If you clicked on this story, chances are you’re among the growing number of people looking for answers about whether the coronavirus vaccine is safe for pregnant people, or about misinformation circulating online that suggests the vaccine could even cause infertility.
Canadian doctors say they are seeing a rise in questions like these since the vaccines were approved.
And the Google search data appears to back them up.
Over the last two weeks, the number of people searching for phrases like “Pfizer vaccine pregnancy,” “COVID vaccine pregnancy” and “coronavirus vaccine infertility” has shot up globally, overlapping with the approvals and early rollouts of vaccines in the U.K., Canada and the U.S.
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At the same time, the fact that the vaccine wasn’t tested on pregnant or breastfeeding individuals — a common and increasingly criticized medical research problem on its own — means doctors are trying to guide patients on how best to weigh potential risks and known risks, while also fighting misinformation.
“There’s been a little bit of a mixed message for so many things during the pandemic. We’re learning so many new things at a lightning speed and things change every day,” said Dr. Darine El-Chaâr, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the Ottawa Hospital and a clinician scientist at the Ottawa Health Research Institute.
El-Chaâr, who specializes in high-risk pregnancies and is currently leading a provincial study on COVID-19 transmission between birthing individuals and their babies, says the decision to exclude pregnant and breastfeeding people from the vaccine trials has real implications.
“They were excluded. Therefore, we don’t have enough information and safety data to be able to counsel women about the risk, and that’s where we are today,” she said.
“The main issues are that front line care workers — who are taking care of many of the patients affected by the pandemic — a lot of them are women who are either pregnant or nursing. So they make up quite a majority of the workforce and they certainly do want the vaccine.”
According to the product monograph for the Pfizer vaccine, “the safety and efficacy of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine in pregnant women have not yet been established.
“It is unknown whether the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine is excreted in human milk. A risk to newborns/infants cannot be excluded.”
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That’s prompted two main different approaches in countries that have approved the vaccine.
The U.K. is advising the vaccine not be offered to people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or who may get pregnant within three months of their first dose, while Canada and the U.S. take a different stance.
Pregnant and breastfeeding people can still get the vaccine, but should do so in consultation with their healthcare provider after weighing their personal risks of exposure and with a full understanding that the vaccine has not been tested on their demographic.
Public health officials say anyone getting the vaccine should still avoid getting pregnant within two months of the last dose.
READ MORE: Lack of women’s care could see nearly 1M unplanned pregnancies globally
El-Chaâr added a key part of that conversation is the fact that while there is not yet clinical data on how this specific vaccine affects pregnant people, there is very clear evidence of the significant risks those individuals face if they contract COVID-19 during their pregnancies.
“We know the outcomes are more severe.”
Can the coronavirus vaccine cause infertility?
Experts also were clear on what they make of unattributed, unsourced posts circulating on social media that claim the Pfizer vaccine will cause infertility — a claim that even Facebook, often accused of facilitating the easy spread of health misinformation, has since marked as false.
At first glance, the misinformation lays out a seemingly simple narrative.
“The vaccine contains a spike protein (see image) called syncytin-1, vital for the formation of the human placenta in women,” the fake post claims.
“If the vaccine works so that we form an immune response AGAINST the spike protein, we are also training the female body to attack syncytin-1, which could lead to infertility for an unspecified duration.”
However, scientists say there’s no basis for that claim.
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Syncytin-1 is a protein involved in the development of the placenta in mammals.
The gene that houses the protein first emerged in mammals millions of years ago, and is actually the result of an ancient virus integrating into mammal DNA, according to Kyle Anderson, assistant professor of biochemistry, microbiology and immunology at the University of Saskatchewan.
The spike protein on the coronavirus is a separate protein, and though there are a couple of similarities between some of its amino acids and those in the syncytin-1 protein, those similarities are minute.
“The idea that our bodies will recognize Sars-CoV-2 spike protein and cause antibodies to destroy a woman’s placenta is about as realistic as me being unable to differentiate between holding my son’s hand and the foot of a chicken,” Anderson said.
“Yes, they have the same evolutionary origin, but that’s meaningless when it comes to our innate ability to tell them apart.”
Roderick Slavcev, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Waterloo, offered a similar response, stressing there “no significant similarity is found between the two proteins so no plausible reason for any cross-reactivity of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to be cross-reactive and mount an immune response against Syncytin-1.”
El-Chaâr also said there is no basis for the claim, and said it’s important for care providers to have honest, frank conversations with their patients about the information circulating on the vaccine.
“Certainly that can be challenging these days as the pandemic is 10 months on, then there’s so much new information to learn as providers. I certainly see that fatigue,” she said. “But there really isn’t any other option right now to keep taking good care of our patients and providing those answers.“
With files from Global’s Rachael D’Amore.