So far, around half a million people in the United States have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Americans have watched the Vice President, a number of congress members, medical professionals, and a few other high-ranking officials get it. So, who’s next? How do public health officials decide between competing high-risk populations?
On Sunday, a panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention met virtually to decide that very question.
With enough supply to inoculate around 100 million people by February, the panel decided that Americans 75 years old and older would receive the vaccine next. (And in yet another good example of a public-private partnership accelerating the process, CVS and Walgreens drugstores announced it would provide the vaccine to residents of nursing homes and eldercare facilities across the nation.)
Next will be additional “frontline essential workers” such as emergency responders, teachers, and grocery store employees. The third wave will consist of more essential workers, such as restaurant employees and construction workers. As of now, the panel couldn’t give the public a timeline, as each phase’s start date depends on the previous phase’s end date.
For the rest of us who don’t fit into those categories, the wait will be a bit longer, but the good news is that more vaccines are making their way to the marketplace, which will greatly accelerate the process.
Despite this good news, there’s still a lot of misinformation about the vaccine and resistance to taking it. Here are a few of the leading myths and why they should be ignored:
MYTH: The vaccine was rushed!
The vaccines that have been developed so far were indeed produced in record time, but that’s not because safety tests were skipped. Under normal circumstances, vaccine development regulatory guidelines set forth by the FDA require safety testing to be done sequentially—one after the other. This means one test must be completed before the other begins. President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, which was the federal program created to help accelerate vaccine development, altered this schedule, allowing for tests to be done concurrently. That means the safety tests were completed much faster but no safety tests were skipped in the process.
MYTH: There were no trials.
The Food and Drug Administration has a rigorous regulatory framework for vaccine approval. For a vaccine to be used in the United States, companies developing a vaccine are required to conduct three phases of clinical trials to ensure its safety. The FDA ultimately evaluates the results of the trials to assess the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. In addition, FDA scientists and medical professionals evaluate multiple government and independent studies on the vaccine and review how it’s manufactured to ensure the vaccine is safe, pure, and potent. With the COVID-19 vaccine: Pfizer has conducted clinical trials of its vaccine with 44,000 participants.
- Johnson & Johnson’s clinical trials had 60,000 volunteers.
- Moderna’s Phase 3 clinical trial began on October 22, 2020 with 25,000 volunteers.
- AstraZeneca’s Phase 3 clinical trial had 11,000 participants.
- Novavax’s Phase 3 clinical trials began on October 27 with 15,000 participants.
In other words, there have been numerous trials, confirming that the vaccines are safe and that they work.
MYTH: A nurse passes out after getting the vaccine
Yes, a nurse at Catholic Health Initiatives Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, did faint on national television after getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but that wasn’t related to the vaccine. It turns out the nurse has a condition called a “vagal response,” which is a condition that causes people to pass out when they experience pain. The nurse later explained that fainting is quite common for her, saying, “…if I have pain from anything—a hangnail or if I stub my toe—I can just pass out.” She later told another news outlet that she has passed out six times in the past six weeks. The question everyone should be asking isn’t if the vaccine she received is safe; it’s who chose a nurse with a vagal response to go on national television after getting a pain-inducing injection?
MYTH: The Pfizer vaccine contains the disease!
The Pfizer vaccine, which has been approved by the FDA, and the Moderna vaccine, which is soon to be approved by the FDA, do not contain dead or weakened strains of the coronavirus. Instead, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, a type of vaccine that helps the body develop a protein coating on cells, which then triggers the body to develop immunity against the disease. Read about how coronavirus attaches to human cells here. According to the CDC, “the benefit of mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is those vaccinated gain this protection without ever having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19.”
MYTH: The vaccine changes your DNA.
No vaccine can genetically modify human DNA. The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are a type of vaccine—called mRNA—that instructs your body to make a protein on your cells that triggers an immune response. It does not change a person’s DNA or change anything about our bodies. As Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Alliance for Science group, explained to Reuters, “Genetic modification would involve the deliberate insertion of foreign DNA into the nucleus of a human cell, and vaccines simply don’t do that. Vaccines work by training the immune system to recognize a pathogen when it attempts to infect the body—this is mostly done by the injection of viral antigens or weakened live viruses that stimulate an immune response through the production of antibodies.”
While an mRNA vaccine does use a small part of the virus’s genetic code (RNA) to stimulate an immune response, RNA is not DNA. Further, RNA that’s injected into a human’s arm muscle can’t somehow combine with an individual’s own genetic code to alter it. Just like when humans ingest foreign DNA when they eat food (food is made of organic compounds—plants and animals—that also contain DNA), ingesting (through injection) an mRNA won’t alter that human’s DNA.
MYTH: African Americans can’t trust the government to be honest. Just look at what happened with the Tuskegee syphilis study and enslaved people throughout American history.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which involved 600 impoverished black men who were denied penicillin for decades in order to examine the pathological manifestations of untreated syphilis, as well as surgical experiments on slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries remain one of the darkest, most horrifying parts of American history. No one should forget the suffering of black Americans at the hands of government doctors and a medical establishment that, at the time, acted unethically and cruelly. Yet, these dark parts of our history shouldn’t stop black Americans from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Black Americans will benefit enormously from the vaccine mainly because they have been disproportionately affected by the disease.
Today, a massive regulatory government structure exists to ensure not just the safety of vaccines, but that they are distributed equitably and fairly. In addition, thanks to the media attention that eventually exposed what happened in the Tuskegee syphilis study, far more scrutiny is focused on the medical research industry, and many more regulations—including additional reporting requirements to regulatory agencies—have been put in place.
MYTH: I’m Catholic and pro-life and the vaccine contains aborted fetal cells.
Some of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed do contain the cells of aborted fetuses (read a history of the use and origin of those fetal cells here).
On Monday, December 21, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the Vatican office charged with promoting and defending church morals and traditions, released a statement saying it is “morally acceptable” to receive a vaccination for COVID-19. Citing the “grave danger” of the pandemic, the statement went on to say that even if the research and manufacturing of the vaccine involved using cell lines derived from an aborted fetus, the vaccine could be used in good conscience and that those who get the vaccine are not in any way cooperating with the abortion from which the cells were derived. This statement echoes the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy For Life’s declaration in 2005 (and reaffirmed in 2017) that in the absence of alternatives, Catholics can, in good conscience, receive vaccines made using historical human fetal cell lines.
MYTH: Why should I trust government scientists that work for government agencies?
It is important for Americans to understand that those who develop vaccines aren’t politically motivated. They, as individuals, may have their own political beliefs, but as career scientists and physicians, they know their role is to be experts in infectious diseases and immunology and to assess the vaccines that are being considered for approval. These officials work to ensure vaccine safety no matter who holds political office.
It is tremendously good news that Americans have worked together to create and bring to the people these important, life-saving vaccines. We should celebrate this progress and what it means for everyone around the world.