Dr. Leslie Cordes is the senior medical consultant at Latin School of Chicago. She is also a pediatrician and has been a physician for 36 years. She has a master's in public health with a focus in epidemiology.
How does the COVID-19 vaccine work in our body?
The two COVID-19 vaccines that have received the emergency use authorization are a special type of vaccine known as mRNA vaccines. These vaccines deliver a genetic code, the mRNA, or messenger RNA that teaches your cells to make the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus. That spike protein is what we see in pictures that the coronavirus is sticking out on the surface. It forms sort of a crown around the virus, and crown interestingly translates to corona, which is how the coronavirus gets its name. It's the part of the virus that allows it to attach and to enter into our cells. So it's a really important target. So on its own that spike protein in our body is harmless and it does not cause COVID-19 disease. But once that messenger RNA teaches ourselves to make the spike protein it's broken down, it's gone. However, the body now recognizes this newly created spike protein as foreign, and the body begins to create a defense or an immune response against it. And this is how vaccines work. So this response is boosted by that second dose and the two-dose vaccine series in about two weeks after receiving that second dose, the efficacy of the vaccine's protection against COVID-19 disease is about 95%. The body has been taught to recognize this important spike protein on the virus and attack it, neutralize the virus if it sees it.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?
So each vaccine was studied in tens of thousands of people in the third phase of the vaccine trials. So in addition to seeing the vaccine protected against COVID-19 infection, the researchers followed all of the study participants to assess for vaccine reactions and side effects. And the vaccines were found to be very safe. The vaccine manufacturers then presented this phase three data to the FDA in order to receive the emergency use authorization. So even though the vaccines have received that EUA manufacturers continue to follow the study participants and all the data gathered will be reviewed again. When the manufacturer is applied for full licensing from FDA. Safety data also continues to be collected in several different ways now that we have vaccines that are widely distributed and used.
Have there been any allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine?
So there have been rare instances of allergic reactions to the vaccine and people with a history of certain types of severe allergies. To address this, each person is administered a series of questions before receiving the vaccine to detect any history of allergies. And in addition, each person is monitored for a minimum of 15 minutes following receipt of the vaccine. And administrators have been, and are, prepared to immediately and effectively respond to these rare allergic reactions should they occur.
What are the differences between the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine?
So there are two vaccines that have received emergency use authorization, the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. So both of these vaccines use the same mRNA technique for generating an immune response. The main differences are in the details of the manufacturing process. The Pfizer vaccine has more stringent storage requirements. Also, the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine is administered three weeks after the first dose and for the Moderna vaccine, the second dose is administered four weeks after the first dose. Studies of the vaccine show that each vaccine has approximately 94-95% efficacy against COVID-19 disease.
What are the common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?
The most common side effect is soreness at the site of injection. Other side effects might include fatigue, headache, muscle aches, chills, joint pain, possibly a little fever, but these side effects generally indicate your body's developing an immune response to the vaccine, so that's good. Many people will not experience any side effects, but that does not mean the body is not hard at work at developing immunity. Side effects usually last 24-48 hours, no more than a few days. And the more frequent after the second dose in the vaccine trials.
How can we be confident in a safe vaccine that was developed within a year?
So the federal government provided significant funding to enable vaccine manufacturing. This allowed the companies to move several paces ahead with planning while maintaining the appropriate steps in the scientific process. There were no shortcuts in the science. It became clear very quickly whether or not the vaccine protected against disease. And it did.
Dr. Leslie Cordes, Latin's Senior Medical Consultant Frankly, the fast pace with which the disease spread allowed researchers to gather data right away. It became clear very quickly whether or not the vaccine protected against disease. And it did. Also, research institutions used as existing collaborations and many were networks that had been forged to work together on HIV research. And they pivoted to work on all aspects of COVID-19, including research, instrumental to developing vaccines. And advances in technology helped as well. The genetic code of the virus was determined and shared early on, allowing for global research to begin. And all the methods that have been developed for previous epidemics and pandemics were put to use for COVID-19. All these factors together brought us to where we are today.
What is emergency use authorization or EUA?
When we're faced with a public health emergency, as we are with the COVID-19 pandemic, the public health community has to come together and quickly assess the challenges and opportunities available. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause of the COVID-19 disease, is a novel or a new virus. We had no special medicines or vaccines available at the onset of the pandemic. The FDA's EUA process allows scientists to develop and study medicines and vaccines that could be helpful. And it provides an expedited review process, weighing the risks of the disease and the potential risks and benefits of the proposed therapeutic. So the process for obtaining an EUA is rigorous and researchers must present data that meets scientific standards. The application is then reviewed by an independent board of experts before the EUA is released.
What benefits will I get after I get the vaccine? Will I still need to wear a mask and follow all these restrictions?
While we're certainly ready to get back to a sort of a “normal life,” even those who are vaccinated will need to continue the same measures that are in place currently. Even Even though the vaccine is about 95% effective, that still means about one in 20 people who get it will not have protection from getting the illness.
Dr. Leslie Cordes, Latin's Senior Medical Consultant though the vaccine is about 95% effective, that still means about one in 20 people who get it will not have protection from getting the illness. So we will ask those who get the vaccine to continue with the masking, distancing and cleaning that we've emphasized since we started school in the fall. As we move ahead with vaccination and gathered data on the trajectory of the pandemic, we'll adjust a recommendation as indicated, but we're not there yet.
If someone's vaccinated, can they still pass the disease on to an unvaccinated person?
So it's a great question. And we're still gathering data on that. We know the vaccines, very good at projecting the recipient from COVID-19 disease, but we just don't know enough yet to confidently state that it also protects against transmission. So for the time being, we're instructing those who have been vaccinated to follow all the mitigation measures of masking and distancing. It's important to have data drive those decisions since we don't want to make any recommendations that would lead to increased transmission.
What about the case where someone's already had the COVID-19 disease? Should they be vaccinated?
And that's another great question. And the answer is yes. Get the vaccine. We really don't know how long the protection developed by natural infection will last. And we don't honestly have terrific ways to measure that protection, but we do know that it's safe to vaccinate people who have had the disease.
Are we at the point yet where we can start talking about vaccinating kids?
While the FDA has authorized the Pfizer vaccine for distribution to individuals as young as 16, but no COVID vaccine has been authorized for children under the age of 16. There's at least one trial that's right now enrolling kids between the ages of 12 and 18 with their parent's permission. It might be not until the end of this year, possibly even next year, before we have enough evidence on the timing, the safety, the effectiveness, and really the practical aspects of vaccinating kids for coronavirus, especially if we're going to be considering kids under the age of 12.
What risks do I take on if I choose not to be vaccinated?
The risks of not vaccinating include all the risks of acquiring COVID-19 disease, including the possibility of prolonged symptoms.
So where can I go to get reliable resources for my questions on the vaccine?
I would just generally direct you to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which you can access by www.cdc.gov.
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