Fact Check: Immunologist Did NOT Admit COVID-19 Vaccines Would 'Sterilise' Humans -- He Used Medical Term For Virus Eradication

Fact Check

  • by: Madison Dapcevich
Fact Check: Immunologist Did NOT Admit COVID-19 Vaccines Would 'Sterilise' Humans -- He Used Medical Term For Virus Eradication Fact Check: Immunologist Did NOT Admit COVID-19 Vaccines Would 'Sterilise' Humans -- He Used Medical Term For Virus Eradication Virus Targeted

Did an immunologist accidentally admit that COVID-19 vaccines were intended to sterilize humans, as a video on Instagram implied? No, that's not true: Though the post included genuine footage, it lacked context that makes clear what was meant. Dr. John Bell's comments in an interview were about "sterilizing immunity", a public health term that refers to eradicating a virus from a large population through vaccination programs. At no point did Bell refer to fertility or to sterilizing humans. There was, at the time this was written, no evidence that COVID vaccines cause infertility.

A version of the claim appeared in a video on Instagram on February 5, 2024 (archived here), that showed a video interview with a caption that read:

When you say that quiet part out loud! #time2awake😎


#sterilisation #depopulationagenda #depopulation

Here is how the post appeared at the time of writing:

Screenshot 2024-02-07 at 9.45.07 AM 2.png

(Source: Instagram screenshot taken Mon Feb 6 09:25:42 UTC 2024)

The man shown in the interview is John Bell (archived here), a Regius Professor of Medicine (which means he holds a post endowed by King Henry VIII) at the University of Oxford in immunology, for which he has won multiple honors. Bell discussed (archived here) the development of COVID vaccines at the onset of the pandemic.

The interviewer in the video posted on Instagram is Jon Snow, (bio archived here), of Channel 4 News in Britain .

Bell did say, "These vaccines are unlikely to completely sterilize a population."

But, the post falsely implied that Bell misspoke, and claimed he said COVID vaccines were intended to sterilize humans and reduce the population. A review of the whole interview showed that quote was taken out of context. At no point during the conversation did Bell mention fertility or sterilizing humans. "Sterilizing immunity" is a public health term that the Instagram post used to scare people by confusing "sterilizing immunity" effects on viral spread with reproductive sterility of humans.

Bell told AAP FactCheck in an article published on April 9, 2021 (archived here), that he was not referring to human fertility, but was instead "discussing how vaccines 'sterilise' a community from COVID-19 by preventing the virus from spreading." Lead Stories contacted Bell by email to confirm these statements but has not yet received a response. We will update the article accordingly when we do.

Examining transcript of the 2020 interview

A Google keyword search of "John Bell sterilize COVID-19 vaccines" (archived here) returned a video of the interview posted to Facebook by British newscast Channel 4 News on August 24, 2020 (archived here), with a caption that read:

'Everything looks pretty good with the vaccine.'

Prof Sir John Bell, who is part of the team developing a coronavirus vaccine at Oxford University, says he's 'hopeful we're going to start to get a readout early in the autumn as to whether this thing works or not.'

Lead Stories used the above information to find the original 8:57-minute interview posted to the broadcaster's website, also on August 24, 2020, (archived here) and YouTube (archived here). This was before U.K. regulators approved the first emergency use authorization for a vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech on December 2, 2020 (archived here). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed suit by issuing its emergency use authorization on December 11, 2020 (archived here).

Throughout the interview, Bell spoke about the current progress of vaccine development and rollouts, as well as its likely effectiveness. At the 7:20 mark in the video, Snow asked Bell when the public might expect to have access to a vaccine.

Bell responded:

... I'm hopeful we will start to get a readout early in the autumn as to whether this thing works or not. A lot of this depends on the intensity of infection. So, in order to get a readout, you have to have a certain number of incident cases in the control vaccine population. And that then tells you that you can look at the real vaccinated population and see whether they've been protected. So, I'm hoping that's going to happen pretty smartly this autumn.

But then don't forget, these vaccines are unlikely to completely sterilise the population. They're very likely to have an effect which works in a percentage, say 60 or 70 per cent. We'll have to look quite carefully, and the regulators will have to look quite carefully, to make sure that it's done what we need it to do before it gets approved. So, there will be a delay between the outcome of the trial and a decision whether it can be approved as a vaccine. ... Anything that happens to undermine the legitimacy of regulators to make independent decisions is, in my view, profoundly unhelpful.

At no point during the interview did either Bell or Snow mention making humans infertile.

Sterilizing immunity refers to how some vaccines work

A peer-reviewed study published on October 24, 2022 (archived here), discussed sterilizing immunity in the context of COVID.

"Sterilizing immunity describes the elimination of a pathogen before it can replicate in the host," the study authors wrote. ... Sterilizing immunity protects the individual and prevents transmission to new hosts, thereby contributing to protection at a population level."

Vaccines mimic the body's natural immune memory by introducing small parts of a virus to elicit a response, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (archived here). Later, if a vaccinated person comes into contact with a virus, their immune system already recognizes the pathogen and can form an adequate immune response to protect against severe infection.

In a February 7, 2024, phone interview with Lead Stories, Dr. William Schaffner (archived here), a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Lead Stories that not every vaccine is the same.

"While some vaccines do indeed have the capacity to eliminate the disease from a large land mass, other vaccines can reduce the severity of infection but are not capable of eliminating the infection entirely, even if everybody got vaccinated," he said. "It depends on the science and it just means that the goals of each vaccine are different."

Measles is an example of a vaccine known for sterilizing immunity. It can eliminate infection and, therefore eliminate transmission and disease from a large landmass completely. When a person is vaccinated, they will not become infected, which led to the eradication of measle, the CDC declared in 2000 (archived here).

"Now, the mRNA vaccines, as good as they are, are best at preventing severe disease," Schaffner said. "They are not capable of preventing every infection, so even though you're vaccinated, you can still get a relatively mild infection but you're much less likely to require hospitalization. It is, in that sense, a good but partially effective vaccine. It cannot eliminate the virus entirely from a population but it can mitigate its worse impact socially, financially, individually."

Bell's knowledge of coronaviruses at the time of his 2020 interview was "sufficiently sophisticated" given that he did not expect COVID vaccines to create sterilizing immunity, Schaffer added.

No evidence COVID vaccines cause infertility

At the time of this publication, there is no evidence that COVID vaccines affect fertility and likely benefit offspring, according to the CDC (archived here):

There is currently no evidence that vaccine ingredients or antibodies made following COVID-19 vaccination would cause any problems with becoming pregnant now or in the future.

  • Recent studies have found no differences in pregnancy success rates among women who had antibodies from COVID-19 vaccines or from a recent COVID-19 infection and women who had no antibodies, including for patients undergoing assisted reproductive technology procedures (for example, in vitro fertilization).

  • A study of more than 2,000 females aged 21-45 years and their partners found that COVID-19 vaccination of either partner did not affect the likelihood of becoming pregnant.

As with all vaccines, scientists continue to study COVID vaccines carefully and will continue to report findings as they become available.

Read more

Lead Stories has debunked many false claims drawing connections between COVID vaccines and reduced fertility, which can be read here.

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

  Madison Dapcevich

Raised on an island in southeast Alaska, Madison grew up a perpetually curious tidepooler and has used that love of science and innovation in her now full-time role as a science reporter for the fact-checking publication Lead Stories.

Read more about or contact Madison Dapcevich

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