Fact check: COVID-19 vaccinated people don’t ‘shed’ virus, infect others

The claim: People fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can ‘shed’ the virus and infect unvaccinated people

Nearly 150 million Americans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, but some say it may not make much of a difference in limiting the spread of COVID-19.

In an article published May 3, LifeSite, which bills itself as “an independent pro-life news outlet,” wrote that people who have received the coronavirus vaccine may still infect others.

“As these experimental vaccines create ‘spike proteins,’ vaccinated individuals ‘can shed some of these particles to close contacts’ causing disease in them, including in children,” says the subhead of article, which has more than 2,000 shares on Facebook.

As evidence, LifeSite — which was banned from YouTube for repeatedly sharing misinformation about the pandemic — cited an April 26 press release from a group called America’s Frontline Doctors.

“The vaccine produces many trillions of particles of spike proteins in the recipient. Patients who are vaccinated can shed some of these (spike protein) particles to close contacts,” the press release says. “The particles have the ability to create inflammation and disease in these contacts. In other words, the spike proteins are pathogenic (‘disease causing’) just like the full virus.”

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That information, coming from an official-sounding group, makes it seem like there’s little benefit — and potentially some harm — to getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Public health authorities say the three coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States are safe and effective at preventing serious COVID-19 infections. Americans who receive those vaccines do not “shed” coronavirus particles, and research suggests vaccinated people are less likely to transmit the virus to others. America’s Frontline Doctors has previously spread misinformation about the pandemic, including the false claim that hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19. 

USA TODAY reached out to America’s Frontline Doctors for comment.

COVID-19 vaccinated don’t ‘shed’ virus

The coronavirus vaccines approved in the U.S. help the body produce antibodies that fight off future coronavirus infections. They do not contain live coronavirus, meaning vaccinated Americans can’t shed the virus and infect other people.

Vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology to inoculate patients against COVID-19. Messenger RNA essentially teaches human cells how to produce the spike protein present on the surface of the coronavirus, which elicits an immune response and the production of antibodies. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines are both about 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 in those without a prior infection, studies showed.

mRNA vaccines work by getting our cells to produce the spike protein free of any virus. (Photo: Jennifer Borresen/USA TODAY)

The vaccine from Janssen, a pharmaceutical company owned by Johnson & Johnson, uses a more traditional technique for preventing COVID-19. Instead of mRNA, the shot includes a harmless adenovirus that carries genetic code for creating coronavirus spike proteins. Once human cells replicate those proteins, the body produces antibodies that stave off future coronavirus infections, with an efficacy rate of about 72%.

“COVID-19 vaccines give instructions to teach our cells how to make a protein — or even just a piece of a protein — that triggers an immune response inside our bodies,” said Jasmine Reed, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in an email to USA TODAY. “After the protein piece is made, the cell breaks down the instructions and gets rid of them.”

Someone infected with COVID-19 does “shed,” or release, virus particles by coughing, sneezing or talking. But that doesn’t happen to vaccinated people because none of the three approved vaccines in the U.S. contain live coronavirus.

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“There is no way for a COVID-19 vaccinated person to ‘shed vaccine,’” Reed said. “COVID-19 vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19 and cannot cause COVID-19. Therefore, people who receive a COVID-19 vaccine cannot shed the virus or the vaccine.”

There’s still a small chance that fully vaccinated people can transmit the coronavirus. As of April 26, about 9,200 of the more than 95 million Americans who had been fully vaccinated reported “COVID-19 breakthrough infections.” The CDC says that’s because, “while these vaccines are effective, no vaccine prevents illness 100 percent of the time.”

Claim misconstrues Pfizer trial protocol

The claim that people vaccinated against COVID-19 can shed the virus and infect others stems from a misunderstanding of documentation in the Pfizer trial. 

When asked for evidence to support the central claim in the LifeSite article, author Patrick Delaney pointed to a tweet from Dr. Simone Gold claiming Pfizer itself had acknowledged people near vaccinated persons could be exposed by inhalation or skin contact.

A dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine awaits being injected into a patient’s arm in New Orleans on Saturday, April 17, 2021. (Photo: Edmund Fountain for USA TODAY)

Gold is the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors and a physician based in Los Angeles. In July, she and six other doctors held a press conference at the U.S. Supreme Court — backed by the pro-Trump Tea Party Patriots group — in which they falsely touted hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, as a coronavirus cure. In January, Gold was arrested and charged in connection with the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Gold’s April 29 tweet does not prove Pfizer told clinical trial participants they could expose unvaccinated people to COVID-19. It shows a subsection of the company’s trial protocol that lays out what should happen if a participant becomes pregnant or comes in contact with a pregnant person. That’s common practice for clinical trials.

“During clinical development of most products, pregnant women are actively excluded from trials, and if pregnancy does occur during the trial, the usual procedure is to discontinue treatment and drop the patient from the study, although her pregnancy is typically followed to term,” the Food and Drug Administration says in its industry guidance.

While Pfizer’s vaccine was not tested on pregnant individuals, the company and public health authorities say it’s safe for them to get it.

“As outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any of the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines can be administered to pregnant or lactating people,” said Keanna Ghazvini, a spokesperson for Pfizer, in an email to USA TODAY. “Based on current knowledge, experts believe that COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to pose a risk to the pregnant person or fetus.”

USA TODAY reached out to Gold for comment.

Our rating: False

The claim that vaccinated people can “shed” the coronavirus and infect unvaccinated people is FALSE, based on our research. None of the three COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. contain live coronavirus, meaning there’s nothing for patients to shed. The claim is based on a misrepresentation of routine clinical trial protocol by a group of doctors that has previously spread misinformation about the pandemic.

Our fact-check sources:

  • American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Sept. 1, 2020, Coughs and Sneezes: Their Role in Transmission of Respiratory Viral Infections, Including SARS-CoV-2
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 2, Background Rationale and Evidence for Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed May 5, COVID Data Tracker
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 4, mRNA Vaccines
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 28, COVID-19: Pregnancy or Breastfeeding
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed May 6, Vaccines & Immunizations: COVID-19 Breakthrough Case Investigations and Reporting
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 21, Possibility of COVID-19 Illness After Vaccination
  • CrowdTangle, accessed May 5
  • Department of Justice, accessed May 6, Capitol Breach Cases: GOLD, Simone Melissa
  • Dr. Simone Gold, April 29, tweet
  • Email interview with Patrick Delaney, May 5
  • Email interview with Jasmine Reed, May 5
  • Email interview with Keanna Ghazvini, May 5
  • Food and Drug Administration, accessed May 5, COVID-19 Vaccines
  • Food and Drug Administration, August 2002, Guidance for Industry: Establishing Pregnancy Exposure Registries
  • LifeSite, accessed May 5, Facebook
  • LifeSite, May 3, America’s Frontline Doctors: COVID-vaccinated can ‘shed’ spike protein, harming unvaccinated
  • PolitiFact, July 28, 2020, Fact-checking a video of doctors talking about coronavirus, hydroxychloroquine
  • PolitiFact, Feb. 26, Receiving COVID-19 vaccine does not enroll you in a government tracking system or medical experiment
  • PolitiFact, July 29, 2020, Who are the doctors in the viral hydroxychloroquine video?
  • UChicago Medicine, March 10, COVID-19 vaccines and pregnancy: What you need to know if you’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding
  • USA TODAY, July 30, 2020, ‘America’s Frontline Doctors’ may be real doctors, but experts say they don’t know what they’re talking about
  • USA TODAY, April 27, Fact check: No, interacting with a vaccinated person won’t cause miscarriage or menstrual changes
  • Vice News, Feb. 11, YouTube Just Banned a Popular Anti-Abortion Channel for COVID Conspiracies
  • Yale Medicine, May 3, Comparing the COVID-19 Vaccines: How Are They Different?

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