How much do we know about the COVID-19 vaccines?

How much do we know about the COVID-19 vaccines?
Source: Philippe Desmazes, Reuters
TMS contacted multiple health experts who addressed the necessity for vaccination and what is known – and not known – about the COVID-19 vaccines.

After months of waiting and a year in which almost all aspects of life were disrupted by COVID-19, two vaccines are currently being distributed and administered in countries around the world. It will still be months before everyone who needs a vaccine can receive one, but as 2020 closes, it appears that an end to the pandemic is finally in sight.

Still, the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and its vaccines, as well as genuine questions about the rapidly developed Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, have made some fearful of taking them. While some of these fears are based on debunked conspiracy theories, there are even those in the medical field who acknowledge that there are unknowns that remain around the latest vaccines.

TMS contacted multiple health experts who addressed the necessity for vaccination and what is known – and not known – about the COVID-19 vaccines.

The history of vaccines

Vaccines are among the most transformative inventions in human history. The roots of vaccines can be traced to China a thousand years ago, while the practice of inoculation – inducing immunity to a disease – also took place in parts of Africa and India centuries ago.

In modern history, though, the first vaccine was created in 1796 by Edward Jenner, an English physician. Jenner created the smallpox vaccine by utilizing cowpox, a less deadly member of the same family of viruses. Based on the experiences of dairy maids, he came to the (correct) conclusion that exposure to cowpox could protect people from smallpox.

That exposing humans to a lesser or more limited form of a virus to trigger an immune response that, in turn, would offer protection to that virus has been the basis of vaccine science ever since. Louis Pasteur pushed the science even further with his lab-developed vaccines for chicken cholera and rabies.

Dr. Ramin Ahmadi, the chief medical officer for Graduate Medical Education Global LLC, spoke with TMS about the importance and limitations of vaccines.

“By nature, infectious diseases are not easily treatable,” Ahmadi says. “Prevention and disease eradication are necessary for eliminating disease and death. We have many vaccine-preventable diseases today, but only two diseases, smallpox and rinderpest [a disease that affects cattle and hoofed animals], have been successfully eradicated.”

Dozens of more vaccines were created throughout the 20th century, including those for polio, measles, mumps, and the flu, to name a few of the most common.

“Vaccines are not just made to prevent the disease but also [to] protect against the disease,” Amber O’Brien, MD, explains. O’Brien has a master’s in virology and is a health expert for Mango Clinic in Miami, Florida.

“In order to eradicate any disease, the vaccine is of prime importance because, without the vaccines, our immune system cannot fight the disease.”

While much of the current anti-vaccination movement is rooted in the since discredited research of former British physician Andrew Wakefield, fears of vaccines are nothing new. In the 1920s, there was a movement against mandatory vaccination that culminated in a local mob in Georgetown, Delaware forcibly removing health workers who had arrived to provide vaccinations.

“The whole concept of vaccines is ‘counter-intuitive’ to the human mind,” Ahmadi explains. “What we’re basically saying is that there’s a deadly disease that could kill you if it enters your body, but that if you get a little bit of it then you’ll be protected. It’s a natural instinct to want to run away quickly without looking back.”

Nonetheless, the widespread dissemination of vaccines is unquestionably one of the greatest breakthroughs – medical or otherwise – in human history. The practice of vaccination has helped quell pandemics and extend life expectancies around the world.

Common vaccines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists 17 viruses that can be prevented with vaccines: chickenpox (varicella), diphtheria, the flu (influenza), hepatitis A and B, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), HPV (human papillomavirus), measles, meningococcal, mumps, pneumococcal, polio (Poliomyelitis), rotavirus, rubella (German measles), shingles (herpes zoster), tetanus (lockjaw) and whooping cough (pertussis).

Some of these diseases still appear throughout the world, while others are rare or only common in the developing world. The CDC recommends all children younger than 18 months receive at least one vaccine dose for nearly all the diseases listed above. They recommend children between 11 and 12 receive the HPV and meningococcal vaccines unless they are in a high-risk group.

While only two diseases have been eradicated, Admadi is hopeful others will soon topple.

“Perhaps we will see the eradication of Polio and measles soon. But eradication is challenging and not easily achieved. The cornerstone of any eradication strategy is high vaccination coverage. We must vaccinate the eligible population through routine immunization. The effectiveness of a vaccine and the attitudes of a population toward accepting it are two of the most important challenges for any eradication strategy.”

Should you get the COVID-19 vaccine?

“One of the most important reasons why people are skeptical regarding the COVID vaccine,” O’Brien explains, “is that the virus is an RNA virus that keeps on mutating.” A virus that is in a constant state of change creates a challenge for vaccinations.

“A careful evaluation would be needed [that considers] the mutations that may take place in the virus in the long run.”

TMS also heard from Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, a registered nurse and nurse educator who consults with Rhoads says she feels no skepticism about the efficacy or safety of the COVID-19 vaccines, but she acknowledges there is still more to understand.

“As of today, scientists only know that the vaccines prevent one from falling ill from COVID-19 (i.e., no symptoms or related complications),” Rhoads says. “More time is needed to determine whether or not the vaccine is able to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Dr. Barry Sears, a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition who is the author of the Zone Diet book series and president of the nonprofit Inflammation Research Foundation, also explained to TMS that the longevity of the vaccine remains an unanswered question.

“I am concerned about the lifetime of the immunity which remains unknown,” Sears says. “The fact that you need a booster shot within 28 days to get the high level of initial antibody response is indicative [of] a less than robust immunological response after only one injection. For the Pfizer vaccine, one injection provides 52% initial protection, whereas two shoots provide 94% initial protection.”

Even with these unanswered questions, though, the safety of the vaccines isn’t in question for most medical experts.

“[The Pfizer] COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which clearly means that it has more benefits than risks,” O’Brien says. “COVID-19 vaccines have been tested on a huge number of people (volunteers) so that before making it a part of the community, scientists get a good know-how about how the people and their bodies will respond to them.”

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