The world has spent months anxiously awaiting the vaccine that will end this nightmare pandemic, and finally, we have light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel. But how much do we know about this still very new COVID-19 vaccine? We’ve found some of the most commonly asked questions and their answers, so that you can look knowledgable next time it comes up in conversation – and you know it will.
What IS the vaccine actually?
Though a number of companies and organisations have been working on vaccines, the first that will be distributed to the public is the product of a collaboration between Pfizer and BioNTech. Theirs uses a technology called mRNA, which conveys genetic information to the body once inside our cells. This information is then translated by our cells in order to produce the antigens encoded by the mRNA vaccine, which go on to defend us against COVID-19 when we encounter it.
According to a report by CNN, “the mRNA instructs cells in the body to make the particular piece of the virus’s spike protein. Then the immune system sees it, recognizes it as foreign and is prepared to attack when actual infection occurs”.
Unlike traditional vaccines, mRNA vaccines do not use inactivated virus, but only a portion of the viral sequence encoding resulting in one or more viral antigens. Vaccine makers don’t even need the virus itself to create this, they merely need to know the genetic sequence.
According to CNN, “this [mRNA] design was chosen for a pandemic vaccine years ago because it’s one that lends itself to quick turnaround,” and that may be exactly why it was developed so quickly.
This is the first time that an mRNA vaccine has been approved for use in humans.
Like Pfizer’s the Moderna vaccine uses mRNA technology, but that of AstraZeneca is a vector vaccine. This uses a common cold virus called an adenovirus as a vector to carry the spike protein from the coronavirus into cells. This particular adenovirus infects chimpanzees but not humans, although it can still carry along the necessary information to promote immunity. This is a cheaper way to produce the vaccine, but it isn’t nearly as fast a process as mRNA.
Like AstraZeneca’s, Johnson & Johnson‘s recombinant vector vaccine uses an adenovirus vector, but one does infect humans. It has, however, been engineered not to through the disabling of certain genes. This is the same technology that was used to create their Ebola vaccine, reports CNN.
When will the vaccine be distributed?
On 2 December, the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for widespread use, and on 8 December, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first patient to receive it, reports the BBC. 800 000 more doses are expected to be administered in the UK in the coming weeks.
However, due to a number of factors, many countries won’t see the vaccine for months. South Africa expects to start administering its first doses from April 2021, and even then, not everyone will be eligible.
According to IOL, “the first in line are likely to be health care professionals, followed by the elderly as the country undertakes a national roll out, that is likely to encounter some logistical obstacles”.
Why will that take so long?
Because South Africa is not producing its own vaccine, it’s forced to buy and ship them in from elsewhere. One of the logistical issues that needs to be addressed is the fact that the vaccine would need a deep-freeze delivery chain – it needs to be kept at -70 degrees celsius throughout transit, a feat easier said than done. Once delivered to vaccination centres, it can be stored for only up to five days in refrigerators, between 2 and 8 degrees.
Furthermore, Rajesh Narwal, a health systems adviser at the World Health Organisation (WHO), expects a rush by nations to secure stock. “Already a lot of these vaccines have already been pre-procured by wealthier nations,” said Narwal according to IOL.
Poorer nations will have to wait in line, and this vaccine nationalism is, and will continue to be, a major threat to its equitable distribution.
What are the side-effects?
Many are hesitant about vaccines in general, let alone ones that have been developed as quickly as this one (although, remember, experts have been somewhat prepared for, or at least expecting, a pandemic for years, and were already considering vaccine technologies long before this coronavirus struck).
All medicines and treatments come with side-effects. Your vitamin pills come with side-effects. Drinking milk comes with side-effects. This vaccine will be no different, but that doesn’t mean that the cons outweigh the benefits.
According to the FDA, the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has so far displayed a few minor side effects, which include:
- Injection site reactions, reported by 84 percent of trial participants
- Fatigue, reported by 63 percent of trial participants
- Headaches, reported by 55 percent of trial participants
- Chills, reported by 32 percent of trial participants
- Joint pain, reported by 24 percent of trial participants
- Fever, reported by 14 percent of trial participants
Popsugar reports that “more serious side effects were rare, occurring in less than 0.5 percent of patients, and were less frequent in participants over 55 years old. The side effects were also more likely to occur after the second dose of the vaccine”.
Additionally, some participants also reported swelling of the lymph nodes.
Moderna‘s vaccine had similar side-effects, but the company says that preliminary analysis “suggests a broadly consistent safety and efficacy profile across all evaluated subgroups.”
AstraZeneca, on the other hand, had to halt trials briefly after two of its participants experienced serious neurological reactions.
Though side-effects may seem like an off-putting risk, for those who may lose years of their life, proper organ function, or their ability to work due to months of fatigue on account of COVID-19, having a headache for a few days, or a temporary fever may be well worth it.
How long will the vaccine last?
According to a very recent article by The Lancet, published in November 2020, the duration of immunity after vaccination is still uncertain, though “this will have a huge bearing on the practicalities and logistics of immunisation”.
“Whether the vaccines prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 or mainly just protect against illness is largely unknown too. If the latter, achieving herd immunity through immunisation becomes a difficult prospect”.
Presumably the hope is that, with enough of a population vaccinated at any given time, it will be unable to spread effectively, and perhaps become endemic in certain areas rather than a pandemic that plagues the whole globe. Periodic re-emergences cannot be ruled out, especially in poorer nations with limited vaccine access.
Should you still wear a mask after getting the COVID-19 vaccine?
The short answer is yes.
Experts are repeating that the COVID-19 vaccine is not a silver bullet, and that we cannot drop all the hygiene and safety measures we’ve adopted even after distribution begins.
“A lot of people are thinking that once they get vaccinated, they’re not going to have to wear masks anymore,” Popsugar quotes Michal Tal, an immunologist at Stanford University. “It’s really going to be critical for them to know if they have to keep wearing masks, because they could still be contagious.”
As mentioned above, even the experts aren’t sure whether or not the vaccines will stop transmission of the virus. The vaccine works by allowing your own body to fight the virus – thereby preventing you from getting sick – but it’s not yet known if you can pass it on to others as your body fights it off, especially as it may not be able to prevent very mild nasal symptoms.
Experts are very optimistic that vaccines like Pfizers will be able to stop this by creating enough antibodies even in the nasal mucous and the mouth, but only time will tell. As we learn more, keep your mask close and don’t get lax with your social distancing measures.
We’re learning more and more about this coronavirus and the COVID-19 vaccine every day, and the Essential Millennial will be sure to keep you up to date, so keep an eye on our News page for more!