The groundbreaking cooperation between medical experts across the globe has made a return to normal possible thanks to the COVID-19 vaccines. Many people are skeptical or concerned about side effects, and we hear you. Good, evidence-based information about the vaccine has been hard to come by, so we've put together the following FAQs to cut through the uncertainty.
Returning to this page? New topics from the last update on December 1, 2021 are marked with a plus sign.
Short Answer: This is a newer vaccine technology that uses the genetic material for a virus's most crucial protein. A considerable advantage of this technology includes producing the vaccine directly and rapidly in the lab, rather than first cultivating large amounts of the actual virus as starting material. It is harder to distribute the vaccine because the genetic material has to be frozen, but the advantage is that there is no need to add any antibiotics or preservatives. Thus, mRNA vaccines are safer for people who are allergic to these things in other medications or vaccines. The mRNA breaks down in several hours, after which there are no traces of the vaccine other than the antibodies we are now able to produce because of the vaccine.
Short Answer: Absolutely not. That is not what mRNA does, and the claims we hear about mRNA vaccines changing our DNA are nothing more than an uninformed scare tactic.
Recent studies have examined people in whom the PCR test remains positive long after the infection, and it has been shown that this is due to small pieces of viral genetic material getting incorporated into the patient's DNA. The evidence indicates this is due to current infection with other viruses that do have the machinery to do this, and with the widespread replication of virus RNA throughout the body during an infection, some of that RNA gets accidentally reverse translated into the human genome. Of course, reverse transcription can only occur with RNA, which is what comprises the genome of the intact virus to which one is exposed during an infection. Messenger RNA, the genetic material in the vaccines, cannot undergo what would have to be a two-step process, reverse transcribing it first into RNA and then again into the patient's DNA. There is no cellular mechanism for translating mRNA back into RNA. So the risk of viral RNA showing up in a person's DNA is only after an actual infection, not a vaccination, adding to the reasons for getting vaccinated. The reports of bits of COVID DNA showing up in our DNA only happens in people who have been infected with the actual virus; this doesn't happen from the vaccine.
Short Answer: In a vaccine study, half the people are given the vaccine, and half are not. If the people given the vaccine get sick less than half as much as those who got the vaccine, we consider that the vaccine worked.
Short Answer: The vaccine helps us make our own antibodies against what's called the 'spike' protein of the virus, which makes it much harder for us to get infected.
Short Answer: It is true that there are no other mRNA vaccines previously manufactured, but the technology is not new. mRNA technology has been used for fifty years, and efforts to use mRNA specifically for vaccines have been ongoing for the past twenty years.
Short Answer: The time it takes to develop a vaccine depends on the population who needs it and how common the disease is. These vaccines are intended for all adults (initially) for a disease striking 60,000 to 100,000 people per day (in summer and fall 2020). That makes it easy to generate a lot of important information very quickly without cutting corners.
Short Answer: The EUA allows use of unapproved treatments in situations in which the benefits of using the treatment are reasonably known to be worth the risk, so the vaccines reached EUA as rapidly as possible. But knowing that the public needed to have confidence in the safety of the vaccines, the FDA knew it needed to perform the full data analysis for approval - no shortcuts. It did place the vaccines under Priority Review and marshalled additional resources, but did the full safety and efficacy review. There is no compromise on this, which is why the Moderna and Janssen vaccines still aren't approved at the time of this writing.
Short Answer: No. The vaccine is not made from live virus particles, so there is no possible way to get infected by the vaccine. Many people have some symptoms of a robust immune response to the vaccine, but this is expected, is typically mild, and lasts only one or two days.
Short Answer: Adverse reactions to the vaccine are rare, because of the way the vaccine is prepared. The only people advised to be cautious about getting the vaccine are those who have had severe reactions to injectable medications in the past. If you have had a severe reaction to an injectable medication that required treatment, talk to your doctor or allergist/immunologist about whether to get the vaccine. As we got more experience with these vaccines, we've found that almost everyone who has a reaction to the first dose is able to tolerate the second dose, sometimes with premedications. It is safe for virtually everybody to get vaccinated.
Short Answer: This refers to VAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. All of these reports have been or are being investigated, and to date none of these deaths have been shown to have actually been caused by a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine. There have, however, been 4 reports of death due to cerebral venous sinus thrombosis after the Janssen vaccine.
Short Answer: As with most viral infections, the symptoms people experience are due in large part to our immune response to it. In some people, antibodies we make against the virus spill over and attack the heart. In fact, myocarditis occurs about 16 times more often in people infected with COVID-19 than in people without COVID. Fortunately, myocarditis from the vaccines goes away quickly, yet people still get the protective immunity from the vaccine. So it's still a good idea to get vaccinated.
Short Answer: No. The mRNA in the vaccine helps us make antibodies against the spike protein, just like we do with COVID-19 infection. But with infection, the virus forces us to make ALL of its proteins and make more copies of the virus itself. That's what triggers the severe illness many people get with COVID-19, and the risk of long-term complications. None of that happens from the vaccine.
Short Answer: There is no such thing as "boosting" the immune system. And although these supplements might be helping the immune system to work at peak performance, they do nothing about preventing infection in the first place, as the antibodies produced by the vaccine do.
But if a well-functioning immune system were enough, we wouldn't see appreciable case fatality rates. That's because once an infection starts, our immune system is often not powerful enough to stop it. So we have to prevent the infection in the first place. That starts with distancing and masking to reduce the chances of getting exposed to the virus and getting vaccinated to generate enough antibodies so that when we do get exposed, these antibodies latch on to the virus and prevent it from infecting us, which is something that only antibodies can do - vitamins and immune supplements cannot do this.
Short Answer: Not really. Now more than a year into the pandemic, we're starting to see studies done in people with prior infection, and the protection from that natural immunity is not as consistently strong as the protection we get from the vaccines.
Short Answer: If you have the opportunity to get vaccinated, or have significant potential risk such as exposure to the public with your job, go ahead and get the vaccine. But if you have low exposure and it is reasonable for you to wait, then it'll be best to wait until you're over the infection.
Short Answer: This question really boils down to the mother's risk of infection. If she is able to avoid public exposure and have minimal risk of getting COVID-19 for the entire pregnancy, it could be reasonable to wait. But if mom is not able to minimize her risk of getting infected, it would be best to get vaccinated. Both the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal and Fetal Medicine (SMFM) recommend that pregnant women be vaccinated.
There is limited information about the effect of COVID-19 infection on a fetus and newborn, and of course, this disease has not been around long enough for us to have any idea about possible long-term complications for the baby if mom gets COVID-19 while she is pregnant and the baby then gets infected from mom. Because of the long-term complications we are seeing in adults, it is likely best to do what we can to avoid the baby getting infected. We have long known that antibodies from the mom do cross the placenta; that is a major source of immunity in newborns that helps prevent infections in the first few months of life. Limited studies in pregnant women done thus far have shown that the antibodies stimulated by the COVID vaccines also cross the placenta and can be found in the baby, helping prevent the baby from getting infected if exposed after delivery.
Short Answer: Both the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal and Fetal Medicine (SMFM) find there is no suggestion of any effect of the vaccine on fertility.
Short Answer: Yes. With over 262 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine (the only vaccine authorized for 5-11 years olds) given thus far, we now have overwhelming evidence that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. The 'Under 10 years old' is the only age group in Wisconsin that is now contracting COVID at a rate even higher than the peak we saw in Nov/Dec 2020. The pathway out of this pandemic lies in the trifecta of vaccination, masking, and distancing, and the Omicron variant is simply the most recent reminder that we have to slow the spread of the virus so we don't give it more opportunity to mutate. Everybody eligible needs to be vaccinated to make this happen.
Short Answer: We use the term variants to describe new strains of the virus with altered spike proteins, which might make our vaccines less effective.
Short Answer: Variants are new strains of a virus that come about when mistakes are made while copying the genetic information. The importance of the variants to the COVID-19 pandemic is that the ability to infect human cells may change if the spike protein is altered.
Short Answer: It is more contagious than the original strain, and symptoms are more likely to be headache and fever than the loss of smell and taste with the original strain. Importantly, it is twice as likely to cause hospitalization in unvaccinated people, and in just three months after it emerged in India it became the predominant strain in the UK and caused well over 50% of all new infections in the US, half way around the planet! It is a serious error in judgment to lose respect for how dangerous this virus is and how rapidly it can spread.
Short Answer: Protective antibodies recognize the surface contours of proteins. Mutations change the shape of proteins, so the antibodies can no longer latch on - like the old adage, "you can't put a square peg in a round hole." The concern is that we're continuing to let the virus multiply so quickly, it will keep on making mutations and change the shape of the spike protein so much that our antibodies will no longer neutralize the virus to prevent infection.
Short Answer: Viruses mutate by moving through people. The more we do to limit the spread - including vaccination, masking, and distancing - the more we decrease the ability of the virus to mutate, keeping our vaccines more effective.
Short Answer: Yes. Surveillance studies have shown that antibody levels decline over time - both from vaccination and from natural immunity following infection. Also, we have shown that antibody levels go up after a booster dose. So yes, you are improving your protective immunity by getting a booster dose.
Short Answer: Likely, but we don't know enough information yet to know how often we might need boosters, and whether we will need to change the vaccines from time to time.
Short Answer: Because of the way it attacks our respiratory tract, COVID is able to provoke an autoimmune process in which it causes us to make antibodies that attack our own tissues. The long-term consequences of this are still unknown.
Short Answer: This approach doesn't do anything to prevent infection, which is the main goal of the pandemic response. The only way to limit the long-term consequences of this disease is to do what we can to not get infected in the first place.
Short Answer: Yes. Between March 1, 2020 and January 2, 2021, there were 2.8 million deaths in the US, about 23% more than expected. Most of these were due to COVID-19.
Short Answer: No, the pandemic is far from over, with less than 45% of the world's population vaccinated as of this writing (November 2021). Vaccination protects against infection, protects against severe disease, and protects our children - both those ages 5 to 11 who are unvaccinated, as well as those under age 5 who are not yet eligible.
Short Answer: No vaccine can be 100% effective, and because the vaccine does make illness less severe, it is possible for vaccinated people to get asymptomatic infection and be able to spread the disease to others. Limited data we have suggests this risk is very low, but not zero.
Short Answer: Omicron is the latest variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to earn the Variant of Concern status from the World Health Organization. That means it has evidence to suggest it is more transmissible, causes more severe disease, or gets past our defenses such as vaccines and other public health measures intended to contain the spread. How bad this variant will turn out to be is as yet unknown as of this writing (November 30), but we should have much more information in a few weeks.