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Correcting this week’s misinformation: week of August 17, 2023

Who should get a COVID booster this fall?

The Claim:

With updated COVID boosters anticipated very soon, news that health officials in the UK are reserving boosters for the most vulnerable and people over 65, many are questioning why they aren’t being offered the vaccine, and anti-vaxxers are using the moment to make sure people do not get vaccinated.

The Facts:

The UK government operates its healthcare system, so there are times that they recommend or don’t recommend vaccines based on cost to the system. The United States healthcare system usually operates through a person’s employer, and costs are shared over a broader swath of people, entities, businesses, and so forth. Recommending universal COVID boosters is a medical rather than economic decision.

So what is the science behind getting a booster even if you are healthy?

COVID cases are rising again in some places, and more people are getting sick enough to need hospital care. This might be happening because the protection from the vaccine isn’t as strong as before. The vaccine works better against the old variants of the virus, and new variants of the virus are making people sick.

The COVID pandemic is ongoing despite the perception that it’s over. Up to 500 people still die from the virus each week. Vaccines have saved lives and prevented hospitalizations. As colder weather approaches and people spend more time indoors, doctors recommend getting another COVID booster in the fall for maximal protection.

Are vaccines tested for safety?

The Claim:

U.S. Senator tweeted a video asserting that the vaccine program has stopped doing safety testing of vaccines, relating this assertion to the idea that researchers need to suppress negative stories about vaccines to get universal uptake.

The Facts:

Missing in the assertion is one important fact: vaccines are the most studied pharmaceutical you can put in your body. They are tested thoroughly before licensure and monitored by several systems and government agencies after licensure.

The statement suggests a conspiracy to silence those concerned about vaccine safety, implying that their voices are being intentionally suppressed. We know that the number of people involved in vaccine safety research makes it mathematically impossible to keep such a conspiracy a secret.

When Del Bigtree talks about “proper” safety testing, he often refers to testing vaccines against saline placebos. Sometimes a new vaccine is indeed tested against an existing vaccine or a placebo that may contain an adjuvant, buffers, or stabilizers with a known safety record.

The World Health Organization guides the ethical use of placebos in vaccine trials in certain situations. It is acceptable when no effective vaccine is available, and the new vaccine is intended to benefit the population being studied.

However, using placebos is considered unacceptable when there is already an effective and safe vaccine accessible in the public health system of the country where the trial is planned. In such cases, it would be unethical to withhold the existing vaccine from participants if not receiving it would pose a significant risk to their health.

Were we lied to about transmission?

The Claim:

A former bounty hunter is publicizing a video he claims proves that we were all lied to about COVID vaccines preventing transmission.

The Facts:

This video, which is almost a year old, is most certainly not a bombshell.

That the covid vaccines were not tested for transmission is not news, nor is it something that was kept under wraps. The FDA authorization for the EUA back in Dec 2020 spelled out that “At this time, data are not available to make a determination about how long the vaccine will provide protection, nor is there evidence that the vaccine prevents transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from person to person.”

Vaccines were tested and approved based on data for safety and efficacy: did they prevent disease and are they safe. Preventing transmission, while a benefit, is an indirect benefit, and is often estimated after the vaccine is licensed and not something that approvals depend on.

This study, which shows that even when infected with COVID, those who are fully vaccinated were contagious for about half as long and infected far fewer people (almost a quarter fewer) than those who were partially vaccinated or unvaccinated. And this newer study supports the idea that vaccinated people are less likely to transmit COVID.

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