Where do myths about coronavirus vaccines come from and why do they spread? NPR takes a look at how rumors about vaccines and fertility reached the public earlier this year.



Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines can appear almost anywhere online. But where does it come from?

NPR's Geoff Brumfiel traced the origins of one piece of vaccine misinformation and how it ended up taking on a life of its own.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: You're about to hear a lot of lies. But it all starts with a kernel of truth. After receiving the COVID-19 vaccine this spring, many women noticed what seemed like an important side effect.

ALICE LU-CULLIGAN: A lot of women noted heavy menstrual periods.

BRUMFIEL: Alice Lu-Culligan is an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate at Yale University who studies the immune system and reproductive health. She says that immune cells play an important role in menstruation. And so it is, in fact, possible that the vaccine could temporarily alter that process.

LU-CULLIGAN: To me, it's very plausible that you could have abnormalities to the typical menstrual cycle.

BRUMFIEL: But, she says, scientists aren't sure because clinical trials of the new COVID vaccines did not ask women participating about menstruation. That lack of data created an opening for anti-vaccine activists.

Melanie Smith analyzed what happened next for Graphika, a company that tracks vaccine misinformation online.

MELANIE SMITH: In the more kind of successful misinformation cases that we see, there is always that gap of knowledge.

BRUMFIEL: Stories about the disruption to menstrual cycles began popping up in forums and groups. And there was one Facebook group in particular that turned out to be important.

SMITH: It's called literally COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects.

BRUMFIEL: Smith says, there were a lot of posts by ordinary people on there just trying to figure out whether they should be worried. But anti-vaccine activists were also part of the group. One of the people reading the page was an anti-vaccine campaigner named Naomi Wolf.

SMITH: She is a very highly followed influencer in the kind of what we call pseudo-medical community.

BRUMFIEL: Wolf is not a medical doctor. And yet on April 19, she tweeted this message.

SMITH: (Reading) Hundreds of women on this page say that they are having bleeding/clotting after vaccination or that they bleed oddly around vaccinated women.

Around is in capitals.

(Reading) Unconfirmed - needs more investigation - but lots of reports.

BRUMFIEL: And right there came the distortions. First, Wolf uses an old trick - says something needs more investigation. She asks a question, raises doubt but doesn't present facts that can be refuted. And second, by saying these side effects happened around vaccinated women, Wolf has seamlessly added a complete myth to the real concern.

SMITH: It's this idea essentially that even if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can potentially absorb some of the supposed negative impact by being around people that are.

BRUMFIEL: Now, I know I said this report would be filled with lies. But I just want to take a moment here to point out that, no, vaccinated people cannot spread side effects to the unvaccinated - again, immunologist Alice Lu-Culligan.

LU-CULLIGAN: A good scientist never says impossible. But, I mean, this one is like, it's not happening. Come on. (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: But Wolf keeps tweeting and piling on more misinformation. Can vaccines cause infertility, miscarriages? The answer to all this is no.

LU-CULLIGAN: At this point, there have been many, many millions of women who have gotten the vaccine. And to date, there have been no scientific reports on any incidence of infertility.

BRUMFIEL: Still, internet researcher Melanie Smith sees it all getting hundreds of retweets.

SMITH: I'm looking at this and thinking, this is going to start some form of conversation and likely will be a narrative that we need to monitor over the next few weeks

BRUMFIEL: In just days, other influencers start picking it up. And then a week after that first tweet...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: New controversy concerning the coronavirus pandemic - a Miami private school now says it won't employ teachers or staff who get their COVID-19 vaccine.

BRUMFIEL: A Miami school said there were too many questions about whether the vaccine could spread to unvaccinated people. The school's owner's a well-known anti-vaccine advocate. So her decision wasn't surprising. But many news outlets covered it anyway.

Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says, these stories are popular.

TARA KIRK SELL: To some people, it's crazy. And to others, they want to know more because they question it. So to everyone, there's a reason why you click on it.

BRUMFIEL: She says, this perfectly illustrates how a lie that's grown big enough can use the mainstream media to get a further boost.

SELL: By covering it, which is important for people to know - what kind of stuff's going on out there. The other side of that is that the lie spreads faster. And, you know, more people see it. And more people pick up on it.

BRUMFIEL: And that's just what happened. The Miami school story led to global coverage.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

SMITH: This is the point at which we start to see Spanish and Portuguese content specifically.

BRUMFIEL: And the lies piggybacked along with the news at the school. Outlets in other languages began reporting that vaccines can spread person-to-person or cause fertility problems. Back in the U.S., others were using these ideas to grab audiences.

Conservative commentator Candace Owens brought it up on Instagram.


CANDACE OWENS: Since she got the Pfizer vaccine, she has had menstruation issues.

BRUMFIEL: Owens never directly repeated the lies. But she didn't refute them either. And she asked a lot of questions about vaccine safety.


OWENS: Pretend that the questions are not allowed. And there are a lot of questions around these vaccines that deserve to be answered.

BRUMFIEL: And then there's people like far-right commentator Alex Jones. He folded the lies about the vaccine into his grand conspiracy theories about Google and Facebook, which he claims are depopulating the earth.


ALEX JONES: So it's not just, you're going to be sterile. It's not just, you're not going to be able to have children. You're not going to be able to eat beef anymore.

BRUMFIEL: Full disclosure - Google and Facebook are sponsors of NPR. Also, they're not in the process of depopulating the earth. Also, vaccines are not going to make you allergic to beef. By June, just two months after it all started, the lie about fertility and vaccines spreading had gone everywhere, from France to Brazil.

But then, researcher Melanie Smith says, it started fading away.

SMITH: It seems to have kind of fallen by the wayside as - in terms of the COVID vaccine news cycle that happens in these spaces on the internet.

BRUMFIEL: Partially, that's because social media companies are getting stricter. Naomi Wolf, who first spread the myth, was suspended from Twitter. But it's also a feature of the lies themselves. They grab attention. But there's no substance there. So once they've shocked those they're meant to engage, they disappear - or more properly, they're replaced by a new incredible story.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KETTEL'S "QUICKPIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


A previous version of this web story mischaracterized the survey of experiences with menstruation and the vaccine as only including women. In fact, the survey includes people who menstruate or have in the past. In addition, the story incorrectly labeled the authors of this study as medical anthropologists. They are biological anthropologists.