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UK report did not find COVID-19 vaccines damage immune response

January 27, 2022 GMT

CLAIM: A report by health officials in the United Kingdom showed that the COVID-19 vaccines are “damaging the immune response” in people who were vaccinated after a previous infection.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The report did not reach that conclusion. The finding being referenced dealt with people who were infected after being vaccinated — not the reverse — and experts say it showed that vaccine-induced immunity was working properly.

THE FACTS: A video clip of a Yale epidemiologist who spoke at a panel discussion on COVID-19 Monday is spreading on social media, misrepresenting what a report by U.K. health officials found.

Dr. Harvey Risch claimed at the event, hosted by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, that the October report showed that COVID-19 vaccines were “damaging the immune response” in people who were previously infected with the coronavirus and later vaccinated.

“Public Health UK has actually published a statement about this in their week 42 weekly report that showed that people who’ve had COVID and then get vaccinated have lower levels of anti-nucleocapsid antibodies,” Risch said. “And since the vaccines don’t address the nucleocapsid antigens — they only address the spike — it means that they’re doing something that’s damaging the immune response in a more general way than just what they do with the spike.”

But Risch had the details about what the report said out of order. The report referred to people who were vaccinated against COVID-19, and subsequently infected. And its statement on such people having lower levels of nucleocapsid antibodies, or “N antibodies,” is not indicative of a problem with the vaccines, the U.K. Health Security Agency and experts said.

“In those who catch COVID-19 after vaccination, it is not at all surprising that antibodies against N are lower than in those who are unvaccinated and catch COVID-19,” Kevin Brown, consultant medical virologist at the U.K. Health Security Agency, said in an email. “It shows the vaccine is limiting the natural infection from the virus, lowering the level of virus replication and therefore limiting the number of antibodies against N that are generated.”

In an email to The Associated Press, Risch acknowledged that he mixed up the order in his remarks. Asked if he stood by his claim that the vaccines are “damaging the immune response,” Risch said his “interpretation is that by involvement in N antibody levels, that is more general than just their direct involvement in the spike antigens and antibodies.”

Multiple experts also disputed Risch’s claim that vaccines were doing damage.

“It’s untrue in its implication and it reflects a complete misunderstanding of the way vaccine immunity works,” said E. John Wherry, director of the Institute for Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.K. and the U.S. work by instructing cells to produce spike proteins in order to trigger an immune response; they do not generate N antibodies. When someone is vaccinated, and later becomes infected, their immune system works to limit the virus from replicating, Wherry said. Therefore, it’s not surprising that antibodies to other parts of the virus would be lower.

“It actually shows the vaccines are working to limit infection,” Wherry said.

Dr. Taia Wang, a Stanford University assistant professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology, offered a similar assessment. She said in an email that lower levels of N antibodies “does not indicate that the vaccines are damaging to the immune system,” and that it “simply means that the vaccine worked exactly as it should.”

Shane Crotty, a professor at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, further said in an email that the “vaccines greatly improve immunity in previously infected individuals.”

“In fact both the immunology and the epidemiology show that those people have the best immunity of anybody,” he said.


This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.