Pregnancy

COVID-19 Vaccine & Fertility

It’s understandable if you have questions about the COVID-19 vaccines. And if you’re contemplating pregnancy, or actively trying to get pregnant, recent social media posts may have caused you to feel concerned about possible side effects.

In particular, you may have seen viral social media posts warning women that the COVID-19 vaccines may make you infertile, which is not what you want to hear when you’re yearning for the sound of your baby’s heartbeat on a future ultrasound.

The good news? These rumors aren’t rooted in science, and in truth there’s plenty of strong evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe for all women, whether they’re trying to get pregnant, are currently pregnant or are thinking about getting pregnant at some point in the distant (or not so distant) future, experts say.

Here’s what you need to know so you feel comfortable scheduling your shot when you become eligible.

How did the COVID-19 vaccine infertility rumors start?

A myth linking one of the COVID-19 vaccines with infertility has recently been making the rounds on various social media platforms and blogs.

The rumor originated from a letter written to the European Medicines Agency by a German physician and a former Pfizer employee. The letter requested that the clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine be stopped in the European Union until the company could provide more safety data.

The duo wrote that they were concerned that spike proteins found in COVID-19 were similar to a spike protein in the placenta called syncytin-1, and that antibodies developed from the vaccine might, in theory, cause the body to attack the placenta, leaving women infertile. Their petition spread like wildfire on social media, with posts claiming that the vaccine “causes female sterilization.” 

In addition, the rumor mill may have been further exacerbated by an Amazon Prime Video series called “Utopia,” which follows a biotech chief executive, played by John Cusack, who engineers a fake epidemic in order to inject people with a vaccine that makes them infertile.

“I’ve had family members and friends call me asking about these rumors because a friend of a friend is trying to get pregnant and is frantic,” says Oluwatosin Goje, M.D., an OB/GYN at the Cleveland Clinic and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board. “But with a little bit of digging, these concerns are easy to dispel.”

What do leading experts say about COVID-19 vaccines and fertility?

These claims are not at all borne out by science, says Mark Payson, M.D., an OB/GYN, reproductive endocrinologist and fertility specialist at CCRM Northern Virginia in Vienna, and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.

Leading experts from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) all joined together to release a statement this past February stressing that there is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine can lead to loss of fertility.

While fertility was not specifically studied in the clinical trials of the vaccine, the groups point out that no loss of fertility has been reported among trial participants or among the millions of women who have received the vaccines since their authorization, nor have any signs of infertility appeared in animal studies.

In addition, the two spike proteins found in the COVID-19 virus and in the placenta are different enough that it’s highly unlikely that your body would get confused between the two, points out Dr. Goje.

“The term ‘spike protein’ is relatively new to us all, so a lot of laypeople hear the word and don’t completely understand what it means,” she explains. “But even the physicians themselves who wrote the original letter acknowledged that there was no evidence that antibodies against the spike protein of COVID-19 would also act like anti-Syncytin-1 antibodies.”

What’s more, if the German physician’s theory was true, it would show up as increased miscarriages rather than trouble conceiving, as the issue would lie with the placenta, Dr. Goje adds. Yet data doesn’t bear this out.

“We saw absolutely no evidence of this in animal model studies, and the data collected from the CDC now from over 30,000 pregnant women who got the vaccine shows this isn’t happening,” she reassures. 

How do the COVID-19 vaccines work, and how do we know they’re safe?

To understand why the COVID-19 vaccines are considered safe, including for women trying to get pregnant and those who are pregnant, it may help to take a crash course in how they work.

  • mRNA vaccines: Two of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines, the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, are mRNA vaccines. They contain messenger RNA, or mRNA, a genetic material that tells your body how to make proteins (in this case, it teaches your cells how to make a piece of the spike protein found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19). After that happens, your immune system realizes that the protein doesn’t belong in your body, and begins to build an immune response and make protective antibodies, just like it would if you were naturally infected with COVID-19. Contrary to some rumors, mRNA vaccines don’t contain live virus, and they also cannot change your cells’ DNA in any way. “Researchers have been studying mRNA vaccines for decades for diseases such as flu, Zika and even cancer, so we have plenty of strong safety data,” says Dr. Payson.
  • Viral vector vaccines: The Johnson & Johnon/Janssen Pharmaceuticals vaccine is slightly different. Viral vector vaccines like this one use a disabled version of a live virus to deliver genetic material from the COVID-19 virus into your body’s cells. Once it does that, the vaccine gives your cells instructions on how to make the COVID-19 spike protein, just like the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines do. Its adenovirus platform (known as AdVac) has also been used for years in the development of the company’s Ebola vaccine, as well as in HIV, RSV and Zika vaccine candidates, so its safety data is strong, notes Dr. Payson.

There’s no “right” vaccine, either: All three have similar rates when it comes to preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death.

“Whatever shot you can get in your arm ASAP is the best one for you,” Dr. Payson stresses.

What should you know about the COVID-19 vaccines if you’re trying to get pregnant?

If you are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine, jump at the chance, advises Dr. Payson.

“We know getting COVID-19 when pregnant is a significant risk factor for miscarriage, and that pregnant women are more likely to end up in the ICU and even die than age matched women who aren’t pregnant,” he says.

If you’re scheduled to get the vaccine and discover that you’re pregnant, Dr. Payson recommends having a discussion with your health care provider. While it appears safe to go ahead, ACOG recommends pregnant women who experience fever following vaccination take acetaminophen, since it’s been proven to be safe for use during pregnancy and doesn’t appear to impact antibody response to the vaccine.

If you’re also scheduled to get another vaccine that you’re due for, such as Tdap or influenza, your practitioner may recommend that you hold off for at least 14 days after you get your COVID-19 vaccine.

“The bottom line is my answer to any patient who’s either attempting to conceive, or is pregnant, and worried about the COVID-19 vaccine, is that they should absolutely get it and all the data we have now suggests it’s effective and safe and won’t impact fertility or pregnancy,” says Dr. Payson. “There are no guarantees, but in my opinion, any risks of the COVID-19 vaccine pale behind the risk of getting COVID-19 yourself.”

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