As an infectious disease physician, I spend my days understanding and treating illnesses that spread in our communities. With COVID-19, many of my colleagues and public health professionals have fought diligently as this highly contagious and serious illness ravaged our nation. I personally have cared for many patients with the disease, and sadly, despite outstanding care, some lost their lives. To motivate me and remind me why tireless efforts in fighting COVID-19 must continue, I keep the death notice of a long-time patient in my inbox.
This disease has especially affected some of our most vulnerable populations such as the elderly as well as African-American and Latino communities, which have also historically faced tremendous inequities in care.
The vaccines now being rolled out represent a critical step in the monumental effort undertaken by the scientific community. We welcome these breakthroughs with optimism as they can lead us toward a safe, healthier future. However, data already tells us that many people are hesitant to get vaccinated.
Some people are rejecting their chance to get vaccinated for several reasons. The most common is fear. Many are afraid that scientific practices were not followed in the rapid development process. They fear that politics drove the development rather than research that ensures safety and efficacy.
It is important to dispel these common misconceptions with straightforward scientific facts to help those who are hesitant to get vaccinated understand that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and scientifically sound.
Science was followed
In developing the COVID-19 vaccine, science was not skipped, slighted or ignored. It is clear upon review of both vaccines that they are safe and effective. Many scientific reviews by experts confirm this.
Therapeutics, including vaccines, often take decades to develop because the resources are a fraction of what was invested in the COVID-19 vaccines. The sense of urgency, commitment, and collaboration that was dedicated to vaccine development has been historic and unprecedented, with an unparalleled set of scientific resources.
Because of this incredible global effort, we have two vaccines approved by the FDA under emergency use authorization, with more expected in the coming months.
Safety is the priority
These vaccines were put through a rigorous process that the Food and Drug Administration uses to evaluate the safety of all medications, including vaccines. Each COVID-19 vaccine was put through the same safety reviews as all vaccines and included large, three-phase clinical trials of more than 30,000 people with a diverse makeup of participants.
The data were reviewed by a safety monitoring board before approval was granted. The FDA granted emergency use authorizations for both COVID-19 vaccines. EUAs quickly bring medications, including vaccines, safely to the broader population during a public health emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two COVID-19 vaccines, which were carefully evaluated for safety and effectiveness, were more than 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 in studies.
Some people have concerns about the speed with which the vaccines were developed, but there is an explanation for that. The COVID-19 vaccines were produced quickly because they use advanced technology platforms that were developed over the last two decades to speed up development of safe, new medicines and vaccines.
mRNA builds a defense
Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use an approach called messenger RNA (mRNA). Many people are worried that an mRNA vaccine can change your DNA, but that is not true. mRNA contains instructions for our cells to build a specific protein. This protein then triggers an immune response that produces antibodies, which prevents infection from the COVID-19 virus.
The mild side effects you may experience after vaccination demonstrate that your body’s immune system is working and developing its resistance to COVID-19. Because of the antibodies we produce through the mRNA vaccine, our immune systems can fight off the illness before it infects us.
Our ticket to normalcy
Vaccines represent the beginning of the end of the pandemic. But we must remember that it will take a combined approach of mass vaccination and following critical public health guidelines such as wearing a mask, washing our hands and physical distancing to cross the finish line and return to the normal we all miss.
Please take time to understand the facts and the science that went into developing these vaccines. If we each step up and take our shot when it is our turn, together, we can start the journey of getting back to our friends, family and all that we miss.
Dr. Mona Gahunia is an infectious diseases doctor with Kaiser Permanente in the mid-Atlantic region and the associate medical director for operational excellence the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group.