Confronting the myth: COVID vaccines don’t affect fertility, experts say

The unfounded claim is said to have originated in Europe. Doctors, medical groups and officials say there is no evidence of the shots preventing pregnancy.
The entrance to the one of the vaccine rooms at the Central Pinellas vaccine site Monday. Thousands are making appointments to get shots, but unfounded claims about the vaccines and fertility are causing some women to hold off.
The entrance to the one of the vaccine rooms at the Central Pinellas vaccine site Monday. Thousands are making appointments to get shots, but unfounded claims about the vaccines and fertility are causing some women to hold off. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 9, 2021|Updated April 9, 2021

With millions of Floridians newly eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, a persistent myth is keeping some women from getting in line.

The claim that the vaccines affect fertility has been circulating for months. But experts — from local doctors, to medical groups, to government officials — say there is no evidence to support it.

The issue has particular relevance this week as women in their teens, 20s and 30s became eligible for shots in Florida.

“If you are trying to become pregnant now or want to get pregnant in the future, you may receive a COVID-19 vaccine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March.

Three leading professional organizations put out a similar statement a month earlier, assuring that “there is no evidence that the vaccine can lead to fertility.” The joint affirmation was issued by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

“While fertility was not specifically studied in the clinical trials of the vaccine, no loss of fertility has been reported among trial participants or among the millions who have received the vaccines since their authorization, and no signs of infertility appeared in animal studies,” the statement read. “Loss of fertility is scientifically unlikely.”

Related: Are COVID-19 vaccines safe for pregnant women? What we know.

Still, misinformation on the topic has spread widely across the United States since the drugs started rolling out. And many doctors agree on where the myth originated.

Two European anti-vaccine activists sent a letter to the European Medicines Agency in December, alleging without evidence that the drugs would render women infertile, Reuters reported. Though experts and regulators spoke out against the claims, the erroneous information found its way to millions through social media, experts say.

Dr. Katherine Apostolakis-Kyrus [Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital]
Dr. Katherine Apostolakis-Kyrus [Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital]

“It was very disappointing to the medical community,” said Dr. Katherine Apostolakis-Kyrus, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

The letter didn’t come from doctors specializing in infectious diseases or fertility. But it has proved to be enough to convince people who were already hesitant about the vaccines or have plans to get pregnant, including some working in the medical field, she said.

In January, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on national health issues, released the results of a survey that found 13 percent of unvaccinated Americans had heard that “COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility.”

“It has spread so widely,” said University of South Florida fertility specialist Dr. Anthony Imudia. “And the truth is that the wider spread this information is, the more people are going to believe it.”

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Dr. Anthony Imudia
Dr. Anthony Imudia [ University of South Florida ]

Imudia read the letter by the European activists and said they wrongly explained that the vaccines could affect a protein called syncytin-1, which is important to placenta development when, in fact, the vaccines do not interact with that protein at all.

For Apostolakis-Kyrus, there are four major reasons the claim is false:

First, the immune system is smart, she said. It can tell the difference between the immunoacids that make up the spike protein the vaccines are meant to attack, and those that make up syncytin-1. The letter alleged that the antibodies created by the vaccines would wrongly attack syncytin-1, too, but there is no evidence of that, Apostolakis-Kyrus said.

Second, no women have been found to have fertility problems after being vaccinated. Though clinical trials for the vaccines did not set out to include pregnant women, 36 of the participants became pregnant during the studies for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, Apostolakis-Kyrus said. Three who received the placebo instead of the actual vaccines had miscarriages, while those who received the vaccines did not.

Third, many women have been infected with COVID-19, which gives people the same spike protein as the vaccines. But there have not been reported increases in miscarriages or infertility, Apostolakis-Kyrus said.

About 128 million people have been infected worldwide, with about half being women. Of those 64 million people, about 40 percent are in their childbearing years, and typically about 5 percent of that population is pregnant, she said. That means about 1.25 million pregnant women have contracted the coronavirus without any sort of evidence that more of them have had unsuccessful pregnancies.

Last, the coronavirus vaccines are being studied in animals, and they have shown no increases in infertility, stillbirth, birth defects or miscarriage, Apostolakis-Kyrus said.

She and Imudia agree that the coronavirus itself poses a greater risk to women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant than the vaccines. Women who are already pregnant are more likely to experience severe symptoms with the disease, experts have found.

“If you have COVID-19 infection and your lungs are compromised, pregnancy is going to be difficult,” Imudia said. That’s because as the uterus gets bigger, the diaphragm rises, and lung capacity decreases, Apostolakis-Kyrus explained.

At the same time, a woman’s body is learning to prioritize the baby it’s carrying, she said. “Women have decreased immune response because we don’t want to harm the baby. Our bodies’ immune response goes down, and we are not as strong as fighting infection if we get sick.”

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