Infertility, erectile dysfunction, and altered DNA — Army experts debunk COVID vaccine myths one by one

"[W]e have to get to a point where there’s no safe haven for the virus to go."

Roughly 70% of soldiers in the U.S. Army have received the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine. But when it comes to why others haven’t been vaccinated, some of the reasons they’re giving as to why have no basis in science and were not supported by research or data. 

This week, three Army doctors were more than happy to debunk them.

On a new episode of the 18th Airborne Corps’ podcast, three Army medical experts sat down with Col. Joe Buccion, a spokesman for the unit, to discuss the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine, concerns over the new Delta variant, and ultimately to address the most common myths they’ve heard about the vaccine. 

Dispelling the myths and setting the record straight on misinformation is paramount as the COVID variants surge, especially among the unvaccinated population. Of progress that the U.S. has achieved thus far, Lt. Col. Owen Price, the Fort Bragg Force Health Protection Officer, remarked that  we’re “one mutation away from kind of rolling back down the hill.” 

“I know everybody is COVID-spent, everybody’s over it,” he said. “But we have to get to a point where there’s no safe haven for the virus to go, and we’re only going to do that through vaccination — and if we don’t get there, we’re going to backslide.” 

In May, half of U.S. adults were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but vaccine rates began falling around the same time. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. hit a peak of 3.4 million vaccine shots a day in April, but by June the country was seeing an average of fewer than 1 million shots a day despite more people being eligible. 

While just over 988,000 service members in the U.S. military have been fully vaccinated as of July 14, the most recent numbers available on the Pentagon’s website, many service members are still opting out — some, simply because they can. Some soldiers have seen it as a rare opportunity to say “no” to the Army, though that opportunity could soon be a thing of the past as the service reportedly prepares to make the vaccine mandatory, should it receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

But the surge of the Delta variant, which is more infectious than other variants that have been identified and now makes up 83% of new COVID cases, could threaten the “tenuous” progress that has been made through vaccinations, which has allowed people to get back to “some level of normalcy,” Lt. Col. Price said. 

“What we haven’t achieved is the level of immunity that we need to continue on that way if these variants keep coming up,” Price said. “And I think that’s the situation we’re running into now, with this Delta variant — it’s much more infectious and it’s going to affect, primarily, that unvaccinated population and we could wind up losing that precarious foothold and taking multiple steps back to where we were, even back to November.”

In November, the U.S. reported more than 4 million COVID-19 cases — more than the total number of cases almost every country in the world saw throughout the entire year, according to CBS

So why aren’t troops getting vaccinated? Buccino said he spoke with dozens of soldiers about their hesitancy with the vaccines, and many of their concerns are brought about by the same issue: misinformation. 

One of those myths is that the vaccine can cause things like erectile dysfunction or infertility. 

“There is no evidence that any of the vaccines leads to erectile dysfunction, sterility, infertility, in man or woman,” Dr. Sammy Choi, the chief of research at Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center, said on the podcast. 

Price pushed back on the concerns of the vaccine impacting pregnancy, saying “we’ve not seen that play out.” And Lt. Col. Teresa Pearce, the director of public health at Fort Bragg and a preventive medicine physician, said there’s no evidence that says the vaccine causes miscarriages — another concern that soldiers have raised. 

“People tend to forget that … we have miscarriages that occur just in the normal population,” Pearce said. “I’ve had miscarriages, many women have had miscarriages. And so if you have a group of women who receive a vaccine, if they have a miscarraige, it’s not necessarily associated with or caused from the vaccine, it may just be part of the normal background existence of miscarriages.” 

Buccino said he’s also heard some soldiers say that the vaccine is “making the virus stronger” and in turn, causing the variants. That’s not correct either, according to Choi. 

“If the vaccine can prevent people from getting infected, then it’s not going to cause replication and then mutation and variants,” he said. “The logic would be completely opposite.”

Buccino also said he’s been told soldiers have seen on Facebook that the vaccine “might change DNA.” As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, that’s not going to happen.

According to the CDC, “COVID-19 vaccines do not change or interact with your DNA in any way. Both mRNA and viral vector COVID-19 vaccines deliver instructions (genetic material) to our cells to start building protection against the virus that causes COVID-19. However, the material never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA is kept.”

Price echoed that, saying that there’s “simply no way it’s going to change your genetic makeup.”

Other soldiers say that their commanders are pushing the vaccine “unthinkingly,” to look good to the higher command, Buccino said. Choi’s rebuttal essentially boiled down to: So what? 

“If that is the commander’s intent — just to get a number — then the next thing I would say is well, okay, throw that aside,” he said. “Aside from that, is the vaccine good? We do a lot of things that we don’t necessarily like the vehicle from which it came.”

Choi also explained that he’s found some people are holding the COVID-19 vaccine to a “level of scrutiny and research” that they’re not holding other medications and vaccines to. 

“It seems like you want assurance that there will never be a side-effect, that there will never be a breakthrough case, and number three that it’s lasting immunity, you’ll never need a booster,” Choi recalled saying to his son-in-law about the vaccine. “And yet if we applied that same criteria for any other vaccine, we would have never — women would not get a highly-effective virus vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, human papillomavirus vaccine, HPV, we wouldn’t get the chickenpox vaccine … we would not do any of that.” 

At the end of the day, Choi, Price, and Pearce said the vaccine is safe, effective, and outweighs getting sick or getting someone else sick, and Choi added that if he could, he would meet with every hesitant soldier to explain as much.

“I would say to them, okay, would you do it for humanity?” 

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Haley Britzky

Haley Britzkyis the Army reporter for Task & Purpose, covering the daily happenings in the Army and how they impact soldiers and their families, as well as broader national security issues. Originally from Texas, Haley previously worked at Axios before joining Task & Purpose in January 2019. Contact the author here.

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