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No, Covid vaccines don’t make your body attack its own cells

This article is more than 2 years old

In a video captioned “Word from the PRO”, a man draws diagrams on a whiteboard to illustrate his claim that vaccines against Covid-19 will make the body attack itself.

The man claims that the vaccines cause the cells lining the blood vessels to produce the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19, or a part of the virus known as the spike protein. As a result, the body’s immune system will supposedly “mount their attack on your vessel walls”, which the man claims is “the first way towards clot formation”.

The claims are not true. There is no evidence that “your killer lymphocytes start trying to kill you” after Covid vaccination. The claims take advantage of fears that Covid-19 vaccines can cause dangerous blood clots.

In reality, the vaccines are safe and the best defence against severe Covid-19 symptoms.

Evidence cited by ‘the PRO’ does not support claims

The “PRO” is Sucharit Bhakdi. He is a retired professor of microbiology, and the winner of a 2020 “Golden board in front of his head” award from a German anti-pseudoscience society “for his unscientific downplaying of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Bhakdi’s false claims about the pandemic, including the claims in this video, have been repeatedly debunked. Even the sources he cites do not support his claims.

In the original, longer video from which the Facebook video has been clipped, Bhakdi says the body will mount an immune response to Covid-19, making vaccines against the disease unnecessary. He also says the body’s immune response to vaccines will cause it to attack itself.

Four scientific papers were linked under the original video, and Bhakdi references them several times, but none support his claims.

All were studies with very few participants. The largest studied 203 people who had recovered from Covid-19. The participants in the other trials were 13 healthcare workers with no history of Covid-19, six adults, and in one study just four healthcare workers.

These sample sizes are too small to draw useful conclusions about how effective Covid-19 vaccines are in a general population. This is why actual studies of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines involve much larger groups, on the order of tens or hundreds of thousands of people. The studies also do not indicate that Covid-19 vaccines are in any way dangerous.

The main findings in the studies were that the various vaccines did trigger immune responses that targeted the Sars-CoV-2 virus. The studies also made various observations about the nature of this immune response.

This is not alarming. In fact, vaccines are meant to provoke an immune response, which teaches the body to protect itself from a disease. So, while the studies quoted by Bhakdi are not comprehensive enough to determine how effective the vaccines are on a large scale, they suggest that the vaccines function as they should.

None of the papers raise concerns about the vaccines, none indicate that vaccines are unnecessary, or undesirable, and none suggest that vaccines target or damage a vaccinated person’s cells.

The study of 203 people who recovered from Covid-19 found that all participants mounted an immune response to the disease, and Bhakdi claims that this makes vaccines unnecessary. But this is misleading. Protection from a disease can be acquired by exposure to the disease, but vaccination allows a person to acquire that protection while avoiding severe symptoms of the disease. In the case of Covid-19, symptoms can include death. 

So “the PRO” is wrong to claim that these studies show vaccines to be dangerous or unnecessary. They don’t.

Bhakdi’s claims are baseless. But you may have heard of a risk that Covid-19 vaccines cause severe blood clots. Is this risk real?

Blood clot risks extremely rare, not unique to Covid-19 vaccines

Bhakdi claims in the video that white blood cells called leukocytes, an important part of the body’s immune system, will attack the cells in the blood vessels when these cells begin producing “the virus or the virus protein”. “This is the first way towards clot formation that as we know is happening all over the place,” he says.

An autoimmune response is when the immune system mistakenly attacks some part of the body instead of the cause of a disease. Claims that Covid-19 vaccines cause autoimmune diseases have been repeatedly debunked, and none of the papers cited by Bhakdi raise this concern.

But it is possible that Bhakdi is misinterpreting other research into how Covid-19 vaccines may cause rare adverse events. Several studies, some published as pre-prints before Bhakdi’s video was originally uploaded, have investigated why some Covid-19 vaccines have been linked to extremely rare but potentially dangerous blood clotting.

A leading theory is that the viral vector (the delivery method) for the active ingredient in some vaccines may interact with certain compounds in a person’s blood to cause blood clots. As Africa Check has explained in the past, this specific viral vector, called ChAdOx1, has been used in several vaccine candidates since it was first trialled in 2014.

Several European countries paused their rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which uses ChAdOx1, because of a potential increased chance of blood clots. But experts have criticised this pause as “an overcorrection”, and noted that fewer clotting events have been reported by people given the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine than should be expected from a healthy population of the same size.

The European Medicines Agency also declared the vaccine safe for use after an investigation that found the benefits of the vaccine in being able to prevent severe illness and death due to Covid-19 “outweigh its risks in adults of all age groups”, and that the most severe side effects were extremely rare.

It is also worth noting that Covid-19 itself has been associated with increased risk of dangerous blood clots, especially in patients with severe symptoms of the disease.

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