It’s been more than a year since COVID-19 disease appeared in the world, and it has changed all of our lives drastically. Many people have lost their lives, lost a loved one, lost employment or financial security, or suffered with long-term health consequences from the illness. Although the world will likely continue to live with this disease for years to come, there is hope for a brighter future.
One source of hope is the global medical community, which has been working tirelessly to treat those who are sick and limit the spread of the disease. In addition to discovering and implementing more effective treatments, the medical community has also managed to develop several vaccines for COVID-19. These vaccines provide a high degree of immunity from the virus, making it much safer for those who have been vaccinated to resume normal public interactions.
However, public opinion toward these vaccines has been mixed. While some people are eager to receive one, others have questions about the vaccines or are even distrustful of them. Some of these concerns are rooted in very real ways that our health institutions have not always served the public as they should. Others stem from lack of information or misunderstanding about what’s in the vaccines, how they work, and what effects they have on the human body.
As a community health organization, we believe it’s our responsibility to help address the questions and concerns that individuals in our community have about the COVID-19 vaccines. In this blog post, we share some of the most important information and vaccine facts from trusted sources in the hopes of dispelling misconceptions and helping our consumers make informed decisions about COVID-19 vaccination.
What’s in the COVID-19 Vaccines, and How Do They Work?
At the time of this post’s publication, there are currently three different vaccines for COVID-19 being administered in the U.S.
The first vaccine, known as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, was developed by BioNTech SE, a German biotechnology company, in collaboration with Pfizer Inc., an American pharmaceutical corporation. The second vaccine, called the Moderna vaccine, was jointly developed by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and the American pharmaceutical company Moderna, Inc. The third vaccine, called the Janssen vaccine or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed by Janssen Biotech, Inc., a subsidiary of the American multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson. All three vaccines were approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after clinical trials to study their safety and effectiveness.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines belong to a new category of vaccines called mRNA vaccines. This type of vaccine contains “instructions” that our cells need to produce specific antibodies, which can protect us from getting infected if we’re exposed to the COVID-19 virus. You can read more about mRNA vaccines on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, but here is an excerpt:
“COVID-19 mRNA vaccines give instructions for 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 that causes COVID-19. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are given in the upper arm muscle. Once the instructions (mRNA) are inside the immune cells, the cells use them to make the protein piece. After the protein piece is made, the cell breaks down the instructions and gets rid of them. Next, the cell displays the protein piece on its surface. Our immune systems recognize that the protein doesn’t belong there and begin building an immune response and making antibodies, like what happens in natural infection against COVID-19. At the end of the process, our bodies have learned how to protect against future infection. The benefit of mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is those vaccinated gain this protection without ever having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19.”
The Janssen vaccine, by contrast, is a viral vector vaccine. This type of vaccine uses a modified version of another virus (in this case, a common cold virus that is incapable of replicating inside the body) to carry genetic instructions into our cells. These instructions tell our cells to produce the same “spike protein” mentioned above, which triggers an immune response. You can read more about viral vector COVID-19 vaccines on the CDC’s website.
What Are the Effects and Side Effects?
First and foremost, all three vaccines have been proven in clinical trials to protect against COVID-19 illness. According to the CDC, the Pfizer vaccine is 95% effective at preventing illness, the Moderna vaccine is 94.1% effective at preventing illness, and the Janssen vaccine is 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe illness and 85% effective at preventing severe illness. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses to be fully effective. For the Pfizer vaccine, the two doses should be received 21 days (three weeks) apart, and for the Moderna vaccine, they should be received 28 days (four weeks) apart. The Janssen vaccine requires only one dose to be fully effective.
As with most medications, the vaccines may cause side effects. Common side effects include pain, swelling and redness near the site of the injection as well as chills, tiredness, headache, and other flu-like symptoms. For most people, these side effects are mild or moderate in intensity, but they can be severe for a small percentage of people. In addition, some people may experience a severe allergic reaction after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, although this is rare. If you have ever had an allergic reaction to an ingredient in a COVID-19 vaccine—including polyethylene glycol (PEG) or polysorbate—then the CDC advises that you should not receive the vaccine.
According to the CDC, the following is also true of all three COVID-19 vaccines:
- A COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19. This is because the vaccine does not contain the live viruses that cause COVID-19.
- Receiving a vaccine will not make you test positive for COVID-19 on a viral test. However, there is a possibility you might test positive on an antibody test.
- A COVID-19 vaccine will not alter your DNA. The mRNA in the vaccines does not enter the nuclei of our cells, which means it cannot interact with the DNA stored there.
- If you’ve already had COVID-19 and recovered, it is recommended that you still receive a vaccine. This is because experts believe it’s possible to get sick with COVID-19 more than once.
- A COVID-19 vaccine does not pose a risk to you if you would like to become pregnant in the future.
However, there are still several things that are not yet known about the COVID-19 vaccines. First, there is currently limited data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines administered during pregnancy. Additional research is planned to study the effects of the vaccines among pregnant women. Second, we don’t know how long immunity lasts after vaccination. Researchers will need to gather more data from people who have been vaccinated before we can know for sure.
Finally, we don’t know if receiving a COVID-19 vaccine prevents you from spreading the virus to other people. As the CDC website explains, “If you are vaccinated against COVID-19, you may still be exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19. After exposure, people can be infected with or ‘carry’ the virus that causes COVID-19 but not feel sick or have any symptoms. Experts call this ‘asymptomatic infection.’ For this reason, even after vaccination, we need to continue using all the tools available to help stop this pandemic as we learn more about how COVID-19 vaccines work in real-world conditions.”
Why Should We Trust the Organizations Behind the Vaccines?
Some people may feel skeptical toward the COVID-19 vaccines because they do not trust the organizations that created them.
Large pharmaceutical corporations are frequently accused of prioritizing financial profits over public health, so it’s understandable to feel some amount of distrust toward these organizations. In fact, many of these organizations are still facing lawsuits for their role in causing the opioid epidemic that our country hasn’t fully recovered from.
Some people also feel negatively about the American medical establishment due to various ways it has abused public trust over the decades. Distrust may be particularly high among people who belong to ethnic minority groups—such as African American, Indigenous American, and Latino/Latina individuals—who have historically been subjected to discrimination and abuse by medical authorities.
This distrust cannot be rebuilt quickly or easily, but community health organizations can do their part by talking about these issues openly and honestly. It is worth reiterating that both vaccines have been authorized for emergency use by the FDA after being proven safe in clinical trials, which included male and female participants of various ages and ethnicities. In addition, at least one independent medical organization—the National Medical Association, which is a professional society of African American doctors—has reviewed the data from these clinical trials and endorsed the FDA’s emergency authorizations.
Finally, it’s important to note that although the vaccines have been authorized for emergency use by the FDA, none have been “approved” by the FDA. This means that medical experts believe the benefits provided by the vaccines outweigh their risks, but that more extensive data collection and review is required before the vaccines can be approved for use outside of the current emergency situation. As the Pfizer vaccine data sheet states:
“The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has not undergone the same type of review as an FDA-approved or cleared product. FDA may issue an [emergency use authorization (EUA)] when certain criteria are met, which includes that there are no adequate, approved, available alternatives. In addition, the FDA decision is based on the totality of scientific evidence available showing that the product may be effective to prevent COVID-19 during the COVID-19 pandemic and that the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product. All of these criteria must be met to allow for the product to be used in the treatment of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. The EUA for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine is in effect for the duration of the COVID-19 EUA declaration justifying emergency use of these products, unless terminated or revoked (after which the products may no longer be used).”
Although COVID-19 has been around for more than a year, there are still many things we do not fully understand about the illness, the ways it affects the human body, and the effectiveness of our current treatments for it. Health officials recommend that everyone receive the COVID-19 vaccine when they are able to, but it is ultimately your choice, and we want you to have the information you need to make the best possible decision for yourself. We hope we’ve been able to clear up some of the confusion and uncertainty surrounding this topic so you can make the right choice regarding your personal health and safety!
Additional Resources about the COVID-19 vaccines:
- Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines (CDC)
- Myths and Facts About COVID-19 Vaccines (CDC)
- COVID-19 Vaccines and Allergic Reactions (CDC)
- Information About the Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine (CDC)
- Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine Fact Sheet
- Information About the Moderna Vaccine (CDC)
- Moderna Vaccine Fact Sheet
- Notice of Emergency Use Authorization for the Janssen Vaccine (FDA)
- Endorsement of the Safety and Effectiveness of the Janssen Vaccine (CDC)
- Janssen Vaccine Fact Sheet
- Understanding mRNA Vaccines (CDC)
- Understanding Viral Vector COVID-19 Vaccines (CDC)