Were the vaccines 'rushed'? Do they have long-term effects? An expert debunks the myths
MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- For months, doctors have said the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. But many people across our area and across the country still aren't sold and need more information.
CBS 58's Rose Schmidt spoke with an expert to help debunk myths about the vaccines. Ajay Sethi, an associate professor of population health sciences at UW-Madison, wants to help separate fact from fiction.
Rose: Should people be concerned about long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?
Professor Sethi: We've had people now who have been vaccinated since last March when the vaccines were first developed and tested in clinical studies and now they've been used widely worldwide since December. So we've had five months since people have were first immunized. And when you think about long-term effects of vaccines, if they are going to be any, they will reveal themselves within three months. So we're well past that period of concern that there may be some side effects that lasts more than just that 24 hours or 48 hours. So people who hear about the prospect of long-term side effects are probably hearing that from people who want to incite worry and are not really thinking about what we how define long-term side effects in the context of vaccines.
Q: What about five or 10 years down the road?
A: When you look at all the vaccines that are out on the market already, very few have ever been pulled from the market after being used. Sometimes they might get pulled if they're not very good or if there are side effects. You find out about them very soon after they're put on the market. But the vast majority have remained because they turn out to be quite effective, and quite safe. They go through a very rigorous process.
Q: What do you say to people who have had the COVID-19 virus and don't think they need the vaccine?
A: If you had the infection before, you probably developed some immunity. The issue is that immunity is not likely to last very long. The studies have already shown that if you get the vaccine, you produce more antibodies than if you had it naturally. The other thing is generally with infectious diseases, the shorter your infection, the shorter your illness (and) the less time your immune system had to develop immunity to the virus. And so people who had no symptoms at all or had a very quick illness and recovered may not have the immunity that the vaccine is able to provide. So it's always a good idea to get the vaccine.
Q: We've heard discussions recently about needing boosters in the future or needing to get the COVID-19 vaccines annually. Is this the case?
A: Yeah, it's possible. And there's a lot of precedents for that with the influenza vaccine. We would probably need a booster under two circumstances -- if we found that the immunity provided by the vaccine began to come down a little bit, and so you need a little bit of a boost to build up that memory again, or if the virus begins to evolve and the strains that are circulating out in the community are just different from the ones that you're immunized against. In that case, a booster will help us so you can be protected. Much like we get our annual flu shot.
Q: What are some of the other myths that you've heard?
A: Some people feel like the vaccine was rushed and that just gives them concern about vaccine safety. But now that we've had like well over a quarter of a billion people on the planet who have been getting these vaccines, (there are) lots of good surveillance systems out there that monitor for side effects. And we just learned you this week the federal government (paused the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). They're on top of it. If they feel like there needs to be a review of the vaccines, they do. Everybody is sort of monitoring the safety of all the vaccines that are out there and are very willing to review the data. People should feel good that we're not vaccinating people without that in mind.
Q: You mentioned the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause this week. Do you think it's possible that this news will make people more hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccines?
A: Yeah, I mean, I think it goes both ways. I've seen some survey data out there that people's confidence in the vaccines have actually grown because of the pause that the CDC decided to make. Because again, it gives you confidence that the system is working, that the system is willing to review the data when necessary. On the other hand, I think a lot of people recognize that six cases of clots out of 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine administered is very rare. And if you look at the rate of clots in general in our society, it's also that rare. So I think the CDC did a good job in communicating the importance of taking this pause. They'll review the data and then I think in a couple of weeks, it might resume it and just decide where to go from there. But I think most people recognize that there are lots of medications -- hormonal contraceptives for example are associated with clots. I think a lot of people recognize that this is just something that may happen, and now that a speedy review can give people more confidence that the science is being worked out.
Q: In the healthcare setting, some people who tend to be among the most hesitant are women of childbearing age. Are there certain myths among that age group that you think need to be debunked?
A: Yeah, so what happens is when you do clinical studies, pregnant women are considered vulnerable. You don't recruit pregnant women into a study for something that's being tested for the first time. So they're excluded very often from clinical trials, and because you don't have that data, people get a little worried 'is this vaccine safe during pregnancy?' But during those clinical trials, some women became pregnant while they were enrolled in the study. And it turns out the vaccine was quite safe for them. Now that the vaccines have been used widely, pregnant women are beginning to get the vaccine and many have -- tens of thousands across the country. There's actually some proven benefits. The antibody levels that women produce can cross the placenta, can also be passed through breast milk. And it turns out that an infant can get some protection against COVID-19 because Mom got immunized. So those studies get done and the science gets released, and I think everybody can feel comfortable that these vaccines are safe during pregnancy. It's always important, though, if you have questions, you can talk to your doctor about that.
Q: For anyone who got Pfizer and Moderna, why is it important to get the second dose?
A: When (Pfizer and Moderna) were tested, they were tested that way because our immune system typically wants a second exposure in order to build a memory. So you can get protection after the first dose, but it's not going to last. That second dose gives the immune system a little bit more training so that you get longer lasting immunity. So it's important that people go for their second dose because if they only go for one dose, they're probably not gonna be protected forever.
Q: Is it equally important for people who live in secluded areas vs. heavily populated areas to get vaccinated?
A: If you live in a rural area, you're not around people a lot in general, you don't see tall buildings, you don't work in a major office space which has thousands of people in it -- You might sense that you're not at risk for getting this virus and getting COVID-19. But the reality is: When you look at how COVID spread across the country, all rural areas, every county in the country has had cases. And in some cases, major surges in states that are relatively very rural. I'm thinking like a Sturgis (South Dakota), for example, event. You can never really control when you're going to be in a crowded setting. It might be a gathering, it might be some kind of band or festival, something going on in your community. And as soon as you get a place or an environment where things get a little crowded, there's a chance for that virus to spread. There's quite a lot of high activity still going on in the country.
Q: If I can still spread COVID-19 to other people after I've been vaccinated, why do I need to get the vaccine?
A: The risk of spreading it after vaccination is definitely lower than if you didn't get vaccinated at all. And the research is showing that you can still get infected, but being infected and testing positive isn't the same thing as being infectious. So your immune system kicks in after you get exposed to the virus because you got the vaccine -- and what happens is you might test positive, but because your immune system is working, it keeps those levels of virus pretty low. They measure the viral load in people's noses after being vaccinated and testing positive, and the data are showing that people don't replicate their virus a lot, probably meaning they're not going to be a major source of transmission. The CDC guidelines show that people who have been vaccinated can be around other people who are at low risk for COVID without a mask. So you can hug your grandkids, for example. And that's because there's a general understanding that, even though there's a risk for spreading the virus after vaccine, it's really low. Our focus is now really trying to get everybody vaccinated.
Q: I've heard people say that they think that they got the COVID-19 virus after they got vaccinated. Could this be the case?
Like any vaccine, any kind of shot in the arm is going to cause some local reaction. You might get some chills, a little bit of a fever, and you get generally flu-like illness. This myth has always followed the flu vaccine that 'if I get flu-like illness after the vaccine, it means I got the flu.' And that's not true. That's just your immune system working. The symptoms of your immune system working are just very similar to flu, to COVID and to a lot of respiratory illnesses, and they're not very specific. The vaccine itself does not contain the virus. It contains synthetic materials that produce spike protein for your body to develop antibodies against that protein. Because it doesn't contain the virus, it can't cause COVID-19.
Q: So in other words if you have side effects from the vaccine, that basically means the vaccine is working?
Yeah, and if you don't have side effects, that doesn't mean the vaccine isn't working. Some people just react differently. I can just say for my parents, my mom had some chills after the vaccine. My dad is a little older and his immune system's probably not as strong -- he didn't get any symptoms, just went out next day and started to do some gardening at 90 years old.