COVID-19 has completely upended our lives. According to a Pew Research Center study, 25% of U.S. adults witnessed a job loss in their household due to the outbreak. Mental health deteriorated as we adapted to quarantine and extensive self-isolation. This pandemic uprooted countless college students, forcing us into our childhood bedrooms and drastically different time zones as we reckoned with an unprecedented global health crisis.
For months, it felt like this pandemic might never come to an end until Dec. 11, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Soon thereafter, the FDA approved Moderna’s vaccine. While a vaccine might be our only hope in eradicating COVID-19, only 60% of Americans are willing to be vaccinated against the virus. Additionally, 26% of respondents cite concerns about the safety of the vaccine as a reason for not receiving it. In convincing skeptics of the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, we must stress the rigorous research protocol scientists have invested in the development of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the two major COVID-19 vaccines currently being shipped across the U.S.
Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are using mRNA-based vaccines to protect us from COVID-19. Most vaccines, like the influenza vaccine, trigger an immune response in our bodies via injection of a weakened or inactivated version of the original virus. These new mRNA vaccines, however, work by allowing our cells to produce proteins that trigger similar immune responses, providing us with protection against COVID-19 in the event that we contract the virus.
Although mRNA-based vaccines have not been widely used until now, they have been studied for about 15 years in early-stage clinical trials for the flu, Zika virus, rabies, cytomegalovirus and cancer. Additionally, the mRNA vaccine is held to the same FDA safety and efficacy standards as all other vaccines in the U.S. In fact, both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccine have 95% and 94% efficacy rates, respectively.
While new biotechnology can be daunting, mRNA vaccines have demonstrated promising results and should not be a cause for concern. However, even with incredibly high efficacy rates, there are reported instances during which vaccinated individuals have suffered severe allergic reactions. In Alaska, two health care workers suffered severe allergic reactions from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The first worker vaccinated had no history of allergies, yet she had an anaphylactic reaction 10 minutes after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. She was hospitalized as a result but is stable after being discharged on Dec. 17.
The second worker had a non-anaphylactic severe reaction 10 minutes after injection but was stable and discharged from the hospital within an hour. Aside from the two in Alaska, only four other severe reactions have been reported in the U.S. from the COVID-19 vaccine. No severe reactions were reported in Pfizer’s clinical trials.
After examining the Alaskan workers’ symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are mandating that individuals with any serious allergies stay for close monitoring for 30 minutes after vaccination. They must also receive the vaccine in settings with oxygen and epinephrine to manage anaphylactic reactions. Despite these cases of severe reactions, the FDA does not plan to pause vaccination efforts.
Although these reports might deter some from vaccination, we must remember that the reactions experienced by the Alaskan physicians have shown to be rare, and there are measures in place for individuals with allergies to remain safe when receiving the vaccine. FDA officials now require Pfizer to submit data on anaphylaxis once the vaccine becomes more widely available, and we should receive more information about what factors caused those severe reactions. Scientists are working diligently to ensure the safety of the American people, and the overwhelming majority of individuals receiving the vaccine did not experience any adverse side effects. We are in good hands.
Even as we address key concerns of individuals opposed to the vaccine, many still remain ambivalent because they don’t understand the ultimate purpose of widespread vaccination.
On an individual level, vaccines are used to prime our immune systems to viral exposure. It’s important to also remember, however, that vaccines can protect us on the population level through herd immunity.
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, if 75% to 80% of Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19, we can achieve herd immunity and effectively eliminate the novel coronavirus in the U.S. by late 2021. When herd immunity is achieved, COVID-19 will die out because it can no longer spread within the population. Herd immunity is so effective that, even if our entire population cannot receive the vaccine, we can still significantly reduce the virus’ spread. For those who cannot take the vaccine for medical reasons, or will be at greater risk if they do, they can still reap the benefits of vaccination if a majority of U.S. residents get vaccinated.
This virus has taken the lives of our loved ones, ruined our careers and made us long for a semblance of normalcy. In spite of all this, many Americans will refuse to take the steps necessary to curb this pandemic. With approximately 334,000 COVID-19 related deaths and counting in the U.S. alone, thousands of individuals nationwide are participating in anti-mask protests and prioritizing their self-interest over the health of the American people.
If you are able to get vaccinated, do it to protect those who are physically unable to receive the novel COVID-19 vaccine due to underlying medical conditions. Get the vaccine to help us overcome this pandemic and finally return to our normal lives. Scientists have done the heavy lifting. Our fate now rests in your hands.
Sara Khan (23C) is from Fairfax, Virginia.