As many countries are approving COVID vaccines for emergency use and initiating mass vaccination drives, it is a moment of global pride and a celebration of science and medicine. Also coming with this are apprehensions and concerns. Therefore keeping these 5 points in mind can be useful and reassuring.
ARE THE COVID VACCINES SAFE?
All the vaccines which have got emergency authorization and approval in different countries are safe. They have been tested in thousands of people and the data carefully scrutinized by regulators.
COVID vaccines (like the vaccines for other infections being taken over several years) can cause reactions in some people like local injection site pain, stiffness, swelling or irritation, and some general symptoms like fever, body ache, headache, tiredness, and weakness. However, these are mild, and resolve in a day or two. Ice can be applied on the injection site and paracetamol may be taken if needed.
Severe allergic reactions are very rare (1-10/million), and mostly in people with a prior history. They are manageable with anti-allergic medications available at vaccination centers. Vaccine-related neurological effects (like Bell’s palsy, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and transverse myelitis) are also very rare and show resolution. Recent reports of a few cases of thrombosis (blood clots) though have raised concerns have shown that the incidence in those vaccinated is much lesser than that seen in the general population.
The benefits of COVID vaccination far outweigh the risk of suffering from COVID which can lead to complications, hospitalization, long-term health concerns and even death.
HOW DO WE KNOW THAT THE COVID VACCINES WORK?
All the vaccines which have got emergency authorization and approval in different countries, have done so only after testing that the vaccine works by generating adequate protective immunity in the form of antibodies and other cytokine immune markers against COVID in phase 2 studies in hundreds of people. The data of these studies are available in public domain.
Vaccine effectiveness shown by vaccinated people not getting COVID, needs a long duration of monitoring and surveillance in a large population. Even so phase 3 studies showing such evidence in thousands of people are available in public domain.
It is evident that the vaccines that showed an adequate immune response in phase 2 have also shown efficacy in phase 3 with immunogenicity being a surrogate marker of effectiveness. Therefore, some vaccines have been given emergency authorization based on their immunogenicity and safety data, so that they can be beneficial during the pandemic to meet mass vaccination needs. However, in all such cases, phase 3 is ongoing or subsequently completed, and data published plus being constantly monitored.
As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that the vaccines will not work against variant strains, though the absolute level of immunity developed may vary. In case of drastic mutations occurring in the future in the COVID-19 virus, the vaccines may be suitably updated.
Some vaccines with stringent storage conditions may not be feasible in certain countries which may have to opt for vaccines easily storable in a regular refrigerator at 2-8 deg C. Also it is difficult to vaccinate the entire population of some countries with imported vaccines alone, therefore indigenous or collaborative vaccine development and manufacturing holds the key to cater to large scale successful vaccination drives.
CAN ONE GET COVID AFTER BEING VACCINATED, AND ARE MASKS AND SOCIAL DISTANCING STILL NEEDED?
The vaccines are currently recommended as 2 doses, usually 4 weeks apart (up to 12 weeks for Astra Zeneca-Oxford vaccine), and the optimal protective immunity is seen to set in around 10-14 days after the 2nd dose. Therefore, till then you may be at some risk of getting COVID so the precautions of wearing masks in public, social distancing and frequent hand sanitizing/washing should be followed.
Even post-vaccination, one can be an asymptomatic carrier so you may not suffer COVID but can give it to someone who is previously unexposed or does not have protection by either natural immunity or vaccine. Therefore to reach the stage of pre-COVID normalcy, more and more people will have to take the vaccine to achieve effective herd immunity. Only thereafter can decisions on not needing masks and social distancing be taken.
No vaccine can give 100% protection, but even if one does get symptomatic COVID, it would be mild, avoiding the risk of complications, hospitalization, and mortality.
The immunity has seen to last for 6 months and possibly up to a year, however, this is still being monitored and evaluated by regular follow-up of clinical trial participants. Thereafter there will be guidelines released on the timing of repeat/booster vaccination.
IS IT COMPULSORY TO GET VACCINATED?
Vaccination against COVID is entirely voluntary.
However, it is highly recommended to get vaccinated for personal protection against suffering from COVID and its sequelae.
Health care workers and front-line workers should all definitely be vaccinated. Elderly people and those with co-morbidities like diabetes, hypertension, heart/kidney/liver ailments, respiratory conditions, etc. should take the vaccine as they are more prone to developing severe COVID and its complications if infected.
It is also important to get vaccinated for attaining herd immunity in the community as more and more people getting vaccinated can reduce the virus spreading even in the unvaccinated population. Till this stage is reached, the wearing of masks and social distancing cannot be completely done away with. There are still some people who cannot be vaccinated like children and pregnant women due to the lack of studies conducted in them.
Vaccination is only possible at designated COVID vaccination centers by prior registration, but to increase convenience and coverage, walk-in registration and vaccination is being encouraged.
HOW DOES ONE DECIDE WHEN AND WHICH COVID VACCINE TO TAKE?
One should register on the country’s official vaccine platform as soon as the same is open or visit the nearest COVID vaccination center. Thereafter one gets the vaccine in accordance with prioritized high-risk groups and vaccination protocols. The vaccination centers are organized and well equipped to manage socially distanced queueing and waiting, administration of the vaccine by a qualified health care worker, and post-vaccination observation for reactions. Notification for 2nd dose, and certification of completed vaccination are also incorporated in the process.
One should take whichever vaccine is available and not wait or make attempts to procure a particular or alternate vaccine, as this can not only disturb the organized vaccination system and process of the country, but also not confer any potential advantage or benefit.
CURRENTLY APPROVED COVID VACCINES FOR EMERGENCY USE:
- Pfizer-BioNtech mRNA vaccine BNT162b2 (Approved in 68 countries including USA, UK, EU, Canada, UAE, Singapore and Israel)
- Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine (Approved in 40 countries including USA, EU, UK, Canada)
- Oxford-Astra Zeneca Adenoviral vector vaccine AZD1222 (Approved in 74 countries including UK, EU, Argentina, Mexico and Covishield -India in collaboration with Serum Institute, Pune being used in 20 countries part of India’s vaccine diplomacy )
- Sputnik V Adenoviral vector vaccine (Approved in 45 countries including Russia, Egypt, Mexico, UAE, and in India in collaboration with Dr Reddy’s Labs)
- Johnson and Johnson Adenoviral vector vaccine AD26.COV2.S (USA, EU)
- Covaxin Bharat Biotech-ICMR-NIV inactivated vaccine (India, Zimbabwe, Iran)
- Coronavac -Sinovac inactivated vaccine (China and 16 other countries)
- Sinopharm inactivated vaccine BBIBP-CorV (Approved in 20 countries including China, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt)
Register on your country’s COVID vaccine platform or portal as soon as possible.
As of March 2021, around 420 million people (mainly health care workers and those at risk) the world over have been vaccinated with various COVID vaccines. As part of GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, WHO), the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) is acting as a platform to support the research, development, and manufacturing of a wide range of COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that participating countries, regardless of income levels, will have equal access to these vaccines once they are developed. The initial aim is to have 2 billion doses available by the end of 2021, to protect all high risk and vulnerable people, and frontline healthcare workers.
COVID Vaccine trials: