Regarding the Coronavirus Vaccine
January 27, 2021
I have been in practice as a physician in Glasgow for just over three years, and the past year has certainly been difficult for me, my staff and our patients. Lately, I have been asked by many of my patients about the vaccine against the novel coronavirus. The vast majority are eager to receive it, but some are suspicious of the vaccine and are not sure if it is worth the risk. Because I know that many people in the community share those same concerns, I would like to reassure the public at large, just as I do with my own patients.
First of all, these vaccines are different from other vaccines that you may have had. Many other common vaccines take just a tiny part of a virus and use that to train your immune system to recognize the real virus. These new vaccines instead use messenger RNA, or "mRNA," which is a short piece of genetic code that will be used by your own cells to produce the exact protein that is found on the outside of the coronavirus particle--the "spike" protein. Each piece of mRNA will be able to produce many, many copies of this spike protein, which is why these vaccines give such a strong and long lasting protection. Once the immune cells detect these proteins, they can produce the antibodies needed to protect against an actual infection of the virus. The mRNA only makes this one protein, so there is no risk of contracting actual COVID-19 from it.
How well does it work? Very, very well. The raw statistics from the trials are publicly available, and the numbers are impressive. For the Moderna vaccine, which will be the most widely available vaccine in Valley County, 30,000 people volunteered and half were given the vaccine and half were given a placebo. The volunteers were given two shots four weeks apart and were monitored for more than two months after the last shot. Of the 15,000 who were given the placebo, 90 of them contracted COVID-19. But of the 15,000 who were given the actual vaccine, only five contracted the virus. In the placebo group, 30 patients developed severe disease and one died, but none of the patients in the vaccine group developed severe disease. By the end of the monitoring period, we could see the vaccine was 94% effective at preventing infection. The Pfizer vaccine, which will be distributed to the nursing home, showed very similar results.
Side effects are always a major concern, and these were carefully tracked during the studies. In the case of the Moderna vaccine, after observing 15,000 people for a total of three months, it is very safe. The vast majority experienced only mild side effects such as a few days of a sore arm, or headache and chills. Throughout the entire study, not a single person died from the vaccine, and only a very few become more than just mildly ill. While there have been a handful of reports in the news of a few people who either became ill or even died after receiving the vaccine, it is not clear that the vaccine had anything to do with these events, and of the 14 million doses that have been given in the US so far, the reaction rate is extremely low.
While we cannot know for certain about effects of the vaccines years down the road, we do know how bad the actual virus is. Not only has it killed over 400,000 Americans and will likely kill many thousands more, the people who survive have been left with long lasting and sometimes devastating medical problems. Chronic fatigue, permanent lung scarring, strokes, and many other different symptoms sometimes follow a COVID infection. If we did not have a vaccine, the virus would continue to circulate until a large majority of people have contracted it, and it is no exaggeration to say that several million Americans would die from this disease by then. We know the risk is high with the virus, and the evidence is very good that the vaccine is low-risk.
Caution about vaccines goes back a very long time, so I am not surprised that there is some hesitation about the COVID-19 vaccine. Like the disproven link between the MMR vaccine and autism, there are some unfounded fears and conspiracy theories about these vaccines that are very false, but also very hard to dispel. I will address some of the more egregious misconceptions.
These vaccines do not have microchips, nanotechnology, hormones or other harmful substances. In fact, they are very pure. The reason that they need to be stored at extremely cold temperatures is because they contain no preservatives at all, which is great news for those who have had bad reactions to vaccine additives in the past.
I have heard concerns that these vaccines will interfere with your DNA. While the term "mRNA" does sound similar to "DNA," the idea that mRNA can alter DNA is a biological impossibility. The entire foundation of genetic science is based on the fact that DNA codes the information for RNA, which in turn codes for proteins. Information does not go the other direction. RNA can not alter DNA.
These vaccines also do not affect fertility. They do not contain any hormones or endocrine disruptors that would affect the ability to have a child, either for a male or a female. Apparently, this is another rumor that has been passed around. Like so many others, it is false.
In a more general sense, some people are just concerned that these vaccines were approved too quickly. In the long history of vaccines, this is a process that usually takes many years, but the reasons why these vaccines were created so quickly is really fairly simple. For one thing, science has just gotten better at these kinds of problems. We were able to sequence the genome of this virus almost as soon as it was discovered, something that may have taken months just ten years ago. Plus, the virus is actually a fairly good target for a vaccine, because it has those recognizable spike proteins which don't mutate as fast as something like HIV, which has no effective vaccine. And most importantly, the scientific community was just extremely motivated to find an answer to a very dangerous virus. Our governments and corporations put thousands of very smart people to work on this project at different labs across the world and we have found the solution we were looking for in record time.
I hope this message has addressed some of the concerns you may have had if you were debating whether or not to receive the vaccine. The more people who accept the vaccine, the fewer people who will get sick and die. Do it for yourselves and do it for your neighbors.
Andrew Fahlgren, MD.