As State and City health officials prepare to roll out initial doses of the coronavirus vaccine, many questions surround the vaccine.
Following news Thursday that a federal advisory panel has endorsed the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, vaccine production is expected to increase in the following weeks. A similar announcement about Moderna’s vaccine is expected this week.
Some health officials are predicting around 70 of the population will need to receive the vaccine or be exposed to the virus and recover to achieve “herd immunity” and end the pandemic. Others in the medical field say the number is between 75 percent and 80 percent.
Overall, 60 percent of Americans this month said they would definitely or probably get a vaccine for the coronavirus if one were available today, according to Pew Research Center polling results. The same poll found 21 percent of U.S. adults do not intend to get vaccinated and are “pretty certain” more information will not change their minds.
The vaccine is set to come as the U.S. is seeing a record number of daily deaths from the disease and hospital capacities are shrinking. Frontline workers are expected to start receiving doses of the vaccine as soon as this week.
So we asked local health officials Dr. Joseph Cantey of UT Health San Antonio and Joanne Turner, vice president of research at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, the questions you might have about the vaccination.
Q: Why should I get this vaccine?
JC: The most important thing about getting a vaccine is picking up personal immunity. It looks like both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines are probably somewhere in the ballpark of 90 percent effective, which means if 10 people who’ve been vaccinated are exposed, one person may still get sick. But that person is much less likely to have a severe disease and wind up in the hospital. Most people judge success and failure by whether or not they get it, but there’s also if you do get it, how badly do you get it – and it provides protection on both those counts.
JT: Vaccination is altruistic, right? It is about not only protecting ourselves but our neighbors, our friends, relatives – even people we don’t know. So I’m an advocate for vaccines.
Q: Will it hurt?
JC: Doctors did see some degree of arm shakiness and arm swelling, just like we see with any kind of any shot, and so that’s not unexpected – that’s usually a good sign that the vaccine is actually working.
JT: A needle in the arm always hurts to some extent, but it’s supposed to hurt – our immune response actually needs to see something ‘dangerous’ to respond, even if it’s a fake signal, right? So you have to have a little bit of pain.
Q: Is it safe?
JC: The vaccine is just the recipe for one protein. It’s not even as close to a virus as a conjugated vaccine, which we get all the time. It’s just the recipe for the spike protein, just one of the proteins of the 50 or 60 that the coronavirus needs to make a molecule, so there’s no infectious risk. There is less to be worried about in this type of vaccine than there is in a bag of Cheetos, in terms of chemicals.
JT: Messenger RNA vaccines have been around a long time, so even though this vaccine is new, it’s based on really well-known and well-researched technology. Our body makes messenger RNA. It does that to help us make proteins. It codes for proteins, and so it’s not something that’s alien and foreign or an invented technology. We’re actually just using our own body’s natural processes, and then faking that in a vaccine, which is pretty much how every vaccine works.
Q: Will it possibly make me sick?
JC: They did not see a lot of what they call adverse events, or serious hazards … which they are required to report as part of the studies. Nothing in the preliminary studies would stop me from wanting to get it for myself or wanting my family to get it.
Q: What if I’ve already been exposed to the coronavirus? Why do I need it if I’ve already been sick?
JC: There is no evidence for these vaccines – or for any other vaccines that we’ve used for decades – that getting immunized against something you’ve already had creates any sort of risk profile. So if someone’s had the measles and then they accidentally get the measles vaccine, it doesn’t cause any undue side effects or reaction. We also don’t know how long immunity lasts after having the virus. Just because you have the virus doesn’t mean that protective immunity is going to last forever. Now, it may not last forever with the vaccine either, but all the more reason to go ahead and get as much protection as you can.
JT: If they’ve been infected and generated a really good immune response, a couple of things can happen. One is the vaccine will help them generate an even better response. The other is that they’ve generated such a good natural response that they’ll just burn off the vaccine really quickly, and the vaccine just won’t have a strong effect, and they’re more protected. … There’s no harm in taking it.
Q: These vaccines were developed so incredibly fast. How can we trust them?
JC: It’s only seemed fast because most of the vaccine development, which [can take] 10 or 15 years, is getting the money and getting the political willpower and the pharmaceutical willpower to tackle a problem. So what the world did was eliminate all the downtime. They said, ‘OK, here’s unlimited money. Here’s all the political willpower. Get us through these steps as fast as you can.’ Phase 1, phase 2, phase 3 FDA approval still happened the way it normally would – there was just no intermission between any of them.
JT: The reason it was so quick is because it was so urgent. So money was given to scientists to speed that up.
Q: Why should I bother to get vaccinated if I seem healthy now? My body can just fight it off anyway, right?
JC: On a societal level, if we can get somewhere in the ballpark of 75 to 80 percent of the population in the United States, that would finally achieve herd immunity. That would be enough people who are protected against the virus where coronavirus couldn’t continue spreading, and that would start to be the real beginning of the end of the pandemic because it would just run out of people who are susceptible. We were never going to get there with people just getting infected because one, it would have taken forever, and two, it probably would have resulted in somewhere in the ballpark of 8 [million] to 10 million fatalities. We can get there with a vaccine.
JT: We’ve got to reduce the burden of infection in the community so that we can all go back out and go around with our regular lives, and to me that’s a great motivator – to be able to go back to as normal as we can, to be around our loved ones.
Q: How often will I need to get a COVID vaccination?
JC: The reason we have to get a flu vaccine every year is because the flu changes – sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically – from year to year, and so we have to keep shifting our vaccine to match it. Coronavirus is capable of doing that, but we haven’t seen the major jumps yet. Hopefully, it’ll be at least a couple of years if not longer before we start to see waning immunity.
Q: Will this protect me against other coronaviruses?
JC: I wouldn’t expect it to, mainly because those spike proteins are different. I would not expect this vaccine to protect against the other serious coronaviruses if they were to make a return.
Q: If I’m allergic to eggs or penicillin, should I still get it?
JT: So because it’s grown in eggs some people can’t take some of the flu vaccines, but this one is not grown in eggs, it’s synthesized in a lab. And it’s not an antibiotic, so it’s not going to trigger a lot of the things that people are normally allergic to.
Q: What if I get the first dose but not the second dose?
JC: The studies are obviously geared to look at what happens when people get it under ideal circumstances, ideal circumstances being two doses separated [by] 21 to 28 days. We know now from the data that Pfizer has shared with the FDA that you start to see protective antibodies as early as seven to 10 days after the first step, which is very similar to what happens when you get infected with the real virus. So is there some protection with just one dose, yes. But the full protection – the 90 percent that the FDA is about to give a seal of approval to – comes from having both doses together.
Q: How do I know I’m not being microchipped?
JC: The government cannot microchip us with these vaccines. What is injected is basically a teeny tiny recipe for the cells of your body just to make the spike protein. So there’s not even the entire virus in there. It’s basically 1 percent of the virus, just the surface protein, so that your body recognizes it and can respond to it. There’s no way for the cells to make a coronavirus, much less put in a microchip that transmits data back to the U.S. government.
JT: The government can probably track your cellphones so much easier. So clearly there’s easier ways to track people. And I’ve seen the size of microchips that have gone in my pets – that’s a really big needle to make that happen. I think people would notice that that was happening. This is a small needle for a vaccine; we couldn’t get a chip in there. It also wouldn’t be very stable, right? This would be an electronic device that’s been frozen at minus 80 [degrees] for an extended period of time – it’s unlikely that’s good for a microchip to be stable. So I think there are so many reasons why it’s incredibly unlikely.
Q: Will I still have to wear a mask after getting vaccinated?
JC: I would encourage all the people that I’m around and that I work with and that are in my family to keep wearing masks until we’ve really got it under control. The vaccines create a protective immunity against symptomatic disease, but we don’t know yet to what degree that’s going to interrupt asymptomatic transmission.
JT: I think initially it will still be a recommendation to wear masks, and I think there’s a lot of reasons. One is perception, right? We don’t know who’s been vaccinated or not, so it’s better to have everyone still mask up, and the other reason is that just because you’ve been vaccinated doesn’t mean you can’t be infected, and it doesn’t mean you can’t be a carrier.
Disclosure: UT Health San Antonio and Texas Biomedical Research Institute are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.