T&T-born doctor Mateus Fernandes, who lives and works in the US, was among the historic first round of health-care workers to be immunised with Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine last Thursday.
During a virtual interview with Guardian Media Limited, the 28-year-old Internal Medicine Resident who is attached to the New York City hospital network urged people to set aside their fears and get vaccinated. He sought to clear the air on some concerns being raised about the vaccine.
Q: How does it work?
MF: The vaccine is basically a string of proteins that your body recognises (called mRNA). This string is like a recipe with ingredients. When the cells in your immune systems see the vaccine proteins, it “reads” them and cooks up a piece of the outside of the coronavirus, the spike protein. These spike proteins cover the outside of the virus (the spikes together look like a crown, hence the name corona which means crown). Your body then makes antibodies which remove the spike proteins. It stores these antibodies in case you get exposed to the actual virus. So if you were to be exposed to the coronavirus, you already have antibodies that can recognise and destroy the outside of the virus, and help prevent you from getting an infection.
Can getting the vaccine cause coronavirus?
No, it is not possible to contract the coronavirus from the vaccine itself. The vaccine only gives your body the recipe (mRNA) to make the outer coating (spike proteins) of the coronavirus. It does not have any of the harmful complements of the virus, or the virus itself.
Can I still contract COVID-19 after getting the vaccine?
The coronavirus vaccine is 95 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic coronavirus infection. But it was not tested for preventing asymptomatic infection. This means that we need to continue social distancing, wearing face masks, and following guidelines to ensure we don’t cause asymptomatic spread.
What about the side effects?
The adverse effects reported in trials were similar to those seen with other vaccines, most commonly pain, swelling or redness at the site of injection. This makes sense, because we use a tiny needle (the size used in newborn babies) to give the vaccine, and then your immune system gets to work. Other side effects that a minority of patients experience include fever, tiredness, headache, muscle pains, and sore throat.
If you have an allergy to any components of the vaccine or allergic reactions to any vaccine in the past, then you can have severe allergic reactions to the vaccine. This information is checked by healthcare providers before any vaccine is given to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
I saw on the news that people got Bell’s Palsy or facial weakness after getting the vaccine. Can that happen to me?
Bell’s palsy is a transient weakness of a part of the nerve that supplies the muscles in the face. Studies show that it occurs in about 15-30 per 100,000 people per year, and is thought to be due to herpes virus. In the coronavirus trial, four people out of over 22,000 who received the vaccine experienced facial weakness, which is actually less than the baseline prevalence. It is very unlikely that there is any causal relationship between the vaccine and Bell’s palsy, so it is not considered to be an adverse effect of the vaccine. Nevertheless, the FDA is currently monitoring for Bell’s Palsy in vaccine recipients in case it happens more than expected.
This vaccine was developed so fast, how do we know that it is safe?
The COVID-19 virus may be new, but coronavirus is a family of viruses with many different strains. Microbiologists have spent decades studying it in the past. The process of making the vaccine was accelerated due to a remarkable global team effort, with doctors and researchers coming together in many countries to work relentlessly on the trials. In fact, it only took researchers ten days after the first reported COVID pneumonia in China to analyse the virus genome. The US Government with Operation Warp Speed, and other organisations in Europe, as well as the private sector, invested billions to fund and develop the vaccine even before they knew it will work because they trusted the process, but more importantly because this pandemic was a global emergency. While a less critical vaccine takes years to develop, the funding, hard work of researchers, and cutting-edge technology allowed us to complete all the proper checks and balances to ensure that a safe vaccine can be made. On that note, it’s also important to know that the vaccine is still ongoing trials, but the results were so effective that it was simply unethical to wait any longer. Therefore it was authorised by the FDA for emergency use, still awaiting final approvals for regular use upon completion of the trials.
Do doctors, or does the Government profit from giving us the vaccine?
The Government has spent about $7 billion USD to get 250,000 doses of the vaccine when it becomes available to us, as well as additional funding for making new facilities for storing the vaccine. We trust the science and are willing to invest in this important preventative measure to help keep our vulnerable population safe.
When will we get the vaccine?
The Government of T&T stated previously that they are working with the Pan American Health Organization (our regional population health body) to get enough vaccines to cover about 20 per cent of the population. Front line healthcare workers and others at highest risk will get the vaccine first. Currently, there is no confirmed time, but hopefully, it will arrive soon.