After a year of living in fear and isolation and uprooting every seemingly "normal" aspect of life as we knew it, it's safe to say most Americans are thankful that three vaccines are here to help us fight the novel coronavirus.
The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech were the first out of the gate, and they've now been joined by a third option, from Johnson & Johnson, adding fuel to the race toward herd immunity.
Unfortunately, even though millions of vaccinations are underway in the U.S., there's still a great deal of hesitation from the general public, with some people choosing not to get the vaccine at all.
It is true that the process of creating the COVID-19 vaccine was extremely fast compared to similar efforts in the past, notes Scott Kaiser, MD, geriatrician and Director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. However, Dr. Kaiser attributes this to the leveraging of decades of work in vaccine technology.
"Because of the global nature and unprecedented urgency, with countless lives and livelihoods being lost every day, we were able to overcome many common barriers to accelerate the overall process," he says. "Absolutely no corners were cut or pieces cut out of the puzzle, and anyone who looks at the data will see that these vaccines are extremely effective, safe and well-tolerated."
Still, it's understandable if you have a boatload of questions you'd like to have answered before you roll up your sleeve. We're curious too, which is why we reached out to top experts to uncover the key facts about the COVID-19 vaccine. Here's what they want you to know.
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1. There Is Adequate Research to Support the Vaccine's Safety and Effectiveness
Although the COVID-19 vaccine was produced quickly in comparison to other vaccines, there's good reason for it, aside from dire need.
"The research and technology used to create the vaccines were built upon what was already known from vaccine research for SARS and MERS," explains Alexea M. Gaffney, MD, an infectious disease specialist in Stony Brook, New York.
What's more: The vaccines have been studied on tens of thousands of vaccine trial participants to ensure their safety and efficacy.
And the real-world evidence so far backs that up: The first big study of its kind, published February 2021 in The New England Journal of Medicine, looked at about 1.2 million people and found that the Pfizer vaccine is 94 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection.
Plus, millions of doses have already been safely administered in the U.S., says Carla Garcia Carreno, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at PID Associates and Medical Director for Infection Prevention and Control at Children's Medical Center Plano.
"In addition, it's been shown that the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine far outweigh any potential risk," she says.
2. The Vaccine Will Not Give You COVID‑19
If you're not familiar with how the vaccine works, it might seem sensible to believe that the vaccine itself contains the COVID-19 infection. But that's not the case.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use mRNA technology, meaning they contain a message that tells your cell to make a protein that looks like a part of the COVID-19 spike protein, explains Sharon Nachman, MD, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital. "This revs your immune system up and creates an antibody response to get rid of that protein, since your body has no use for it," she says.
And the mRNA doesn't hang around once the job is done.
"The mRNA that was in the vaccine is destroyed about six hours after the message has been read, meaning it cannot enter the DNA of your cells," Dr. Nachman says.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, on the other hand, is an adenovirus vaccine, per the company's website. This means it uses an inactivated common cold virus to carry a gene from the novel coronavirus into your cells, which then make proteins that mimic the virus, priming your immune system to fight off the virus down the road.
3. You Should Still Get the Vaccine Even if You’ve Had COVID-19
The verdict is still out when it comes to just how long someone who has had COVID-19 is protected against another infection — something known as natural immunity. As a result, health care professionals are still encouraging everyone ages 16 and older to get the vaccine, even if they have already had the virus.
"Experts are still learning more about natural immunity, as well as how long the vaccine will provide immunity, and recommendations will be updated as they learn more," says Dr. Carreno.
In the meantime, if you are currently infected with COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises waiting until symptoms resolve and you are done quarantining to receive the vaccination.
4. People Who Are Pregnant or Breastfeeding Should Be Offered the Vaccine
Although vaccine research didn't specifically include these groups, the CDC, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine all recommend that the vaccine not be withheld from pregnant and breastfeeding people who meet the criteria for vaccination.
"Pregnant women have experienced increased severity of illness from COVID-19 infection compared to non-pregnant women of the same age and health status, and the infection can result in premature birth," says Dr. Gaffney.
She recommends that expecting and nursing women discuss their individual risks and benefits of vaccination with their primary care provider.
5. The Vaccine Won't Solve the Pandemic — Just Yet
Even with the COVID vaccine being administered throughout the country, it doesn't look like our days of mask wearing, social distancing and practicing good hand hygiene are soon to be behind us.
In fact, long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, MD, revealed to NBC News in mid-December that it may not be until late 2021 that the U.S. might "start approaching a degree of normality." And even that doesn't mean 100 percent back to normal, notes Dr. Dew.
"Masks and social distancing are going to be a part of our lives for an undetermined amount of time, so we need to prepare ourselves for this," she says. "The vaccine is currently being rolled out in waves, which means that it will take time, but it is important not to jump ship and throw up your hands."
She urges everyone to keep doing their part to save thousands of lives before we are able to get back to a post-pandemic normal.
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Frequently Asked Questions About Vaccination"
- University of Chicago Medicine: "The mRNA COVID-19 vaccine and pregnancy: What you need to know if you're pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding"
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "Vaccinating Pregnant and Lactating Patients Against COVID-19"
- Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine: "Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) Statement: SARS-CoV-2 Vaccination in Pregnancy"
- NBC News: "Fauci predicts 'herd immunity' for U.S. by late spring or early summer"
- JNJ.com: "8 Things to Know About Johnson & Johnson's Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine"
- The New England Journal of Medicine: "BNT162b2 mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine in a Nationwide Mass Vaccination Setting"