Social media platforms were flooded this week with concerns about an alarming headline purporting that the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, which is expected to be cleared for emergency use this week, could cause infertility in women. But experts say these claims are baseless.
“It’s a myth, it’s inaccurate — there’s no evidence to support their perception,” said Saad Omer, a vaccine expert at Yale University. Expert agencies that oversee the clearance of vaccines for use in people, he added, “have a rigorous process” to weed out products that might cause such disastrous effects. “And when things happens, action is taken,” Dr. Omer said.
This week, the Food and Drug Administration reiterated its confidence in data showing that the vaccine can protect people against developing Covid-19 without causing serious side effects. Pfizer’s vaccine has been given green lights in Britain and Canada.
The rumors about infertility were fueled by an article published by a blog called Health and Money News, which falsely claimed that Pfizer’s vaccine contained ingredients capable of “training the female body to attack” a protein that plays a crucial role in the development of the placenta.
The unfounded claims were drawn from a petition co-written by Dr. Michael Yeadon, a retired British doctor and former Pfizer employee who has previously been criticized for his misleading views on the coronavirus. Dr. Yeadon has downplayed the severity of the pandemic in Britain and publicly aired his grievances about the futility of investing in vaccines.
But experts say there is no evidence to back up the infertility claim.
The key ingredient in Pfizer’s vaccine (as well as a similar vaccine made by Moderna that is also rapidly on its way to emergency clearance) is genetic material that instructs human cells to make a coronavirus protein called spike. The production of this protein teaches the body to fight off the coronavirus. There are no placental proteins, or genetic material that instructs the manufacture of placental proteins, in Pfizer’s vaccine, said a company spokeswoman, Jerica Pitts.
The misleading blog piece drew a comparison between coronavirus spike and a type of placental protein. The similarities were strong enough, it contended, that a vaccine could dupe the immune system into confusing the two proteins and attacking the placenta.
But Stephanie Langel, an immunologist and expert in maternal and neonatal immunity at Duke University, pointed out that coronavirus spike and the placental protein in question have almost nothing in common, making the vaccine highly unlikely to trigger a reaction to these delicate tissues. The two proteins share only a minuscule stretch of material; mixing them up would be akin to mistaking a rhinoceros for a jaguar because they are wearing the same collar.
Dr. Langel also pointed out that the human body has evolved to quash immune reactions that might harm its own tissues.
“If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t even make it past Day 1 of life,” she said.
Pfizer pointed to a recent study that found the coronavirus did not seem to raise the risk for pregnancy-related problems.
“There are no data to suggest that the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine candidate causes infertility,” the company said in an emailed statement.
Dr. Langel and Dr. Omer both noted that researchers would continue to monitor the well-being of vaccinated people as Pfizer’s products and others are rolled out around the world. There remains a dearth of data in people who are pregnant, Dr. Langel said. But baseless discussions about how vaccines could cause infertility, she added, were “particularly damaging” to the scientifically backed efforts to protect people with vaccines.