Health experts vouch for vaccines: ‘All of them are very safe and effective’

By: Andy Kozlowski | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published April 2, 2021

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STERLING HEIGHTS — During a webinar hosted by the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce, several experts came together to field questions on the vaccines for COVID-19.

“The chamber felt that it was important to be a part of this conversation so that people will be more comfortable knowing that the vaccines play a huge part in us getting back to normal. It’s how we fill our restaurants again, go to sporting events and see new businesses coming into the community,” said Stacy Ziarko, the chamber’s president and CEO.

Participating panelists at the March 12 event included Dr. Joel Fishbain, from Beaumont Hospital, Grosse Pointe; Dr. Allison Weinmann, with Henry Ford Health System; and Andrew Cox, the health officer for the Macomb County Health Department.

 
Three vaccines, two types
Weinmann said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which both require two shots, are similar in that they are both designed around messenger RNA, or mRNA. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, meanwhile, works with an adenovirus vector and requires only one shot.  

The website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov, explains these concepts in detail. With the vector in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a gene is added that codes for the spike protein found on the surface of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This causes human cells to safely take on the appearance of the coronavirus, which prompts the immune system to produce antibodies and activate T cells — types of white blood cells that are important in immune system function — so that the body is primed to fight off the virus in the event of an actual infection.

An mRNA vaccine, like those from Pfizer and Moderna, is a new type of vaccine to defend against infectious diseases. The CDC site explains that, while traditional vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ in the body to trigger an immune response, mRNA instead teaches cells how to make a protein or a piece of a protein. In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccines instruct the body’s cells to make a harmless piece of the spike protein. The body recognizes that this fragment doesn’t belong and begins generating an immune response.

“All of them are safe and effective,” Weinmann said. “All of them are highly effective at decreasing severe disease, hospitalization and death, and that’s really what we want to get across. So any vaccine you’re offered, please grab it — they’re all safe, they’re all effective.”

Fishbain agreed. He also noted that there are no live viral particles in any of the vaccines.

“The adenovirus-containing vaccine (from Johnson & Johnson) is a non-replicating virus, and these are pieces of viruses in the other two companies’ vaccination products (Moderna and Pfizer),” Fishbain said. “Nothing replicates from a viral standpoint. There is nothing alive in these vaccines.”

Weinmann said there’s no risk to people’s DNA. With the mRNA vaccines, the fragment that codes for the spike protein is injected into a fat globule since it’s very unstable, and once that’s injected into the body, it goes into the outside part of the cell called the cytoplasm. DNA is in the middle of the cell, in the nucleus.

“The two never meet or interact with each other,” Weinmann said. “And here’s where the clever part comes in: Our bodies already make mRNA every day, to make the proteins that we need to live. And so our bodies have a way of disposing of mRNA very quickly, and it disintegrates quickly. So no, there’s no risk to the human DNA.”

She also said there’s no risk of fertility issues.

“I don’t know of any vaccine that affects fertility,” Weinmann said. “We don’t need to check if somebody’s pregnant. We don’t need to caution people about conception. … I would emphasize that people should really get their information about the vaccines from trusted sites, not social media.”

Another question was whether the vaccines can interfere with mammography images. Weinmann said that a vaccine can cause the lymph nodes under the arms to get a little inflamed, “which is a good thing — it means your immune system is turned on,” and those lymph nodes are also where the breasts can drain, which can confuse mammograms. So, she recommends waiting several weeks after a vaccine before taking a mammogram, or that people let their provider know they got the shot recently and in which arm they got it.
 

Taking the vaccine
Even people who have already had COVID-19 are recommended to get vaccinated.

“You get some immunity from having had COVID and recovered, but the duration of that immunity is probably not very durable, and we know that people can get reinfected, especially after that 90 days,” Weinmann said. “Knowing that the variants are now popping up … there’s really no advantage to waiting the 90 days, and there’s no safety issue with not waiting the 90 days. So if I had a family member or patient who recently had COVID, I would encourage them to get their vaccine as soon as they can.”  

The doctors were asked if people with autoimmune disease should take the vaccine. There is no risk in taking it, Fishbain said, but a compromised immune system might not benefit from it, either.

“It’s safe to get the vaccine if your immune system is abnormal, as long as you don’t have an allergy to one of the components,” Fishbain said. “But I would just be cautious that, if you have an abnormal immune system, you may not develop a completely robust and active immune response, and so you should protect yourself and avoid people who have not been vaccinated and who may be asymptomatic spreaders.”

Weinmann agreed.

“That’s why it’s so important most of us get vaccinated: It’s to protect those who can’t get immunized or can’t get the full immune response,” she said. “That’s where herd immunity comes in.”

The doctors said that people shouldn’t mix and match the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. If they get a first dose from one brand, they should make sure their second dose is from the same brand.

“Crossing over vaccines is not recommended, because we have no science to say it is safe or just as effective,” Fishbain said. “The studies are done with one vaccine. … Maybe in the future we will know it’s OK, but at this moment, you should get the same vaccine, since we don’t know how well your body will respond to (a second dose from a) different vaccine that may have a slightly different mRNA component.”

Cox said the county is consistently receiving all three vaccines now.

“We have experts to make sure that those who come through our clinics are getting the right second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna. We can look at their card (from their first vaccine dose) if they bring those, but we can also check our immunization registry and look up the record, and if it’s not in there, we can reach out to the provider and verify that,” Cox said. “So there are many ways to make sure people get the right dose.”

Fishbain clarified: “If an error is made by some freak accident, it probably is safe. The issue is, will your body respond the way it’s supposed to (and generate an immune response)? But I don’t think it’s dangerous if a mistake is made.”

When asked about whether booster shots will be needed in the future, Weinmann said that it’s currently unknown, although she thinks it’s likely.

“We don’t know how long immunity lasts,” she said. “And because you’ve heard so much about these variants, some of which are a little more resistant to the current vaccines, booster shots are already being developed. So probably we’ll need those as those variants become more prevalent.”

She said this is all the more reason to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The more people who are immune now, the less room the virus has to spread and mutate.

Fishbain said he hopes people keep up the safety precautions. Masking and social distancing have nearly eradicated the seasonal flu and the respiratory viruses during the past year. He said that people should continue to exercise caution even after being vaccinated, until more is known about the variants and whether booster shots will be needed.  

“Please do not throw your masks away,” he said.

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