As public health officials work to immunize the population against COVID-19, they are also working to dispel doubt about the vaccine’s efficacy, safety and side effects.
Some of the largest vaccine misconceptions revolve around its speedy development, according to Dr. Chris Urbina, the medical director for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment. While most vaccines take years to develop — the previous record-holder was the mumps vaccine created in four years — the COVID-19 vaccine was developed in less than a year.
The two currently authorized vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech benefited from policies under Operation Warp Speed that brought together the often-disconnected ecosystem of researchers, manufacturers, clinicians and distributers. This means the vaccine was manufactured at the same time it was being created and tested.
This ramped-up timeline, however, does not mean that scientists cut corners.
“The vaccine had the same clinical trials, the same set of high standards that every vaccine and every medication has gone through,” Urbina said.
“It’s research scientists and doctors like myself who review the data and review the information that can reassure people that it’s both effective as well as safe.”
Concerns over an mRNA vaccine
Some vaccine skeptics are also fearful of the actual science behind the injection.
Most vaccines work by putting weak or dead virus cells into the body. From there, the body’s immune system identifies the foreign threat and learns to fight it. This is how the seasonal flu shot works.
These types of vaccines typically take years to develop and get approved, an impractical timeline during a pandemic that has upended the global economy and claimed half a million American lives over the past year. Instead, researchers used a quicker route to a vaccine, by relying on the virus’s genetic code.
Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines inject messenger RNA, or mRNA, from the coronavirus into the body. This mRNA teaches the body to make a certain kind of harmless protein, called a spike protein, found in the virus. The presence of that foreign protein then triggers an immune system response.
“mRNA messenger vaccines have been around for decades,” Urbina said. “That’s important to know. We actually have used it for other viruses like Zika.”
And despite its technical terminology, an mRNA vaccine has no effect on a person’s genes as some have feared.
“Even though we haven’t had a vaccine used in the general public that uses this technology, this technology has been around for many years,” said Lisa Miller, a professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health.
“There is good scientific understanding of how it works. There is good understanding that this vaccine doesn’t enter the nucleus of the cell, that no DNA is changed.”
Worry over adverse side effects
Urbina said it’s best to go into a vaccination expecting mild side effects such as a sore arm, fatigue and minor aches and pains.
“Knowing that you’re going to have side effects after the vaccine is reassuring in that you’re normal. What it also says is that your body is responding to the vaccine in an appropriate way. Your immune system is activated,” he said.
Most of the commonly reported side effects last one or two days. Anything more persistent may be a reason to call a doctor.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also runs a smartphone-based tool called V-safe, which allows individuals to self-report adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine. This works in tandem with the CDC’s general Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.
“These are two things that we are monitoring very closely,” Urbina said. “And we’re not seeing any significant side effects or problems with these vaccines so far. And we’ve been giving it now for a couple months now.”
He said that most severe side effects for a vaccine become apparent within six to eight weeks.
Even the few reported cases of severe suspected side effects shouldn’t be a reason to forego the vaccine, experts said.
“Because we’re vaccinating so many people, some of those vaccinated people will have those bad outcomes,” Miller, the epidemiologist, said. “It doesn’t mean that they have anything to do with the vaccine.
“It just means that when you vaccinate lots of people, you’re going to have an overlap in people who are vaccinated and people who have health problems.”
She said to rely on the data, rather than hearsay.
And the severe side effects that might come directly from the vaccine, such as the few cases of anaphylaxis, appear two-to-five times per one million doses, according to Dr. Eric France, the chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“When these severe allergic reactions first started coming up, I wondered how common they would be. And they turn out to be very rare. We only know that because tens of millions of doses have been given and we understand how often these happen,” he said.
There also hasn’t been any evidence that the vaccine affects fertility, a persistent rumor circulating on social media. And although there haven’t been full studies of the vaccine in pregnant women, the CDC, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine say the vaccine should be offered to pregnant women.
That guidance is based on the potential risks of the vaccine versus the proven risks of COVID-19 infection in pregnant women. Additionally, experts point out that it is statistically likely that women who have had both doses of the vaccine, either in clinical trials or early distribution, have since become pregnant.
How the vaccine will get us closer to normal
The COVID-19 vaccine, combined with continued face mask usage and social distancing measures, are the surest bet to establishing herd immunity and getting back to normal.
It is important to note, however, that even a vaccinated person should still wear a mask and socially distance. The vaccine’s effectiveness is measured by its success in preventing symptoms, not its success in preventing an actual infection.
“Ultimately, when it comes to looking at vaccines, I want to know if they protect people from dying and being hospitalized,” France said. “I’m not that worried about whether it protects me from getting a mild case of COVID.”
Experts say this is crucial to understand.
“That’s part of the importance of why we’re still emphasizing wearing a mask, physical distancing, washing your hands, avoiding social gatherings. It’s still possible, although not likely, that you could transmit the infection,” Urbina said.
“You’re not only protecting yourself, but you’re protecting the people around you. If you’re getting your vaccine, you’re reducing the amount of people that are goi to be exposed to the virus.”
About 24,500 Pueblo County residents had their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Feb. 22, according to the county’s health department.
For information about the county’s progress in the vaccination effort and to check who is eligible under each phase, visit the health department’s website at county.pueblo.org/public-health.
Chieftain reporter Sara Wilson can be reached via email at SWilson@gannett.com.