With the wonderful news of very effective vaccines being developed and released to the public on a worldwide scale there are of course many questions that come to mind.
I know that I celebrated the news of effective vaccines being developed for the COVID-19 virus after caring for many patients over the last 10 months with COVID-19 infections. It has been horrible to witness firsthand our case and fatality numbers steadily climb, but even with the release of the vaccine I knew that many people would be hesitant to get it.
Let us go over where we stand today in terms of the vaccines that have been released and those that are likely soon to be approved.
It is hard to imagine, but over 200 companies are working on vaccines for this virus around the world. Two have been given emergency use authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are being called the “Pfizer-BioNTech” and “Moderna” vaccines by most people after the companies that produced them. Both vaccines are based on an mRNA technology which has been studied for over 15 years.
I am going to attempt to simplify how these vaccines work. Our body’s cells naturally make something called mRNA our whole lives. The body uses mRNA as a tiny instruction sheet to build all the proteins that we have throughout our body to make bones, muscles, skin, etc. These mRNA instruction sheets get read by our cells and then the cells make the proteins we need and then destroy and recycle the mRNA. The mRNA does not change our DNA or so-called genetic code.
These two vaccines, the Pfizer and Moderna, are small pieces of mRNA that give the instructions to our body to build one small piece of the COVID-19 virus called the spike proteins. These spike proteins cover the outside of COVID-19 virus particles and are the key to the virus getting into our bodies and making us sick. So, when you get the vaccine your body reads these little pieces of mRNA and makes copies of just the spike proteins. Those spike proteins then trigger your immune system to build immunity to the COVID-19 virus. The little messages (the mRNA) and the spike proteins get quickly broken down by the body.
The two vaccines do not contain COVID-19 viruses or pieces of the virus and it is not possible to catch COVID-19 from getting these vaccines.
And what is so exciting is how well these two vaccines have worked at preventing death and serious complications from COVID-19 infections. In the studies leading to their approval, each showed over 90% reduction in the risk of death and serious complications. And the initial safety data is equally encouraging and showed an extremely low rate of complications. They were each tested in over 30,000 patients of various ages, ethnicities, and with various health conditions.
There are other vaccines against COVID-19 being developed that may soon get the same type of approval. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine uses a different type of vaccine technology and seems to be showing a 70% reduction in deaths and serious complications. It too does not contain infectious COVID-19 virus.
All the vaccines being developed so far do require an injection or shot to get. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines each require 2 doses with the Pfizer needing 21 days between shots and the Moderna 28 days. It is strongly recommended that both of your shots be the same brand of vaccine.
Currently the Pfizer vaccine is okay for people 16 and older and the Moderna is okay 18 and older. Studies for children are underway, and we will hopefully get approval for them soon.
Many people are wondering how long they will be protected from serious COVID infections or even death from the vaccines. This is not yet known, but the studies are suggesting that it maybe a year or more. Yes, we may have to get additional doses of the vaccine to continue protecting ourselves, but we will know more as the first people to get the vaccine are still being followed by the researchers.
Are there any groups of people who should be cautious about getting the vaccine? There are very few, but it is important to talk to your doctor prior to getting the vaccine if you have any known allergies to the ingredients in the vaccines or have a history of serious allergic reactions. Most people even with a history of allergies to common things will be able to safely get the vaccine. There are no egg or latex proteins in these vaccines. The ingredients can be found on the company’s vaccine website or in the package insert.
Many professional societies of doctors and scientists are encouraging pregnant patients to also consider getting the vaccine. COVID-19 infections during pregnancy can be quite serious, and our current data suggest that the vaccines are safe and effective.
Many people are also asking if we will be able to stop wearing masks and socially distancing once enough of the population gets vaccinated. At this time, the ongoing recommendation is going to be to continue these public health measures until we are sure that vaccinated people cannot spread the virus.
My grandmother used to say that nothing in this world is 100%. The vaccines are not 100% effective even if everyone gets the vaccine. There will still be people who get vaccinated and who get sick and die of the COVID-19 virus, but I will take a greater than 90% reduction of that risk any day of the week.
I have been fortunate to get both of my doses of the Pfizer vaccine and had mild symptoms of headache, nausea, and feeling tired for less than 24 hours. I feel great now and in talking to others who have completed their two shots, they had similar mild reactions or even less. These are not allergic reactions to the vaccine; these are natural reactions of our immune system to the vaccine.
We all want this pandemic to end as soon as possible. The suffering, economic impact, and loss of life is heartbreaking. We will all have to do our part to get out from under it.
Thank you to the brilliant scientists and volunteer vaccine study participants for giving us hope against this horrible virus.
Dr. Porter board certified Family Physician faculty member who sees patients of all ages and provides obstetrical services at Lone Star Family Health Center, a non-profit 501©3 Federally Qualified Health Center operating facilities in Conroe, Spring, Willis, Grangerland, and Huntsville, and serving as home to a fully integrated Family Medicine Residency Program to increase the number of Family Medicine physicians for Texas and our community.