April 21, 2021
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Advice from Huntingdon Professors: Don’t Give Away Your Shot
Montgomery, Ala.—In March 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and medical experts postulated about the death tolls possible, we stayed away from each other in stunned silence, masked-up, cleaned, read, and learned as much as we could as facts were made known. None of us had ever lived through a pandemic the size of what we were beginning at that time.
Now our experience with pandemic living is 13-months old … and counting. The ongoing, ever-updating, dismal toll (according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center) reached 143,076,046 people around the world infected and 3,047,302 deaths at 8:43 a.m. on April 21, 2021. In the U.S., 31,794,833 cases have been diagnosed, with 568,483 deaths. Among those infected who haven’t died there are concerns of lingering effects of the disease, the manifestations of which continue to puzzle medical experts as COVID-19 produces respiratory, cardiac, neurological, and hematological complications.
Since March 2020 we’ve learned that there are three measures within our control that mitigate the infection: masking-up properly, staying at least six feet apart, and washing hands thoroughly and often. Still, an average of 70,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S every day. In December 2020, a fourth measure of prevention was introduced: vaccinations. Although the U.S. recently reached a peak of 4.6 million vaccines administered in a single day, there are growing concerns that demand may not reach the levels of vaccine availability in the coming weeks.
To understand the benefits of the vaccine from a scientist’s perspective, we sat down with Dr. Erastus Dudley, professor and chair of the Department of Biology, and Dr. Doba Jackson, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry.
“Let’s start with how vaccines were developed,” said Dr. Dudley, whose Ph.D. in immunology is from Yale University, and who was a Jane Coffin Childs Fellow at the National Institutes of Health prior to joining the Huntingdon faculty in 1998.
“The first vaccine was developed by scientist Edward Jenner about two hundred years ago, when he discovered that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox had immunity from smallpox. His discovery formed the premise of all vaccines: that the immune system remembers what it has seen before.” Dudley explained that the first vaccinations injected a tiny amount of the virus into the recipient, triggering the body’s immune system to develop antibodies to fight the disease when faced with it again. Because of the vaccine Jenner developed, smallpox, a highly contagious disease that is estimated to have killed as many as 400,000 people a year in 18th-century Europe, was declared eradicated by the WHO in 1967.
“Vaccines have an amazing track record,” said Dr. Dudley. “Think of all of the diseases and contagions that have been virtually wiped out because of vaccines: measles, mumps, rubella, and polio, to name a few.” Vaccines also protect us from chickenpox, pertussis (whooping cough), tuberculosis, rotavirus, hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, pneumococcal disease, tetanus, meningococcal meningitis, human papillomavirus, and various forms of influenza in the United States alone.
Still based on the premise that the immune system remembers what it has seen before, modern vaccines are developed as either viral vector vaccines or mRNA vaccines, neither of which involves injecting the virus into the recipient. Instead, both rely on information stored in the virus and in the human cells that fight it to trigger antibodies. Despite wide misinformation about the inoculations, neither of these vaccines alters the recipient’s DNA (they can’t, because they never enter the cell nucleus, where genetic information is stored).
The speed at which these vaccines were developed should not be a concern, said Dr. Jackson, who earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Toledo and was a National Science Foundation Fellow at the Pennsylvania State University before joining the Huntingdon faculty in 2007. “We’ve been studying coronaviruses for decades. We knew the surface proteins and their sequences. We knew the spike proteins that could trigger an immune response. We simply needed to isolate this variant.” The variant that causes the COVID-19 infection is SARS-CoV-2.
Both professors emphasized the safety of the vaccinations, which underwent the same stringent testing as other vaccines. “Testing begins in animals,” said Dr. Jackson. “It then advances to a small group phase; then to a large-scale, concentration-dependent study, where considerations such as gender, other medication interactions and medical conditions, age, race, and other factors are considered. In these large-scale studies, half of the recipients are given the vaccine and half are given a placebo, and neither group is told what they received. The groups are watched carefully and monitored closely. We have a rigorous system for vaccine development in this country and in Europe. By the time the vaccine gets through Phase III we know how safe it is and how effective it is. All three of the vaccines available to us are highly effective in preventing infection and death from COVID-19.”
“The risks involved in vaccinations are as close to zero as we can measure statistically,” said Dr. Dudley.
Dr. Jackson agreed. “If you’re worried about the vaccine, think about actually getting COVID-19. The vaccine may give you a sore arm, maybe a slight fever for a couple of days. But COVID-19 can leave you with permanent damage to your lungs or brain. You could be hospitalized, and you could die. Getting COVID-19 is much worse than anything you will experience with the vaccine.”
Recently administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a viral vector vaccine, has been paused because of reports that, of the more than 7 million people who have received that shot, six women between the ages of 18 and 48 developed blood clots within a few weeks of immunization. Scientists are looking closely to see if there is any relationship between that vaccine and the complication. Compared to the one-in-a-million complication, which may not be related to the vaccine, roughly 125 of every million in that same age range of the general population have died of COVID-19 since early last year, according to an article in The New York Times.
For those who believe that having survived a bout of COVID-19 gives you natural immunity to further infection, think again, said Dr. Jackson. “The amount of immune protection you get from having the virus isn’t the same as what you acquire from a vaccine, especially if you had a mild case. There have been many cases of people being reinfected, usually with a variant, after recovery. Your own immunity may not protect you from the variants that are proving to be the new dominant strains as the virus is on the rise again, but the vaccine is holding up well in protecting against variant strains so far.”
Both professors stressed that it is vital for people to be vaccinated and to continue observing the same measures of protection we have followed for the past year.
“The more the virus continues, the more opportunity it has to mutate,” said Dr. Dudley. “The mutations—variants—can get stronger and stronger. All coronaviruses spread easily—some are more serious than others, and this is proving to be both extremely contagious and severe. We don’t know enough about it yet to understand why it affects some people so severely and others not; why it attacks the brain in some, causes blood clots in others, has effects like pneumonia and respiratory issues in many, and can cause strokes and heart attacks. The only way to conquer this outbreak is to do our part. Get the vaccine, wear a mask, keep your distance, and wash your hands. Concern for our neighbors should be foremost in our thoughts.”
Dr. Jackson completed his vaccines in February. “I was concerned for my own health and for those around me,” he said. Dr. Dudley received his second vaccine April 14, even though he admits, “I hate needles. I am terrified of them. I have to have someone hold my hand while I go through it.”
The vaccination process opened to all adults ages 16 and up, effective Monday, April 19. To find out where you can get your vaccine, here are some contacts:
- Vaccines are available at CVS, Sam’s Club, and Walmart pharmacies through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. Just walk in. Be sure to take your health insurance information.
- See alcovidvaccine.gov for additional information about sites and contacts.