The COVID-19 vaccine has arrived, and doubters have a lot of questions and theories: how does it work, how do we know it’s safe and what about that microchip?
We spoke with Dr. Daren Scroggie, chief medical informatics officer, Infirmary Health, to answer these concerns.
First, how it works. When healthcare workers push the long awaited COVID-19 vaccine into your arm, you are not receiving a live virus.
Instead, your body is receiving what is essentially a neat, tiny packet of instructions.
The vaccine contains the messenger RNA template for protein particular to the virus into our muscle cells. The body then makes copies of that protein. Through this process the body learns to recognize the protein as foreign and generates an immune response to it.
This immune reaction is medicated by T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes, otherwise known as B cells and T cells which originate in the body’s bone marrow and lymph nodes. These cells are an essential part of the body’s immune system and are tasked with fighting infection by making antibodies or recognizing and destroying infected cells.
Those B cells and T cells become long term memory cells which are primed to react to the virus. If they it again inside the body, they work to destroy it.
Wars are not won in a day, however. Once the body receives the vaccine, it can take days or even weeks for the body to build up the defenses it needs to thoroughly fight the virus. This is why healthcare workers are urging vaccine recipients to keep socially distancing and to continue to wear marks.
Also, the vaccine only protects the person who has received it. COVID-19 is airborne and may still be spread by vaccinated individuals who don’t become infected.
“If you sneeze on me, I may be immune, but I can turn around and sneeze on someone else and spread it,” Scroggie said. “We want to continue maximizing our ability to not transmit it.”
For the United States to reach a level of herd immunity, meaning those without the vaccine are protected because of the wide number of individuals who have taken it, the U.S. must put the vaccine in the arms of at least 70 percent of Americans.
When Smallpox ravaged the planet in the early 20th century, it required vaccinating 99 percent to reach herd immunity. That disease killed 300 million people around the globe and was one of the most feared diseases for nearly 3,000 years before worldwide vaccinations finally eradicated it. Coronavirus has killed more than 2 million globally in the last year.
That 70 percent vaccinated goal is also the point where the masks can come off and people can hug again without fear.
How do we know it’s safe?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted Emergency Use Authorization for vaccines that met safety standards in large clinical trials. Scroggie said the initial approval studies for each vaccine in current use had over 30,000 patients enrolled. Each patient was closely followed for adverse events and safety concerns.
Since the vaccine roll out began there have been reports of people experiencing allergic reactions to the vaccine but that concern exists with all vaccines. Each year dozens of people also have adverse reactions when they are inoculated against chicken pox, measles, mumps and rubella and other diseases that are included in a cocktail of vaccines routinely given.
“While there have been some adverse reactions, these are in line with what we see for any vaccine and do not seem to be any more common than background occurrence for most events,” Scroggie said.
And that microchip?
There isn’t one.
Vaccines, Scroggie said, are very small particles that are dissolved in liquid, fats and preservatives, injected with very small needles. Too small, in fact, to include a microchip.
Scroggie also said it was doubtful that there was room in the mechanisms of the vaccine roll out for a dark figure to “sneak something in.”
“The manufacture, ingredients and distribution of these vaccines are very closely followed at multiple levels,” he said. “While data about who has gotten vaccines is tracked in public health database, there is no microchipping or digital ink involved.”
Should we worry about the variant?
The short answer is yes, we should be concerned about ongoing changes and evolution of the virus which could escape our containment methods. And yes, there is an answer: faster vaccination of everyone.
Scroggie explained that viruses in general are sloppy and make mistakes when they copy themselves as they spread through the population.
As a result, viruses often create copies of themselves which are errors and don’t do anything. But as the virus spreads, it is making more copies. More copies mean more opportunities for copies that do work. These are mutations.
A mutation, Scroggie said, is actually how the disease jumped from animals to humans. The original bat that is believed to have been the first host acquired a coronavirus mutation that allowed the disease to bind to human tissue. That human spread it to other humans and boom, pandemic.
Scroggie said scientists have found many variants as the disease zipped around the planet, but the most interesting variants are those discovered in South Africa, Great Britain and Brazil which cause the virus to spread faster.
The danger is that the virus could mutate again. And this time, the mutation may make the disease more severe or more likely to kill.
The only way to stop that from happening, is to vaccinate everyone as quickly as possible.
Scroggie said by limiting the number of potential hosts who can carry the disease, we limit the virus’ ability to change and eventually create a more deadly version of itself.
“If we are slow in getting the population vaccinated and continue to have high numbers of infection, more mutations can arise,” Scroggie said.
So far, these mutations have not resulted in a sufficient change in the way the vaccine works, so the current COVID-19 shots are still effective.