Misinformation surrounding the coronavirus is something that has plagued social media over the past year. Most recently, we've seen misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine spread rapidly, and it's disproportionally affecting minorities, with the UK's South Asian community being particularly at risk. A recent poll, commissioned by the Royal Society of Public Health, suggested that just over half of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) people would be happy to have the coronavirus vaccine. The poll found that 57 percent said they would take the vaccine — compared to 79 percent of white people. Similarly, Dr Samara Afzal, who has been vaccinating patients in the West Midlands, told BBC that "we've been calling all patients and booking them in for vaccines but the admin staff say when they call a lot of the South Asian patients they decline and refuse to have the vaccination."
The decrease in uptake within the South Asian community specifically comes as a result of of myths about the vaccine that have been primarily spread via WhatsApp. Myths include that the vaccine contains meat substances, that it can alter your DNA, or that ingredients have been derived from cows — an animal that is sacred to practising Hindus. Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society For Public Health (RSPH), told the BBC, "Anti-vaccination messages have been specifically targeted" at some ethnic and religious communities. "People send WhatsApps, videos, all kinds of messages — and if you don't know where that's coming from then it is very likely to be inaccurate," vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi added.
As concerns about the uptake in South Asian communities grow, the NHS and its healthcare providers are hoping to raise awareness to stop the spread of misinformation. Dr Harpreet Soodh, from NHS England, told BBC that health officials have been aiming to work with South Asian influencers and community leaders to help debunk myths about the vaccine. "We need to be clear and make people realise there is no meat in the vaccine, there is no pork in the vaccine, it has been accepted and endorsed by all the religious leaders and councils and faith communities," he told the broadcaster. Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, also added that "for someone like me, who stood in the Nightingale, and saw row after row of BAME patients being ventilated — and seeing how it disproportionately affected people from the BAME community — I'd be urging everybody to take the vaccine."
Below, we address all the rumours about the coronavirus vaccine affecting the South Asian community in the UK and the reasons why there's no truth behind them.
Rumour 1: The COVID-19 Vaccine Contains Pork
There are three COVID-19 vaccines in total, none of which contain animal product. The NHS website states that "the approved COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any animal products or egg," meaning that the contents are perfectly acceptable for vegetarians and people of all practising religions. The GOV.UK website also lists all three vaccines — Pfizer BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna — with an "Ingredients" section that confirms that each COVID-19 vaccine does not contain any components of animal origin.
Rumour 2: The COVID-19 Vaccine Can Alter Your DNA
Reena Pujara, a beauty therapist from Hampshire, told BBC that "some of the videos [being shared] are quite disturbing, especially when you actually see that the person reporting is a medic and they're telling you that the vaccine is going to alter your DNA," something that the vaccine physically cannot do. Sara Riordan, president of the National Society of Genetic Counsellors, explained that "there are crucial differences between DNA which carries all of the information we inherited from our parents and mRNA, which the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are made of."
She added that "mRNA is naturally made by the body, it encodes instructions for your body's cells to make protein. Any mRNA vaccine has the same purpose, to teach and train your body to make an immune response toward a particular pathogen, so if the pathogen gets into your body, your immune system can attack it." While some viruses do affect your body's DNA, for example HIV and HPV (which is likely what has caused the confusion), the coronavirus is not one of these, and neither is the vaccine.
Rumour 3: The COVID-19 Vaccine's Ingredients Come From Cows
It's been said that the spread of misinformation via WhatsApp has been targeted to religious groups, with rumours about the vaccine's ingredients focusing on the inclusion of beef and pork, which are forbidden by the Hindu and Muslim religions respectively. Pujara also told BBC that "when you read that the ingredients in the vaccine derive from a cow — and as Hindus the cow is sacred to us — it is disturbing." As explained above, both the NHS and government websites confirm that the vaccine's ingredients do not derive from any animal products whatsoever.