There’s no need to be wary of the COVID-19 vaccines, says Infection Preventionist Charity Lindholm
January 7, 2021
Vaccines may now be available for COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean the public is willing to automatically trust them. A year ago, we didn’t even know the virus existed, so how can we be sure getting vaccinated is safe?
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines followed the usual steps for testing and review – something that was sped up considerably by a worldwide effort to remove the usual barriers and delays. Even so, says Infection Preventionist Charity Lindholm, a certain amount of distrust is normal for something that’s both completely new and was achieved in such a short amount of time.
“People have never had to see science and medicine work in real time,” she says. “People don’t realize that, in regards to how the scientific process works, you do what you need to, you reevaluate and then you adjust – and then you reevaluate, and you adjust. That’s how the process works.”
There’s no reason to be worried, Lindholm says. All those concerns have good answers.
Will the vaccine modify my DNA?
Though the terms can be confusing, an mRNA vaccine does not change your body, says Lindholm, nor alter your genes. Instead, the vaccine is, “Giving the body a recipe to make just a part of the virus.”
Your body doesn’t receive the instructions to build the whole virus by itself – just a small part of it. Continuing the recipe analogy, Lindholm explains that your body gets instructions to make the chocolate chips rather than the whole cookie.
“It just teaches your body to make the spiked protein on the outside of the virus,” Lindholm says.
The reasoning behind this is that your immune system is constantly learning about new dangers. When you contract a virus or bacteria that your body has never seen before, your immune system needs to learn it’s a danger to you before it will take measures to fight it.
By the time you’re feeling well, your body has learned that lesson and knows to deploy its defenses immediately should the virus or bacteria ever try to attack you again. If that happens, the disease can be vanquished before it has the chance to take hold.
The vaccine skips a few steps by teaching your body to recognize one specific part of the COVID-19 virus that makes it unique. A spiked protein is common to coronaviruses and is, in fact, where the “corona” part of the name comes from.
By giving your body the recipe to make the spiked protein that’s specific to COVID-19, your immune system can study a little part of the virus without the need to encounter the whole thing. The idea is similar to most vaccines except that, instead of injecting your body with a weakened or dead version of the real virus for it to examine, it uses a recipe for a single part of the virus’s structure.
“It’s teaching your body to recognize a bit of it so that when your immune cells encounter the actual full virus they can know how to fight it,” Lindholm says.
Will I be infectious after I’m vaccinated?
At no point during the vaccination process is the COVID-19 virus inside your body, says Lindholm. For that reason, it’s impossible for you to shed the virus and infect anyone else.
The confusion comes from the fact that it’s technically possible (though highly unlikely) to shed viral cells when receiving other types of vaccine that do involve weakened versions of the virus, she says. One of the big advantages of this new type of vaccine is that the full virus is not involved in the process.
Can the vaccine give me COVID-19?
The fact that you may experience symptoms such as headache and fatigue as a side effect of receiving the vaccine has caused some people to wonder if it can infect a person with the disease. Again, says Lindholm, this is not possible simply because the complete COVID-19 virus is not used in the vaccine and is therefore never present in your body.
The symptoms are actually signs that your body is deploying its weapons to fight against the intruder – it’s a reaction to the spiked protein (or chocolate chips) that the vaccine taught it to make.
“Those reactions are expected,” she says. “We know they are going to happen. One hundred percent of people are not going to get them, but there are a small chunk that do.”
However, Lindholm points out that the vaccine takes time to work and you will not be instantly immune. Therefore, if you were exposed shortly beforehand or prior to developing immunity, you may still develop a COVID-19 infection. You will only test positive for COVID-19 if you have the virus, and not due to the vaccine.
Can vaccines designed so quickly really be safe?
It generally takes at least ten to 15 years to develop a vaccine, says Lindholm, but scientists didn’t have to start from scratch. The coronavirus family of viruses was already known and under investigation, while the new style of mRNA vaccine had been in development for a number of years.
“The science has been around for a while,” she says.
According to an article published in Nature, there are numerous additional reasons for the speed of the development process. For example, there was an unprecedented level of funding, not to mention the sheer number of scientists working on the problem and the amount of infection present across the world to help run trials that proved the vaccine worked.
For information about the FDA’s evaluation of the Moderna vaccine, visit https://www.fda.gov/media/144638/download.
Does the vaccine contain fetal tissue?
Lindholm has heard the rumor that the vaccine contains cells from aborted fetuses and would like to reassure the public that it’s not the case – period. In this case, the confusion comes from the fact that confirmation tests were performed on fetal cell lines to make sure the vaccines actually work.
“That’s not the same: these are cells that were grown in the laboratory from decades ago,” she says. “The vaccines themselves do not [contain any such cells].”
Why do I still need to wear a mask?
Public health experts have said that even vaccinated people should continue to wear masks for the time being – but it’s not because they doubt the efficacy of the vaccine, Lindholm says.
“The vaccine itself has been proven through the trials to be almost 95% effective at preventing you from being symptomatic with COVID-19,” she says. “What they don’t know yet is if it prevents the transmission from person to person, and that’s why you still have to wear a mask.”
In other words, testing has proven that the vaccine can protect the person being vaccinated, but studies are ongoing as to whether the virus can still jump from a vaccinated person to an unvaccinated one.
“With science, and especially with medicine, until they have something to back it, they don’t make statements,” she says. “I am hopeful that future research will show that it prevents the transmission as well, but until then we all need to continue to wear our masks.”
Do I need to be vaccinated if I’ve already had COVID-19?
Immunity is seldom a permanent thing. After a while, your body will begin to forget about the invader it once had to fight off, which means it will forget both how to recognize it and how to fight it.
Every disease is different, which means the amount of time your immunity lasts will also be different. At this time, COVID-19 has not been around for long enough that we can be sure how long a person’s natural immunity lasts.
“That’s why they are still encouraging people who have had the infection to get the vaccination if they want,” Lindholm says.
What if I have an allergic reaction?
The possibility of an allergic reaction shouldn’t deter you from getting the vaccine, Lindholm says. Just like other vaccines, it’s true that a reaction is possible – but that’s also the case with almost everything we do.
“Everything in life that we are exposed to on a daily basis can trigger an allergic reaction, from peanut butter to pollen to being stung by a bee,” she says. “Vaccines are no different, but it’s still incredibly rare to get a serious anaphylactic reaction.”
The most common side effects are a sore arm, fatigue, headache and muscle aches. The risk of a more serious reaction is small, she says.
At this time, it’s estimated that ten out of every million people will suffer a serious allergic reaction. To put this in perspective, Lindholm points out that about 25,000 of every million children – or 2.5% – will have a serious allergic reaction to a peanut.
Nevertheless, Lindholm points out that the medical community is well versed in dealing with such a reaction and knows how to handle those rare cases. “We’ve got protocols in place to deal with those reactions in case they happen,” she assures.
Will the government track me using the data I give?
“When you get the vaccine, you’ll be given information on what’s called V-Safe,” Lindholm says. This is a tool for your phone that uses texts and web surveys to provide health check-ins after your vaccination.
“It reminds you of your next dose and essentially checks up on you and people are afraid it’s the government wanting your information. In reality, it’s just putting in your phone number, which the government already has, and you just register that you got the vaccine and on what date and you’ll get reminders,” she says.
The intention of the tool is to allow the Centers for Disease Control to track such things as the side effects people experience.
Does the vaccine contain dangerous ingredients?
Some vaccines contain ingredients such as mercury or formaldehyde, which can sound worrying. Lindholm confirms these are not present in the current COVID-19 vaccines but, even if they were, she says it’s really not something to worry about.
“The dose makes the poison. There’s more formaldehyde in a pear than there is in a whole handful of vaccines,” she says.
“Everything by its chemical name sounds scary, but everything can be toxic to the human body because it depends on the dose. Even water is toxic in a certain quantity, and the quantities in a vaccine of all those ingredients are safe for our bodies.”
A name can also be misleading when it comes to comparing the familiar to a complicated ingredient list.
“Mercury in vaccines is not elemental mercury. Your body absorbs and can break down ethyl mercury, which is a compound,” Lindholm says. “Elemental mercury is definitely dangerous, but the stuff they use in vaccines is safe, especially in the quantity that is used.”
Could the vaccine have long-term negative effects?
If a vaccine is going to have a long-term effect, Lindholm says, this will usually present itself within a matter of weeks.
“It’s not something that’s going to present itself five years down the road,” she says.
By the two-month mark, Lindholm says, any long-term effect will have shown up. There is no precedent to suggest that a long-term effect can show up later.
For example, she says, when the rotavirus vaccine was first developed, reactions showed up quickly and the vaccine was pulled shortly after. Considering how many people have been tested along the process of developing the COVID-19 vaccine, she says, we’d know by now if long-term effects were likely.
On the other hand, Lindholm believes the long-term effects of COVID-19 itself are more concerning.
“We don’t know the long-term effects of actually getting the disease itself, and that’s the thing we should focus on,” she says. “Those are more alarming to me than the long-term effects of the vaccine.”