Vaccines are Here
We are in the midst of a post-holiday surge of COVID that is overwhelming our health care systems and straining its personnel. Hospitals are overflowing, and there are no ICU beds available in most of California. People are dying without loved ones at their bedsides and with no way for anyone to say goodbye. But the much talked about “light at the end of the tunnel” is in view. COVID-19 vaccines are here.
The two vaccines that are available in the U.S. right now (made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna), are both mRNA vaccines, an entirely new type of vaccine. Should you take one of these when it is offered? Some people are wondering about these two vaccines because they were developed and approved so quickly.
How do they work? Traditional vaccines put a weakened form or a piece of actual virus or bacteria into our bodies. But not mRNA vaccines. mRNA is a set of instructions for cells to make a particular protein, in this case, a small piece of the spike protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. mRNA is like the digital signals we send to a printer to make copies of a document. In this case, the signal goes to the ribosomes, our cells’ protein making machinery.
mRNA vaccines cannot cause COVID-19. mRNA is simply a message that the body reads. It cannot change our DNA or our genes. The vaccine is like a “wanted poster” for COVID-19. Once we are vaccinated, our bodies know what the virus looks like. The “wanted poster” degrades quickly but our bodies remember what to look for and when necessary, activates our immune systems to fight it.
Growing and then weakening a large amount of virus or extracting a critical piece of it for traditional vaccines takes time. One of the advantages of mRNA vaccines is their manufacture can be scaled up quickly with readily available materials once the genetic code of a virus is known. They are a plug and play platform for vaccines.
Chinese scientists published the genetic code of the SAR-CoV-2 virus on the internet on Jan. 10, 2020, just 10 days after the first report of the outbreak in Wuhan. Scientists around the world immediately began working on vaccines, and within days, the mRNA code was identified.
How could a new type of vaccine be developed and approved so rapidly? The research behind mRNA vaccines started 30 years ago and they have been studied for Zika, influenza, rabies, and some cancers. Global funding for COVID vaccines resulted in large, well-run trials in countries across the world. These trials are held to the same rigorous safety and efficacy standards in the US as all other types of vaccines. mRNA vaccines are also much faster to make than traditional vaccines.
Vaccines have done more to save lives and extend life expectancy than any other human advance. Diseases like smallpox and polio, which once ravaged the world, have been virtually eliminated by vaccines.
Some say just let people get infected and become immune that way. It’s true that most people who have COVID recover in less than two weeks and many (around 40%) have no symptoms at all. Best estimates are that to control the pandemic and resume normal activities, 60-70% of the population — 200-230 million of us — would need to have immunity. The problem with this strategy is that 1-2% of infected people die and 15-20% percent of those with symptoms will have prolonged illness and permanent disability. Achieving naturally acquired community immunity without vaccines would mean death for millions and severe illness for tens of millions of our fellow Americans.
Both available vaccines are more than 90% effective, much better than traditional vaccines. Most people who receive the vaccine have soreness where the shot was given for a few days. Some feel tired, have a headache or a low-grade fever for a day or two. Serious allergic reactions are rare and seem to occur in people who have previously had severe allergic reactions to other agents. These extreme reactions have resolved quickly with conventional allergic reaction treatment (Epi-Pen and Benadryl).
So, to answer my question “Should you take the COVID vaccine when it is offered?” I answer with a resounding “yes.” There is finally hope on the horizon. Take pride in getting your vaccine as soon as you can — civic pride. Our community can beat this and get back to normal if we all work together to get vaccinated as soon as possible!
And please – let’s not let down our guard. Until enough of us have been vaccinated to give us community immunity, continue to protect yourself, your neighbors and our hard-working front-line workers by keeping your space, staying in place, and covering your face.