Over the past year, our attention has been focused on the pandemic which has caused so much havoc, disruption, anxiety and grief around the world. In December we saw a glimmer of light with the interim approval by Health Canada of a COVID-19 vaccine made by the German company BioNTech and its U.S. partner Pfizer Inc. Here is a summary of what we know about this vaccine.
Is the vaccine safe?
Some people have voiced concerns about its safety, citing its rapid development within one year. Previous vaccines have taken many years to develop before approval for widespread use. One of the reasons why the Pfizer clinical trials and regulatory approvals happened so quickly without sacrificing safety is because many of the stages of testing that usually occur one after the other were conducted at the same time. In addition, the companies that were working on this had a head start due to new technologies that were already in development long before COVID-19. Its successful development was really about the power of the entire pharmaceutical industry working together on a single problem.
The clinical testing for this vaccine involved over 43,000 people from the U.S., Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina and included people who were Black, Hispanic and Asian. People with underlying conditions that are often associated with a higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19 were included in the study. The results of the trials indicated that the vaccine will also benefit the elderly.
Have there been serious adverse effects?
Serious adverse events (unexpected and undesirable harmful effects) during the trial were low. In the U.K. two people experienced serious side effects after receiving the vaccine and the reasons for this are under investigation. It is thought that one person had a history of severe allergies. Both people have fully recovered.
Are there side effects from receiving the vaccine?
Mild to moderate reactions occur frequently. These may include injection site redness, pain and swelling, fatigue, headache, chills, joint pain and fever. These reactions are similar to what some people experience after receiving the flu shot. They are expected because this vaccine (like the flu shot) is supposed to trigger the body’s immune system.
How quickly does the vaccine work?
The Pfizer and recently approved Moderna vaccines require two doses. There is some protection after the first week of receiving the vaccine with much stronger protection after the second dose 21 days later. It is expected that other vaccines will become available that require only one dose.
Who is eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine?
Everyone who is 16 years old and older is eligible. People who have underlying medical conditions are also eligible. People who are immunocompromised or who have a history of allergies, as well as women who are pregnant, should consult their health care provider before getting the vaccine. Pregnant women and children under 12 were excluded from the clinical trials.
Who will receive the vaccine first in Ontario?
Since the vaccines need to be stored in ultra-cold refrigerators and have a short life span outside of refrigeration there are a lot of logistical challenges to getting the vaccine into people quickly. In addition, there simply is not enough vaccine available all at once to immunize everyone at the same time.
There will be enough vaccines over time, but Public Health Ontario and the Government of Ontario have prioritized who will get the vaccine first. Vaccine distribution began in December, 2020, starting with residents, staff, essential caregivers and other employees in shared living settings serving seniors. Other priority groups include indigenous communities, health care workers and adults receiving chronic home health care. It is expected that the general population will be able to start receiving their vaccinations sometime between April and July 2021.
Are there some unknowns?
Yes. We don’t know if the Pfizer vaccine prevents asymptomatic infections and we don’t know how long immunity will last after receiving the injection.
Do I need to wear a mask after I get the vaccination?
Yes, for the reasons described above it is recommended that people continue to mask, watch your physical distance and wash your hands regularly.
Will the vaccine be mandatory?
The vaccine is not mandatory and there are no plans by government bodies to make it mandatory. Vaccination for COVID-19 is strongly encouraged to protect the broader population. It requires 80% to 90% of people to be vaccinated in order to have effective protection for all. At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to make an informed choice about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. For more information you can visit www.publichealthontario.ca and www.ontario.ca/coronavirus.