An expert from leading US hospital the Cleveland Clinic dispels fears about the newer generation of messenger RNA vaccines – no they cannot alter your DNA or give you COVID-19 – and sets the record straight on other common questions, concerns and myths.
With the frightening spread of coronavirus – and its worrying mutations – around the globe, even many among those who understand the scientific process, trust medical experts and know how important vaccines are for fighting infectious diseases are still regularly raising questions and/or concerns about the new COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr Thaddeus Stappenbeck, chairman of the Department of Inflammation and Immunity at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute, commented: “These are new therapeutics and it’s totally reasonable to be asking constructive questions with an open mind.”
In response, Dr Stappenbeck explained and dismissed 8 of the most common myths.
Myth 1: We cannot trust COVID-19 vaccines because they were rushed.
The first vaccines for COVID-19 do involve new technology, and they were developed in record time, noted Dr Stappenbeck. However it is not because there were shortcuts in the process.
He explained the new technology at the center of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines is called messenger RNA, or mRNA. While this is the first time it is being widely used in a vaccine for the public, researchers have actually been working on this vaccine strategy for more than three decades.
Dr Stappenbeck commented: “It was a lucky thing the technology has been robustly developed quite well over the last few years and tested in several animal models of infection; so we knew it was safe and worked quite well in these models.
“When COVID-19 emerged, this was an obvious opportunity to use this novel technology, and vaccine developers were poised to do it.”
The companies put their vaccines through rigorous clinical trials involving tens of thousands of volunteers. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration requires them to follow-up with volunteers for up to two years after receiving the vaccines – to make sure they are safe and effective. Because COVID-19 is so prevalent, it only took a few months for the clinical trials to collect enough data to make an initial evaluation.
Myth 2: The vaccine will give me COVID-19.
Vaccines prime your immune system “to recognise and fight off a disease, but they do not actually cause an infection,” emphasised Dr Stappenbeck.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contain a strand of genetic material called mRNA. When the mRNA enters your cells, it instructs them to make a piece of the “spike” protein that is present on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Those protein pieces do not actually harm your body, but they do trigger your immune system to mount a response to fight them off.
Dr Stappenbeck added that you might have some fatigue, muscle aches, a headache or a fever after you get the vaccine; but he explained this is “normal with any vaccine – it is a sign that your immune system is responding”.
Myth 3: We do not know what is in these vaccines.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have published the ingredient lists for their vaccines.
In addition to the star ingredient, the COVID-19 mRNA for the spike protein, both vaccines contain lipids (fats) that help deliver the mRNA into your cells and a few other common ingredients that help maintain the pH and stability of the vaccine.
They do not contain microchips or any form of tracking device.
Myth 4: These vaccines will alter my DNA.
The vaccines use mRNA to instruct our cells to make a piece of the coronavirus’s hallmark spike protein in order to spark an immune system response. Once the mRNA does that, our cells break it down and get rid of it.
“Messenger RNA is something that’s made from DNA, but it’s not designed to integrate with our DNA, and it doesn’t permanently change our genome and who we are in any way,” Dr Stappenbeck said.
Myth 5: I already had COVID-19, so I will not benefit from the vaccine.
We do not yet know how long natural immunity to COVID-19 lasts, Dr Stappenbeck noted.
“Right now, it seems that getting COVID-19 more than once is not common, but there are still many questions that remain unanswered.
“Experts say that, even if you’ve had COVID-19, it would still be appropriate for you to get the vaccine to make sure you’re protected.”
Myth 6: Since COVID-19’s survival rate is so high, I don’t need a vaccine.
It is true that most people who get COVID-19 are able to recover; however Dr Stappenbeck pointed out it is also true that some people develop severe complications.
So far, almost 2.2 million people around the world have died from COVID-19 – and that does not account for people who survived but needed to be hospitalised. As the disease can damage the lungs, heart and brain, it may also cause long-term health problems that experts are still working to understand.
Dr Stappenbeck added there is another reason to consider getting the vaccine: it protects those around you.
He emphasised: “Even if COVID-19 doesn’t make you very sick, you could pass it on to someone else who might be more severely affected. Widespread vaccination protects populations, including those who are most at risk and those who can’t be vaccinated. It will be important for ending the pandemic.”
Myth 7: Once I get the vaccine, I won’t have to wear a mask or worry about social distancing.
Even if you get the vaccine, you should continue to wear a mask around others, wash your hands and practice physical distancing.
Dr Stappenbeck said there are several important reasons for this.
The first is that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses given 3-4 weeks apart to achieve the best possible immunity.
When you get your first shot, you do not become immediately immune. “It takes at least a week to 10 days for your body to begin to develop antibodies, and then those antibodies continue to increase over the next several weeks,” Dr Stappenbeck noted.
The second reason is that these vaccines were developed and tested for their ability to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19. It is not clear whether they also protect against asymptomatic infection and spread.
“There will be ongoing studies to evaluate this question, but it will be some time before we actually know,” Dr Stappenbeck explained. “So after you get the vaccine, you should still take steps to protect other people who haven’t been vaccinated yet.”
Myth 8: Now that we have vaccines, the pandemic will be over very soon.
“I would love to say that we’re going to flip a switch and everything’s going to be back to normal,’ Dr Stappenbeck said. “But it’s actually going to take a long time for us to be able to vaccinate an adequate number of people to reach the point where we’ll start to see the cases really dropping.”
In order to achieve what’s called ‘herd immunity’ – the point at which the disease is no longer likely to spread – about 70% of the population will need to have been vaccinated or infected, he said.
But the companies that manufacture these vaccines can only make so many at a time. So the vaccines will be distributed in phases, with priority given to people with greatest need. They may not be widely available to the general public for many months into 2021.
Dr Stappenbeck summed up: “For now, we should all continue to do our part to help slow the spread of the virus, including wearing a mask, washing our hands and physical distancing.” AMP
About Cleveland Clinic
Cleveland Clinic was ranked Number 2 overall hospital in the United States by US News & World Report’s authoritative 2020-21 annual ‘Best Hospital’s Ranking’ (behind the Mayo Clinic) from 4,656 hospitals considered in 12 main medical and surgical specialty areas and four additional specialty areas – after collating data from patient safety, performance measures and complication rates.
A non-profit academic medical centre in Ohio, Cleveland Clinic was nationally ranked in 14 adult specialties and 10 children’s specialties – and its cardiology program has ranked Number 1 in the nation for 14 successive years (since 1995).
It also achieved the highest possible rating in 9 specified procedures or conditions: abdominal aortic aneurysm, aortic valve surgery, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, colon cancer surgery, heart bypass surgery, heart failure, hip replacement, knee replacement and lung cancer surgery.
Similarly in 2019, Newsweek magazine named Cleveland Clinic Number 2 hospital in the world (behind Mayo Clinic and in front of Singapore General Hospital).
A leader in research, education and health information, Cleveland Clinic provides both clinical and hospital care at its Cleveland campus, as well as 11 affiliated hospitals, 19 family health centres, and additional major institutions in Florida and Nevada, plus 2 international campuses in Toronto in Canada and another in Abu Dhabi.
In 2019 Cleveland Clinic had over 67,500 employees – including over 17,000 registered nurses and advanced practice providers, over 4,520 physicians and scientists in 140 specialties, and over 1,970 residents and fellows in 104 training programs.