After trudging through months of a global pandemic that has taken more than 1,200 lives in Oregon, with at least 81 of them in Lane County, we now stand at the precipice of a resolution:
The first COVID-19 vaccine is here.
This vaccine, created by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, first arrived in Portland Monday, Dec. 14, after being developed at an unprecedented pace. But though many are seeing this as a sign of hope, others have questions about the vaccine’s safety and wonder how it compares to past vaccines. According to local health experts, there are various elements at work that ensure the vaccine’s efficiency.
Their consensus? When it’s your turn, get vaccinated.
Though various factors contribute to the speed at which vaccines are produced, it really all comes down to biology. That’s the reason there isn’t a cure or a way to prevent HIV, but there are vaccines for diseases like polio, says Dr. Robert Barnes, medical director of HIV Alliance.
“Not all viruses have the same response,” Barnes says. “Our immune system is complicated.” He explains that on the molecular level, polio is simpler and therefore easier to target in a vaccination. HIV and the novel coronavirus, on the other hand, bind themselves to fragile RNA molecules, which replicate as fast and as sloppily as they can.
But even then there is one important distinction — HIV can hide and lie dormant, and COVID-19 doesn’t mutate away from the immune system.
“The reason the HIV vaccine has been so elusive is because it specifically targets the cellular immune system. It goes and directly attacks the immune system,” Barnes says. “That is, the coronavirus attacks the cell and replicates outside of the nucleus of the cell, whereas the HIV goes in and incorporates into the DNA.”
There is still a long way to go before an HIV vaccine is created, but Barnes says that the technological developments and HIV human trials have paved the way for the rapid creation of an mRNA vaccine for COVID.
Dr. Mark Slifka, a vaccine researcher at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), says each virus is its own unique beast. The annual flu is also a respiratory virus and may have similar symptoms to COVID-19, but the two come from “different families.” There isn’t a single vaccine for the flu because it mutates every year.
“COVID can’t change that rapidly,” Slifka says. “They’ve tested the vaccine against 20 different mutations and it can still respond to all of them.”
Slifka says several elements led to the quick development of a vaccine for COVID-19: technology, funding and coordination.
“Because of Operation Warp Speed and other funding agencies, people and manufacturers gave money immediately. That was a huge incentive because people were given the freedom to gamble on these new technologies,” Slifka says.
Due to the nature of vaccines, Slifka says, it can take years to work through clinical trials, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other non-governmental advisory committees worked closely to ensure the vaccine was prompt, but safe.
Some may still be unsure about getting the vaccine due to a fear of long-term side effects. Lane County Senior Public Health Officer Dr. Patrick Luedtke says that although Operation Warp Speed — the plan created by the U.S. government to produce COVID-19 vaccines — may sound fast, it is still safe because of the embedded safety mechanisms. Non-government and non-pharma groups like the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices advise carefully through the process.
Additionally, Luedtke explains that almost 100 percent of vaccine side effects occur within eight weeks, but Moderna and Pfizer were vaccinating for trials since July — more than five months ago.
“There is lots of safety data to show that for the vast majority of people there aren’t any frightening side effects for five months,” Luedtke says. He adds that companies like Pfizer have been producing the vaccine doses for a while because they were confident of its effectiveness.
Slifka emphasizes that you also cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine itself and that COVID testing will not bring a false positive with the vaccine.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any side effects. Luedtke and Slifka both say to expect side effects similar to a flu vaccine, which would at most mean a fever, chills and a headache. This, Slifka says, is just an immune response. He compares it to going to the gym and sweating or having sore muscles from working out.
This shouldn’t deter anyone from getting vaccinated.
“We don’t like being told what to do or when to do it,” Luedtke says. “People need to start getting it.” He adds that the sooner we take advantage of the vaccine, the sooner the community can return to some sense of normalcy.
The vaccine is now in Lane County, though it may be several weeks before the general population can get vaccinated. According to the Oregon Health Authority, long-term care residents will be next in line for vaccinations after healthcare workers.