By Alexandra Becker
Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to two vaccines for COVID-19—the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine and the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine. Both use a well-established mRNA technology to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 disease, and both require two doses administered weeks apart to deliver maximum protection. Based on data collected from large clinical trials (each of which included tens of thousands of people) the FDA deemed both vaccines safe and effective for adults—but questions still remain when it comes to children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Below, Dr. Victoria Regan, Vice President of Women’s and Children’s Services at Memorial Hermann Health System and a pediatrician by trade, answers the top five most common questions posed by families about the COVID-19 vaccines.
What is mRNA vaccine technology and is it safe?
Messenger RNA vaccines, or mRNA vaccines, teach our cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response. That immune response in turn produces antibodies, which fight viruses. The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines instruct our cells to make something called a “spike protein,” which is found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 disease. After a person receives the COVID-19 vaccine and this harmless spike protein is created, our immune system begins to produce antibodies to fight the spike protein. This trains our bodies how to fight the spike protein—so, if and when we are infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the future, our bodies will already know how to attack it before we become sick with COVID-19 disease. It is important to understand that because the vaccines use messenger RNA instead of a weakened or inactivated version of the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus, you will not get COVID-19 from the vaccine. Additionally, mRNA never enters the nucleus of our cells, which is where our DNA lives, so it cannot alter or impact our genes. Scientists have been studying mRNA vaccines for decades, and this technology has proven to be both safe and effective.
Are the COVID-19 vaccines approved for children?
Not yet. Because the goal was to develop a safe and effective vaccine as quickly as possible, researchers kept their focus narrow. Right now, the Pfizer vaccine is approved for people ages 16 and above, and the Moderna vaccine is approved for people 18 years and older. As more clinical studies are underway, we anticipate a vaccine will be approved for children sometime in the coming year.
Are the vaccines safe for pregnant women or mothers who are breastfeeding?
Again, because researchers kept their focus fairly narrow in order to develop a safe vaccine as quickly as possible, women who were pregnant or breastfeeding were not widely studied in the clinical trials. Currently, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) says that the vaccine should not be withheld from women who are breastfeeding, pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant. The vaccines do not affect fertility. I encourage women to speak with their OB-GYNs to determine if the COVID-19 vaccine is a good option for them based on their health history and risk factors.
How long will it take for the COVID-19 vaccine to work?
Both vaccines require two doses for full protection. The Pfizer vaccine requires a second dose three weeks after the first and was shown to be 95 percent effective after that. The Moderna vaccine requires a second dose one month after the first dose, and was determined to be 94 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 disease. It’s important to remember that until you are fully protected, which takes a few weeks after you receive the second dose, you are still at risk for contracting COVID-19 and you are still able to carry and transmit the disease to other people.
When will the pandemic be over?
Scientists predict that if 80 percent of the population has immunity from COVID-19, we will achieve “herd immunity.” Herd immunity is needed to decrease the prevalence of COVID 19 in the community, and ultimately will help get us out of the pandemic. This is why it is so important that as many people as possible become vaccinated. Public health officials and healthcare organizations are working tirelessly to distribute the vaccines as quickly as possible, and as more doses are manufactured, more and more people will have the opportunity to get their shots. This will take months, however, so everyone—including those who get vaccinated—must continue to wear their masks, wash their hands, and practice social distancing.