No, COVID-19 vaccines won’t make you infertile

The World Health Organization has warned that the globe is dealing with two pandemics. One is the spread of the coronavirus, but the other, equally dangerous, is the spread of misinformation and disinformation. False or misleading information has sprung up about the virus, treatments, vaccines, masks and just about every other aspect of the pandemic (SN: 5/6/21).

Some of these lies or half-truths are purposefully used by a few people to help sell vitamin supplements, books, and DVDs, or to boost their own influence. But the vast majority of people may have heard misinformation from a friend or relative, seen it on social media or heard it repeated by celebrities or politicians. In a survey of adults in the United States conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 8 in 10 people believe or aren’t sure about the truthfulness of at least one common falsehood about the pandemic. About 46 percent of people believe or are unsure about one to three falsehoods related to the pandemic, and 32 percent believe or are uncertain whether four or more erroneous statements are true or false. Only 22 percent of adults in the survey didn’t believe any of the false statements.
One particularly pernicious rumor is that coronavirus vaccines cause infertility. In the survey, 8 percent of people said they believe that false statement. Another 23 percent of people surveyed weren’t sure whether studies had shown a link between the vaccines and infertility. And it doesn’t help people tell truth from fiction when celebrities spread incorrect information. Recently, the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he lied about being vaccinated because of concerns that the COVID-19 vaccine may cause infertility, as People magazine reports. That follows rapper Nicki Minaj’s tweeting that her cousin’s friend in Trinidad had suffered swollen testicles after getting the vaccine. That claim was disputed by the health minister of Trinidad and Tobago, according to CNN.

It’s not just athletes and celebrities spreading false rumors about COVID-19 vaccines and infertility, however. That misinformation is everywhere. In Kibera, an informal settlement in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, community health volunteers hear two main concerns about getting the vaccine: “Can I have children after this?” and “Can I have the vaccine if I have diabetes or cancer [or other health problems]?” There’s a split between who is asking those questions, says Eddah Ogogo, the primary healthcare program coordinator for the international nonprofit organization CFK Africa that is helping coordinate vaccine distribution. “The younger population [is] scared about infertility. The older population is scared about comorbidities,” she says.

The easier conversation to have is reassuring people that the vaccine won’t interfere with their medications and may help those with health problems avoid the most serious complications of COVID-19. But, says Ogogo, “when it comes to fertility, there are those who get convinced. They say, ‘Wow! That’s good to know’,” and they get their shot. And then, “there are those who say, ‘I’ll keep asking around and when I get the information I want I will come [get vaccinated].’” Just under 7 percent of adults in Kenya are fully vaccinated, mostly due to lack of access to vaccines, but misinformation plays a role too, Ogogo says (SN: 2/26/21).
Local and global news outlets alike often make the disclaimer that there is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility. But that lackluster response leaves the door open for misinterpretation or rumors of a cover-up. In fact, there is evidence that the vaccines do not cause infertility. One study found that there was no difference in pregnancy rates after embryo transfers in women who had antibodies against the coronavirus from vaccination or infection compared with women who had no antibodies, researchers reported in Fertility and Sterility Reports in September. In clinical trials testing the vaccines, accidental pregnancies happened in both the vaccine group and the unvaccinated control group at similar rates, data posted in the April Nature Reviews Immunology show. Miscarriage rates were also similar, researchers reported in a Lancet study published October 21 look at pregnancies in the AstraZeneca vaccine trial.

Real-world data from Israel of more than 15,000 pregnant women also shows the benefits of the vaccine. About half of the pregnant people were vaccinated with the vaccine from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. Only about 2 percent got infected with the coronavirus — mostly between their first and second shots. But among unvaccinated women, the infection rate continued to climb, reaching about 4 percent by the end of the study, suggesting that vaccination can prevent infection during pregnancy, researchers reported in July in JAMA.

That’s good news because pregnant women who get COVID-19 are more likely to deliver their babies prematurely and may be admitted to the intensive care unit or die at a higher rate than uninfected women, a study of studies published last year in the British Medical Journal found. And men who get COVID-19 may have lower levels of testosterone and low sperm counts after infection, and may be more likely to have erectile dysfunction, three studies show. It’s not clear whether any of those problems continue long-term.

But those are consequences of COVID-19, not the vaccines. The Pfizer mRNA vaccine did not harm sperm production, researchers reported in June in JAMA, adding to the mounting evidence that vaccines are safe. That fact may eventually percolate down to people who are scared that getting the vaccine will damage their fertility.

In its latest report on managing “the infodemic” — the deluge of information about COVID-19, both true and false, that people encounter every day — the WHO laid out both short- and long-term strategies for making people less vulnerable to misinformation. One thing is clear though, the report states. “Both innocent circulation of misinformation and malicious disinformation campaigns have triggered actions across the globe that put [people] at a higher risk of spreading the coronavirus and making them more liable to harming their health.”

The U.S. Surgeon General’s office put together a handy checklist to help people vet the information they’re seeing or hearing. The checklist is part of a toolkit for teaching people how to combat misinformation in their own communities, including talking — preferably in-person rather than online — to friends and family members who may have bought into conspiracy theories. “We need people in communities all across our country to have these conversations,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told ABC news. If the Kaiser survey is any indication, there’s no shortage of folks who could benefit from such discussions.

Pig organs for people move closer to reality

Luhan Yang
Qihan Biotech

When featured in 2017, Luhan Yang had cofounded and was chief scientific officer of eGenesis, a biotech start-up. She is now cofounder and CEO of Qihan Biotech, based in Hangzhou, China, which aims to develop animal organs that are safe for human transplant and to make cell therapies that can treat conditions such as cancer and autoimmune diseases more widely accessible.

What is some of the most notable progress in your work since 2017?
The concept of xenotransplantation is to use animal organs as an alternative resource for human transplantation, since there is a huge unmet need for organs. There are two fundamental issues to be addressed. One is [that] there are endogenous retroviruses in the pig genome — some virus sequences — and they can jump around within the pig genome. The viruses can also jump from the pig cell to the human cell. So there is a potential cross-species transmission, which is a huge safety and regulatory concern.… The second hurdle of using pig organs for human transplant, as you can imagine, is rejection, and it is tremendous.

Those are the two fundamental problems … and that’s where we think gene editing can come into play. By 2017, our team had knocked out 62 [retrovirus copies]. Since then, there are three notable milestones: First, we have created our Pig 2.0, with 15 modifications for immunology…. Last year in Nature Biomedical Engineering, we showed that those modifications are properly expressed in the pig cell, and the resulting pig is healthy, as well as fertile, and the genetic modification can be passed to the offspring. The second part is we combined the [retrovirus] knockout and the immune rejection–related modification in a single pig. We call it Pig 3.0. So that is a prototype close to clinical trial.

The third part is the most exciting part for us: We need to test the function. [In a recent study published in the American Journal of Transplantation,] we put the pig kidney into a monkey. If it’s a normal pig kidney, it will be rejected in a few minutes. And right now the longest survival of our monkey is about one year.… The monkey experiment demonstrates the possibility of achieving long-term xenotransplantation.

What was it like to move from the lab to leading a company?
Being a leader in biotech is not all business. There are three components that are needed. The first part is to set the vision and strategy of the company. In such an innovative area, I think the scientific knowledge, the breadth of the exposure, I think that’s my strength.… The second part is to recruit, retain and train people. And the last part is some business judgment, like how to do fund-raising, how to organize a project, the accounting. I have to admit, I’m not the expert. But I think at my position, the key is to recruit the best people to do the job.… And I started to embrace that every leader has different strengths and weaknesses.

How has the pandemic influenced your company’s international collaborations?
I was hoping we could have more in-person meetings or travels, but right now, China still has the quarantine policy that makes it super inconvenient for international travel. Hopefully with the vaccine, the world will become what it was.

I feel the world is more divided compared with 10 years before. And I hope at least for medicine, we can see that our enemy is not a different country, but our enemy is cancer, is organ failure, is COVID, that we can keep and strengthen the collaboration across borders.

— Interview by Aina Abell

An ancient exploding comet may explain why glass litters part of Chile

Scattered across a swath of the Atacama Desert in Chile lie twisted chunks of black and green glass. How the glass ended up there, sprinkled along a 75-kilometer-long corridor, has been a mystery.

Now, analyses of space dust in the glass show that the glass probably formed when a comet, or its remnants, exploded over the desert 12,000 years ago, researchers report November 2 in Geology.

This corridor is the best evidence yet of a comet impact site on Earth, says Peter Schultz, a planetary geologist at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

There are only about 190 known impact craters on Earth (SN: 12/18/18). Falling space rocks carved out these sites, but none are known to have been created by a comet. That’s because comets, which are made of mostly ice and some rock, tend to explode before reaching the ground, a fate they share with some small asteroids. These fiery events — known as airbursts — are dramatic, generating massive amounts of heat and strong winds. But the effects are temporary and often fail to leave lasting imprints, like craters, behind.
That’s especially true in wet environments. In 1908, an airburst from an asteroid or comet over a remote part of Russia flattened trees and generated a shock wave that knocked people off their feet hundreds of kilometers away. The trees have since grown back over the site of what’s now known as the Tunguska blast, leaving just a marsh (SN: 6/5/08). “If it hadn’t been observed, no one would know it happened,” says Mark Boslough, a physicist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who wasn’t involved in the new research.

The Atacama, the world’s driest desert, is better suited to preserving impact sites. And it’s full of sand — the raw material for making glass, which forms when sand is heated to high temperatures. Heat from volcanic activity is responsible for almost all of the naturally derived glass on Earth.

The desert’s glass corridor, however, is kilometers away from the closest volcano, suggesting the glass formed in a different type of heating event, such as an airburst. But radiocarbon dating of ancient plants in the soil around the glass seemed to indicate that the pieces didn’t all form at the same time. Because airbursts rarely occur in the same place twice, the evidence led some researchers to suggest that the glass formed during several massive grass fires.

That idea, Schultz says, “seemed really weird to us because there just wasn’t enough grass for fires,” even long ago when the area probably had more greenery than it does today. After examining some of the glass, he and colleagues determined that it had formed at temperatures exceeding 1700° Celsius — much hotter than grass fires.

What’s more, the team discovered embedded within the glass compounds found in comets sampled during NASA’s Stardust mission but almost never in asteroids (SN: 1/7/04). The only way for this space dust to have made its way into the glass is if a very old chunk of space debris, such as a comet, exploded at the moment that the glass formed, the researchers say.
Strong winds from an ancient comet’s explosion folded glass as it formed in what’s now the Atacama Desert, a study finds. Folds in the glass are visible in a microscope image (left) of a section from a larger chunk of glass (right). The yellow dot marks where the section was taken.
“It’s pretty clear that this is an impact,” Boslough says. “And in this case, there’s no evidence for a crater, so this event was a pure airburst.”

An airburst would also help explain why the glass appears twisted. “It was clear the glass had been thrown around and rolled. It was basically kneaded like bread,” Schultz says. Grass fires may melt the ground, but they rarely fling it around. Like Tunguska, the airburst probably generated strong winds that flung the glass as it formed, creating the folded look.

The violence of the impact would have scattered glass far across the desert and onto different layers of sediment. Because those layers formed at different times, that may have created the illusion that the glass was created during multiple events. Looking at the dating of plants that came in direct contact with the glass allowed the researchers to pin down the date of the probable comet strike to about 12,000 years ago.

That timing places the event about 800 years after a mysterious period of rapid cooling known as the Younger Dryas, which coincided with the extinction of many large animals. Some scientists have suggested that a comet exploding over the Northern Hemisphere set off a series of events that led to the frigid conditions, though the idea is controversial (SN: 6/26/18).

The timing of the Atacama comet strike shows that it wasn’t related to the Younger Dryas event, Schultz says, but the finding does lay the groundwork for identifying other potential comet sites on Earth.

Even without a link to the Younger Dryas, the Atacama impact would have left a strong impression on anyone who saw it. Archaeological evidence suggests that people lived in the area at the time and thus may have witnessed the airburst (SN: 11/30/15). “It would have seemed like the entire horizon was on fire,” Schultz says. “If you weren’t religious before, you would be after.”