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No, Covid-19 vaccines do not make blood lose its red colour
Anti-vaccine activists are now falsely claiming that Covid-19 jabs can drain blood of its characteristic red colour. Scarier still, the protein that makes blood red — haemoglobin — also delivers oxygen to vital organs. Without enough of it, the body can become weak and fatigued and, in severe cases, even die.
Fortunately, however, there’s absolutely no evidence Covid-19 vaccines can destroy haemoglobin or remove oxygen from the blood. It hasn’t emerged as a side effect in either scientific studies or ongoing safety monitoring. So where did the rumour come from? And what’s the truth?
Anti-vaccine activists have been claiming for some time that Covid-19 jabs can change the colour of blood. Back in September, a photo allegedly showing two differently-coloured bags of blood spread widely on social media together with the caption “Left vs right = non-vax vs vax.” Although not explicitly stated, the post implied that vaccination has altered the colour of a donor’s blood.
The claim has been widely debunked, amongst others by the UK’s well-known Full Fact fact-checking group. It’s normal for there to be variation in the colour of donated blood, and no specific variations have been linked to a donor’s vaccination status, according to NHS Blood and Transplant, which manages blood donations in the country.
The latest iteration of this persistent scare story came in the form of a video posted to notorious US disinformation website InfoWars in late October. It featured an American doctor called Richard Fleming — who has been barred from practising by the US Food and Drug Administration over previous convictions for health care fraud — describing an experiment he claims to have performed on the blood of a colleague, Dr Kevin McCairn.
In the video Fleming says that, under a microscope, red blood cells can be seen turning pink or white and changing shape after coming into contact with the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. He shares magnified images purporting to show the impact of the vaccine on blood. Others supposedly mixed with saline don’t show the same changes.
These images, and the experiment, may well appear legitimate to the casual reader. But doctors and scientists will be less convinced. The research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, which means it has not been independently evaluated by other scientists: the basic standard for a reputable study. Instead, Fleming’s results have been published without expert moderation on a consumer platform known for amplifying conspiracy theories. However compelling his work may seem, it cannot be considered reliable in its current form.
Scientific research that has gone through the peer-review process, on the other hand, shows the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – alongside others like the Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sinovac and Sinopharm jabs – is safe and effective.
Describing Fleming’s video as “a classic example of pseudoscience,” New York-based emergency room physician Dr Christina Zhang said: “InfoWars showed an in vitro phenomenon that red blood cells changed their shape and lost their oxygen carrying capacity after mixing with the Pfizer vaccine. It has not been proven to be true.”
Zhang, who works at St Francis Hospital and is also co-founder and medical director of the MiDoctor Urgent care clinic in New York, said there’s “absolutely no scientific evidence” to suggest that the jab can remove oxygen from haemoglobin. While the jabs may cause side effects including headaches, chills and pain at the injection site, these tend to be mild and resolve within a few days. Severe side effects are possible, but rare. Haemolysis, the medical term for the destruction of red blood cells, is not one of them.
“The most common cause of haemolysis is infection from bacteria, parasites, or a virus,” Zhang explained. “Some medications can cause haemolysis, although it is extremely rare. There have been no reports or data suggesting any type of vaccine that can cause haemolysis.”
Losing large amounts of haemoglobin can lead to anaemia, which often causes weakness, fatigue and shortness of breath, she added. In severe cases, it can lead to heart attacks and even death. But such a reaction hasn’t been picked up by the adverse events monitoring systems for Covid-19 vaccines, which allow scientists and doctors to track possible side effects that weren’t spotted in clinical trials.
A good example of this is a rare but treatable blood-clotting event in some patients who received the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot. After rigorous analysis of a small number of unusual incidents among millions of recipients, regulators like the European Medicines Agency told manufacturers to list it as a rare but possible side effect.
No such request has been made for haemolysis, anywhere in the world. Baseless claims that the vaccines can drain blood of its colour, however, continue to spread online. “This type of misinformation is extremely dangerous if it spreads to the general public,” said Zhang.
These claims fuel fear and hesitancy about the jabs, leaving millions around the world to delay or reject vaccination. Not only does this leave individuals exposed to what can still be a dangerous illness, but experts say it may ultimately prolong the pandemic, as well as the restrictions that come with it.