The claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility is one of the most common myths among Americans who say they will “definitely not” get vaccinated, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a health-focused nonprofit in California.
But the U.S. is not alone. Variations of the sterilization myth are among the most persistent global coronavirus disinformation trends, according to the World Health Organization’s Vaccine Myths vs Science podcast.
Along with the WHO scientists, fact-checkers in Indonesia, Ghana, the U.K., Arabic-speaking countries, Turkey, local U.S. media, and doctor-run health sources have provided abundant proof that the claim is false.
Baseless assertions of infertility continue to circulate nonetheless. Meantime, overall vaccine acceptance may have declined somewhat, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, which said a late January survey in 23 countries found that only 63 percent planned to get vaccinated, down from 66 percent earlier.
Why is the infertility myth so persistent? How did it start? Who keeps pushing it?
Blame the internet and social media.
The Washington Post reported that a growing number of women of child-bearing age in the U.S. are hesitant about inoculation, and that most got the information from friends who saw it on the internet. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that 40% of “the vaccine hesitant are self-selecting social media information sources they are comfortable with.”
According to The Associated Press, most of those who share the fertility disinfo on social media cite sources that seem authoritative at first glance, though not after a closer look.
The myth that the vaccines would make women infertile seems to have started after a German Socialist lawmaker and doctor, Wolfgang Wodarg, filed a petition with the European Medicine Agency demanding a halt to clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine, the AP reported.
In that petition, Wodarg suggested that antibodies created after vaccination would attack a protein vital to formation of the placenta, “which would result in vaccinated women essentially becoming infertile.”
However, many doctors and other experts say that’s bunk. Pfizer also reported that during its vaccine trial, 23 women became pregnant. One lost the pregnancy, but she had received a placebo and not the actual vaccine.
Pfizer addressed the infertility issue and Wodarg’s theory directly.
“It has been incorrectly suggested that COVID-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a very short amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 that is partly shared with a protein in the placenta called syncytin-1,” the company said. “From a scientific perspective, the differences between the two sequences are quite significant, making it very unlikely our vaccine could generate a response that would harm the placenta.”
Some observers believe “Utopia,” a popular Amazon Original mini-series that premiered on September 25, 2020, contributed to a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccines are designed for population control. “Utopia” is a fictional story about a doctor obsessed with the Earth’s overpopulation, who creates a false deadly flu pandemic to convince people to take his vaccine, which he designed to make humans infertile.
A variant of the myth – that COVID-19 vaccines cause male sterilization – is popular in some countries. These include Israel, where 70 prominent doctors signed a letter to the public stating: “A rumor that the vaccine causes infertility is particularly prevalent in Jewish circles, yet there is no evidence behind it."
Dr. Ranjith Ramasamy, director of reproductive urology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, said that concern over the risk of male infertility may be related to studies showing that the SARs-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, can affect the male reproductive system.
But there is no actual virus in the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, the first two COVID-19 vaccines to be approved in the U.S., which use genetic material to teach the body to make antibodies that fight off the coronavirus.
“People think that the vaccine actually has the virus in it. But the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines that have emergency use authorization from the FDA, are just the mRNA vaccines that make a protein that the COVID virus expresses,” Ramasamy told Winknews, a Florida radio station. “So, it is not the full virus and it does not biologically appear to actually bind to the testes and affect testicular function.”
The newest U.S.-approved vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson, uses a small piece of genetic material from the coronavirus to create immunity. The material used does not replicate in the body.
Correction: The Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs did not blame infertility fears for a decline in vaccine acceptance, as reported in an earlier version of this fact check. Polygraph.info regrets the error.