The race to distribute a vaccine for COVID-19 is on. Government groups and private companies are working day and night to release a vaccine that will help stop the spread and severity of COVID-19.
It’s natural to feel confused and unsure about what to do once the vaccine does come to market. Below are some of the most common questions and answers from our experts to help guide your decision about getting the vaccine once it’s available.
1. How do vaccines work?
Your immune system acts like a response force within your body to combat germs. Once your body has successfully warded off the intruder, it develops antibodies that help protect you against those same germs in the future.
“Vaccines generally work by helping your body develop immunity to a certain germ by mimicking an infection,” says David Kountz, M.D., the co-chief academic officer at Hackensack Meridian Health. “The infection is usually not strong enough to make you sick, but enough that your body detects the signature of the germ and begins creating antibodies to protect you against future infection.”
In addition to the COVID-19 vaccines under development that use live or inactivated virus, like traditionally vaccines, a new type of vaccine has also been developed. The new type of vaccine is called a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine and it triggers our cells to develop a protein that, in turn, triggers an immune response within our bodies to produce antibodies. Once the antibodies are produced, they help prevent us from getting infected if we come in contact with the real virus.
While the mRNA vaccines are new to market, the research behind them has been studied and worked on for decades.
2. When will a vaccine be available in America?
The COVID-19 vaccine is on track to be the fastest vaccine ever developed with this novel coronavirus first being discovered last year. Currently, the record for developing an entirely new vaccine is four years with the Mumps vaccine.
“Incredible progress is taking place, and we are delivering the vaccine to the priority groups as guided by the CDC and New Jersey Department of Health,” says Ihor Sawczuk, M.D., chief research officer at Hackensack Meridian Health. “It’s important to keep in mind that at first, we expect there to be a limited supply and that community members should wait to hear from local health networks or their physicians about when broad distribution will be available to them specifically.”
There has also been record funding available across the public and private sectors for vaccine development through Operation Warp Speed, an initiative of the federal government.
It’s important to remember that there are several steps in place during vaccine development to help ensure a new vaccine is safe and effective when deployed to a larger population.
3. The development process was so fast, how do we know it’s safe?
Making sure all vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, meet standards for safety and effectiveness is one of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) highest priorities. The FDA uses a “lifecycle” approach to monitor vaccines from studies done before testing in humans through after a vaccine is available.
“Although the development of the COVID-19 happened at “warp speed”, no science was skipped over,” says Dr. Sawczuk. “Rigorous clinical trials took place to ensure safety and efficacy. In fact, I was one of the first to participate in the clinical trial that took place at Hackensack Meridian Health and trust the process was conducted with the highest level of safety standards.”
4. Will the COVID-19 vaccine be mandatory?
There are numerous legal and regulatory frameworks surrounding mandatory vaccination. The topic can even be controversial to some. However, it’s important to know that vaccines only work if enough people get them.
While there are laws in place in many states around mandatory vaccinations for young children, it’s not certain if any states would enact similar mandates for COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, the CDC advises that the COVID-19 will likely not be recommended for children at first.
Employers often require employees to get flu vaccines annually to protect against influenza. They could make similar requirements, especially in health care and other essential jobs, although it is unclear at this time.
5. Will a vaccine end the pandemic?
“The development of a vaccine is only the first step in helping end the pandemic, says Kountz. “In order to put an end to the pandemic, we must also have wide distribution of the vaccine and show signs that it’s working as expected.”
Until widespread vaccination has occurred, we must also continue to follow social distancing and mask wearing guidelines to continue to curb the spread of COVID-19.
6. Should pregnant or breastfeeding women get the COVID vaccine?
Although pregnant and breastfeeding women did not participate in the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration noted during emergency use authorization of that vaccine that these women may opt in for immunization, if they choose. Based on what we know about other vaccines and pregnancy, some experts suggest that this decision was made because the virus itself likely poses a greater risk to pregnant women than the vaccine.
Also, there has generally been more concern about pregnancy and “live virus” vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is NOT a live virus, but rather is an mRNA vaccine. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “it is expected that the safety … of the vaccine in pregnant women would be similar to that observed in non-pregnant women.”
Historically, vaccines have been given to pregnant and breastfeeding women and have been deemed appropriate and safe to do so. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, speak with your physician to determine what’s best for you.