Misinformation campaigns surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines have run rampant since before they were even approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Some of the myths claim the vaccines can alter your DNA, while others suggest the injections can lead to pregnancy risks. The latest myth claims that getting a COVID vaccine could make you infertile.
These conspiracies have largely been debunked, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made it unequivocally clear with a statement. “If you are pregnant, you can receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” the CDC’s website states. “There is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems.”
It’s not difficult to trace back the source of these false claims.
In early December, two European anti-vaccination propagandists—German epidemiologist Wolfgang Wodarg and an anonymous former Pfizer employee—sent a petition to the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The agency is the E.U. counterpoint to the United States’ FDA. The petition asked the EMA to delay the research and approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
Their argument leans on the notion that the vaccine supposedly “contains a spike protein called syncytin-1.” Syncytin-1 is genetically similar to the spike protein of COVID-19 and also an essential component in mammal placentas. Wodarg claims that the vaccine causes the body to produce antibodies to fight syncytin-1. He said that could potentially lead to it attacking and rejecting the protein in a human placenta, leading to infertility.
As noted by STAT News, syncytin-1 is indeed vital for the human placenta, but there is absolutely no basis behind claims that the vaccines contain syncytin-1 or generate antibodies to attack it.
Despite this, the petition has been successful. It has spread widely across social media, along with anti-vaccination blogs and websites. Facebook eventually cracked down and removed many of the claims, but it was too late to stop some people of childbearing age from growing concerned over the potential of becoming infertile following a COVID vaccine.
Dr. Jill Foster, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, told Web MD the biological basis for the idea that vaccines could affect the placenta “is really shaky.”
Foster acknowledged that COVID-19’s spike protein and syncytin-1 “share small stretches of the same genetic code,” but it’s still not enough to make them a match. She likened it to two people having phone numbers that both contain the number 7. While both numbers do share a digit, you can’t dial one number to reach the other person.
“What we know is that they are similar on such a tiny level,” Foster said.
In his own petition, even Wodarg admits that “there is no indication whether antibodies against spike proteins of SARS viruses would also act like anti-Syncytin-1 antibodies.”
Clinical trials initially did not include pregnant people
Exacerbating early concerns, early vaccine trials excluded pregnant people. The Pfizer trial included more than 37,000 people. Women were given pregnancy tests before they were accepted into the trial, and those who were already pregnant were turned away. This is typical for vaccine trials, in an effort to simplify the process.
During the trial period, 23 participants conceived. The 12 people who became pregnant in the vaccine group, along with the 11 people who became pregnant in the placebo group, continued their participation in the study. Vaccine trials that have occurred since have purposely included pregnant people and found no evidence of complications or infertility.
On March 1, preliminary data on vaccines and pregnancy were presented at the CDC’s Advisory Committee of Immunization Practices meeting. The data demonstrated the safety of both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines in more than 30,000 pregnant patients.
Even before clinical trials were open to pregnant people, the CDC developed a V-safe smartphone application to capture data on the safety of vaccinations. This included a registry that collects voluntary data before, after, and during pregnancy.
By the end of March 2021, the pregnancy registry had amassed nearly 2,000 participants. It found that instances of pregnancy complications—including miscarriage, stillbirth, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and gestational hypertension—were actually lower among V-safe participants than national rates.
Additionally, three of the leading professional organizations focused on pregnancy and fertility have recommended that pregnant people, along with those considering pregnancy, get vaccinated.
In a joint statement on Feb. 5, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine stressed that the COVID vaccines should not cause a person to become infertile.
“As experts in reproductive health, we continue to recommend that the vaccine be available to pregnant individuals,” the statement read. “We also assure patients that there is no evidence that the vaccine can lead to loss of fertility.”