1. Q. Should I get the vaccine? A. Yes
2. Q. Does it matter which one? A. Probably not
3. Q. What side effects can I expect? A. You will likely get a sore arm for a day or two and also be more tired than usual for a day or two. There are other, rarer side effects which can occur but which are less likely. For more, read on.
It hard to believe that we have a vaccine for a newly discovered infectious disease available in less than a year. This is mostly because, that’s not what happened. The story of the COVID-19 vaccine is like the tale of the artist who becomes an overnight success, who in actual fact was working their tail off for about a decade before they were “discovered” by the mainstream. While many scientists were worried that the next global pandemic would be an influenza (flu) virus, a few smart researchers perked up their ears and reached for their test tubes when the first deadly coronavirus called SARS appeared in 2002. These scientists really got cracking when another deadly coronavirus, MERS, made its debut in 2012. While the rest of us were leading our normal, happy lives, they were getting ready for “the big one.”
Scientific papers with titles such as “Molecular Basis of Coronavirus Virulence and Vaccine Development” and “Antibodies and Vaccines Against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus” ran in obscure journals in the years before COVID-19 existed. Besides these, other scientists were hard at work on the mRNA technology on which the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based.
Which brings us to the mRNA technology and the fact that two coronavirus vaccines are the first to utilize this platform. mRNA sounds an awful lot like DNA and our DNA is the basic building block for what makes each of us unique and special. The idea of altering our DNA is a little bit (or perhaps a lot) scary. Thankfully, mRNA doesn’t do that. mRNA is the stuff that DNA makes to give instructions to cells on how to make the things we need.
Think of mRNA like middle managers of our bodies. The big boss, DNA, tells the managers, mRNA, what instructions to give to the actual builders. The mRNA cannot tell the big boss what to do—information just doesn’t flow that way in our bodies. So, mRNA tells our cells to make a version of the coronavirus spike protein which is harmless without the rest of the coronavirus behind it. Our immune systems learn to respond to the spike, and with 94-95% effectiveness, do that after two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. mRNA is short lived if not deep frozen and so, with a body temp of around 98oF, it’s soon gone and whatever things made you wonderful or not so wonderful are unchanged. The other vaccines, like AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson, which will hopefully be effective, are based on older technology and odds are, you’ve already had several other similar vaccines in your life.
So, back to question #3 and the dreaded vaccine side effects. I find myself typing this about 40 hours away from getting my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. After my first shot about three weeks ago, I wound up with a sore arm for two days and impressive fatigue for about six hours. I had to take a nap and then felt better. Others have described nothing happening after the first shot and some vaccine recipients have had headaches, nausea, or muscle aches. The symptoms are reported to be a bit worse with the second shot, but don’t usually last more than 48 hours. I was actually relieved when I reacted to the vaccine—it meant my immune system recognized a potential invader and got to work making antibodies that would protect me if and when the real coronavirus showed up.
There are people who have a more severe reaction, called anaphylaxis, which is why we have to be monitored for 15 minutes after taking the vaccine. The odds of this happening are about 1 in 100,000 to 200,000 people. That’s probably the same as your odds of being struck by lightening if you live in Florida. However, with personnel ready to give you medication to treat the anaphylaxis at the vaccine administration sites, if you should be particularly unlucky, you will survive this reaction and just have a bad day. I can’t say the same for the lightening or for COVID-19. So, when it is offered to you, please get your vaccine.