A new study, published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health focuses on perceptions of COVID-19 vaccines among residents of remote communities in Alaska. The study presents results of analysis of survey data, collected from late 2020 throughout 2021. These data have revealed that misconceptions regarding COVID-19 vaccines have been fairly common in remote Alaskan communities. Notably, they include misconceptions regarding effects of the vaccines on pregnancy and fertility. Mixed within the misconceptions related to fertility and pregnancy, these remote communities have a fair number of people holding misconceptions related to the interaction of the vaccines with DNA in the cells of vaccine recipients. So let’s take a deep dive into the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in connection with pregnancy, fertility, and the perinate (fetus and newborn).
Recently, The Pulse addressed the question about COVID-19 vaccines and fertility. This story reiterated what I have explained in previous posts, dealing with rumors that COVID-19 vaccines affect fertility, which they do not and that they can cause placental abruption, which they also do not. Of the participants surveyed, the Alaska study found that about 28 percent were unsure as to whether or not COVID-19 vaccines could affect fertility, while about 19 percent were not sure whether such vaccines could affect the DNA of those who receive the vaccines.
There are different types of COVID-19 vaccines. The ones that are relevant to today’s discussion are the types that carry instructions to vaccine recipient’s cells that enable the cells to manufacture viral spike protein. This is one of a handful of proteins that SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) produces from its RNA genome. Molecules of spike protein project outward from the viral coat, like the spikes around the head of the Statue of Liberty, which is what gives the virus a crownlike —coronal— appearance when viewed in electron microscopy. Those spike protein molecules are what bring the virus into contact with cells in the lungs that lead to severe COVID-19, but they also provoke the immune system.
Consequently the strategy with certain COVID-19 vaccine types is to provide a small number of body cells with genetic instructions for making spike protein. The cells make the spike protein temporarily, which then gets transported to the cell surface. This happens in a lot of body tissues, but, importantly, it happens in special types of cells called antigen presenting cells, within germinal centers in lymph nodes in the axilla (armpit) of the arm in which the vaccine is injected.
There are two categories of vaccines that carry instructions for making spike protein. One type is the viral vector vaccines, such as the AstraZeneca/Oxford and the Johnson and Johnson (Janssen) vaccine. These vaccines deliver DNA that encodes spike protein. The other type is the mRNA vaccines, meaning the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. These vaccines deliver mRNA that encodes spike protein. Neither the DNA from the viral vector vaccines, nor the mRNA from mRNA vaccines changes the DNA of the chromosomes of cells that receive it.
As for misconceptions about the vaccines and pregnancy and fertility, there is a myth circulating that the mRNA vaccines could possibly trigger what doctors call abruptio placentae. That’s Latin for placental abruption, meaning premature detachment of the placenta from the uterus. Those who have speculated that such vaccines could trigger abruptio placentae also worry that the vaccines could cause combination male-female infertility. Their reasoning is that a portion of the spike protein resembles a portion of a protein called syncytin-1. This latter protein is involved both in the attachment of the placenta to the endometrium of the uterus and also is involved in the fusion between male and female gametes (sperm and egg) during conception. The claim is that an immune response that vaccination will trigger against the spike protein of SARS-CoV2 will also trigger an immune response against syncytin-1, thus disrupting conception and also causing the placenta to detach from the uterus. The idea is very speculative and clinical data do not support it.
While there is similarity between a portion of syncytin-1 and viral spike protein, the viral spike protein is a much larger protein, consisting of three identical units that are made by coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV2. The three units are assembled into a triple-unit protein present in the protein coat that surrounds the virus particles. The section of the spike protein in question is not similar enough to syncytin-1 for there to be what immunologists call epitopes (particular immune-generating regions) that would cause an immune reaction against syncytin-1. The dissimilarity would be particularly noteworthy when the spike protein is displayed attached to special other proteins, called MHC receptors, on the surfaces of cells that receive the vaccine mRNA, and that’s exactly what happens; the mRNA goes into your cells, the mRNA is transcribed into spike protein, which then gets transported to the surface of the cell and sits there, attached to either of two types of MHC receptor.
Hahn MB, Fried RL, Cochran P, Eichelberger LP. Evolving perceptions of COVID-19 vaccines among remote Alaskan communities. Int J Circumpolar Health. 2022 Dec;81(1):2021684. doi: 10.1080/22423982.2021.2021684. PMID: 35057696; PMCID: PMC8786257.