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 has led to us having possibly three available vaccines to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Pfizer/ BioNtech, Moderna, and most recently, AstraZeneca have produced vaccines that are up to 90 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 proposed recommendations by the CDC and ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) are for first rounds of vaccinations to be administered to healthcare workers and residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Right after that in some order, are essential workers, the elderly over 75, at-risk communities, and then eventually the general public.
We are now witnessing the commencement of one of the most massive vaccination programs that we may have seen in our lifetime. I was privileged and humbled to receive my shot just 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 of us are posting this historic moment on social media with the hashtag #ThisIsOurShot.
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 (enhanced disease). These problems have been significantly reduced but are still a potential risk (Lambert, Vaccine 25 May 2020)
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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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. Afterwards, 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 vaccine.
The vaccine is likely effective against mutations as well because they use the same protein to get into your cells against which it produces immunity.
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 the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Dr. Anupama Verma is the Editor-in-Chief of the Women in White Coats blog and a CoAuthor of “The Chronicles of Women in White Coats book two. She is a nephrologist who has been practicing for more than fifteen years and has lived on four continents. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @anuvmd.