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Myths and reality: ingredients of COVID-19 vaccines

Many statements about the COVID-19 vaccines are frightening. Maia Uusküla, the Head of the Bureau of Pharmacovigilance in the Estonian Agency of Medicines, comments on some of the most common statements.

  • Statement: COVID-19 vaccines contain toxic ingredients

    Reality: There are no toxins in COVID-10 vaccines that are life-threatening to humans.

    All ingredients in vaccines and other medications are chosen carefully. The amount is kept minimum to have the effect. All ingredients are proved to be safe, and the suitability is assessed during the safety review of issuing the selling licence.

    All COVID-19 vaccines, regardless of the production technology, have shown good safety results. Although, the moderate reactions (soreness, swelling, redness) in the injection area are quite common, and so are the general reactions (fever, chills, ill-like feeling, muscle and joint pain, swelling and pain in lymph nodes), these side effects are short-lived and not considered serious or life-threatening.

    The only serious side effects are allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a well-known side effect of vaccination long before COVID-19 vaccines, and this is the reason you should stay in the vaccination area for 15 minutes after you've had your vaccination. There are no other known serious side effects of COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Statement: COVID-19 vaccines include metals that are dangerous to humans.

    COVID-19 vaccines that are used in Estonia, don't contain aluminium or other metals.

    Some vaccines (for instance diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, and Infarix against hepatitis B) contain a very small amount of aluminium to strengthen the immune response. Large doses of aluminium injected into the vein would be toxic to nervous cells, indeed. The doses of aluminium in vaccines is very small (less than 1 mg per dose), and vaccines are injected into muscles not veins, therefore harming nerves is excluded.
  • Statement: COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal cells.

    Reality: COVID-19 vaccines used in Estonia don't contain human cells.

    In mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna), aborted fetal cells are not used in any part of the vaccine production process.

    In the production of adenovirus-based vaccines (AstraZeneca and Jannsen), in one stage, fetal cells are used to grow viruses, but these cells are taken decades ago, and since then, reproduced in labs thousands of times. There are no cells in the final product — cellular DNA is broken down during the production process, and the vaccine is purified, so that cellular debris and growth reagents are removed.
  • Statement: The mRNA or DNA in the vaccine binds with human DNA.

    Reality: It doesn't bind.

    As the impact of the COVID-19 vaccine, human body starts producing spike proteins of the coronavirus for a short period of time. Because of it, the immune system learns to recognize the virus when it attacks.

    mRNA vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna) contain precise instructions (mRNA molecules), from which human cells know how to produce spike proteins. mRNA molecules themselves never make it to the core of the cell, where DNA is located.

    Vaccines based on adenoviruses (AstraZeneca, Jannsen) consist of more generic instructions (DNA molecules), based on what more precise instructions (mRNA molecules) are constructed in the core of the cells to produce spike proteins.

    Therefore, with vaccines based on adenoviruses, temporarily, the DNA in the vaccine that codes the spike proteins of the coronavirus reaches the core of our cell. It doesn't mean that the DNA of the spike protein binds with our DNA. Adenovirus doesn't have the molecular tools to do that, also the strain of the adenovirus in the vaccine is altered so, it can't reproduce in our cells.

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