MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – This year, we’ve struggled together through the many challenges that COVID-19 has brought. Throughout this time, and mostly behind-the-scenes, scientists and vaccine manufacturers have been working around the clock to produce safe, effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 Pandemic.
On December 11, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine that uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, technology to produce protection against COVID.
Cells make mRNA, which are essentially blueprints for building, maintaining and repairing things in the body. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines use this same method to give instructions for cells to make a harmless piece of what is called the “spike protein” that is unique to the virus that causes COVID-19. The vaccine has strands of mRNA inside a special coating to facilitate uptake into cells.
Unlike many traditional vaccines, the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines do not contain a “live virus,” just the plans to make fragments of its proteins. It doesn’t, therefore, function like the complete viral protein nor harm the person vaccinated, but instead, triggers the immune system to create antibodies against the virus. These antibodies will then recognize the proteins on the virus, enabling the immune system to detect and destroy SARS-CoV-2 before it can cause severe illness. There’s no risk of actually getting sick with COVID-19 as a result of getting vaccinated.
Many people have voiced concerns about what seems to be a rapid development of a vaccine when it typically takes many years to accomplish this. Since Operation Warp Speed, a public–private partnership initiated by the U.S. government and private corporate efforts to battle the pandemic and create a vaccine were just announced in May of 2020, many are wondering how it could produce a safe and effective COVID vaccine in only a few months.
“In reality, the groundwork for COVID-19 vaccines was laid over decades to combat earlier outbreaks of similar coronaviruses,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Luke Mease, the chief of Preventive Medicine at Madigan. “Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are two diseases caused by coronaviruses that are genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19,” Mease added.
Researchers began working on developing potential vaccines for these coronavirus-related diseases after they were discovered in 2003 and 2012, respectively. Early stage clinical trials using mRNA vaccines have also been carried out for influenza, Zika, rabies and other diseases prior to the current pandemic. As a result, those many years of research could be refocused and immediately applied towards developing and producing a COVID-19 vaccine in a seemingly unparalleled short time.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine trials were rigorously established with standards for safety and the results of those studies are being closely evaluated by the FDA. Using pre-established pathways, the FDA has been evaluating data from the vaccine trials. What they have found so far, is very promising,” said Col. (Dr.) George Leonard, Madigan’s chief medical officer.
The vaccine has protected more than 90 percent of recipients from developing COVID-19. The FDA will continue to monitor safety and effectiveness of the vaccine closely moving forward. The potential impact of COVID-19 vaccines, along with the non-pharmaceutical measures - social distancing, hand hygiene, and proper use of face masks - provide a real pathway to prevent COVID deaths and disease. This could allow an eventual return to a more social pre-pandemic way of life and maintain military readiness.
“It is important to realize that even with vaccination, it will take some time for there to be sufficient numbers of vaccinated people to safely discontinue the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions,” said Leonard.
Initial experiences with the vaccine from trials has shown that 10 to 15 percent of people show mild symptoms such as soreness and redness at the injection site, fatigue, body aches, generally feeling ill and fever -- which are comparable to reactions from a flu shot. Reports of serious side effects have been exceptionally rare. According to the CDC, most people do not have serious problems after being vaccinated.
Two shots are generally needed to provide the best protection against COVID-19. These shots are given 21 days apart. The first shot primes the immune system, helping it recognize the virus, and the second shot strengthens the immune response.
Vaccines from different manufacturers that may become available later will not be interchangeable. The vaccine recipient must receive the same vaccine for both doses. Talk with your provider to ensure you get the right dose at the right time.
Specific groups are being prioritized to get a COVID-19 vaccine first. These will all be administered on a voluntary basis, including vaccinations for Service Members. While getting the vaccine is voluntary, all Department of Defense personnel are encouraged to get it to protect their health, their families and their community. Since there will be a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine, administration will be prioritized as follows to ensure readiness:
· Health care workers and JBLM emergency services personnel
· Personnel performing activities associated with critical national capabilities
· Select deploying individuals
· Other critical and essential support
· Individuals at the highest risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19
Vaccines will be offered to Madigan patients, including military family members and retirees, as more vaccines are available and after prioritized groups and individuals listed above have been vaccinated.
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