My COVID-19 Vaccine Experience
The persistent questions I face from others will outlast my sore arm
I received my first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine one week ago. As of right now, I haven’t experienced x-ray vision, and there’s no evidence of a third arm sprouting. A sore arm for 24 hours and a card stamped with the vaccine lot number are my only mementos.
Unless you count the many remarks and comments I’ve been collecting: everything from rumors of it altering human DNA to tweets that the vaccine will kill more people than the virus.
As a healthcare provider, I expect questions, concerns, and confusion to circulate this vaccination for some time. What I wasn’t expecting was the high level of resistance to continue after explaining the science. Even after talking with people, many remained buoyed to their fears and illogical thought processes.
It seems the hardest part of getting the vaccine for me has been dealing with those who don’t understand the science and facts.
What Are Your Concerns About Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine?
I’ve been asking people this question for many months, hoping that the spread of knowledge would result in rolled-up shirt sleeves.
I am in a unique position as a nurse practitioner and front-line healthcare worker to provide education about this unique vaccine, and I haven’t wasted a moment promoting it. That being said, although I see it as part of my job to calm fears and address misunderstandings, I refuse to argue conspiracy theories. But I won’t stop collecting concerns.
Here are the most common apprehensions I’ve collected so far.
1. This Vaccine Was Rushed, How Can It Be Safe?
The safety concern card is legitimate. And it’s at the top of everyone’s mind.
According to Dr. Paul Offit, the fact that a Phase 3 trial has been completed, holds this vaccine to the same accountability as any other vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccine was trialed in the Pfizer study with over 43,000 individuals; the Moderna study with about 30,000; and in the Johnson & Johnson study with close to 45,000 people. That is comparable to the size of any vaccine trial.
The question then morphs to “Why are researchers not testing this vaccine for a longer period of time, say over two to twenty years instead of just a few months?”
The purpose of the Phase 3 trial for the COVID-19 vaccine was different from the purpose of a typical Phase 3 trial. The COVID-19 vaccine was not seeking FDA licensing (and it could not anyway with such a short testing period). Instead, the purpose was to collect data on safety and efficacy in a significant number of people, with a true placebo control.
Although the steps to authorize the use of the vaccine have been accelerated, none of the scientific steps have been compromised. Additionally, scientists continue to collect ongoing data from these trials.
Additional comfort was found when the FDA proved that they cared about the safety of the American people by requesting at least two months of safety data after dose two. This meant the FDA was not bowing to the whims of the current administration by forcing completion before the November election. The intention was to gather enough safety and efficacy information to determine if the benefits outweigh the risks. And that’s what happened.
2. The mRNA Technology is Too New, It’s Too Risky
This is the most amazing part of the vaccine — the mRNA technology. Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology has been in the works for almost two decades.
mRNA is a piece of genetic material that is already in our bodies. Our cells are making mRNA all the time, which then make proteins that are excreted from the cells and used by the body. It’s a common molecule that’s in our body already, and it stimulates the innate immune system.
The mRNA within the COVID-19 vaccine codes specifically for the COVID-19 spike protein and nothing else. The COVID-19 spike protein is on the cell’s surface and is the protein that’s responsible for binding the virus to the cell. So, if our bodies can make antibodies to fight that specific protein, then it will keep the virus from binding to the cells. This is how scientists make Hepatitis B and HPV vaccines — by creating antibody responses to the surface proteins.
The challenging part of getting the mRNA into the cells was solved by creating a synthetic mRNA that includes a lipid nano-particle for transportation and stabilized nucleosides (these trigger the immune system).
This synthetic mRNA is made in laboratories and able to sneak by the immune system without triggering a massive immune response (thanks to the stabilized nucleosides) and into the cells (thanks to the lipid nano-particle) where it can do its magic of replicating only the COVID-19 spike protein.
Once made, the COVID-19 spike protein is released from the cell and presented to the immune system. A healthy immune system then responds by taking a selfie with the COVID-19 spike protein, so that it can remember it. The next time the immune system sees that COVID-19 spike protein, it’ll be ready to fight.
It is worth noting once again that the synthetic mRNA cannot get into the nucleus — where the DNA lives — of any cell. Therefore, it is impossible for these modifications to alter our cells’ DNA makeup once the vaccine is in the body.
The mRNA never gets into the nucleus of the cells where DNA is located.
I should also mention that there is no live or attenuated (weakened) COVID-19 virus used to make any of these vaccines.
3. There are Too Many Side Effects
Vaccines can have serious side effects, it’s true. But severe allergic reactions are rare and serious side effects surface within the first six weeks of any vaccine dose. Although there were some harsh reactions, no severe or uncommon side effects that amounted to safety issues were observed during the COVID-19 Phase 3 trials.
Therefore, by observing these groups for two months, what researchers were able to determine is that this vaccine is safe for two months. That’s not very long, but because 1.72 million people have died from COVID-19, researchers didn’t have the luxury of testing it for two years before releasing it. It’s a risk, yes, but one worth taking.
4. Scientists Don’t Know How Long The Vaccine Will Provide Protection, So Why Bother?
Experts have shown that the COVID-19 vaccine has long-lasting protection, but the actual length of time is still unknown. However, research has shown that at 120 days, humans have lasting immunity, and, since the start of the Phase 3 trials, protection continues.
Researchers anticipate answers to concerns about long-term protection to come soon. The great news is that Pfizer will continue collecting safety and long-term outcome results from COVID-19 vaccine participants for up to two full years.
The Phase 3 trials have shown us that the Pfizer vaccine is 95 percent effective, and the Moderna vaccine is about 94 percent effective — against symptomatic disease. The trials were not designed to look at those people without symptoms of infection. Unfortunately, we know that those without symptoms can still spread this disease.
We also know that it may take several weeks for the body to mount a sufficient immune response, which means anyone could get sick with the virus just before or after receiving the vaccine.
Researchers anticipate that when 70 to 80 percent of the population is vaccinated — including those who have already been infected with the virus — we can finally rely less on masking and social distancing. But we have a ways to go.
5. I Don’t Want the Adverse Reactions of Fever and Fatigue
When the immune system is stimulated due to a vaccine or natural infection, our bodies release a series of proteins — cytokines — that are associated with these symptoms: low-grade fever, muscle aches, headaches, chills, or joint pain.
This is not an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Instead, it means your immune system is working!
I’m hoping for fever and fatigue with my second dose. Why? Because I know it means my immune system is revving up and getting ready to fight. I’ve been asked, “Are you sure fever and fatigue are normal immune responses?”
The febrile response to infection or vaccine is a good thing. Studies have shown that the immune system works better at higher temperatures: white cells kill bacteria more sufficiently, B cells make antibodies more efficiently, and T helper cells help B cells more effectively. Fever is our friend. And if you can tolerate it, experts recommend not treating a low-grade fever following vaccination.
COVID-19 has made pawns of the human race for almost a year. We’ve been running from this virus for too long.
Finally, science had stepped up with this vaccine and proclaimed, “Checkmate.”
What an amazing time to be alive.
I’ll be collecting concerns and digging for the scientific answers about this vaccine for some time. If you have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, please reach out to someone you trust, a healthcare professional, or search a reputable online source such as the CDC for more information.
Dr. Paul Offit is an FDA Vaccine Advisory Committee Member and an American pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases, vaccines, immunology, and virology. He is the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine.
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