If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 has got to be the year of vaccinations. The miracle of modern science, generous funding, and expedited research have led to us having at least three available vaccines to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Pfizer/ BioNtech, Moderna, and most recently, AstraZeneca have produced vaccines that are up to 94 to 95 percent effective at preventing SARS-CoV-2 virus infections or reducing the disease’s severity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The CDC and Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ (ACIP) proposed recommendations are for first rounds of vaccinations to be administered to health care workers and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In some order, right after that are essential workers, the elderly, at-risk communities, and then eventually the general public.
We are now witnessing the commencement of one of the most massive immunization programs that we may have seen in our lifetime. I was privileged and humbled to receive my first shot less than ten days ago. I have been vaccinated many times, including yearly for the flu, but receiving this shot was highly emotional for me and other health care workers who have seen the death and devastation from this disease firsthand.
Many physicians are posting this historic moment on social media with the hashtag #ThisIsOurShot, with hopes to inspire everyone to get the vaccine and achieve herd immunity eventually.
Why is there still some hesitation about these vaccines? I hear comments like “this was done too fast” or “it just seems rushed,” even from a few in the health care community. Women and people of color were less likely to say they would seek vaccination in general. Based on a recent University of Michigan poll, only 40% of older adults who are Black and 51% of Hispanics said they are somewhat or very likely to get vaccinated, despite the greater risk of hospitalization and death for members of these groups if they develop COVID-19.
Coronavirus vaccines have been in development for almost 20 years since SARS happened in 2001. The mRNA via lipid nanoparticle has been extensively studied in animal models; in several studies in the early 2000s, there were significant problems with hypersensitivity reactions when animals were challenged with coronaviruses after re-exposure. These problems have been significantly reduced but are still a potential risk.
The donor vaccines selected for the four new COVID-19 trials had the best safety profiles in animal studies. They were allowed to move more rapidly because of the previous animal model testing (murine and non-human primate models). In short, the facts are that we may have fast-tracked the final product, but the technology behind it was 20 years in development.
These mRNA vaccines work by encoding a part of the spike protein found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the CDC explains. The vaccine uses pieces of the encoded protein to spark an immune response in your body. That, in turn, causes your body to develop antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, which should help you fight off the infection in the future. Afterward, your body eliminates the protein and the mRNA, while the antibodies stick around to help provide immunity.
So, no, you cannot get coronavirus infection from the vaccines. Also, allergic reactions have been few and mostly mild. Individuals with a history of severe allergic reactions are advised caution and, if necessary, extra precautions.
The vaccine is probably effective against current mutations because they use the same protein to get into your cells, against which it produces immunity. Of course, we should still be masking and social distancing.
Vaccines have been around as early as 1776 when Edward Jenner first pioneered the smallpox vaccine and Louis Pasteur produced a rabies vaccine. As a microbiologist’s child, I grew up hearing these stories from my father and thinking of these men as heroes. Vaccines have been proven so effective and safe that we are guilty of taking them for granted. There may have been a few mishaps, but given current standards for testing efficacy and safety, there is very little to worry about.
In 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox was eradicated from the face of the earth, and there was no need for further vaccination. I, for one, cannot wait to hear the same about COVID -19.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com