INDIANAPOLIS — As federal regulators decide this week whether to grant the first approval of a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, stories are swirling on the internet about the safety and potential side effects of the vaccine.
The stories – some of them promoted by anti-vaccine websites and COVID-19 conspiracy blogs – are raising concerns and apprehension about a vaccine that could be distributed to thousands of hospitals, clinics and nursing homes within the next few weeks.
The 13News VERIFY inbox is full of questions about one of the claims now spreading quickly on social media.
The Facebook post states a head researcher for vaccine manufacturer Pfizer has issued a warning that the company's new COVID-19 vaccine would cause sterilization in women.
Here's what we know about that social media post:
The researcher mentioned in the post no longer works for Pfizer. Michael Yeadon says he worked for the company until 2011 in the allergy and respiratory research unit, according to the British doctor's LinkedIn profile. (Pfizer would not comment to 13News when asked to confirm Yeadon’s past employment.)
Yeadon, along with German doctor Wolfgang Wodard, recently sent a petition to the European Medicines Agency, asking the EMA to stop clinical trials of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. They said the vaccine might block a protein that is crucial in the formation of a placenta, and the doctors claimed that could "result in vaccinated women essentially becoming infertile."
While the social media post implies the vaccine will cause infertility, that is not what the doctors said in their EMA filing. Their petition raises questions about whether infertility might be possible, using phrases like "If the vaccine works" a certain way, it "could” lead to infertility.
Is that a real possibility?
13News reached out directly to Pfizer to get answers. A representative from Pfizer’s European marketing team told WTHR, "We are not commenting on this other than to say we encourage the public to seek information about the COVID-19 pandemic from trusted public health bodies and/or their individual healthcare providers.”
Last month in a press release, Pfizer did say its COVID-19 vaccine studies have so far "not reported any serious safety concerns." Safety regulators in Europe just completed their safety review process and approved the vaccine for distribution in Europe.
It is worth mentioning that the social media site that first helped circulate the doctors’ claims about infertility is a blog called Health & Money News, and the "news" on that site is full of disproven COVID-19 conspiracy theories, such as coronavirus is not real and wearing masks causes irreversible brain damage.
And the two doctors raising concerns about the Pfizer vaccine both have a history of pedaling false information about COVID-19.
So does Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine cause sterilization in women?
13News can verify that to date there is no evidence, no study and no reports to support that claim.
At the same time, it is fair to point out the vaccine is so new, there are no studies to demonstrate the long-term impacts on human fertility, and Pfizer is not commenting on the issue at all.
UPDATE: After Pfizer first responded to 13News’ questions by stating that it would not comment on this issue, a company spokesman contacted WTHR after publication of this report to provide the following statement:
“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 – 4 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, further debunking the theory.”
– Dervila Keane, Pfizer Global Media Relations