currents

The shot we hoped for

Questions about safety, vaccine development and more, answered

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 1/6/21

Dr. Susan Bailey, an allergist/immunologist in Texas and the president of the American Medical Association, has reassured many people that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. When your patients have …

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currents

The shot we hoped for

Questions about safety, vaccine development and more, answered

Posted

Dr. Susan Bailey, an allergist/immunologist in Texas and the president of the American Medical Association, has reassured many people that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. When your patients have allergies, it probably comes with the territory.

But there are many people out there who are craving a return to normal life while also worried about the safety of this vaccine. Especially with a shot that seemed to move fast from start to finish.

Dr. Bailey and three other medical professionals were on a Poynter Institute webinar panel in December, discussing the vaccines and the best way to explain them to a nervous public.

Safety wasn’t the only issue, of course. There are general questions about mRNA, which is a key component of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. There were fairness concerns: Who should get priority? And there were questions about the speed of the process: Was safety compromised? And concerns about the virus’s effect on the body: Should you get the shot if you’ve had COVID-19?

Having many people on board and vaccinated is critical. “Seventy percent is a good number,” Dr. Bailey said. “The higher the number the better.” Some experts have pushed for 80 percent vaccination for herd immunity.

The high number is necessary. Not everyone can get the shot, including children under 16 (for the Pfizer shot) and 18 for Moderna. “We need to study children first,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. People with immunodeficiencies also can’t receive it.

The webinar aired the same day that vaccines began to be administered in the U.S. We’ve reached the starting line, but, “We can’t let our guard down,” Dr. Bailey said. “We must continue to wear masks and social distance and wash our hands and avoid indoor crowds for now.”

What is mRNA?

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA to basically get a cell to create new proteins that will start an immune response against COVID-19. Two shots are needed. It’s a different approach to vaccines, and no part of the actual virus is used.

“Messenger RNA (mRNA) is something we all have in our bodies,” said Dr. Offit. It’s genetic material.

As Diana Kwon, writing in The Scientist, put it, “mRNA vaccines work by providing the genetic code for our cells to produce viral proteins. Once the proteins, which don’t cause disease, are produced, the body launches an immune response against the virus, enabling the person to develop immunity.”

Using mRNA “is not a novel strategy,” Dr. Offit said. It was first proposed in 1990 by UPenn scientist Katalin Kariko. And Moderna has been working with it therapeutically for years, according to Chemical and Engineering News (in a story from 2018, well before the pandemic).

In the Pfizer vaccine, the process was developed by a German company, BioNTech, which was experimenting with mRNA in individualized cancer immunotherapies when the pandemic arrived.

How about reactions to the shot?

At the time of the webinar, three people had had a severe response to the vaccine, Dr Offit said. So if you’ve had a severe response to an injected therapy you shouldn’t get the shot.

Otherwise, it’s suggested that people stay in the place of immunization for 15 to 30 minutes after getting the jab

You can expect some pain, swelling and redness in the arm that received the shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chills, tiredness and headache are symptoms that should appear within a day or two of getting the vaccine, and they show that the immune response is working. “It lasts about a day, and it is far, far better than having COVID-19,” said Patsy Stinchfield, RN, president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Was it fast-tracked?

“The safety part of this journey has not been cut short,” said Stinchfield.

Many vaccines take 10 to 15 years to develop, according to Health.ny.gov. There are years of lab research and at least three clinical trials on human volunteers, which can also take years since volunteers who are willing to help must be sought out.

Flu vaccines, on the other hand, are developed every year, Health.ny.gov says. The antigen changes but the manufacturing process stays the same.

In the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, “We didn’t have to grow this virus in eggs,” Stinchfield said. “We didn’t have to encourage people to be part of this trial. People wanted to be part of this trial.”

And mRNA research had already been done, shortening a large part of the process.

After I get a shot, can I live life normally?

At first, you’ll still need to take precautions, said Dr. Bailey. Social distance and wear a mask, just in case you can still transmit the virus. And even as more people get vaccinated, “We’ll have to continue to be careful for a while.”

I had COVID-19. Do I still need a shot?

“Probably... you need to be vaccinated to keep from getting it again,” said Dr. Bailey.

“The CDC is still recommending it,” Dr. Offit added.

And finally…

Relief. Joy. Vaccinations have started, and something approaching normal life might lie in the near future. In the meantime, more than 346,000 Americans have died. None of the panelists forgot that.

“This is a scientific triumph in technology that has been worked on for [more than] 30 years,” Patsy Stinchfield said. “The path out of this pandemic now has some light.”

vaccines, COVID

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