The claim: COVID-19 vaccine will cause autoimmune disease
The end of the pandemic may be nigh as more than half of adults across 25 states are fully vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the end of one health crisis supposedly opens the door to another: autoimmune disease.
The claim first appeared early in the pandemic and persisted thanks to Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician and anti-vaccine advocate based in Cleveland.
“Some people are going to die from the vaccine directly,” Tenpenny said in a February interview. “But a large number of people are going to start getting horribly sick and get all kinds of autoimmune diseases, 42 days to maybe a year out.”
A month later in a different interview on the evangelical Daystar Television Network, Tenpenny cites a January study as evidence supporting her linkage of the two. And Facebook posts echoing Tenpenny have shared excerpts of this purported paper.
Tenpenny did not return USA TODAY’s request for comment.
There’s a problem with her citation, though. The study didn’t say COVID-19 vaccines cause autoimmunity. It didn’t even address vaccines.
What is autoimmunity?
Autoimmunity, or immunity against the self, is a condition where the immune system gets too defensive, mistaking healthy tissue as the enemy and attacking it with antibodies and other immune molecules or cells.
This self-attack can be directed against one organ — like the thyroid in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis — or multiple organ systems simultaneously — like systemic lupus erythematosus. Other common autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
It is estimated more than 24 million people in the U.S. have an autoimmune condition, and an additional eight million people carry a type of autoantibody — a self-attacking antibody — that may predispose them to develop an autoimmune disease down the line, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Aside from the presence of autoantibodies, other contributing factors include genetics, environmental exposures (like certain drugs and viral infections), lifestyle choices (like smoking, which has been associated with inflammatory bowel diseases) and gender (women are more affected than men because of estrogen’s influence on the immune system).
No proven link between vaccines and autoimmune diseases
The claim that vaccines can provoke autoimmune diseases predates the current pandemic and is a tactic long used by opponents to discredit vaccines.
Despite numerous studies looking for associations between the two, “no (vaccines) have consistently been shown to cause autoimmune disease,” the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said on its website.
Other studies investigating childhood vaccines — like for the human papillomavirus, or HPV — as risk factors for developing type 1 diabetes in children found no association. Other studies found no cause-and-effect relationship between vaccines and celiac disease, an autoimmune condition triggered when eating gluten, or vaccines and autoimmune neurological disorders.
Study not even related to vaccines
In the study referenced by Tenpenny, researchers were investigating whether the virus that causes COVID-19 — not the vaccine — could cause autoimmunity, said Aristo Vojdani, one of the study’s co-authors.
The study predates the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“There are at least ten different articles that were published in scientific journals with similar findings that the SARS-CoV-2 may cause autoimmunity,” Vojdani told USA TODAY via email. “When we did the study, (the COVID-19) vaccine did not exist.”
His group took commercially-manufactured human and rabbit antibodies designed to fight COVID-19’s spike and other viral proteins and mixed them with proteins normally associated with human tissues.
“These antibodies had moderate to strong reactions with 20 or more of these tissue antigens. This means that antibodies made against SARS-CoV-2, NOT THE VACCINE, if they remain in the body, may initiate possible autoimmune reactivity,” he said in an email.
Vojdani emphasized the results of his study should not be applied to the COVID-19 vaccine or its components since neither was available to his lab when the study was conducted in August 2020.
“Am I worried about a future increase in autoimmune disease? Yes, as a result of infection with COVID-19, and NOT due to a vaccine that can prevent the disease with 70-95% efficacy,” Vojdani said.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that the COVID-19 vaccines will cause autoimmune disease. The study referenced as evidence against the COVID-19 vaccines was actually investigating whether the virus, not the vaccine, can cause autoimmune disease. The claim of autoimmunity predates the COVID-19 vaccine and is a tactic long used by anti-vaccination advocates to discredit vaccine safety. To date, there has been no conclusive data linking vaccines with autoimmune disease.
Our fact-check sources:
- NPR, May 24, In 25 States, More Than Half of Adults Are Fully Vaccinated
- Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed May 28, What Are Common Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease?
- Mayo Clinic, Feb. 11, 2020, Hashimoto’s disease
- MedlinePlus, June 1, 2016, Systemic lupus erythematosus
- WebMD, June 22, 2020, What Are Autoimmune Disorders
- National Institutes of Health National Institute of Environmental Health Science, March 23, Autoimmune Diseases
- National Institutes of Health, Jan. 13, 2012, NIH study shows 32 million Americans have autoantibodies that target their own tissue
- Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed May 28, Autoimmune Disease: Why is My Immune System Attacking Itself?
- Journal of Crohn’s and Colitis, Aug. 1, 2014, Smoking in inflammatory bowel disease: Impact on disease course and insights into the aetiology of its effect
- Frontiers in Immunology, Oct. 4, 2018, Sex Hormones in Acquired Immunity and Autoimmune Disease
- Vaxopedia, Dec. 22, 2018, Autoimmunity as a Contraindication to Getting Vaccinated
- Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Sept. 11, 2018, Vaccines and Autoimmune Diseases
- Vaccine, March 27, 2017, Vaccinations in early life are not associated with development of islet autoimmunity in type 1 diabetes high-risk children: Results from prospective cohort data
- Vaccine, March 28, 2019, Long term risk of developing type 1 diabetes after HPV vaccination in males and females
- The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, July 1, 2017, Rotavirus Vaccination and the Risk of Celiac Disease or Type 1 Diabetes in Finnish Children at Early Life
- Frontiers in Public Health, July 28, 2020, Do Vaccines Have a Role as a Cause of Autoimmune Neurological Syndromes?
- Health Feedback, March 11, Vaccines are safe and aren’t associated with autoimmune disease, contrary to claim in viral video by chiropractor Steven Baker
- Frontiers in Immunology, Jan. 19, Reaction of Human Monoclonal Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 Proteins With Tissue Antigens: Implications for Autoimmune Diseases
- Aristo Vojdani, April 5, Email interview with USA TODAY