Cherry-picking: The article cast doubt over the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines by selectively citing certain pieces of information and leaving out information contradicting its preferred narrative.
FULL CLAIM: “natural immunity provides broad-spectrum protection that persists for decades”; “Microbiologist Kevin McKernan found undisclosed DNA plasmids in the shots, which could potentially integrate into the human genome… permanently”; it’s unsafe to “mix and match” vaccines; Omicron-specific booster was tested in just eight mice; “But are pregnant women actually high risk? Well, according to the evidence dissected by the CCCA, not really”
On 29 August 2023, Rebel News, a Canadian website recognized for spreading COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories, published an article and video titled “Why you should think twice before considering a COVID booster”. The article, produced by Rebel News member Tamara Ugolini, casts doubt over the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines by citing various allegedly scientific sources. A copy of the video was also uploaded on Facebook, where it received more than 14,000 views.
Some of the article’s claims aren’t new and were previously addressed by Health Feedback. And as we will explain below, the article cites sources that don’t actually support its claims and commonly ignores information contradicting its narrative that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous.
Claim 1 (Inadequate support and Cherry-picking): “natural immunity provides broad-spectrum protection that persists for decades”
The evidence provided for this claim comes from the Brownstone Institute, a known source of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation, specifically a list of “160 Plus Research Studies [That] Affirm Naturally Acquired Immunity”.
While infection does indeed generate protection against future infection and disease, the use of this list as evidence for the claim is problematic. A perusal of the first few studies in the list show they don’t actually address how long infection-induced immunity lasts or how broad its protection is. More importantly, some of the observations in these studies actually contradict Rebel News’ claim, but go unacknowledged in the article.
Take the first study in the list by Shrestha et al, which looked at the incidence of symptomatic COVID-19 in Cleveland Clinic employees.
It reported that “both previously infected individuals and those who were vaccinated were at much lower risk of getting COVID-19 than those without prior COVID-19 who remained unvaccinated”. Moreover, it concluded that “protection from both natural and vaccine-induced immunity wanes with time and is inherently less potent against the Omicron variant” [emphasis added]:
“Vaccination does not provide additional protection against COVID-19 among previously infected individuals for several months, but after that, protects at least against symptomatic COVID-19.”
Another study on the list, by Gazit et al. compared the incidence of infection in people who had been either vaccinated or previously infected. It reported that in early 2021, vaccinated people who hadn’t been infected before had a higher risk of Delta infection compared to unvaccinated people who had been previously infected. However, it also reported “evidence of waning naturally acquired immunity”—again contradicting Rebel News’ claim.
Moreover, other scientists pointed out that the study’s result was vulnerable to survivorship bias, which the authors also acknowledged “might have accounted for the stronger protection of the unvaccinated previously infected group”.
And yet another study, by Le Bert et al., examined the production of cytokines—chemicals that regulate the immune system—and T cells (a type of immune cell) targeting different SARS-CoV-2 proteins in people who had been infected. The researchers compared these parameters between people who displayed no symptoms and those who did. This study didn’t include vaccinated people. It also didn’t study infected people’s immunity in the long term.
This isn’t to say that we have zero information about how long infection-induced immunity lasts.
A review, published in The Lancet, analyzed more than 60 studies from 19 different countries to evaluate protection against symptomatic disease and severe disease after infection. It concluded that protection against symptomatic disease caused by pre-Omicron variants declined over time, but remained at about 78% after ten months. However, protection against the Omicron BA.1 variant declined much more quickly and hit about 36% after ten months. Protection against severe disease remained high, between 88 to 90%.
This data does indicate infection-induced immunity persists for some months after infection but that it wanes over time and can be significantly undermined by variants. This doesn’t support the sweeping claim made by Rebel News that infection-induced immunity persists for decades.
Finally, those who extol the virtues of “natural immunity” commonly don’t acknowledge the fact that acquiring such immunity requires a person to run the risk of infection and death. By contrast, vaccine-induced immunity provides protection without the same risks. Getting vaccinated is a safer way of acquiring protection compared to getting infected.
Claim 2 (Inadequate support): “Yet Microbiologist Kevin McKernan found undisclosed DNA plasmids in the shots, which could potentially integrate into the human genome… permanently.”
The article suggested that COVID-19 vaccines could modify DNA and cause cancer, citing “Microbiologist Kevin McKernan” who allegedly “found undisclosed DNA plasmids in the shots, which could potentially integrate into the human genome… permanently”.
But experts told Health Feedback that there’s no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines can alter our DNA. And we also assessed the claim that DNA plasmids were found in a previous review and found it to be unsubstantiated by reliable evidence. For starters, the provenance of the vaccine vials in which residual DNA was allegedly detected was unknown.
Claim 3 (Inadequate support and Cherry-picking): “The media also says that it’s ‘safe’ to mix and match vaccines — to administer them “concurrently” but the package insert also never established this as safe.”
To support this claim, the video presented a statement in the SPIKEVAX product monograph (SPIKEVAX is the name of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Canada): “Do not mix SPIKEVAX with other vaccines/products in the same syringe”.
The phrase “mix and match vaccines” may refer to using vaccines from different manufacturers for different COVID-19 vaccine doses. This may result in improved protection and increases flexibility in the event that the vaccine stock from a particular manufacturer isn’t available.
The phrase may also refer to the co-administration of more than one vaccine on the same day. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that this is “common clinical practice”. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatricians explains that children may receive multiple shots at once when following the childhood vaccination schedule and that this is safe.
Reading the SPIKEVAX product monograph makes it clear that the statement is unrelated to either of the two situations described above. Instead, it advises that different vaccines and products shouldn’t be mixed in the same syringe used to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Rebel News article’s choice to focus exclusively on the package insert is also an instance of cherry-picking. The fact is we don’t need to rely solely on the package insert for information about the mixing and matching of vaccines—there are already published studies on this subject and these didn’t detect serious health concerns from such a practice.
A CDC study examining adverse reactions after co-administration of a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine booster and a flu vaccine found that people who received both were more likely to develop systemic adverse reactions like headache, fever, rash, and nausea, but these reactions were “usually mild”.
A clinical trial in the U.K. (ComFluCOV) assessing the safety of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine (either the AstraZeneca-Oxford or the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine) and the flu vaccine concomitantly reported “no safety concerns”. It also noted that “antibody responses to both vaccines” wasn’t significantly different than if people received a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine separately.
In an article for The Conversation, immunologists Vasso Apostolopoulos and Maja Husaric explained that public health authorities initially recommended a gap between getting the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine as there hadn’t been adequate evidence on “the individual and long-term effects of the new COVID vaccines”.
But the recommendation changed after more data on safety and efficacy became available. After evaluating the data, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that “available evidence does not show increased adverse events” in its interim guidance issued in October 2021:
“Therefore, WHO considers that coadministration of an inactivated seasonal influenza vaccine and any dose of a COVID-19 vaccine is acceptable, given that the known risk of serious illness for adults infected with influenza virus or SARS-CoV-2 is substantial.”
Apostolopoulos and Husaric pointed out that co-administering the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine also has other benefits: this is “more cost-effective, the uptake is higher when people don’t have to make multiple trips, and it saves health practitioners’ time”.
Claim 4 (Misleading): “So why should we trust this next booster? Will it be tested on more than just eight mice, as the Omicron-specific one was, before it’s rolled out on those alleged to be most at risk?”
The claim that the Omicron booster was only tested in eight mice made the rounds on social media in 2022, implying that the booster hadn’t been adequately tested for safety and effectiveness.
There is a grain of truth to this claim, which is based on preliminary data examining how well antibodies could neutralize the virus after receipt of the Pfizer Omicron BA.4/5 bivalent booster dose. This data, released in June 2022, was indeed obtained in eight mice.
However, it becomes misleading in implying that we don’t actually have enough evidence about the booster shot’s safety and effectiveness. As experts told CBS News, the BA.4/5 bivalent booster is highly similar in composition to an earlier bivalent booster targeting the BA.1 variant. And that earlier booster did indeed undergo a clinical trial that included more than 1,800 people to determine its safety and effectiveness.
This is not unlike the annual flu vaccine, which is updated every year because the flu virus evolves constantly. Because the composition of the flu vaccine doesn’t significantly change from year to year, except for adjustments to adapt the flu strain, its safety isn’t expected to change significantly. As such, scientists don’t consider it necessary to run a clinical trial every year to test the flu vaccine’s safety.
Claim 5 (Misleading and Misrepresents source): “But are pregnant women actually high risk? Well, according to the evidence dissected by the CCCA, not really.”
The CCCA, or Canadian COVID Care Alliance, is a group that has spread COVID-19 misinformation. The basis for this claim mainly revolves around two studies, one from 2020 by the CDC and another by doctors at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center[9,10].
The CDC study examined COVID-19 outcomes in women of reproductive age. It reported that “pregnant women were at significantly higher risk for severe outcomes compared with nonpregnant women”.
But the CCCA criticized this study because “pregnancy status was missing for over one half (64.5%) of reported cases”, meaning that most of the women in the study couldn’t be evaluated for pregnancy-related outcomes.
This is a valid criticism, but there have since been more published studies, which better established pregnancy status in women. And these studies found that pregnant women who become infected are more likely to develop complications, including preeclampsia and preterm birth, and are more likely to die[11,12].
The other study by doctors at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center wasn’t designed to track outcomes in pregnant women who developed COVID-19. Instead, it was aimed at determining the utility and benefit of screening all pregnant women who were admitted to the hospital for delivery for COVID-19. Its conclusion:
“The potential benefits of a universal testing approach include the ability to use Covid-19 status to determine hospital isolation practices and bed assignments, inform neonatal care, and guide the use of personal protective equipment. Access to such clinical data provides an important opportunity to protect mothers, babies, and health care teams during these challenging times.”
In summary, the Rebel News article and video casts doubt over the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, citing various studies and the package insert to support its claims. But as we demonstrate above, upon closer inspection, we can see that the article commonly cites sources that are unreliable, irrelevant, or even contradictory to the claims it makes.
Reliably performed scientific studies have established that pregnant women who contract COVID-19 are at a greater risk of complications and death and that COVID-19 vaccination effectively reduces the risk of severe disease and death. Available evidence to date also suggests that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine along with another vaccine, like the flu vaccine, doesn’t carry a greater risk of serious adverse outcomes. Finally, there’s no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines alter our DNA.
- 1 – Shrestha et al. (2022) Necessity of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Vaccination in Persons Who Have Already Had COVID-19. Clinical Infectious Diseases.
- 2 – Gavit et al. (2022) Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) Naturally Acquired Immunity versus Vaccine-induced Immunity, Reinfections versus Breakthrough Infections: A Retrospective Cohort Study. Clinical Infectious Diseases.
- 3 – Le Bert et al. (2021) Highly functional virus-specific cellular immune response in asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection. Journal of Experimental Medicine.
- 4 – COVID Forecasting Team. (2023) Past SARS-CoV-2 infection protection against re-infection: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet.
- 5 – Stuart et al. (2022) Immunogenicity, safety, and reactogenicity of heterologous COVID-19 primary vaccination incorporating mRNA, viral-vector, and protein-adjuvant vaccines in the UK (Com-COV2): a single-blind, randomised, phase 2, non-inferiority trial. The Lancet.
- 6 – Hause et al. (2022) Reactogenicity of Simultaneous COVID-19 mRNA Booster and Influenza Vaccination in the US. JAMA Network Open.
- 7 – Lazarus et al. (2021) Safety and immunogenicity of concomitant administration of COVID-19 vaccines (ChAdOx1 or BNT162b2) with seasonal influenza vaccines in adults in the UK (ComFluCOV): a multicentre, randomised, controlled, phase 4 trial. The Lancet.
- 8 – Winokur et al. (2023) Bivalent Omicron BA.1–Adapted BNT162b2 Booster in Adults Older than 55 Years. New England Journal of Medicine.
- 9 – Zambrano et al. (2020) Update: Characteristics of Symptomatic Women of Reproductive Age with Laboratory-Confirmed SARS-CoV-2 Infection by Pregnancy Status — United States, January 22–October 3, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
- 10 – Sutton et al. (2020) Universal Screening for SARS-CoV-2 in Women Admitted for Delivery. New England Journal of Medicine.
- 11 – Matsuo et al. (2023) Severe Maternal Morbidity and Mortality of Pregnant Patients With COVID-19 Infection During the Early Pandemic Period in the US. JAMA Network Open.
- 12 – Villar et al. (2021) Maternal and Neonatal Morbidity and Mortality Among Pregnant Women With and Without COVID-19 Infection: The INTERCOVID Multinational Cohort Study. JAMA Pediatrics.