Currently, a few vaccines are under consideration by the FDA, which means they could be approved for use soon. While many may view this as good news, some might be a little hesitant. Vaccine hesitancy is one of the top 10 threats to global health, according to the World Health Organization, and could potentially affect how the pandemic plays out.
So let’s dig in to what we know about the safety of the three COVID-19 vaccines that are closest to approval in the U.S.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?
When a vaccine is approved by the FDA, that means it’s safer to get the vaccine than the actual infection. The approval process requires a thorough review of all testing data to weigh benefits and risks. It involves a whole team of experts, including physicians, pharmacologists, statisticians, and safety experts, just to name a few.
Some may question whether immunity from a vaccine or “natural” immunity is safer. Part of the problem is that experts don’t fully understand many aspects of COVID-19, such as:
- Why some people get severe illness and die while some don’t get very sick or have no symptoms
- Why some people have long-term effects throughout the body
- Who is at risk for reinfection (getting it more than once)
- How long natural immunity lasts
That’s why it’s safer to get immunity through a vaccine, with a known response, versus taking your chance with the actual virus.
Remember that all this talk about vaccine immunity versus natural immunity has a big caveat: These vaccines consist of two separate doses – it’s not clear how effective the vaccine would be if only one dose were given.
What are the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?
Because the clinical trials for the vaccines have only completed a few months of observation, we don’t know anything about possible long-terms effects. That said, most side effects from vaccinations are commonly seen early on.
Tens of thousands of people have been vaccinated so far, and, for the most part, the side effects that have been seen are not serious. They include symptoms such as muscle pain, fever, and headache, and they’re short-lived. These symptoms are an indication that your body is building immunity. You can read more here about COVID-19 vaccine side effects.
Administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine began in the U.K. this week, and there have been two reports of allergic reactions. Both occurred in healthcare workers who had a history of serious allergies.
You may also remember that cases of transverse myelitis (an inflammatory illness of the spinal cord) were reported in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine clinical study. These cases occurred in people who received the vaccine as well as the placebo group and were found to be unrelated to the study.
The current vaccine candidates were developed pretty quickly, so it’s understandable to have questions. Know that the responsible agencies are continuing to collect and monitor all the data. For example, the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS, established in 1990) collects reports of side effects or other problems that occur after people receive a vaccine. Anyone can report to VAERS at any time.
What’s in the COVID-19 vaccines?
Traditional vaccines work by introducing a weak or inactive germ to trigger an immune response in the body. After this happens, the immune system will remember what to do the next time it sees the germ.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine works by introducing a weak version of an adenovirus (common viruses that cause cold-like symptoms) that has genetic material for a coronavirus protein. After vaccination, the protein is made and triggers the desired immune response.
However, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines. Instead of using a weakened virus, they introduce messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). After vaccination, the mRNA tells the body to make a protein that resembles the coronavirus’s proteins. This then triggers the desired immune response.
The vaccines do not contain microchips or other tracking devices, contrary to conspiracy theories.
What are the risks of getting vaccinated?
Experts agree that the risks of getting COVID-19 are greater than the risks of getting vaccinated. “There’s more risk with natural infection,” as Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington, told the New York Times.
Vaccines, which go through rigorous, multiphase studies, are a safe way to get immunity. Getting COVID-19 is not a safe way to do it, because there is no way to know for sure how severe the illness will be, how long it will last, and whether complications or death will follow. In other words, it’s known versus the unknown.
Because none of these vaccines use live viruses, you can rest assured that they will not give you COVID-19. And they will not alter your DNA. mRNA gives instructions for making proteins; it does not interact with your DNA.
Will the vaccine be mandatory?
There is no indication that vaccination would be mandated at a federal level. However, states and employers have the authority to make this decision. Some people may be required to get vaccinated before they can return to work, school, or college. But a mandate is not likely anytime soon.
Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Yes. The COVID-19 vaccine will have clear benefits. According to the CDC, vaccination will:
- Protect you from getting sick: No vaccine will be approved unless there is clear scientific evidence that it will protect you from COVID-19.
- Be a safer way for you to build up your immune system: Though having COVID-19 may give you temporary “natural” immunity, it can also cause severe illness and death. A vaccine gives you the same (or better) immunity, but without the risk of getting sick.
- Help keep you from spreading COVID-19 in your community: Masks and social distancing can help stop the spread, but they’re not as effective as vaccines.
It’s also possible that being vaccinated could help protect you even if you do still get COVID-19. Though we don’t know for sure if this is the case, it’s a pattern that has been seen with other vaccinations. For example, people who have an influenza vaccine — but still get the flu — are less likely to be hospitalized.
There may be some groups of people who should not get a vaccine, but that is to be determined. Currently, the vaccine is intended for most adults. It has not been studied in children or pregnant women yet, so they are not currently eligible to receive a vaccine.
What if I’ve already had COVID-19? Do I still need a vaccine?
Because of the risks associated with COVID-19 — and because reinfection is possible — you may still need to get a vaccine. Though you do have some natural protection from coronavirus if you’ve had it before, experts don’t know how long this protection lasts. And unfortunately, there’s some evidence that natural immunity might not last very long after having COVID-19.
- Any vaccine the FDA approves has gone through a rigorous approval process that involves a whole team of experts, including physicians, pharmacologists, statisticians, and safety experts.
- The side effects seen in the vaccines so far are not serious and do not last long.
- Experts agree that the risks of getting COVID-19 are greater than the risks of getting vaccinated.