As states receive more COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks, more Americans will become eligible to receive the shots that could get us one step closer to normalcy again. But many still have concerns about the two vaccines currently approved for emergency use in the U.S. and the one pending authorization.
We sat down with the University of Georgia’s Ted Ross, director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology and GRA Eminent Scholar of Infectious Diseases in the College of Veterinary Medicine, to answer some of the common questions people are asking and break down some of the myths about the new vaccines.
Why should we get the vaccine?
Although masks and social distancing help reduce the spread of the virus, they only go so far.
“We’re not going to get back to a normal life until we get the vaccine distributed—not only in the United States but worldwide to get enough people vaccinated to really protect us against future infections. And that’s a commitment that each of us are going to have to make to get out of this situation.”
How do the vaccines work?
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently being given in the U.S. rely on messenger RNA to inoculate you against the coronavirus. This technology has been in the works for decades against other viruses.
The fact that you feel a little bit of fever or soreness actually means the vaccine is working.” — Ted Ross, director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology
The vaccine works by introducing to your immune system what a part of the coronavirus “looks” like. So that in the future, if you’re exposed to the virus, your immune system can activate to stop it from making you sick.
“This is just one small part (of the virus),” Ross said. “It is not the full virus, and it doesn’t contain any genetic information that can replicate and make a new virus,” Ross said.
How safe are the vaccines?
Most of the reactions people reported have been mild and resolved over the course of a day or so. Things like feeling tired or soreness at the injection site are actually a sign that your immune system is doing its job.
“The fact that you feel a little bit of fever or soreness actually means the vaccine is working,” Ross said. “It’s stimulating your immune system to recognize the vaccine as foreign. And your body is making an immune response against this foreign entity that’s entered your body.”
How long will it take for my immunity to build?
It varies from person to person.
“Usually between two and four weeks, we begin to see a measurable antibody level that would be considered to be protective,” Ross said. “And then you get the boost, and it really shoots those antibody levels up to a point that should last you for quite a long time.
What about the variants?
“Any novel virus like this that enters the human population begins to evolve and adapt to the new host,” Ross said. “So it’s not unusual that we’re going to start to see variants of this coronavirus.”
The vaccines currently work well against the so-called U.K. variant and perform slightly less well against the South African one. But researchers are working on ways to boost the vaccines’ effectiveness against those and future coronavirus variants.
I have been vaccinated, and I still wear my mask and I still keep my distance.” — Ted Ross, GRA Eminent Scholar of Infectious Diseases
Ross’ team is sequencing viruses from people who’ve been infected to determine how many are carrying a variant strain of COVID-19. The Center for Vaccines and Immunology is one of nine sites across the U.S. studying the immune response to COVID-19. Funded by the NIH, the project aims to determine how long immunity lasts for people who’ve received the vaccine and also for those who’ve been infected with the virus in their communities.
“It’s a really important question to ask: If our immunity does not last, then we may have to come up with an annual vaccination program for coronavirus like we do for influenza.”
Do we still need to wear a face covering and social distance after I get the vaccine?
Yes. People will still need to be cautious about interacting with others who aren’t in their household. Mask wearing and social distancing will be necessary until enough people get the vaccine to reach herd immunity. (Most experts believe about 75% of people will need to be vaccinated to achieve that goal.)
“We do not know whether or not you can still be infected and transmit that virus to someone else, even if you don’t feel any signs of disease at all,” Ross said. “So I have been vaccinated, and I still wear my mask and I still keep my distance.”
People who’ve recovered from COVID-19 will also need to be vaccinated because their immunity to the virus can wane over time.