A nurse prepares a dose of Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic in Los Angeles, California on December 15, 2021 ( AFP / Frederic J. Brown)

False claim that Covid-19 shots undermine immune system spreads online

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Online articles and social media posts claim that Covid-19 shots compromise the immune systems of recipients, causing "vaccine acquired immune deficiency syndrome." This is false; medical experts -- one of them an author of a study cited in support of the claim -- say the vaccines do not have this effect.

"Vaccine Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (VAIDS): 'We should anticipate seeing this immune erosion more widely,'" says the headline of a December 5, 2021 article published on the website of America's Frontline Doctors, a group that has made other inaccurate claims that have been fact-checked by AFP.

Screenshot of an article taken on December 17, 2021

The claim -- part of a flood of false or misleading information about vaccines and Covid-19 -- also appeared in other articles, as well as in posts on Twitter and Facebook.

The article on the America's Frontline Doctors website cites a study in medical journal The Lancet that found protection from Covid-19 vaccines declines over time. The research has not yet been formally reviewed by other scientists.

But the article uses the study's findings to claim that "doctors are calling this phenomena in the repeatedly vaccinated 'immune erosion' or 'acquired immune deficiency', accounting for elevated incidence of myocarditis and other post-vaccine illnesses that either affect them more rapidly, resulting in death, or more slowly, resulting in chronic illness."

Study author Peter Nordstorm, a physician in the Department of Community Medicine in Sweden and professor at Umea University, described the claim as "misinformation."

"It is not true that we saw a significant inverse effect of the vaccine in any subgroup," Nordstrom told AFP on December 15.

The study found that the vaccines' "effectiveness against symptomatic Covid-19 infection wanes progressively over time" at various rates across subgroups. It made no mention of VAIDS.

Nordstrom also said: "It is also false for anyone to claim that vaccination results in immune erosion or acquired immune deficiency, if anything like that even exists, based on our data, or any other data I’m aware of."

Pablo Penaloza-MacMaster, an assistant professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, agreed.

"Covid-19 vaccines do not cause immunosuppression," he said on December 16.

"This is just misinformation, similar to saying that the Earth is flat. These vaccines have already been administered to millions of people worldwide and the data show that these vaccines are extremely safe and effective, even in people with pre-existing conditions or weakened immune systems," Penaloza-MacMaster said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends booster shots due to waning protection from Covid-19 vaccines. But this should not be confused with any threat to the immune system.

Thomas Russo, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the University of Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, said on December 17 that the recommendation "doesn't mean they're undermining your immune system," but rather that a "third shot in the series was necessary to optimize that response."

"There is no truth that the vaccination causes this," he said of the claim that Covid-19 vaccines undermine the immune system, adding: "Vaccination actually does the opposite."

Jason McKnight, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, also dismissed the claim, saying on December 17: "There is no such thing as vaccine acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or VAIDS.

"The claim that antibody levels decreasing over months supports the presence of VAIDS is untrue; it’s simply a natural phenomenon we see with the immune system."