A few nights ago, a relative texted about the concerns his friends at work had about the COVID-19 vaccine. The message suggested that colleagues felt it was not worth getting vaccinated because epidemiologists say that even vaccinated people can transmit the virus.
In other words, the thought was, if a vaccine doesn’t guarantee you and everyone around you full immunity, what’s the point?
This relative and his friends were all young essential workers who had been prioritized for vaccination. But the answer to his skepticism was simple: get vaccinated as quickly as possible.
This is why.
Our best tool to control the new coronavirus is our own immune system. The basic problem is that our immune system has to see the virus that causes COVID-19 in order to learn how to protect ourselves. Vaccines solve this problem by allowing our immune system to see what the virus looks like before we become infected, so that it can learn how to fight the virus. The booster shots (both of the two vaccines licensed in the US require one) work like exercise, helping the immune system further improve its ability to fight the virus.
Through an unprecedented global effort and the use of cutting edge technologies, we have developed a COVID-19 vaccine faster than previous generations would have dreamed of. The need to quickly reduce mortality with this new tool meant that we had to act before we knew exactly how much it would help curb transmission, rather than disease.
Clinical trials have made it quite clear that the current crop of vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and others around the world are safe and effective against the severe disease COVID-19. But some questions were left unanswered immediately after its release. How long would the protection last? Will the vaccine prevent transmission, rather than just help prevent people from getting seriously ill or dying? Will the virus evolve like the flu and cause repeated epidemics?
Because of these unknowns, messages about the vaccine have been cautious. Scientists and public health officials are reluctant to make statements about the effectiveness of a new pharmaceutical product without supporting evidence. That’s particularly true because misstatements, no matter how well-intentioned, can undermine confidence during a pandemic that has seen the response to public health guidance become overly politicized.
Case in point: attitudes about masking.
But there is a downside to this cautious message. Lack of certainty or solid empirical evidence is often interpreted to mean that we have evidence that something is do not true. This phenomenon is only exacerbated by voices from the anti-vax community and other public health skeptics. People may hear only that we cannot say that the vaccine does not prevent transmission, and not that this is simply because we are waiting for the evidence to come in, or that most experts would be surprised if it did not have at least some effect. in prevention. contagion.
Similarly, cautious public health advice aimed at avoiding unintended tragedy, such as the warning to continue social distancing and taking precautions even if vaccinated, often ends up increasing skepticism about vaccination.
The result is that too often people don’t see why they should get vaccinated.
These are not vaccine or anti-vaccine skeptics who are normally opposed to vaccination. Instead, they are concerned, thoughtful people are concerned that they may be denying a protective vaccine to someone at high risk, or taking a still new medical product for little benefit to themselves and others.
It is critical that we get the message out to those people about how we think the vaccine is likely to work based on its underlying biology, and what the rapidly emerging evidence tells us about the vaccine’s efficacy and safety.
That message is this: Based on the performance of similar vaccines, the fact that asymptomatic people may be less likely to transmit coronavirus, and a rapidly growing body of direct evidence from trials and campaigns, we are confident that vaccination against COVID-19 reduces the chances of transmitting the virus. Protection against transmission may be appreciably less than protection against serious disease, but at this point it would be more than shocking if there were no impact.
Evidence indicates that natural immunity lasts for many months, although reinfection is possible (particularly after mild illness). The vaccine is likely to confer a similar duration of protection, although this is less clear. Most importantly, even if protection is not permanent, either due to decreased immunity or new variants of the virus evolving to escape growing human immunity, subsequent infections are likely to be less severe for those whose immune systems have had the opportunity to learn a little about the disease. virus.
Crucially, even if the effects of vaccines on COVID-19 transmission are imperfect and temporary, vaccination will still lead to massive declines in the number of cases if, and only if, there is wide acceptance of the vaccines in the general population. . This is the safest way to return to a place where we can all participate in the fun, simple parties, dinners, and conversations at the office that we long for.
So when you have a chance to get vaccinated, take it. It will make all of our lives better.