Now that an effective vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed, the goal for health care experts is to help ensure public confidence in the vaccine. There’s also the need to emphasize that the benefits of the vaccine greatly outweigh mild potential side effects or inconvenience. The possibility of serious complications for anyone who gets the virus, and the public health consequences of the pandemic continuing its course, are strong reasons in favor of getting vaccinated.
The following information is based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with additional comments from Michael Saag, MD, professor and associate dean in the UAB Division of Infectious Diseases.
The COVID-19 vaccination will help keep you from getting the virus. COVID-19 vaccines were evaluated in clinical trials and have been approved because those studies show that the vaccine significantly reduces the probability of contracting the virus.
Based on what has been proven about vaccines for other diseases, the COVID-19 vaccine may help keep you from getting seriously ill, even if you do get the virus. Getting vaccinated also may protect people around you – particularly those at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Dr. Saag says the true value of the vaccine is more easily seen when we consider what would happen if the development of a vaccine had failed.
“We would be faced with an exploding pandemic for which there was no end in sight, Dr. Saag says. “It might continue to burn through the population for another two to four years. That’s what we were facing until we were rescued with a modern day miracle. The virus was sequenced in December of 2019, and that genetic sequence was available to the world on January 10 of 2020. After development and expanded clinical trials, we got a vaccine that works.”
Dr. Saag compares the rapid development of a safe, highly effective vaccine to both a “home run” and an event that might be seen as divine intervention.
“First, scientists developed the strategy and drug quickly,” Dr. Saag says. “Second, the resulting vaccine works at an almost unprecedented level of effectiveness. Third, the side-effect profile is the same as for most vaccines. You may get aches and fever that are gone in 36 hours, on average. So this is a walk-off, grand-slam home run in the last game of the World Series that you rarely witness in medicine. But I also call it a miracle drug, and it’s fitting that we began vaccinations during two religious holidays that celebrate miracles. If this pandemic were a classic Greek stage drama, the audience would see the vaccine as a deus ex machina, because the gods would have rescued us, the main character, from great danger.”
The vaccines do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. The COVID-19 vaccines are a new type known as mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines. mRNA vaccines give instructions to our cells to make a harmless piece of what is called the “spike protein.” The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus. COVID-19 mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where DNA (genetic material) is stored. Once the instructions are inside your muscle cells, the cells use them to make the protein piece, then the cells break down the instructions and get rid of them.
Next, the cell places the protein piece on its surface. The immune system spots the protein and begins building an immune response and making antibodies to fight the infection. At the end of this process, our bodies have learned how to protect against future infection.
COVID-19 vaccination is a safer way to help build protection. COVID-19 can bring serious, life-threatening complications. Even though it affects certain groups less seriously than others based on age, health, and other factors, it is still not possible to predict how COVID-19 will affect any individual.
Getting COVID-19 may offer some natural protection, known as immunity. But experts don’t know how long that immunity lasts, and the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 far outweighs any benefits of natural immunity. Getting vaccinated creates an antibody response, so that you are protected without having to experience the illness. Both natural immunity and immunity produced by a vaccine are important aspects of COVID-19 that experts are investigating. Health care officials and agencies plan to keep the public informed about new developments.
Dr. Saag says getting infected with the COVID-19 virus is the least desirable and least safe way to develop immunity. He speaks as a health care professional but also from experience.
“I actually had the virus myself,” he says. “It was harrowing. I was scared for eight days about what the next day would bring. I would watch my oxygen level drop. I knew what I was in store for if I had to be hospitalized and undergo intensive care. Each day I would get up feeling better, thinking I had beat this thing, only to have the symptoms spike again in the evening. It was like the repeated scenes in Groundhog Day for eight nights. That kind of experience, which, as we know, not everyone survives, can be prevented with the vaccine. So it makes complete sense to get the vaccine.”
COVID-19 vaccination is an important tool to help stop the pandemic. Stopping a pandemic requires using all the tools we have available. Wearing masks and social distancing help reduce your chance of being exposed to the virus or spreading it to others, but these measures are not enough. Vaccines work with your immune system, so it will be ready to fight the virus if you are exposed.
The combination of getting vaccinated and following CDC recommendations to protect yourself and others provides the best protection from COVID-19. Ending the COVID-19 pandemic will halt the growing negative impact the virus is having on education, the economy, health care, and countless other activities of a functioning society.
Dr. Saag notes that the public health benefit of the vaccine is the main reason for its use.
“This is how we end the pandemic, full stop,” Dr. Saag says. “Once that is done, we can have a normal society again. We can enjoy daily life, family events, work, and school without distancing, without masks, and without fear. We will once again enjoy regular shopping trips and dining out and family vacations without constant worry about the consequences. We can have real holiday activities instead of virtual ones. It’s very simple: We will get our lives back.”
Click here for answers to frequently asked questions about COVID-19 vaccines.