The vaccine that the world has been waiting for is here. The New York Times reports that over 300 million doses have been given worldwide, including 100 million in the U.S. Have you gotten yours? Are you wondering when you will get one, or if you should? Here is what you need to know about COVID-19 vaccines.
How many vaccines are there?
“The” COVID-19 vaccine is really a group of vaccines. Each is designed by a different manufacturer. In the U.S., the vaccines that are approved for emergency use (“Emergency Use Authorization” by the Food and Drug Administration) are manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Jannsen Biotech of Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna. Manufacturers of vaccines that are in use in areas such as Europe, Russia, and China include AstraZeneca, Sinovac Biotech, Gamaleya (Sputnik V), and CanSino.
How do the vaccines work?
The vaccines work by stimulating the same immune response that SARS-CoV-2 does, but without making you sick with COVID-19. The theory is that once your body has been exposed to a certain portion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it learns how to make antibodies that can fight the virus and prevent, or lower the risk of getting, COVID-19.
Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are mRNA vaccines. They use a piece of genetic material in the form of mRNA, that codes for the protein that stimulates the antibody response. Jannsen Biotech’s product uses a more traditional approach that involves adding a piece of DNA to a harmless virus called an adenovirus, that then triggers the antibody response.
Should I get vaccinated?
Probably, though you should always check with your healthcare provider before making any decision about your healthcare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the benefits likely outweigh the risks for most groups. People with certain allergies may need to request a different type of vaccine. For example, if you have had an allergic reaction to an mRNA vaccine in the past, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines may not be for you. If you have an allergy to polyethylene gel (PEG) or polysorbate, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine may not be a good choice for you. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, it is best to talk to your healthcare provider about the pros and cons of a COVID-19 vaccine. No vaccines are currently approved in the U.S. for children under 16 years old.
How could a vaccine be developed so quickly?
Other vaccines have taken up to a decade or longer to develop, so how could scientists bring a safe and effective vaccine to market in less than a year since the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, was even identified? Several factors contributed to speeding up the process.
- Scientists had long studied SARS viruses, of which SARS-CoV-2 is one, and were already familiar with characteristics such as which parts of the virus caused the desired antibody production from the immune system due to a vaccine.
- Novel genomic sequencing techniques allowed the virus’ genome to be sequenced within less than 2 weeks after the outbreak was reported in China.
- Recognition by governments and companies of the urgent nature of the project ensured that there were no delays due to lack of funding or focusing on side projects.
- Multiple companies entered the race to develop vaccines, thereby increasing the likelihood that one or (as it happened) many would be successful in developing one.
- Phase 1, 2, and 3 clinical trials for safety and efficacy were simultaneous rather than consecutive.
Though the timeline was rapid, there were no “skipped steps” and there is no reason to doubt the vaccine’s value based on its quick development.
Which vaccine is best?
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are both mRNA vaccines, and their reported effectiveness against COVID-19 was 95% and 94.1%, respectively. The other vaccine available in the U.S., developed by Jannsen Biotech of Johnson & Johnson, had a reported efficacy of 66.3%. If you are offered a Johnson and Johnson vaccine, should you refuse and wait until you can get an mRNA vaccine?
Probably not. First, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested after new COVID-19 variants had emerged, while the mRNA vaccines did not face that test. In addition, all three vaccines are extremely effective at what may be most important: protecting against serious cases of COVID-19. Hospitalizations and deaths were zero or nearly zero among people who had been fully vaccinated with any of the three options and had reached full immunity. At this point, unless you have allergy concerns or other reasons to avoid one or the other type of vaccine, it seems that taking any vaccine that is being offered to eligible patients is likely to provide important protection.
How many doses does each vaccine require?
Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna each require two doses. The doses are 21 days apart for the Pfizer vaccine, and 28 days apart for the Moderna vaccine. Jannsen Biotech’s vaccine requires only 1 dose.
Are the vaccines safe? What are the side effects?
The Food and Drug Administration has issued Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the three vaccines in use in the U.S. That means that the FDA believes that “the known and potential benefits outweigh the known and potential risks of the vaccine.”
Common side effects of the vaccines include soreness, pain, or swelling at the injection site. Systemic responses, such as fever, muscle aches, chills, and headaches, are also common. Fatigue is among the most common systemic reactions in all three vaccines.
Will my health insurance cover the vaccine? What if I do not have health insurance?
Everyone in the United States is entitled to a vaccine free of cost, regardless of health insurance status. The government has pledged to make the vaccines available without charging individuals.
Can I go back to regular life after getting vaccinated?
Well…not immediately. So far, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people who are fully vaccinated continue to wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet apart from people who are not in their household, and avoid medium and large gatherings. Travel should also be delayed.
However, a few things have changed! The CDC says that if you are fully vaccinated, you can:
- Gather with other vaccinated people without a mask.
- Gather with one or more unvaccinated people from one other household without a mask (unless there are people at high risk for a serious case of COVID-19).
- Refrain from getting tested if you were exposed to someone with COVID-19 unless you have symptoms.
As the vaccination rollout continues, it appears that life may eventually return to a more normal status. In the meantime, it is best to stay informed and continue following guidelines for safety precautions to help everyone stay safe and healthy!