Many patients have asked me about the COVID-19 vaccines as their opportunity to get these immunizations draws closer.
There are currently two vaccines approved with Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Other vaccines are under development.
The two approved vaccines both use messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). This messenger of genetic material carries instructions that your cellular machinery uses to make proteins. The mRNA in the vaccine instructs your cellular machinery to make the spike protein found on the outside of the COVID-19 virus. Your body then mounts an immune response and creates long-lasting antibodies. After you get the vaccine, if these antibodies detect the COVID-19 virus in your body, they will prevent it from making you sick.
This type of vaccine can be produced more quickly than traditional vaccines that contain inactivated or killed viruses. Since the mRNA vaccine does not contain any part of the COVID-19 virus, it is impossible for you to contract COVID-19 from the vaccine. The mRNA does not enter the nucleus of the cell where deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) lives. The vaccine mRNA cannot become part of your genetic material or DNA.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are highly effective. In the Pfizer clinical trial, with more than 18,000 people, the vaccine was 95% effective at preventing them from getting sick with COVID-19. In the Moderna clinical trial with more than 14,000 people, the vaccine was 94% effective at preventing COVID-19 illness.
Side effects of both vaccines are being closely monitored and reported. During clinical trials for both vaccines, more than 80% of recipients experienced injection site pain, more than 40% experienced headaches and fatigues and more than 20% had muscle aches. Overall, less than 10% of recipients had low-grade fevers, chills, nausea or vomiting.
The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use in people age 16 and older. The Moderna vaccine has been approved for people age 18 and older. Clinical trials are still under way for younger teens. People who have ever had an anaphylactic reaction (a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction) to anything should not get these vaccines. The vaccines have not yet been well studied in children or pregnant women.
Because the vaccines are new, it is not clear how long the immunity provided will last. Will it be lifetime or will booster shots be needed? We don’t yet know if getting the vaccine prevents you from transmitting the virus to others, without actually getting it yourself. Medical researchers are studying whether these vaccines will protect against the newest strains of COVID-19 virus from the United Kingdom and South Africa.
We don’t know the exact timeline for when the general public in Montana will be able to get vaccinated. Availability will depend on the vaccine supplied to Montana, which so far is less than demand. The goal is to provide the vaccine to every adult who wants it by spring or early summer 2021.
Meanwhile, we need to slow the virus spread by maintaining at least six feet of distance from people who don’t live with us, wearing masks, washing hands thoroughly, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces and staying home when sick.
I see patients in the hospital and outpatient clinic. I have witnessed firsthand the toll this virus takes on people. We really don’t have any highly effective treatments to stop the virus in its tracks. Our only hope for doing that is to get a majority of the population vaccinated.
I received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and only experienced mild side effects. I encourage you to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available to you to protect yourself, your family and your fellow Montanans.
Dr. Ian Coe, a family physician in the Montana Family Medicine Residence at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247-3306.