COVID vaccines appear safe and effective, but the main questions remain open


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The recent launch of two newly approved COVID-19 vaccines is a shimmer of hope at the darkest hour of the pandemic.

We now have a path that can lead us to happier times – even as we watch and suffer the terrible onslaught of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths that mark the end of this unfortunate year.

Healthcare workers and residents of nursing homes have already started recording in the first phase of the rollout. The vaccinations should be available to the general public in the first few months of next year.

The two vaccines – one from Pfizer and BioNTech, the other from Moderna – use the same novel genetic approach. Its development in less than a year, which shattered all records, is a miracle of science. There is also cause for concern for millions of Americans who fear the insecurity of an unknown technology.

Clinical trial data for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines show that both shots of double-injection immunization three weeks to a month apart are about 95% effective – at least for preventing serious COVID illnesses.

“A vaccine left in the vial is 0% effective regardless of the data,” says Dr. Walter Orenstein, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta and Associate Director of the Emory Vaccine Center.

Therefore, it is imperative to convince millions of people across racial, cultural, religious, political and generational lines to get vaccinated when a vaccine is available to them. A survey published earlier this month found that 45% of respondents take a wait-and-see approach to vaccination.

Since the vaccines were forcibly developed when the coronavirus was taking its fatal toll, the premium was on speed – “warp speed”. Although the number of people in the studies is as large or greater than in previous vaccine studies, some important questions will not be answered until millions more are vaccinated.

For example, we don’t know how far the vaccines are preventing us from transmitting or contracting the virus – although protecting against the potentially fatal diseases they are likely to cause is a miracle in itself.

We don’t know if irreversible side effects can occur or who is at higher risk. And we don’t know if we need to be vaccinated every year, every three years or never again.

These strangers add to the challenges the federal government, local health officials, medical professionals, and private sector institutions face in trying to convince people from the broadest possible range of the population to get a vaccine.

There is skepticism in many areas, including among African Americans, many of whom have long-standing distrust of the medical world. the vocal “Anti-Vaxxer”; and people of all kinds with perfectly understandable doubts. Not to mention communities with language barriers and undocumented immigrants – more than 2 million in California – who may be concerned about coming forward.

Here are answers to some of the questions you may have about the new vaccines:

Q: How can I be sure that they are safe?

There is no guarantee. However, in approving the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the Federal Food and Drug Administration found that their benefits outweighed the risks.

The side effects seen in the study participants were common with other vaccines: injection site pain, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, and chills. “These are minor side effects, and the benefits don’t die from this disease,” says Dr. George Rutherford, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of California-San Francisco.

On Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported six cases of anaphylactic allergic reactions in the first 272,000 people who received the Pfizer vaccine outside of clinical trials. This has led the CDC to recommend that people receiving the vaccine be observed for up to 30 minutes afterwards.

It is possible that other unexpected adverse effects may occur. “The chances are slim, but they are not zero,” says Orenstein. There is not enough data yet to know whether, for example, the vaccines pose an increased risk for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or for immunocompromised people such as those infected with HIV. And we know very little about the effects in children who were not in the early studies and for whom the vaccines are not approved.

Q: Why should my family and I take it?

First of all, because you protect yourself from the possibility of serious illness or even death. By getting vaccinated, you are also helping to get a vaccination rate high enough to end the pandemic. Nobody knows exactly what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated, but infectious disease experts estimate the number at 60% to 70% – maybe even a little higher. Consider it a civil duty to take your pictures.

Q: When can I get mine?

It depends on your health, age and job. In the first phase, which is already ongoing, healthcare workers and residents of nursing homes will be vaccinated. The 40 million doses of Moderna and Pfizer that are expected to be available by the end of the year should immunize most of them.

Next up are people aged 75 and over and key employees in various public professions. They are followed by people aged 65 to 74 and those under 65 with certain medical conditions that put them at high risk. Enough vaccine could be available for the rest of the population by late spring, but summer or even fall are more likely. Some sales bottlenecks have already developed.

On the upside, two more vaccines – one from Johnson & Johnson, the other from AstraZeneca and Oxford University – could get FDA approval early next year and could significantly increase supply.

Q: After the vaccination, can I finally stop wearing a mask and distancing myself physically?

Especially not early, before many people have been vaccinated. One reason for this is self-protection. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are 95% effective, but that means you still have a 5% chance of getting sick if exposed to someone who wasn’t vaccinated – or who transmitted the virus, but still transmits.

Another is to protect others because, despite the vaccination, you could be the one to shed viruses.

Q: I’ve already had COVID-19 so I don’t need the vaccine, do I?

We don’t know exactly how long exposure to the virus will protect you from re-infection. Protection will likely last at least a few months, but public health experts say it’s a good idea to get vaccinated when it’s your turn – especially if you tested positive many months ago.

There has been talk among health officials about pushing back those who have been infected in the past 90 days to ensure adequate care for those who may be at higher risk.

Q: How long will it take for our lives to return to normal?

“If all goes well, the next Thanksgiving holiday could be almost normal and we could get closer to that by summer,” says Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee. “But there would have to be significant uptake of the vaccine and the data showing the virus is moving down.”

This story was produced by KHN publishing the California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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