A widely respected immunisation expert endured a lone two-hour grilling from members of the public during an online briefing aimed at dispelling vaccine myths, after connection problems kept her fellow panellist and virology expert out in the cold.
The briefing, which was hosted by the Government Communication and Information Systems (GCIS) in an effort to dispel misinformation around Covid-19 vaccines, was supposed to allow the public and media to pose questions to experts Prof Hannelie Meyer, National Immunisation Safety Expert Committee chairperson, and Prof Rose Burnett from the virology department at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University.
Opening the discussion, facilitator Clayson Monyela, deputy director-general from the international relations and co-operation department (Dirco), said people had been sharing information that was unhelpful and creating vaccine hesitancy.
“There is a lot of information that is spreading, particularly on social media that is not always helpful and that confuses people in certain instances,” he said.
Burnett, however, was unable to join the briefing due to connection difficulties, leaving Meyer to weather a blizzard of fears and half-truths from anxious participants.
Listeners called in with questions ranging from why the Pfizer vaccine had been approved after thousands of people allegedly died during safety trials, to why it was not reported that tens of thousands of women were suffering from post-vaccine menstrual irregularities.
People also demanded to know why the vaccines’ ingredients had allegedly been “kept secret”, whether it was right to insist that children were vaccinated despite reports of youngsters being susceptible to adverse reactions such as myocarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle — and why PCR tests were not free when vaccines were?
Responding to the question on how the Pfizer had been approved despite so many people allegedly dying during the phase two trials, Meyer said medicines would never get approval from regulators if they were unsafe.
“No authority like Sahpra (SA Health Products Regulatory Authority) nor the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will approve a vaccine if they know it is going to kill people,” she said.
A fact check carried out by US-based Politifact, an accuracy watchdog run by the Poynter Institute, into the claim by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that thousands of people had died after getting the Pfizer vaccine determined the claim was false.
Carlson’s claim was based on data from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, an open-source database which Politifact noted had often been “misused” by anti-vaccine activists to make false claims about vaccine safety.
“That’s because VAERS data is considered unreliable for drawing causal conclusions. And dying after a vaccine is not the same thing as dying because of the vaccine,” wrote Politifact’s Bill McCarthy.
A subsequent fact check carried out by Reuters found that while six participants died during the 44,000-person Pfizer vaccine trial, only two had been given the vaccine while the other four were placebo recipients.
“Go and look at the Pfizer trial,” said Meyer, adding that one of the vaccine recipients had died from cardiac arrest while the other died from arteriosclerosis.
“Of the four on the placebo, two died from unknown causes, one from a stroke and the other from a myocardial infarction.”
The FDA determined that none the participant’s deaths were caused by the vaccine.
“None of these deaths were assessed by the investigator as related to study intervention,” the watchdog said in a briefing document on the Pfizer trial.
Meyer said the while reports of women suffering menstrual irregularities after being vaccinated were true, it was important to weigh up the risks against the benefits.
The same was true in the wake of reports of young people developing myocarditis, she added.
“The risk of developing myocarditis after vaccination is about one in 100,000,” she said. “But the Covid-19 risks are much higher.”
It was important that the public reported adverse reactions to the vaccine, Meyer said, adding that Sahpra had set up a microsite where people could report bad reactions to the jabs.
“All severe cases are being investigated to see if there is a link,” she said.
On widespread opposition to vaccine mandates, Meyer agreed that people should have the right to choose what they want to do.
It was important that people had enough information to make the right choice, she added.
“Once you start forcing people, you make them more negative,” she said. “People have a choice but you will have to bear the consequences of your choice.”
Meyer refuted claims that the vaccine ingredients were hidden.
Many of the ingredients were everyday substances such as sugars, salts and lipids, all of which had a specific function such as ensuring stability during transport and that the vaccine had the same pH as the human body.
“These vaccines don’t contain any of the things that people fear,” she said. “There are no preservatives, aluminium, mercury, allergens, pork or animal or human tissue.”
With 8-billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines now administered worldwide, they had proven overwhelmingly effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalisation and death.
“The main goal of vaccines is to prevent against severe disease and save lives and improve people’s quality of life,” she said.