Vaccine questions addressed

SAN LUIS VALLEY — Last Friday, a number of good questions about COVID-19 were posed on the opinion page of the Valley Courier. Here are answers from our local public health agencies to some of those questions.

How does the human cell take up the spike protein in the vaccine?

The vaccine does not contain spike protein. To better explain how this works, let’s start with how the virus works. The outside of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is covered in a specific kind of spike protein. These spike proteins attach to the outside of a human cell and allow the virus to enter the cell and replicate itself. If your body can learn to recognize the spike proteins on the virus, it can be better prepared to fight the virus. While the vaccine does not actually contain spike proteins, it does teach your immune system to recognize and fight them.

Does the vaccine act like other vaccines that I am used to?

Vaccines that have been around for a long time, like measles or polio vaccines, contain a bit of weakened virus that give your body a preview of the enemy and prepare your body’s immune system to fight the disease in the future. Moderna and Pfizer messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines do not contain any virus because they use a different approach.

How does the vaccine help me not get COVID-19?

The vast majority of people in the SLV who have been vaccinated have received Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, which are mRNA vaccines. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a molecule that is naturally present in human cells. Its job is to carry instructions for making proteins. Rather than using actual viruses, mRNA vaccines carry a set of instructions to your cells telling them to manufacture spike proteins like the ones on the outside of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Once the message has been delivered, enzymes in your cells destroy the mRNA within a few days.

Meanwhile, cells in your body that received the instructions begin to manufacture spike proteins. Your immune system creates antibodies to get rid of the strange proteins. Some people feel sick for a few days as their systems practice fighting against this new invader. After this process is completed, the antibodies remain and stand ready to fight anything in the future that is covered with that same kind of spike protein. You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine because it does not contain the virus. The vaccine does not enter the part of the cells where DNA is located, and cannot change your DNA.

If the vaccine helps me to not get COVID, why should I still wear a mask?

Masks are being recommended because of two factors: the Delta variant (and other variants), and the time lapsed since many people received their last vaccine dose.

A new variant can be a wild card that forces us to change our strategies during a pandemic. The Delta variant appears to be better at evading antibodies and much more efficient in spreading from person to person than earlier variants.

Vaccines were tested for safety and effectiveness before they were authorized for use. However, one thing that was impossible to know early on was how long antibodies from a COVID-19 vaccine or infection would last. We are now beginning to see a small decrease in immunity over time. This is not unusual, and it is why booster shots are recommended for many childhood vaccines. Because the vaccine works by prompting your body’s own immune system to be ready to fight the virus, people with weakened immune systems may not have as strong a response to the vaccine, and they may need a booster sooner. This is why authorization has already been given for those with certain medical conditions to get a third dose of vaccine now. Plans are being put into place for others to be able to get a booster dose around 8 months after their second dose. In the meantime, masks and other precautions can add a layer of protection.

Why does the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) have such large numbers in 2021 compared to all the previous years?

Vaccines, like any other medication, have the potential for side effects. The VAERS system was created in 1990 as a way for the public to report possible negative outcomes, known as adverse events, following vaccination. This data is monitored and analyzed to look for trends and serious events that may warrant deeper investigation to see if the adverse events were actually caused by the vaccine. Before the pandemic, most people had never heard of VAERS. The effort to vaccinate as many people as possible for COVID-19 in a short period of time is the largest such effort since VAERS was established. More people are recently vaccinated and aware of VAERS, and thus more people have submitted reports. This is actually a very good thing from the viewpoint of scientists who monitor the data. More reports make it more likely that scientists will be able to identify potential vaccine risks as soon as possible.

Why aren’t good old infection control procedures being explained as to how to keep oneself healthy?

Standard infection control procedures such as hand washing have long been an important part of stopping the spread of disease, and they remain important during a pandemic. Actions such as social distancing, masking, and ventilation are infection control measures that can add a layer of protection, especially where there are people present who may be at higher risk or who are not able to get the vaccine. Isolation and quarantine are infection control measures used when someone has been infected or been exposed to someone who is infected with a disease. Although the current emphasis is on vaccines as the best way to fight the pandemic, public health has long encouraged healthy habits such as good nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep, and avoiding tobacco. Those good habits are still useful for keeping oneself healthy.