Now more than ever, vaccines are in the spotlight. As COVID-19 continues to spread, new vaccines’ recent announcements bring hope for a healthier year in 2021. Some of these vaccines were developed using new technology, while others are more like traditional vaccines. What is the difference and is the COVID vaccine safe? Let us explain!
FIRST, LET’S DISCUSS THE BASICS: WHAT IS A VACCINE?
Vaccines contain a small number of pieces of a germ (such as a virus, bacteria, or a parasite) to help jump-start your immune system to make antibodies that fight infection. For example, the measles vaccine contains part of the measles virus. When you get the vaccine, your body builds immunity (or protection) so that you do not get sick if you are exposed to the actual measles virus. While vaccines have a similar end result (immunity), there are many different types of vaccines that work in slightly different ways.
Vaccines are important to keep us healthy by reducing infection from potentially deadly diseases. Staying up-to-date on your vaccinations not only protects you from infection but also protects people with weak immune systems and young children that may not be able to get certain vaccinations.
IS THERE A VACCINE FOR COVID-19 AND WHERE CAN I GET IT?
As of right now, the FDA has authorized two vaccines for use in the United States. Since there is a limited supply, the first goal is to vaccinate health care workers and long-term care facility residents (such as the elderly in nursing homes). As more supply becomes available, more and more people will get the vaccine just like other routine vaccinations.
IS THE COVID VACCINE SAFE?
Before the FDA authorizes them for use, vaccines for COVID-19 go through careful testing for safety. And as people get the vaccine throughout the country and world, the FDA will continue to monitor the vaccines. As we learn more about the vaccines, the CDC will continue to release safety information. Learn more from the CDC here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/expect/after.html.
DOES THE COVID-19 VACCINE HAVE SIDE EFFECTS?
All vaccines may have side effects, but they are usually very mild such as arm soreness, fever, and tiredness. In rare cases, serious reactions have occurred to vaccines.
The current COVID-19 vaccines may cause pain and swelling where you got the shot and flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, tiredness, and headache. These are common symptoms that show the vaccine is working and your body is building protection against the virus. These symptoms should go away after a few days. There have been stories in the news about serious allergic reactions, also called anaphylaxis, to the COVID-19 vaccine. This is possible and can happen from any vaccine…but it is very rare. The news stories make it seem more common than it is. The CDC has detailed information about this topic: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/allergic-reaction.html.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO DEVELOP IMMUNITY AFTER VACCINATION?
It takes time for your body to develop protection after vaccination to fight off further infections. The exact amount of time can vary but generally, it takes a few weeks after getting the vaccine for immunity to develop. The current COVID-19 vaccines available require TWO shots to have the full effect, as discussed below.
HOW DO VACCINES WORK IN GENERAL?
Vaccines differ in how they are made and how they help our bodies develop immunity. Older types of vaccines are called inactivated vaccines because they take the virus or bacteria and kill or inactivate it before injecting it into the patient. Further vaccine research led to the creation of live-attenuated vaccines that contain a weakened version of the live pathogen (an organism that can cause disease). The body then develops an immune response to these inactivated or weakened germs so it can fight off the infection if exposed in the future. To this day, vaccines use these traditional methods while others, like some COVID-19 vaccines, use the latest technology to help prevent and fight infections.
WHAT KIND OF VACCINES ARE THERE FOR COVID-19?
As explained above, traditional vaccines are created using a weakened or inactivated germ to cause the immune response, but some of the new vaccines for COVID-19 use a different method, such as mRNA vaccines. This article focuses mostly on mRNA vaccines, but we will briefly discuss other types of COVID-19 vaccines.
What are mRNA vaccines?
Currently, there are TWO different mRNA vaccines with approved emergency use authorization from the FDA: one from Pfizer/BioNTech (for patients 16 years and older) and one from Moderna (for patients 18 years and older). These vaccines use a process that has been studied for several years as a new way to make vaccines but has not actually been in any FDA approved vaccines before. This technology is not entirely new, in fact, researchers want to use mRNA vaccines on a larger scale for other infections and diseases. The pandemic just “sped up” these advancements. Researchers chose this method for COVID-19 vaccines because it is a faster and less expensive way to produce large quantities of effective vaccines. A good goal for a rapidly spreading global infection!
How do mRNA vaccines work?
Humans, viruses, bacteria, parasites, plants, etc. have something in common – they all have mRNA! mRNA is a code or set of instructions that cells use to make proteins. To create mRNA vaccines, researchers make a specific strand (piece) of mRNA and package it in a way that our cells will accept. Then, our cells use that mRNA code to make proteins that our bodies will recognize as foreign. In other words, our bodies will know they don’t belong. For COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, the proteins that are made by our bodies are just like the spike proteins attached to the surface of the virus, as shown in the many pictures of coronavirus we are all now familiar with today. These spike proteins look like a crown, hence the name coronavirus (coming from the Latin “corona” or crown). Once our body makes these spike proteins, our immune system starts to develop antibodies against them creating a memory to fight against the virus. This memory will help your body recognize and fight the actual virus. Because your immune system will remember the spike proteins, it’ll know that those proteins do not belong in our bodies and fight off the virus. See figure below.
IMPORTANT: These vaccines require TWO shots to be effective and must be stored at very cold temperatures so they don’t go bad. After receiving both vaccinations, it will take time for immunity to develop.
Are mRNA vaccines dangerous?
There are some very important points to make about mRNA vaccines:
- They cannot give you COVID-19 because they do NOT contain live virus.
- mRNA does NOT get into our DNA or change it in any way. The mRNA strand never enters the nucleus of the cell (the nucleus stores your DNA).
- After using the strand of mRNA, the cell breaks it down and gets rid of it.
- These vaccines are being thoroughly studied and evaluated by the FDA, just like other types of vaccines used today.
Protein Subunit Vaccines
The Novavax and Glaxo Smith Kline vaccines use protein subunits (pieces). In this method, pieces of proteins from the virus are added to the vaccine. Once injected into the body, the immune system recognizes that they do not belong and begins to develop protection. The pieces and subunits in these types of vaccines can vary. For instance, some vaccines use pieces of sugar from the virus instead of proteins. Examples of subunit vaccines currently in use are vaccines against hepatitis B, HPV, and whooping cough.
Both vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson use the vector vaccine method. To make this kind of vaccine, scientists use a weakened version of a live virus. It is actually a different virus than the one that causes COVID-19. Researchers take this similar virus and then add parts of the genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19. In other words, a virus is weakened, then instructions are added to it so that the body makes coronavirus proteins and then will develop immunity against it. Researchers developed a similar kind of vaccine for Ebola.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU HAVE SIDE EFFECTS OR QUESTIONS ABOUT THE COVID-19 VACCINE?
For any questions or concerns you may have about vaccines, call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222. Specially trained nurses and pharmacists are available 24/7/365 to answer your questions. The service is free and confidential. You can also read more about COVID-19 vaccinations here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/index.html.
Many of us will most likely have a few months of waiting to be next in line for a vaccine. In the meantime, learn more about home remedies and other possible treatment options for COVID-19.