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.

How social stressors mark our genes

Jenny Tung
Evolutionary anthropologist
Duke University

Jenny Tung, featured in 2018, studies how social environments — including social status, relationships and isolation — influence primates’ genes and health. Her study subjects have included captive rhesus macaques and wild baboons.

What has been the most notable progress in your work since 2018?
We have built layers of complexity onto [our] initial story. A few years ago we were showing that it’s possible for social interactions to have profound effects on the function of our genome. And now we’re trying to derive a much better understanding of how and why and when, and what are the exceptions.

The other thing I’m really excited about is our ability to move away from this very powerful but very artificial system using captive primates and to ask about what’s going on in the field with wild monkeys. I’ve studied wild baboons in Kenya for many, many years. We know a lot about the social environments, the social experiences. And now with the ability to collect some simple blood samples, we’re also seeing strong signatures of things like social status and social integration, social bonds, social connectedness in the function of these animals’ genomes. That’s pretty exciting because lab studies are powerful and wonderful, but there’s always this question of, “Well, is this real in the real world?”

You were named a MacArthur Fellow in 2019. What have you been pursuing since?
It was a real honor. It has encouraged us to continue down some of these paths … and to also do some more comparative work and think about species beyond the ones that I have traditionally studied. So in the past few years, I’ve picked up work in other social mammals — wild meerkats and these very social rodents called mole rats — that have their own advantages in giving us insight into how our social world has shaped both how we came to be, our evolutionary past, and how we do day to day in our present.

I’ve been doing more work on something that’s an old love of mine: trying to understand the evolutionary consequences of intermixing between different primates. The population of baboons that I study in Kenya actually sits right at the edge of where the ranges of two different species of baboons meet. And so this population is intermixed between one species, the Anubis baboon, and this other species, the yellow baboon.… We think those patterns of intermixture influence some things about what [the animals] look like, how they behave and so on.…

We know that [humans] have also intermixed a lot with some groups that don’t even exist today, like Neandertals and Denisovans. That process of admixture that we observe right now in living primates [is] potentially relevant to understanding our species’s history.

What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced since 2018?
In many ways, I felt very fortunate during the pandemic; as an academic with tenure, I have a secure job. But we were also home with a 3-year-old for a long stretch. I spend usually at least a month a year in Kenya, and I have since 2006. But not in 2020. We had to figure out some way of keeping [the research] continuous without any ability to travel there. We have a permanent staff in Kenya — they are Kenyan — who are very important to us and have been working with our project in some cases for many decades, and they were having their own issues, and isolation, and risks in the face of a lot of uncertainty.

I spend a lot of time in my research life thinking about social interactions. And every species that I study … they live in groups. And humans, to a large extent, we live together. We didn’t evolve to be on our own for a long period of time. And so I spent a lot of time reading and thinking and working on, “Why when you don’t have the right sort of social connections, why does your risk of death just shoot up? What’s the consequence of chronic social stress?” One of the things that I really appreciate in a more visceral manner [now] is how important my social network is to me. I think that we’re all looking for ways to connect during the pandemic. And that’s when your personal experience and the things that you’re writing papers about and thinking about really collide.

— Interview by Aina Abell