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'Wrong reasons, right answer': Why some COVID-19 conspiracy theorists are now starting to wear masks

Newshub logo Newshub 13/05/2021 Dan Satherley
Related video: Religion expert explains how COVID conspiracies have flourished in churches. © Video - The AM Show; Image - Getty Images Related video: Religion expert explains how COVID conspiracies have flourished in churches.



Some COVID-19 conspiracy theorists are reportedly set to start wearing masks - not to protect themselves against the deadly virus, but the vaccines that stop it.

Others are now finally adopting social distancing measures, Vice reports, for the same misguided reason - that they might catch the vaccine off someone.

The magazine rounded up a number of high-profile anti-vaxxers promoting the false conspiracy theory known as 'shedding' - that vaccinated people can shed proteins created by the vaccine onto others, causing infertility, miscarriages and irregular periods. 

"Stay away from somebody who's had these shots… forever," said anti-vaxxer Sherri Tenpenny, an alternative medicine practitioner who has spread the debunked claim that vaccines can cause autism. 

"There is something being passed from people who are shot up with this poison to others who have not gotten the shot," a New York doctor and anti-vaxxer said on a livestream, Vice reported, adding that they should "have a badge on their arms" so others know.

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Questions about shedding have also cropped up on New Zealand Facebook pages spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. 

"I've read that it's shedding to non vaxxed," one person wrote on Voices for Freedom's Facebook page. 

"These jabs basically rip away your own immune system so even the common cold kills you easier," another said on Friday, quoting an article on www.naturalnews.com, a website which places adverts for "defence" sprays and oils next to articles claiming the pandemic is a "Chinese genocide". 

The article that quote is from quotes Tenpenny. A 2019 analysis by The Atlantic found Tenpenny was one of the biggest spreaders of false information about COVID-19 on Facebook

Vice also uncovered a thread of 4chan where anti-maskers were wondering out loud if they should reverse course and don masks around vaccinated people because "they shed the mRNA stuff".

And earlier this month, the New York Times reported on a private school which has banned vaccinated teachers from interacting with unvaccinated students. One of its teachers told students they shouldn't hug anyone who's had the jab in case they catch it. 

It's a curious twist, after a year of conspiracy theorists refusing to wear masks either because they didn't believe they'd catch the virus, or that they didn't even work.

"Wrong reasons, right answer. I'd rather these folks get vaccinated but I'm glad they will at least reduce their exposure risk (to SARS-CoV-2, not the vaccines," virologist Angela Rasmussen of the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security wrote on Twitter. "COVID vaccines are not contagious and pose ZERO risk to people near a vaccinated person." 


The science

If it was possible to shed the vaccine, it would be as easy to spread as the virus - but it simply isn't. The crux lies in how the mRNA vaccines work. mRNA enters our cells - not the nucleus however, where our DNA is kept - and teach it how to make the coronavirus' spike protein. This process lasts just a few days, after which the mRNA is broken down.

"While the body makes the spike protein, it doesn't release them," vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris, director of the University of Auckland's Vaccine Datalink and Research Group, told Newshub last week.

"The spike proteins are made inside some cells, and then they're broken down into fragments [which are] displayed on the outside of the cell."

These fragments are enough for the immune system to build up its defences, so if it ever sees them on a real SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, it knows it's an enemy. 

"When a vaccinated cell reaches the end of its life, the proteins and fragments are snaffled up by immune cells, along with the other cellular debris," Alison Campbell, an honorary fellow and biological sciences lecturer at the University of Waikato told Newshub. "This happens after a couple of days."

Even if the spike proteins were released, they don't contain any of the virus' other components, so can't cause COVID-19. While recent studies have found the spikes themselves can cause harm, they never actually leave our own bodies' cells and are broken down after a few days. 

"Proteins are sticky molecules and highly unstable," Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, a microbiologist at York University, told AFP.

"If it is digested it will be destroyed by the low pH in our stomach and the enzymes there, and if it is stuck in our skin or enters our mouth or eyes or nose it is very likely to be digested by the enzymes secreted by our cells on these environments."

"There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of shedding of spike protein in vaccinated individuals, nor is it even theoretically possible," added Barry Pakes, assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

There is no evidence the vaccines cause infertility, miscarriages or irregular periods. A new study out this week found they actually appear to be good for pregnant women and their babies, and previous research has found no link to increased rates of illness or death.

"There is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems," the Centers for Disease Control says on its site. "If you are trying to become pregnant, you do not need to avoid pregnancy after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine."

Ironically, US health officials this week said people who have had the vaccination can now stop wearing masks. 

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