Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Megan Moutsatsos, Queens University.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm: in January 2021, there have been almost 101 million cases of the virus worldwide, and approximately 2.2 million deaths. It is believed to have originated from a seafood market in Wuhan, China in late 2019. Common symptoms are similar to that of a common cold, often consisting of fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. However, in extreme cases, COVID-19 can be fatal, especially for the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. In March 2020, the World Health Organization estimated the crude mortality rate to be between 3-4%. The rate is now thought to be lower, but it would still be higher than that of the seasonal flu, which is often far below 0.1%.Therefore, it is of utmost importance that people wear masks, social distance, and quarantine if they have symptoms or have been in contact with a symptomatic individual. Unsurprisingly, due to COVID-19’s detrimental effects on societies, vaccines for the virus have been in development since the beginning of the pandemic and have now been approved for various countries.
In Canada, the first COVID-19 vaccines to be approved for public use are the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. Both vaccines work by enabling your body to create a protein that fools itself into thinking it has been infected. Your body then generates an antibody to defend itself, and it will remember this immune response if your body contracts the virus again, thus providing protection. For optimal immunity to the virus, two doses of the vaccine are required 21 days apart. Ontario has already begun its vaccine distribution plan, which includes 3 phases. The first phase started in December 2020; the second is set to start in March 2021; and the third is set to begin in August 2021, during which the vaccine will be widely available to Ontario’s public. These vaccines are vital in building our immunity to the virus, in training our body to fight it, but some individuals have reservations about being vaccinated.
In the UCL-Penn Global COVID study, led by a group of psychologists from University College London and University of Pennsylvania, a wide group of participants were asked whether they planned to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Those who stated they were unlikely to receive the vaccine were then asked why, and respondents listed several reasons. Firstly, some were hesitant to trust a vaccine that had been developed so rapidly, as they believed it might have been “rushed”, and thus be unsafe. Secondly, some were afraid of the short-term and long-term side effects of the vaccine, as there are still many unknowns about how it can affect people. Lastly, some stated they were not high risk, and due to the novelty of the vaccine, they would prefer to wait to receive it. While these concerns are valid considering the unprecedented circumstances, the COVID-19 vaccine is not something to fear.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is not novel to researchers. It is a member of the family of coronaviruses, which has previously been researched, and researchers therefore weren’t starting from scratch with vaccine research. Dr. Eric J. Yager, an associate professor of microbiology at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, stated that scientists have been studying coronaviruses for over 50 years. They already possessed existing data on the virus’s genome, structure, and life cycle, which laid the groundwork for the COVID-19 vaccine’s rapid development. Researchers around the world also worked together to gather information and start clinical trials for the vaccine, which is another explanation for the vaccine’s quick development. With regard to the vaccine’s rapid clinical trials, there was extremely high volunteer interest and an increased number of testing sites for the vaccine, both of which contributed to fast results. Additionally, the clinical trials still adhered to safety measures: before they could begin, a study protocol was approved by a safety board. The trials also followed strict procedures to ensure accuracy: they were divided into three phases. Phase 1 escalated the vaccine dose to healthy volunteers in order to determine side effects and tolerability; Phase 2 expanded volunteer recruitment while continuing to safely test the vaccine; and Phase 3 recruited thousands of participants and measured efficacy of the vaccine in virus protection. With regard to concerns about the vaccine’s short-term side effects, the vaccine will likely make you feel similar to how you felt after receiving the flu vaccine. For instance, you might experience pain at the injection site, and perhaps feel unwell for a few days after vaccination. There have only been isolated cases of aversive side effects. To address the long-term side effects of the vaccine, there are ultimately still unknowns due to the vaccine’s recent development and distribution. However, the risk of severe complications from COVID-19 itself is far higher than the risk of vaccine complications. Additionally, many existing vaccines, including the flu shot, can also result in rare complications, but the risk is extremely small when you consider the millions of people who safely receive vaccines each year. This is no different from the COVID-19 vaccine: there will always be isolated cases of complications, but we need to trust in science.
Overall, the COVID-19 vaccine has proven both safe and efficient at protecting from the virus. While there are ultimately some unknowns about the vaccine’s future side-effects, the world simply cannot wait for these answers. By then, millions more will have died, millions more will have lost their jobs, and millions more will be living in poverty. This virus has taken the world by storm, but this vaccine is our opportunity to come together. We need to trust the science; we need to get vaccinated, while also continuing to social distance and wear masks. Only then will millions of lives be saved; only then will aversive COVID-19 effects be eradicated; and only then can the world begin to heal.
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