A tweet falsely claims that vaccination causes variants

In late 2020 the Alpha variant (B.1.1.7) appeared first in the United Kingdom, and then worldwide. It became the dominant variant in the United States, and introduced the world to the first of several COVID-19 variants of concern. While B.1.1.7 was not the first COVID-19 variant, it served to enhance the myth that COVID-19 vaccines had a relationship with the formation of COVID-19 variants. According to the CDC, “[n]ew variants of a virus happen because the virus that causes COVID-19 constantly changes through a natural ongoing process of mutation (change). As the virus spreads, it has more opportunities to change.” 

When asked if the COVID-19 vaccine cause variants Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, MD, MHS, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and physician in the Division of Clinical Care Medicine said, “It is a myth.” According to Galiatsatos, “[E]verytime a virus comes in us, when it leaves, it’s a little bit different…one of the things that has allowed this virus to become a pandemic is the ability to catch our immune systems off guard.” Galiatsatos referenced Ebola as an example of a virus that kills individuals too quickly to become pandemic in the same way as COVID-19. “If anything, the vaccine makes sure that…its impact on the healthcare system is massively attenuated.”

The Alpha variant was followed by additional variants including Delta and Omicron. As observed by authors of the article “Mitigating COVID-19 in the face of emerging virus variants, breakthrough infections and vaccine hesitancy,” “Being an RNA virus, the COVID-19 virus is continuing to mutate, resulting in the emergence of new variants with high transmissibility, such as the recently discovered Omicron variant.” 

Worldwide inequities, and getting the vaccine to those in need, have been in constant and persistent struggle. Far from viewing the vaccines as a vector for variants, the authors see the vaccines as a need, and a need that many worldwide lack. “We often fail to consider that the COVID-19 still is a pandemic and billions of people around the world have yet to receive a single dose of vaccine. Only 8.1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose whereas almost 60–80% of people are fully vaccinated in developed countries.” 

These numbers underline the disparity in vaccine equity between wealthy and low-income countries. Lack of access to the vaccine, not the vaccine itself, is one of the contributing factors  to the emergence of variants. As researchers Haque and Pant state: “If the virus is not contained in other countries, the risk of the emergence of a more serious variant threatens places with high and low vaccination rates alike…The only way to end this pandemic is to get enough people vaccinated so we can reduce the speed of new variants emerging and spreading.”

As for how individuals can safeguard themselves from the dangers of COVID and future variants of COVID-19, Galiatsatos has a three-step strategy to follow: “Don’t catch [COVID]…[I’m still a] mask advocate. Because even though we have a vaccine to keep you from dying, I can’t promise [getting COVID] won’t have any…effects like long-COVID, so don’t catch it is strategy number 1. Strategy number 2 is, contain it. So if you do happen to catch it, we have the rapid test, you test positive, you stay home, you’re not out there spreading it around. You’re doing your role. The last part is controlling it…making sure that we can keep it in this mild-to-moderate form…vaccinations and medications…keep it from being life-threatening.”

For additional resources around COVID-19 please visit www1.nyc.gov/site/coronavirus/index.page or call 311. New Yorkers can find locations of where to pick up free rapid tests by calling 311 or by visiting: www.nychealthandhospitals.org/COVID-19-testing-sites/ and can schedule an at-home test by calling 929-298-9400 between 9:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., seven days a week.

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