In my work as a primary care physician assistant, I regularly advocate to all patients that they get the COVID-19 vaccine. One question I am regularly asked: “The C19 vaccine was rushed, how do I know it’s safe?”
I think medicine in general struggles to explain complex subjects in a media environment where only sound bites are heard and only a few characters are read. Nuance and long explanations are difficult. So I want to be clear with my patients in my community: The COVID-19 vaccines are incredibly SAFE and are incredibly EFFECTIVE. If you have not gotten vaccinated yet, do not wait, GO GET VACCINATED.
Importantly, no steps in the approval or safety testing of these COVID vaccinations were skipped. Some steps were done at the same time in order to speed up the rigorous testing required. But none were skipped.
“But Nick, most vaccines take years in order to be approved, how could these vaccines have been done so much faster?”
When completing vaccine safety trials there are three limiting steps:
- Funding — medical research costs money.
- When the starting point is — finding enough sick people to test the vaccine.
- Manpower — vaccine research groups are usually small.
But with COVID-19 the entire world came together to research these vaccines as fast as safely possible: the governments of the world pooled resources, experts shared knowledge, and the incredible number of sick people and volunteers allowed vaccine trials to proceed as quick as possible.
I always try to make the point that when exploring the safety of mRNA vaccines it’s important to separate the vaccine platform from the vaccine code. The platform is the HOW vaccines teach our immune systems to recognize and destroy a pathogen. The vaccine code is the WHAT we are teaching the body to fight – the particular pathogen. These mRNA vaccine platforms have been around since the 1990s and are proven safe and effective (no, they cannot change your DNA, alter your fertility, or make you shed COVID proteins). We have mountains of research that this vaccine platform is safe.
Now, I appreciate that people are careful about what they put in their bodies. Truth be told I wish more people were more careful about what they consumed. My goal with this letter is to encourage people to think about these vaccines as a safe, simple, and effective way to reduce the chance of severe COVID or death. These vaccines are composed of a small snippet of RNA (the “code” – a simple chain of sugar molecules), fat particles (ie polyethylene glycol – a relative of Miralax), and buffers (ie sodium acetate found in IV fluids). These are all safe molecules.
A good analogy: Imagine there is a thug wandering around town threatening to beat you up. We take a picture of that thug. We show that picture to you, to your friends and family, and to law enforcement. We tell them: “If this guy shows up, call the police.” That way when the thug shows up at your door you, your friends and neighbors and the police are prepared to identify him and arrest him.
It is the same for the mRNA vaccine. The vaccines provide a blueprint to your immune system on how to make, recognize, and ultimately destroy the attack protein used by the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the “coronavirus”). You cannot get COVID-19 from the mRNA vaccine, but there is a great chance that if you later encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus your body’s immune system will be prepared to recognize and destroy it.
In one year medical research went from design to trial to safe vaccine distribution – a process very similar to influenza vaccine production. Again, this mRNA “platform” is the HOW we teach your body’s immune system to recognize and destroy the coronavirus. This platform has been around for 30-plus years and has been proven safe and effective. The “code” is the particular information and is what was tested thoroughly in 2020.
I want to say to my community again, clearly, with no hesitation or wavering: The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are safe and are effective. They will help keep you from getting severe COVID, they will help keep you out of the hospital if you get COVID, and they will help reduce your chances of getting sick in the first place. If you have not gotten vaccinated, I urge you to get vaccinated now.
Nick Lawyer is a Physician Assistant and Provider Informaticist at Clark Fork Valley Hospital. He is also the Public Health Officer for Sanders County.
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