Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines won’t make the common cold or flu ‘extremely lethal’

The claim: The COVID-19 vaccines will make the common cold or flu extremely lethal; vaccine rollout planned around flu

While COVID-19 has been raging on for more than a year, there’s one viral illness the U.S. has not seen much of: the flu.

Flu activity has been at a record low, with deaths, cases and hospitalizations far lower than previous years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts have attributed this decline to preventative measures implemented to stop coronavirus spread, such as lockdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing. But one social media post claims the COVID-19 vaccine rollout may reverse this trend for the coming years.

“The vaxx didnt get mass deployed until cold/flu season was ending for a reason. It will make the common cold/flu extremely lethal,” claims an image shared in a May 9 Instagram post.

This lethality, it goes on to suggest, will give rise to a “covid variant” labeled “covid-21” which will appear during the next cold and flu season and cause people to “die of cold-like symptoms.”

The image, which appears to be a screenshot from the message board 4chan, has received over 2,600 interactions on Instagram, according to data provided by CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Facebook.

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USA TODAY has reached out to the Instagram poster for comment.

This claim is wrong and contradicts basic elements of how diseases work.

Vaccines confer immunity against disease, they don’t enhance it. To suggest the COVID-19 shot can somehow alter the virulence of seasonal respiratory viruses that cause the common cold and flu has no basis in science, experts say.

COVID-19 vaccine can’t make another virus lethal

The common cold is a conventional term for a mild respiratory illness with symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, a stuffy nose and sore throat. There is no one virus responsible, rather there are more than 200 different types, most of which are rhinoviruses and a few of which are common coronaviruses known to infect humans.

Influenza, or the flu, is a common, contagious respiratory infection caused by influenza viruses, of which there are four types – A, B, C and D. Type A and B viruses are behind every flu season, type A particularly whenever there is a new pandemic. Types C and D are less of a concern to humans and mostly target animals.

But none of these viruses can be affected by the COVID-19 vaccines, said Seema Lakdawala, an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

“There is no scientific rationale for why a COVID vaccine, (containing) the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, would enhance lethality against influenza viruses, rhinoviruses, adenoviruses or the common cold-causing coronaviruses,” she told USA TODAY.

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Lakdawala said there are many different factors that could enhance a virus’ severity in people, but those depend on age – children and the elderly are more likely to die from the flu – and whether one’s immune system was compromised due to pre-existing disease or genetics.

To the contrary, it’s possible a COVID-19 shot could provide temporary protection against a common cold or influenza virus if infection and vaccination coincide.

This is because, following vaccination, the body mounts a generalized, non-specific immune response, putting it on high alert for any incoming foreign pathogen. If one does appear, the immune system’s arsenal of cells and molecules is ready to attack.

“(This) is a short-term protection for the next two or three days (after vaccination) if you got infected with a virus,” said Lakdawala.

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But the COVID-19 vaccine cannot establish long-lasting immunity for any of the common cold or influenza viruses since they don’t share any commonalities. Even the spike proteins of the common coronaviruses are different than those of COVID-19, Lakdawala emphasized.

Vaccine rollout wasn’t planned around the flu season

The claim that the COVID-19 vaccine’s deployment in the winter was planned is also misleading because it ignores the massive endeavor undertaken to end the pandemic as quickly as possible.

Under normal circumstances, it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 years to develop a vaccine. But the serious threat COVID-19 posed expedited the timeframe to under a year thanks in part to a global research effort.

In the U.S., a public-private partnership called Operation Warp Speed was launched on March 30, 2020. It helped overcome hurdles in vaccine development by providing federal funding to researchers and pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, enabling them to manufacture vaccines alongside large-scale clinical trials, which were closely scrutinized.

The post also fails to consider the connection between geography and the flu.

While the Northern Hemisphere experiences a dip in temperatures corresponding to the timing of the flu season, seasonality is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season runs between April and September. And in tropical climates like West and East Africa, influenza is year-round, according to the CDC.

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The coronavirus has affected every country across the globe, resulting in over 163 million cases and three million deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate the claim that the COVID-19 vaccines can enhance the lethality of the common cold and flu FALSE. Vaccines provide protection against disease and don’t make viruses more lethal, experts say. The claim that the COVID-19 rollout was planned to coincide with common cold and flu season is also false since the seasonality of these respiratory viruses depends on the region. The COVID-19 vaccines were also distributed as soon as possible given the urgent need to control the pandemic.

Our fact-check sources:

  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 14, Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine, March 1, Flu Cases Decline Dramatically This Season
  • Mayo Clinic, accessed May 18, Common cold
  • WebMD, May 8, 2019, What’s Causing My Cold?
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov. 18, 2019, Types of Influenza Viruses
  • Seema Lakdawala, May 13, Phone interview
  • U.S. Department of Defense, March 30, 2020, HHS Accelerates Clinical Trials, Prepares for Manufacturing of COVID-19 Vaccines
  • Kaiser Health News, Sept. 24, 2020, These Secret Safety Panels Will Pick the COVID Vaccine Winners
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 6, Influenza Prevention: Information for Travelers
  • World Health Organization, accessed May 18, WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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