Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Vermont

Health care workers receive the first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the University of Vermont Medical Center on Dec. 15.

MONTPELIER — With the recent rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, some speculation regarding their effects and production has started to spread.

The vaccines currently being distributed in the U.S. use a tiny piece of genetic material, messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), which is different from what’s in vaccines used now and in the past for other diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that, while it’s new, researchers have been studying and working with mRNA vaccines for decades, using it to study flu, Zika, rabies, and cytomegalovirus (CMV)

During Gov. Phil Scott’s Dec. 24 bi-weekly press conference, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said 6,382 Vermonters have received doses of the vaccine so far. Those are part of the estimated 34,000 doses the state expects to have received from Moderna and Pfizer by the end of the month.

Levine said the Scott administration has launched the Vermont vaccine dashboard on the health department website, showing the number of people who’ve been vaccinated and total number of doses administered. It will include demographic and geographic data as more information becomes available, and it will be updated every Wednesday by noon.

On Dec. 22, Levine took a couple minutes of his remarks to the public to talk about the mRNA vaccine and address what he labeled as “miscommunications” surrounding it.

1. Is there a live virus in the vaccine?

While many vaccines put a weakened or inactive germ into our bodies to introduce our immune systems to the virus, mRNA vaccines do not. Rather, the CDC says mRNA teaches our cells how to make a protein or part of a protein which causes our immune system to respond by producing antibodies. Once those antibodies are formed, they protect us against the real virus and its harm if it’s to enter our bodies.

“You cannot get COVID from it,” said Levine.

2. Does the vaccine enter the nucleus of our cells where our DNA lives?

The CDC says the mRNA vaccine does not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. While teaching our cells, it provides instructions to them on how to make the protein or part of it, called a “spike protein,” which is harmless. The spike protein is what’s found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

Levine said, “In fact, our cell breaks down the mRNA soon after it does its job making the spike protein.”

The cell displays the spike protein on its surface, our immune system recognizes that it shouldn’t be there, and antibodies are created to produce an immune response — mimicking what happens through a natural infection of COVID-19.

3. Will I test positive for COVID-19 shortly after getting vaccinated?

“You will not test positive on the kind of test we do for active disease — the nasal swabs,” stated Levine.

According to the CDC, the viral test being used only indicates if you have an active infection of COVID-19. However, you may test positive on antibody tests, which indicate if you had a previous infection and may have some level of protection against the virus.

4. Was the vaccine rushed in being produced, approved, and made available?

The CDC says the companies making the vaccines were working in line with recommendations the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research published in June. Among them are key nonclinical data considerations, the need for clinical trials, and post-licensure safety evaluations.

The CDC says, “The only COVID-19 vaccines the Food and Drug Administration will make available for use in the United States — by approval or emergency use authorization — are those that meet these standards.”

“They’re actually being held to the same rigorous safety and effectiveness standards as all other types of vaccines are,” said Levine.

5. I’ve already been infected with COVID-19. Do I still need to get vaccinated?

“We don’t know how long natural immunity will protect them,” Levine said of people who have already been infected. “Even people who may have had or may think they’ve had COVID-19 should still get the vaccine.”

According to the CDC, there hasn’t been enough time and research conducted to know if, or for how long after infection, someone is protected from getting COVID-19 again. Early evidence actually suggests that immunity may not last very long, but more studies will need to be completed in order to better understand the scale of this. The CDC website says, “Cases of reinfection of COVID-19 have been reported but are rare.”

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