With the global spread of the COVID-19 virus came the mass diffusion of misinformation and conspiracy theories about its origin, its spread, its prevention and most recently, the COVID-19 vaccines.
Vaccine hesitancy has been around since the discovery of vaccines and was classified by the World Health Organisation as a top threat to global health before the pandemic even started. Now, during such a critical time, concern about vaccine hesitancy is at an all-time high given the threat it poses to community immunity.
It is crucial that we tackle this issue through raising awareness, filtering fake news, and debunking the existing myths that may affect the general public’s willingness to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
In an attempt to do that, Dr. Katherinee O’Brien, Director of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals at the WHO, and Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the WHO, have made several appearances on social media to help answer some of the circulating questions and concerns surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines.
The vaccines were developed in record time. Does this make them unsafe?
The vaccines are completely safe. All the components that go into vaccines are heavily tested to be sure that everything that is in there at that specific dose, is safe for humans. Vaccines are tested on animals before they are given to humans. Only after they prove to be safe for animals, do they then get tested on humans.
During clinical trials, tens of thousands of people receive the vaccine before they become authorised for use in the general public.
Throughout this process, safety is of utmost importance. Every single vaccine that is created goes through an evaluation to ensure that it is safe before it’s deployed out to the general public. The manufacturing of the vaccines also has a constant oversight of quality so that each ingredient is assured to be of the highest quality and safety for use in humans.
No steps were skipped during the development of the vaccine, especially not any steps related to safety. All routine steps have been taken for general vaccine development, and during all stages, regulators have kept a close eye to make sure they are completely safe for use by the wider public.
Do the COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility?
This is a rumour that has been spread about many different vaccines in the past and it is completely untrue. There are no vaccines that cause infertility.
Can the vaccine change our DNA?
There are two vaccines that are mRNA vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer. There is no possible way that mRNA can change into DNA. It is also impossible that mRNA can change the DNA in our human cells. mRNA gives instructions to the body to make a protein.
Most vaccines are developed by giving the body a protein or rather, a small, component of the germ that is being vaccinated against. This is a new approach, whereby instead of giving that small part, we just give the body the instructions to make that protein and then our natural immune system responds to it.
Why can’t children under 16 get vaccinated against COVID-19?
When new drugs are developed they go through clinical trials to test them out. This testing usually starts in adults in case there are unexpected side effects that we do not want children to be exposed to.
Therefore, in the case of COVID-19, all vaccines that have been and are being tested so far have been tested in those over the age of 16 or 18. This is the population where we have data to be able to recommend vaccination. The studies in children will be starting in the coming months. Once we have sufficient data, we can then develop guidelines for vaccination in children.
Moderna and Pfizer: what are the differences, and which one is better?
These are only two of the vaccines that are available around the world, there are more.The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are very similar. They are both mRNA vaccines, as explained above, mRNA is the recipe that is given to the body so that the body can make a tiny part of the COVID-19 virus itself. This will trigger a response in your body, prompting it to create antibodies. That way, when you are exposed to the virus you already have antibodies that can fight it.
Do both Moderna and Pfizer require two doses?
Yes, the two doses are given between 3 and 4 weeks apart and otherwise, they are very similar vaccines.
How soon after you complete the second dose does immunity kick in?
Some immunity and protection has been recorded even after the first dose but this takes a couple of weeks in itself to take effect. We know from the clinical trials that protection occurs within a couple of weeks after the second dose.
Do the vaccines have any side effects?
All vaccines have some side effects. With the COVID-19 vaccines, most are at the local site where the injection is, including soreness of the arms and some swelling (all of which are reversible). Some people get a slight headache, some may develop a fever and report not feeling well for a day or two. All this really means is that your body is starting to respond to the vaccine.
After taking the vaccine, can you still get COVID-19 and spread it?
What we know for sure is that these vaccines are super effective at preventing you from getting ill or having sever symptoms. However, we still don’t know how effective these vaccines are at stopping infection.
Out of those who get infected, not all develop symptoms, but even people who do not get symptoms can still transmit the disease. So even if you’re vaccinated you should still continue to wear a mask because even if you don’t get ill, you could pass it on to someone else.
Should we be concerned about the new variants that are appearing?
These COVID-19 vaccines are examples of great advances in science developed in record time. They are tools and shields to help us fight the pandemic now. But when transmission rates are this high, these tools are under great pressure.
If we want them to really work, people need to be doing as much as they can to reduce the transmission of the disease now more than ever during the vaccine roll out.
People should be even more cautious when it comes to wearing masks and physical distancing. This is not the time to take the foot off the pedal for those other interventions, as we could actually lose the use of these vaccines if these other variants continue appearing during the vaccination campaigns.
Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].