Since the novel coronavirus took hold in the U.S., life as we know it has been upended. Many of us have lost friends and loved ones, and even more are living in a constant state of stress and anxiety over our health, our finances, the economy — the list goes on.
The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for the last year or more has been a COVID-19 vaccine, which, incredibly, millions of people now have access to.
But like just about anything in the world of medicine, the vaccine isn't "perfect." It comes with side effects, and it's not 100 percent effective, so there's still a very small chance you could get COVID-19 if you are exposed to the virus after receiving the vaccine. Plus, the science of how it works is unfamiliar to most of us, and it's hard to trust something you don't fully understand.
While it's perfectly reasonable to have fears and worries about the vaccine, says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the bottom line is this: "Research shows it's effective and safe, and getting it can save your life, as well as the lives of those around you."
Here's a closer look at the science behind the vaccine, as well as six good reasons you should get it once it becomes available to you, even if you think you're not at high risk of getting severely sick from COVID.
1. It Really Is Safe
"I don't think many people realize the rigor with which the safety of these vaccines were examined," says Jacqueline Fincher, MD, President of the American College of Physicians and an internist in Thomson, Georgia. "They were developed quickly because we are in a public health emergency, but we didn't skip over any of the steps to do so."
Indeed, all three of the available vaccines were tested on tens of thousands of people before being granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.
But to fully understand why the vaccine is safe, you need a crash course in how it works.
How the Vaccine Works
The novel coronavirus has crown-like spikes on its surface, called spike proteins. When those spikes latch onto the cells in your body, you become infected with COVID-19.
The point of the vaccine is to get your body familiar with these spike proteins, so that if and when they invade, your body knows exactly how to defend against them — in other words, your body will know how to keep the spikes from latching onto your cells, Dr. Fincher says.
Two FDA vaccines authorized for emergency use, those from Moderna and Pfizer, don't contain any part of the actual coronavirus. Instead, they're made with messenger RNA (mRNA), a genetic material that tells your body how to make copies of the spike protein. Your body then recognizes the protein and makes an immune response directed against it. Think of it like an email to your body that alerts it to the danger and explains exactly how to avoid it.
This technology isn't new. In fact, it's been around — and used safely against other diseases — for more than 30 years, says Purvi Parikh, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at the New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.
The third vaccine, produced by Johnson & Johnson, uses an adenovirus (a virus which normally causes common colds, but that's been disabled so it can't make you sick) to deliver the blueprint for the COVID-19 spike protein. Because this adenovirus was already used in the company's Ebola vaccine, it also has decades of safety and monitoring behind it as well, Dr. Parikh says.
What About Side Effects?
It's true that you can have a severe allergic reaction (called "anaphylaxis") after vaccination, but this is extremely rare, with fewer than five cases per million Pfizer vaccine doses administered and fewer than three cases per million Moderna doses, according to a February 2021 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
This kind of reaction usually happens within the first 15 to 30 minutes after getting the shot, when you're still being observed, and medical staff can give you medication immediately to treat it.
No one wants to go through that, of course. But the risk pales in comparison to the risk of death or disability from the virus itself, Dr. Parikh says.
"Don't forget the fact that the actual virus is far more unsafe than this vaccine, with half a million Americans lost, millions lost globally and over 75 percent of those who recover still living with some complication from their illness," she says. "Healthy people are now living with lung transplants, on dialysis and on lifelong blood thinners as a result of their COVID-19 infection. These side effects from the virus are all permanent and irreversible."
"By getting the vaccine, you're actually making your entire community safer."
2. It Prevents Death From COVID-19 (Not Just Yours)
All three of the available vaccines have been shown to prevent death by 100 percent, Dr. Parikh says, so if you get one of them, it's pretty much guaranteed you won't die from the virus.
But even more importantly, it can help save the lives of those around you.
"COVID-19 is an incredibly contagious disease," Dr. Schaffner says. "If the vaccine prevents you from contracting the disease, you can't spread it to others. And while [without the vaccine] you might get sick with only a mild case, you could infect someone else who ends up dying from the virus.
Here's the reality, he says: "By getting it, you're actually making your entire community safer."
3. It Prevents Severe COVID and Hospitalization
If you're offered any of the three vaccines, you should jump at the chance, Dr. Schaffner says.
While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been criticized as being less effective than the other two, that's actually not true: The J&J vaccine was 100 percent effective in trials when it came to preventing hospitalization, and 85 percent effective in preventing severe illness.
"These numbers held up even in South Africa where there was a more deadly variant circulating when trials were done," Dr. Parikh says.
While the Pfizer vaccine is more effective than J&J's at preventing symptomatic illness — 94 percent after the second shot, compared to 72 percent, respectively — it was similarly effective in trials at preventing both hospitalization and severe illness, according to a February 2021 study in the The New England Journal of Medicine.
The Moderna vaccine was about 94 percent effective after two doses at preventing symptomatic illness, and 89 percent effective against hospitalization.
To sum it up: "All of them are in the same ballpark in preventing more serious infections, hospitalizations and death," Dr. Schaffner says. "It's like comparing Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig's batting averages — they were both brilliant ballplayers. At the end of the day, the best vaccine is the one you can get access to ASAP."
4. It Appears to Slow Down the Spread of COVID-19
"We're not 100 percent sure it prevents you from spreading COVID, but that seems very likely based on the data we have," Dr. Parikh says.
A preprint study posted February 2021 to medRvix looked at coronavirus infections in Israel and found that people who were infected after receiving their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine had a much lower viral load (less virus in their bodies) compared with unvaccinated people.
Johnson & Johnson also has released data suggesting its vaccine can prevent asymptomatic spread in 72 percent of cases, Dr. Parikh notes.
"Logically, it makes sense in that if you are less likely to be infected with COVID-19 due to the vaccine, you are less likely to spread it," she explains.
This is one of the reasons why the CDC recently released new guidelines saying that if you have been vaccinated, you don't need to quarantine if you're exposed to someone who has the virus.
"Currently the vaccines are efficacious even with the variants. We want it to remain that way."
5. It Reduces the Chances of New Variants Popping Up (and Wreaking Havoc)
The more shots we can get into arms, the less chance we have of the virus spreading and ultimately mutating into more dangerous strains, Dr. Fincher says.
"We want to achieve herd immunity by vaccinating everyone, not by people becoming sick and possibly even dying from the disease," she says.
In addition, the more outbreaks we have, the harder it is to contact-trace and slow down the spread, she says.
The good news is that all three vaccines seem to still work reasonably well against the variants circulating right now, including B.1.1.7 (originally detected in the UK) and B.1.351 (originally detected in South Africa).
But the virus is perfectly capable of mutating into a more dangerous strain. The more people the virus infects, the more opportunities it has to mutate into a strain that the vaccine is not effective against. That could mean more illness, more death and more time spent living in fear.
That's why the faster we vaccinate people, the less chance there is that the vaccine will become ineffective.
In short: "Currently the vaccines are efficacious even with the variants. We want it to remain that way," Dr. Parikh says. There's a better chance of that if we stop the virus from spreading.
"We need to have at least 70 to 80 percent of the population vaccinated so that infection rates are so low that transmission is also extremely low," Dr. Parikh says. "When this occurs, we can start moving to normal, and that includes, eventually, not masking and distancing."
It would also mean a return to school for kids and the ability for restaurants and other venues to operate at full capacity again.
But in the meantime, it's important for you to continue to wear a mask and keep distancing, even if you've gotten the vaccine, to stem the spread of the virus as much as possible.
"We need everyone's help in getting out of this deadly pandemic that has cost half a million lives," Dr. Parikh pleads. "So please do not throw away your shot!"
Is This an Emergency?
- Pew Research Center: Growing Share of Americans Say They Plan To Get a COVID-19 Vaccine – or Already Have
- CDC: Safety of COVID-19 Vaccines
- JAMA: Reports of Anaphylaxis After Receipt of mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines in the US—December 14, 2020-January 18, 2021
- Johnson & Johnson: Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine Authorized by U.S. FDA For Emergency Use - First Single-Shot Vaccine in Fight Against Global Pandemic
- The New England Journal of Medicine: BNT162b2 mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine in a Nationwide Mass Vaccination Setting
- CDC: ACIP Evidence to Recommendations for Use of Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine under an Emergency Use Authorization
- medRxiv: Decreased SARS-CoV-2 viral load following vaccination
- CDC: Interim Clinical Considerations for Use of COVID-19 Vaccines Currently Authorized in the United States
- CDC: Myths and Facts about COVID-19 Vaccines