mRNA, viral vector, efficacy... What to know about the COVID-19 vaccine

Relief and delight overcame the residents, families and staff connected to Hillel Lodge, back on January 13 when Ottawa paramedics delivered the first of two Pfizer vaccine doses to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many of us had tears in our eyes as we marked the beginning of the end of the pandemic that had changed so much at the Lodge and the in the lives of everyone who lives and works here,” said Ted Cohen.

While the beginning of the end has been a long, drawn-out process, most people over the age of 12 can now be on their way to protection from the COVID-19 virus.

“At this point, there’s hardly anyone not eligible for this,” said Dr. Michael Malek, staff physician at Hillel Lodge since 1997 and a member of the Ottawa Hospital Family Health team.

For those in special risk groups, receiving the vaccine was especially significant.

Leslie Kaufman, Federation’s vice president, is an organ transplant recipient who must take immunosuppressant medication daily to prevent organ rejection. Kauffman has now received both her vaccinations and she stresses that for those who are immunocompromised, it is very important that all others also get vaccinated.

Kaufman explains that early claims of high efficacy rates for all the vaccines were encouraging to most, but testing did not include transplant recipients until very recently. The first study to produce results indicates that the development of antibodies is less likely for people taking immunosuppressant medications, and if antibodies do develop, they are less robust.

“A 56 per cent chance of developing antibodies is better than zero,” Kaufman stated, “but my best protection is for those who are not immunocompromised to get their vaccines.”

Here’s what Dr. Malek says you need to know about your vaccine options:

First, vaccines in general take about two weeks to mount an immune response.

“The first dose contributes to short-term protection, while the second dose cements longer-term protection,” said Malek. The length of that long-term protection has yet to be determined, but it should be at least a year.

Second, there’s a lot of different information available about the two different types (four brands) of vaccines — viral vectors like the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, plus the mRNA vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer.

“The most important thing is how good these vaccines are at preventing serious disease, hospitalization and death. That’s really what it boils down to,” said Malek. “All the vaccines are close to 95 per cent at preventing these outcomes.”

Third, the dreaded side effects. Despite any horror stories you might have heard, Malek said they’re not all that bad.

“Most people have minor side effects, some have flu-like symptoms. The pain in the arm is probably the most notorious one,” said Malek. “There have been some reports of delayed reactions, where a few days later people develop redness on the arm.”

A common question is should you get vaccinated if you’ve already had COVID-19? Malek said yes.

“If you have had COVID, you’ll have antibodies, but those will likely wane over time and may not be enough to protect people longer term,” said Malek. “It’s kind of like you got your first dose as the actual virus and so getting the first vaccine dose is like protecting yourself longer term.”

You’re unlikely to experience the symptoms of COVID-19 if you’re vaccinated, but you could still possibly catch and transmit the virus — which means it’s important to continue distancing and mask-wearing, likely until the late summer or early fall.

And while the COVID-19 virus isn’t going away anytime soon, it will eventually become one for the history books.

“Patients always ask ‘Is this going to go away?’ Look at the Spanish Flu, it did go away eventually,” said Malek. “We will get back to normal. It will be a new normal, but I’m confident that by the end of this year we’ll be back to the world we hopefully remember. We’ll get there.”

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