The coronavirus has impacted the entire world, and scientists have been working on a vaccine that will protect us from the virus. Thanks to their efforts, we now have the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and are anticipating a few more vaccines to be available in the United States this year.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about vaccines that causes people to avoid getting the vaccine.

Here are some facts about vaccines in general and those developed specifically for COVID-19.   

What is a vaccine and how does it work?

There are several different types of vaccines. No matter the type, all vaccines teach your immune system how to fight off certain kinds of germs — and prevent the serious diseases they cause.
Vaccines are very effective and are the best protection against many dangerous diseases, such as polio, mumps, pneumonia and measles. Each vaccine must go through extensive testing to show that it works and that it’s safe.

Some vaccines use the genetic building blocks (either RNA or DNA) for the spike protein and some use a modified version of the spike protein itself. Either way, your immune system ‘sees’ the spike protein and mounts an effective response to it. With the second or booster shot, your immune system will remember to make the necessary cells and antibodies to fight the SARS CoV2 infection before it can make you sick.

While hand washing or wearing a mask can slow the spread of germs, they will not fully protect you from getting COVID. A great source of information on vaccines is the United States Department of Health and Human Services website.

Are the coronavirus vaccines safe and effective?

So far, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines show about 95 percent protection from getting a symptomatic infection, which is amazing. The findings also show they are safe. Participants in the studies will be followed for one to two years, to see how long the protection lasts and to collect any additional safety information.

Since mid-December, these two vaccines have been administered to healthcare workers, nursing home staff and residents. One safety concern related to serious allergic reactions has emerged (anaphylaxis). For this reason, vaccinations should be given in a monitored setting. Serious allergic reactions occur at a low rate, a few cases per million doses given.

What are some of the side effects from the vaccines?

Side effects may be expected in the immediate time period after the injection. Common side effects reported in the studies included arm pain, fatigue, headache, muscle aches or joint aches, chills, and even a fever. Most were considered mild to moderate in severity and resolved in a day or two. You may want to consider this when you schedule your injections. You will be given specific information when you get a vaccine.

Can you get coronavirus from the vaccine?

Definitely not. The vaccines present only a portion of the virus, the coronavirus spike protein, to our immune system -- not the whole virus. This allows our immune system to develop immunity to the spike protein, and then we can fight off a coronavirus infection right away if we are exposed to it.

How were the vaccines developed so quickly?

Researchers worked directly with what is known as the genetic sequence -- the very basic building blocks of the virus. This information was made available early in the pandemic and multiple vaccine companies were ready to use their technology to make this newer type of vaccine, known as an “mRNA vaccine.” With this type of vaccine, only the genetic sequence of the virus is needed to be able to be produced quickly.

The different phases of the study (phase 1 and 2) progressed quickly because people were working overtime to create the studies and analyze the data. No steps were skipped; vaccine developers worked harder and faster to bring us a vaccine against the COVID virus.

Why are there different vaccines for coronavirus?

Different vaccine developers started to work on creating a vaccine as quickly and safely as possible. The different vaccines are also stored at different temperatures and the distribution processes for the vaccines have to be considered to be able to distribute the vaccines globally. We would be putting a lot of pressure on one company to make a vaccine for the whole world.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are RNA vaccines and are made easily in modern laboratories. Janssen and AstraZeneca vaccines are DNA vaccines, with the spike protein DNA inserted into a non-infectious cold virus. These vaccines can also be changed quickly to adjust for the new SARS CoV2 variants that have emerged. We can anticipate getting booster vaccines that will take into account the new viral variants.

Should you get a COVID vaccine?

Yes. There are good reasons to get the vaccine. The vaccine will protect you from serious illness, potential death, or long-term effects of COVID illness. We get a vaccine to protect not only ourselves but anyone we come in contact with, so we do this for all of us.  No serious side effects have occurred, and the potential side effects are being watched closely. People have raised a concern that these vaccines could interfere with their ability to have a child. Luckily, there is no evidence that this is true. Vaccines can help us stop the pandemic. We believe that the benefits will outweigh the risks.  

When will the vaccines be distributed?

The Rhode Island Department of Health has a plan for distribution that will be followed in the state. The vaccine has been administered first to health care workers, nursing homes, and to people living in areas of high transmission. Rhode Island’s plan is to vaccinate according to age and those with certain comorbidities which put them at higher risk of hospitalization. The main limitation to immediate widespread vaccination is the availability of sufficient amounts of vaccine. We hope to have more doses of vaccine with the arrival of new vaccines this year.

For more information visit the Rhode Island Department of Health website.

Karen Tashima, MD

Karen Tashima, MD, is the director of clinical trials at the Immunology Center, and is the clinical research site leader for The Miriam Hospital, a research site of the Harvard/Boston/Providence AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) Unit. She also oversees the Lifespan Clinical Research Center collaboration with the specimen processing laboratory at The Miriam Hospital.