‘Vaccinations are like education for our immune systems’

Think of the coronavirus vaccine as a test run or dress rehearsal for your immune system in preparation for the day it might encounter the protein found in the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19, says Midland County Medical Director Dr. Catherine Bodnar.

The typically milder symptoms of the first dose of the vaccine means your immunity system has been triggered. The more flu-like symptoms after the needed second dose is because your immunity system is primed and acts more vigorously to fend off the protein found in theSARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

“Vaccinations are like education for our immune systems,” Bodnar said. “Getting the vaccine helps our system produce a response-like a practice run or rehearsal.”

Health officials hope the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations — and those expected to come after — will prove to be highly effective against stopping the spread of the highly contagious virus and, hopefully, ending the pandemic.

The first vaccine was developed in 1798, to combat smallpox, Bodnar said, adding the last case of smallpox was in 1978.

“Smallpox was officially declared eradicated from the planet in 1979,” she said. “Once common diseases, polio, measles, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), rubella (German measles), mumps, tetanus, rotavirus and chickenpox can be prevented by vaccination. Now we have the first vaccines for COVID-19, an important tool to help end the pandemic and get the economy and our lives back to normal.”

The stats behind the vaccines

The Moderna vaccination has an efficacy rate of 94.5% while the Pfizer has a rate of 95%, based on clinical trials, Bodnar said, adding the measles vaccine has an efficacy rate of 97%.

Bodnar says current coronavirus vaccine is believed to be highly effective against the new strain first identified in the United Kingdom, but it is thought not to be as highly effective against the strain first identified in South Africa.

The Centers for Disease Control health officials hope that 5.6 million people, age 16 and older and eligible for the vaccine, are vaccinated by the end of 2021. The state has set a goal of having 70% percent of those eligible for the vaccine by the fall. Bodnar hopes for 80%.

“I would like for 80% to get vaccinated to get that heard immunity or some people call that community immunity,” she said. “People not accepting vaccine is kind of my worst nightmare right now.”

Bodnar said the vaccine could be beneficial to people who contract coronavirus.

“Even if you get COVID-19, the vaccine may protect you from becoming seriously ill. It also protects people around you, especially those at high risk from severe complications of COVID-19. The best way to quell the pandemic is to get vaccinated and continue to follow public health measures,” including wearing masks, social distancing, handwashing and limiting interactions with people outside your household.

So far, Midland County seniors have indicated a “very high” acceptance rate of the vaccine as do school personnel, who have been getting their vaccinations. She said one school district had a 70% expected acceptance rate and another had an 82% acceptance rate.

“And this is just the first pass with them,” she said. “What tends to happen is people see other people getting vaccinated, some people want to wait and will jump in a little bit later. I think getting numbers like 70%, 82% is really great.”

How the vaccine work

Coronavirus vaccines do not contain live coronavirus, and people cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine.

Instead the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contain messenger RNA (mRNA,) which contains genetic instructions for making a piece of a harmless spike protein. The mRNA is delivered in a fragile, oily sphere (which is why the vaccine needs to be frozen) that meets up with cells in the body. The mRNA instructs the cells to make the spike protein, which is carried on cells. The immune system will recognize the protein as something that shouldn’t be there and makes antibodies to destroy it.

“The next time our system encounters that spike protein, which might be attached to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, our immune system is ready to go and ready to respond because it has had its practice run or rehearsal.”

Another promising vaccine on the horizon is the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses double-stranded DNA for instructions to build the mRNA, Bodnar said.

“That has to get into the nucleus of the cell and make the mRNA. DNA is not as fragile as RNA . It can be refrigerated not frozen.”

Asymptomatic virus ‘a big problem’

Especially troublesome with COVID-19 is how easily it can be transmitted without the carrier showing any symptoms unlike the SARS-associated coronavirus that made headlines earlier this century.

“SARS is a coronavirus that gave us severe respiratory distress syndrome back in early 2000s, which kind of magically disappeared. We saw some illness from it but not (like COVID-19). The thing about that SARS, it wasn’t thought to be transmissible until people had symptoms so it was relatively easy to curtail something like that versus SARS-CoV-2 where there’s a lot of asymptomatic transmission. They’re like night and day really. Asymptomatic is huge — it’s a big problem.”

That virus was much easier to curtail because, just as with influenza, people with symptoms of a contagious virus tend to wear masks and isolate themselves when they are sick. Without symptoms, people tend to go about their business and can spread the virus everywhere they go without knowing it.

Common misconceptions

• Myth: COVID 19 vaccine not safe because it was rapidly developed.

Bodnar said some of the technology already was in place because of the SARS virus in the early 2000s. Researchers were aware of coronaviruses and their issues and were able to adapt their work to focus on the virus that causes COVID-19.

Government funding of research also helped speed the process, she said, allowing phases to be worked on simultaneously without skipping any steps.

“Once you get to go to Phase 3 trial you’re starting to manufacture the vaccine. That’s why as soon as Phase 3 was done, the vaccine was ready to go because it was being manufactured,” Bodnar said, adding that would not have been the case if funding had to be found with each step.

“I have no reservation about how these vaccinations were developed and the speed makes sense to me because we have this global pandemic that is just devastating to our planet and all this energy and resources were directed to getting this done.”

• Myth: Masks are no longer needed after a vaccine.

Bodnar said early on in the pandemic it wasn’t advised to wear masks because medical officials didn’t think COVID-19 was asymptomatic.

“Masks traditional have been used to prevent transmission so having people without symptoms wearing masks were not thought to be something we needed until realization came about that this can be spread by people who don’t have symptoms,” Bodnar said. “When that happened the realization that anybody can be a source because they don’t have to have symptoms, that’s when the whole flip flop came with the masks, the CDC recommendations. Really this asymptomatic transmission is huge. It’s a big problem.”

Bodnar said it is crucial for people continue to wear masks, social distance and follow all public health recommendations even after they are vaccinated.

• Myth: I don’t need a vaccine, I’ve already had coronavirus.

There  is not enough information to say for how long after an infection someone is protected from getting COVID-19 again, which is called natural immunity.

“Early evidence suggests (natural immunity) may not last for long but we really don’t understand that so it’s recommended even if you have COVID-19 to get the vaccine,” Bodnar said. “You can delay getting the vaccination until about 90 days after diagnosis but if we’re going after priority groups right now, we are not delaying vaccines to people who had the disease.”