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Fact check: Posts critical of fast COVID-19 vaccine development make misleading comparison to HIV, cancer, common cold

In the weeks after drug manufacturers Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Pfizer-BioNTech announced successful clinical trial results for their respective COVID-19 vaccine candidates, posts on social media implied they were unsafe by making misleading comparisons of the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development and ongoing efforts to find cures for HIV/AIDS, cancer and the common cold.

FILE PHOTO: Vials of AstraZeneca's COVISHIELD, coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, are seen before they are packaged inside a lab at Serum Institute of India, Pune, India, November 30, 2020. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo/File Photo

Such posts – which read, “40 years of research… no vaccine for HIV / At least 100 years of research… no vaccine for cancer / Ongoing research… no vaccine for the common cold / Less than a year for a Covid vaccine?” – can be found here , here and here .

The Reuters Fact Check has previously debunked claims comparing vaccine efforts for COVID-19 to influenza, RSV (common cold) and cancer (here and comparing the efficacy of COVID-19 and influenza vaccines here ).

HIV/AIDS

As of 2017, half of all people living with HIV worldwide are receiving antiretroviral treatment, also known as ART (here). HIV.gov explains that when “people living with HIV achieve and maintain viral suppression by taking HIV medication daily as prescribed, they can stay healthy and have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting HIV to their partners.”

Finding an HIV vaccine has been challenging because the virus “mutates rapidly and has unique ways of evading the immune system,” according to the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) (here). While typical vaccines imitate recovered patients’ immune response, “there are no documented cases of a person living with HIV developing an immune response that cleared the infection.”

While vaccines are usually inactivated or weakened viruses, “inactivated HIV was not effective at eliciting immune responses in clinical trials” and “a live form of HIV is too dangerous to use” (here).

Using the same technique as Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines, a new investigational HIV vaccine from Moderna relies on messenger RNA (mRNA) to activate the immune system against the virus (here).

CANCER

With the statement “At least 100 years of research… no vaccine for cancer,” the social media posts falsely portray cancer as a communicable disease. Unlike AIDS, caused by human immunodeficiency viruses, or COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, cancer is not typically caused by viruses or bacteria, which is what vaccines protect the body against (here). 

“There is no one single cause for cancer,” Stanford University Healthcare points out. Instead, scientists believe that it is the interaction of many factors together that produces cancer. The factors involved may be genetic, environmental, or constitutional characteristics of the individual” (here).

There are, however, several viruses that can increase one’s risk for certain cancers, such as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), Hepatitis B virus (HBV), Hepatitis C virus (HCV), Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8), Human papillomavirus (HPV), and Human T-cell leukemia virus type (HTLV-1) (here , here ).

The HPV vaccine can help reduce risk of cervical cancer and the hepatitis B vaccine can help reduce your risk of liver cancer (here). Regular screening, practicing safe sex, and not sharing syringes or needles are recommended means of prevention for the other viruses mentioned.

As for bacteria, the American Cancer Society says that long-term stomach infection with Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) bacteria can cause ulcers that may lead to cancer over time (here).

In addition, infection with Chlamydia trachomatis, a common type of bacteria that can be transmitted through sex and affect the female reproductive system, may increase one’s risk for cervical cancer, according to some studies (here).

There are currently no vaccines on the market for preventing either kind of bacterial infection, though scientists are working to develop them (here , here). 

THE COMMON COLD

WebMD explains that finding an effective vaccine for the common cold has been difficult “primarily because there are more than 200 different varieties of viruses that can cause colds” (here).

As stated here by Scientific American, scientists have been searching for a cure for the common cold since the 1950s, when rhinoviruses were first identified as a leading cause.

With at least 160 different strains of rhinovirus alone, “cracking the cold isn’t so much looking for one solution to one problem as it is trying to design a master key to open hundreds of different locks at once,” Peter Barlow, an immunologist at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, told Scientific American.

THE COVID-19 VACCINE

The COVID-19 vaccine is targeting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease (here). Initial research suggests that there are at least six strains of SARS-CoV-2 but that the mutation rate is low and the virus shows little variability, making it easier to develop a vaccine (here  ,  here).  

In November 2020, drug manufacturers AstraZeneca (here) , Moderna (here) and Pfizer-BioNTech (here) announced successful final trial results for their respective COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Final vaccine trial data showed that the COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were over 90% effective with no serious side effects (here  , here). 

The first round of vaccinations are expected to be administered in the United States as soon as the COVID-19 vaccines are approved by the Food and Drug administration (FDA), which will review Pfizer’s trial data on Dec. 10 and Moderna’s on Dec. 17 (here).  

VACCINE DEVELOPMENT TIME

Compared to HIV, cancer and the cold, COVID-19’s infection rate and the immediate economic impact to the world economy certainly contributed to the speed of the vaccine’s development (here).

The speed has created concerns among the public and countries are watching Britain, the first country to roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, for information about possible side effects (here , here ).

Vaccines have to go through a number of stages before they are approved (here).  

There has been a huge global effort to pool resources in order to accelerate the development and production of the COVID-19 vaccine (here).  

In April 2020, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator (here) was launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners, bringing together governments, scientists, businesses, civil society, philanthropists and global health organizations to support the development and distribution of tests, treatments and vaccines. 

As the WHO explains, in the case of COVID-19, unprecedented financial investments and scientific collaborations have made it possible for some steps in research and development to happen “in parallel.” For example, some clinical trials are evaluating multiple vaccines at the same time, though clinical and safety standards are maintained despite the acceleration (here).  

VERDICT

Missing context. The posts make a false comparison by juxtaposing the quick timeline of the COVID-19 vaccine with the lack of a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, cancer, and the common cold. Finding an effective HIV vaccine is difficult because the virus rapidly mutates. Cancer is not a communicable disease and is not commonly caused by viruses, though a handful of viruses do increase one’s risk for certain cancers. Finding a vaccine for the common cold is difficult as there are over 200 different varieties of viruses that can cause colds.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .  

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