EMA, the men called for clinical trials of the vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to be stopped, citing concerns about female fertility.

They claim the vaccine trains the immune system to attack syncytin-1, a protein involved in placenta formation, which could lead to infertility in women for an unspecified duration. They did not state that the vaccine sterilises women, as the blog post’s title suggests. Quotes from this letter were used in the blog post.

The incorrect claims about fertility have been debunked by a number of outlets including AFP Fact Check and Snopes.

Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, an associate professor in microbiology at York University, said the messenger Ribonucleic Acid (mRNA) vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech does not work in the way the men have stated. 

“The mRNA vaccine works by providing the body with an instructional molecule, such as mRNA, that tells the human cells how to synthesise the viral protein (the infamous spike protein),” she said in an email.

The vaccine in question does not contain any protein from the virus itself, but rather the instructions for the body to synthesise a viral protein so that the immune system learns to defend itself against it.

“The concern over the possibility that the anti-spike protein antibodies could attack the syncytin-1 protein of the placenta because the spike protein of the novel coronavirus shares a very short amino acid region with the spike protein is very small,” Golemi-Kotra said.

A number of other experts who also spoke to AFP agree with this view.

coronavirus-wed-dec-9-2020 A staff member receives the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at Bradley Manor residential care home in Belfast on Wednesday. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

Dervila Keane, a Pfizer spokeswoman, said there is “no data to suggest that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine candidate causes infertility”.

“It has been incorrectly suggested that Covid-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a very short amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 virus that is shared with the placental protein, syncytin-1.

“The sequence, however, is too short — four shared amino acids — to plausibly give rise to autoimmunity. Additionally, a cohort comparing the outcomes of pregnancies with and without intercurrent SARS-CoV-2 infection shows no difference in outcomes,” Keane said.

Some of the information and guidance around pregnancy and breastfeeding is being conflated with fertility disinformation. Below is the advice for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, in relation to the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine:

Advice for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding

The Pfizer/BioNTech Coivd-19 vaccine is being rolled out in the UK from this week onwards.

Ireland is taking a similar approach to Britain (although we may end up using a different vaccine to the UK), hence why pregnant women and children are currently at the bottom of the vaccine roll-out list.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told TheJournal.ie: “Pregnant women and children were not part of the cohorts tested during the current candidate Covid-19 vaccine trials, therefore there are no safety data for the administration of these vaccines in those cohorts at this time. We will continue to monitor this closely.”

The government has said that roll-out of a vaccine could start in the Republic as early as next month, once approval is given by the EMA.

The EMA is set to complete a review of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine by 29 December with a decision on the Moderna vaccine also potentially happening a couple of weeks later.

Earlier this month the UK government published a document which stated that the impact of the vaccine on fertility is “unknown”. 

The document has been used by some commentators to back up the sterilisation claims. 

It states: “For women of childbearing age, pregnancy should be excluded before vaccination. In addition, women of childbearing age should be advised to avoid pregnancy for at least 2 months after their second dose.”

The document also advises against people who are breastfeeding getting the vaccine.

The vaccine is not currently available to pregnant people or most children under 16 (bar some with severe neuro-disabilities that require residential care) in the UK. 

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Vaccines are typically tested on adults first, then children, to ensure they are as safe as possible prior to being given to these groups. This is standard practice and done in order to protect more vulnerable groups from possible side effects.

In short, more research needs to be carried out before a Covid-19 vaccine is deemed safe and effective for pregnant women and children.

The UK government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) stated this week: “There are no data as yet on the safety of Covid-19 vaccines in pregnancy, either from human or animal studies.

“Given the lack of evidence, the JCVI favours a precautionary approach, and does not currently advise Covid-19 vaccination in pregnancy. Women should be advised not to come forward for vaccination if they may be pregnant or are planning a pregnancy within three months of the first dose.”

The JCVI added that it expects more data to be made available from clinical trials, and will review that to update its guidance for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

“If you are breastfeeding you should wait until you have finished breastfeeding and then have the vaccine. If you were breastfeeding when you had the first dose you are advised not to have the second dose until you have finished breastfeeding,” the JCVI stated.

It added that this advice is “precautionary until additional evidence is available to support the use of this vaccine in pregnancy and breastfeeding”.

Contains reporting from © AFP 2020 

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There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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