Google searches in the USA related to COVID-19 vaccines and infertility increased after a letter sent to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) asking it to stop emergency authorisation of mRNA vaccines was published online.
The letter or 'petition' was submitted by Dr Wolfgang Wodarg and former Pfizer vice president Dr Michael Yeadon to the EMA, which is responsible for medicine licensing in Europe, and questioned the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. It included an assertation that there was no evidence that antibodies against spike proteins wouldn't impair the formation of the placenta and make women who received the vaccine infertile.
'Misinformation is a significant threat to healthcare today and a main driver of vaccine hesitancy,' said Nicholas Sajjadi, a study researcher and third-year osteopathic medical student at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa. 'We’re seeing well-intentioned research and concerns taken out of context to stoke fear and anxiety about vaccination.'
Despite reassurances from the EMA and US Food and Drug Administration, that deemed the letter insignificant and went on to provide emergency licensing for the vaccine weeks later, the claims spread through social media channels.
The study published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, used the Google Trends tool to look at US-based Google searches for the terms 'infertility', 'infertility and vaccine' and 'infertility and COVID vaccine' before and after 1 December 2020 when the letter was first published. They compared forecast volumes of searches for these terms using Google Trend's relative search volume figure with actual volumes of searches during this period.
Researchers found searches for 'infertility' increased 119.9 percent from what had been expected, searches for 'infertility and vaccine' increased 11,241 percent, and searches for 'infertility and COVID vaccine' rose 34,900 percent.
They looked at the volume of searches in the eight months before the letter was published, and for a four week and an eight week period after and found searches for 'infertility' and 'infertility and the vaccine' reached their peak during the week of 6 December 2020, while searches for 'infertility and COVID vaccine' reached a peak during the week of 13 December 2020.
'I'm disappointed this misinformation occurred, but I am pleased to see spikes in searches because it reflects genuine interest and suggests that people are doing their research and trying to make informed decisions,' said co-author Dr John Martin Beal an osteopathic obstetrician and gynaecologist based in Tusla, Oklahoma.
Sajjadi said he thought the study showed Google Trends could be 'an effective tool to help physicians recognise and proactively address false claims with patients.'