Lights in the dark

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - January 12, 2021 - 12:00am

Almost half a year ago, I wrote about our immunity obligation in this column. At the time, a vaccine that would protect us against COVID remained an intangible hope for the future. Now, that hope is a reality, with the World Health Organization (WHO)’s COVID-19 vaccine website mentioning that more than 50 COVID-19 vaccine candidates are in trials. The WHO keeps an updated data file on the progress of known COVID Vaccine candidates on its website. Recently, the WHO validated the Comirnaty COVID-19 mRNA vaccine (from Pfizer/BioNTech) for emergency use, while at least four others (as of early December) have publicly reported large scale efficacy and safety results. Several nations have already begun to roll out their mass vaccination programs to begin the process of mass immunization.

However, the existence of vaccines alone will not erase COVID-19. There must also be adequate supplies of the vaccine for every country, not just the richest, and potential bottleneck from proprietary patents should be addressed. Systems should be in place for vaccines to reach the most vulnerable first, and then the rest of the population – not just once, but multiple times, until it is clear how long the immunity or resistance to the virus lasts per dosage. A vaccination program that does not result in the majority of the population receiving shots will be ineffective at achieving herd immunity, with which even those who are not immune to the disease are protected: people who are unable to get vaccinated, those with weak immune systems and those whose immunity has waned with time.

Even before ensuring that people receive the vaccine, there’s urgent work to be done to ensure that they receive the right information about the vaccine, and about vaccination in general. Vaccination has made itself a target for massive and coordinated campaigns of disinformation. Conspiracy theories and misinformation abound about vaccination, and the manner that the issue has been presented to the public – providing equivalence between rigorous science and fringe assumptions – has led to a decline in public confidence. In 2018, vaccine confidence in the Philippines dropped to 32 percent from a high of 93 percent just three years prior. A Pulse Asia survey from November last year paints a bleak picture: “almost half of Filipino adults (47 percent) are not inclined to get the COVID-19 vaccine while the rest (21 percent) are ambivalent.”

If only half of our population is willing to be vaccinated, the pandemic will not end. Making vaccination legally mandatory would not solve the problem completely either, as people will always find a way to avoid doing something they believe to be contrary to their interests.

So what can we do? We need to be careful about both the information that we believe ourselves, and the information we pass on. A lot of people will read a harrowing message sent by a well-meaning friend or acquaintance, and then pass it on even if they don’t believe it “just to be safe.” But passing on potential misinformation is the opposite of safe, and even if it is eventually revealed to be false, the virality of wrongful information can undermine a person’s belief in all sources of information, even legitimate ones.

Based on reputable news sources, here is where we stand on several important questions, with the caveats that (1) new data arrive every day and it is our personal responsibility to keep ourselves informed and updated; (2) different vaccines, even for the same disease, may have different properties and the answers below are focused on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines:

Does taking a dose of a COVID vaccine grant me immunity to COVID? Do I only need to be injected once to benefit from the vaccine?

No vaccine can grant you 100 percent immunity, and the first dose is likely to grant a lower fraction of that. This protection will only come after a certain amount of time has passed, not the moment that you are injected. (ABC7.com 12/30/20 re: Pfizer and Moderna) So while a vaccine will definitely give you protection, you’ll still need to wear masks and follow health protocols for some time.

Do vaccines (in general) weaken our immune system?

Studies indicate that modern vaccines do not do so. (“Vaccine Safety” 2008 paper by Offit, Davis and Gust; cited by Bloomberg.com 12/31/20) The very purpose of vaccines is to give our immune system the information it needs to combat specific viruses/pathogens.

Is it possible for there to be allergic reactions from a COVID vaccine shot?

It is possible, but this should be viewed in context. US CDC guidelines (12/31/20) recommend not getting a shot if you are allergic to any of the ingredients in the vaccine (which you should check and consult your doctor about beforehand, especially if you’ve had an allergic reaction to other vaccines). However, allergies not related to vaccines/ingredients should not stop you from getting vaccinated. For context, according to the New York Times: out of more than 2.1 million people given the vaccine, only about 11 individuals showed severe allergic reactions. Compare that risk to a COVID super-spreader event such as the convention in Boston that may have led to over 300,000 infections.

What is the recommended time between doses? Are all vaccines the same?

Time between doses will depend on the vaccine. According to NPR.org (1/4/21) the Pfizer COVID vaccine has a 21-day window and the Moderna COVID vaccine has a 28-day window. Meanwhile, a Reuters article (1/5/21) cautions against delaying doses or switching COVID vaccines as there are no rigorous studies on whether this would change their effectivity.

Does a COVID vaccine mean that everything will go back to normal?

Not until a high percentage of the population has received an effective vaccine, and a system for regular administration of shots has been implemented. (WHO)

With the arrival of the vaccines, there is, finally, a light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic. But make no mistake – the tunnel is still long and treacherous. There are other lights that flicker in the dark, trying to lure us down dead ends.

We know our exit: effective vaccines, delivered to as many people as possible, in a swift and orderly fashion. Let’s keep our eyes on that goal, and not be led astray.

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