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PolitiFact’s guide to commonly misunderstood vaccine terms, and how to talk about them

The big thing to know: It’s better to respond with facts than to offer corrections.
As families convene for the holidays, we expect a lot of unfamiliar words and ideas are going to be passed around the table, along with stuffing and rolls.
As families convene for the holidays, we expect a lot of unfamiliar words and ideas are going to be passed around the table, along with stuffing and rolls.
Published Nov. 25

In 2020, words like lockdown, quarantine and herd immunity entered the world lexicon. The massive rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 ushered in a new set of buzzwords that are often misunderstood or willfully misinterpreted.

As families convene for the holidays, we expect a lot of unfamiliar words and ideas are going to be passed around the table, along with stuffing and rolls. So we’ve developed a quick guide to some of the most misused terms around vaccines that we’ve noticed in our fact-checking.

And because we know that shouts of “that’s wrong!” don’t go over smooth like gravy, we’re including an expert’s advice on how to talk about vaccine falsehoods with family and friends.

The big thing to know: It’s better to respond with facts than to offer corrections.

“If they said something like the ‘vaccine is dangerous,’ include a statistic about how 75% of the people in their state have gotten vaccinated and none have died, or how severe and dangerous COVID-19 is,” said Rupali Limaye, an associate scientist at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who studies how health information can best be communicated. “And, ultimately, make sure you’re saying it all with empathy.”

“VAERS”

VAERS stands for the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System, a critical reporting tool for the federal government to collect and analyze data on after-effects from all vaccines, not just COVID-19. (And it rhymes with “bears.”) Researchers monitor this database for trends in case a particular group or groups experience a similar reaction after being vaccinated. That gives them a signal to investigate the issue further.

Unlike other government data sources, VAERS is designed so that anyone — parents, patients and health care professionals — can report health effects that occur after a vaccination, whether or not those effects were caused by the vaccine. The reports aren’t verified before they’re entered into the database, and anyone with a computer can search the data, download it, sort through the numbers and interpret them as they wish. And they do, often incorrectly or unscientifically.

These unvetted reports are vulnerable to abuse. The bottom line: Talking points about adverse events reported to VAERS do not constitute proof of cause and effect.

“Spike protein”

The human body and other organisms are made up of a variety of proteins, and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has its own.

The virus’ spike protein, which allows the virus to penetrate cells and cause infection, has sharp bumps that protrude from the surface of the virus’ outer envelopes. COVID-19 vaccines introduce a piece of the protein — but not the harmful part of the virus — which the immune system quickly identifies, attacks and destroys as a foreign invader. The Infectious Disease Society of America estimates that the spike protein from the vaccine lasts up to a few weeks, like other proteins made by the body.

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It isn’t a “toxic” molecule that can cause health problems, as some have falsely claimed. It helps the immune system figure out how to respond to the real coronavirus.

“mRNA”

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines use messenger RNA to deliver an instruction manual to cells for making the coronavirus’ spike protein.

They’re different from conventional vaccines that use part of a bacterium or virus to induce protein production.

The mRNA is fragile and quickly broken down in the body once the cells learn the blueprint, which is usually within three days of receiving the vaccine. The molecule does not — we repeat, does not — enter the nucleus of cells and alter a person’s DNA.

If someone at the table insists that it does, make your explanation as straightforward as possible.

“Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t use condescending language,” Limaye said. “Sometimes it’s hard to do when you are having these conversations, but keeping it simple and to the point is important.”

“Adenovirus vaccine”

Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine is adenovirus-based, which means that it delivers its immunity through a virus that has been altered so that it can’t make someone sick, can’t replicate and cannot integrate into DNA.

A genetic snippet of the virus is placed into the adenovirus — the section of genetic code that codes for the spike protein.

“The adenovirus is like a Trojan horse, except that what it’s delivering is a good thing,” the Mayo Clinic said. “You get the vaccine, the adenovirus goes into your cell, it’s got this Trojan horse code on it that makes the spike protein. That spike protein then goes to the surface of your cell, and then your immune system recognizes it and starts to make antibodies to it.”

“Syncytin-1″

Syncytin-1, a protein found in humans and some animals, is most known for helping develop the placenta, the temporary organ that helps nourish a fetus during pregnancy. Syncytin-1 is at the crux of inaccurate claims that the vaccines cause infertility.

Research shows that the vaccines do not cause infertility or impotence. But some people have wrongly claimed that the vaccine’s spike protein and syncytin-1 are one and the same, meaning that, after being introduced by the shot, the body would attack the syncytin-1 protein. While the two proteins share a minute string of amino acids, the similarity is too small to have any impact, experts say.

Syncytin-1 and the coronavirus’ spike protein have “almost nothing in common, making the vaccine highly unlikely to trigger a reaction,” Duke University immunologist Dr. Stephanie Langel told the New York Times.

“If someone says they heard the vaccine causes infertility, I would just respond with something direct — like that there are no studies that show a link between the vaccines and infertility. Zero,” Limaye said.

“Graphene oxide”

A raft of social media posts warn that the vaccines are packed with a lethal ingredient called graphene oxide.

Graphene-family materials have an array of uses in biotechnology, and there’s evidence that the compound can be toxic in certain circumstances. But there’s no graphene oxide in the vaccines.

A Pfizer spokesperson told us that the material is used in some vaccines, but none by Pfizer, and the material doesn’t appear in the ingredient lists for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

“Ivermectin”

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic medication that has been widely touted as a COVID-19 treatment, despite health authorities warning against COVID-19 patients self-medicating with the drug.

Ivermectin has been approved to treat people with conditions caused by parasitic worms, and some topical forms can be used for external parasites, like head lice.

But when people started to believe it could treat COVID-19, some of them ingested forms of the drug made for animals, causing a dramatic uptick in calls to poison control.

There’s some evidence that the human version of the drug may help COVID-19 patients, in places with high rates of parasites. But public officials warn that more research is still needed on ivermectin’s effectiveness as a COVID-19 treatment.

“Nanoparticle”

The term “nanoparticle” has been widely misused, with claims that the vaccines contain “nanotechnology” that can apparently do everything from tracking your location to turning you into the Terminator.

“None of the vaccines contain nanotechnology of any sort, let alone ‘transhumanism nanotechnology,’ which isn’t even a thing,” Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at the Alliance for Science and Cornell University, told PolitiFact.

The lipid blobs used in some of the vaccines are called “nanoparticles” because they are very, very small — they have nothing to do with 5G networks or tracking technology.

Scientists use the prefix “nano” to refer to things on the scale of an individual atom, but it can be applied to anything that’s very small.

“5G”

The term 5G stands for fifth generation and refers to the most advanced networks used for cell phone data. Even before the pandemic, there were fears about the health risks of the high-frequency radio waves used for 5G networks. The pandemic compounded those fears with claims that the vaccines contain microchips that the government would use to track recipients via that very same network. But that’s nonsense.

Baseless claims about the shots containing microchips were circulating well before the COVID-19 vaccines existed — even though that’s not physically possible. As Dr. Paul Offit, chair of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, pointed out: “A microchip is about 0.5 inch long. That wouldn’t fit through the end of a needle.”

A final word about words

The best way to talk through different views on vaccines with loved ones is by making your point in a personal context that takes the focus off them.

“Think of a family member they want to protect, so it’s not all about them,” Limaye said. “Like ‘Hey, I’m really concerned about grandma and I just want to make sure we are doing all we can to protect her.’ It leaves the pressure off them but they still have some skin in the game.”

In the end, recognize when someone isn’t interested in your information. A fight isn’t going to help.

“I’ve learned in all of these conversations, that sometimes you need to walk away,” Limaye said. “You’re not going to get anywhere if someone is emotionally charged.”

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

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