COVID Vaccine Can End Pandemic But Only If We Take It

COVID Vaccine Can End Pandemic But Only If We Take It

If 2020 were a Hollywood movie, we’d be at the part where the city is under siege by aliens, and the military, armed only with earthly weapons, is making little headway in its defense. It’s the point just before Will Smith or a host of superheroes show up in the nick of time to save the day.

In real life, the monster threatening our way of life is COVID-19. The superheroes are the scientists and all those who have been feverishly working on a vaccine to neutralize it. Thanks to them, we have a path to victory just a little under a year since the novel coronavirus reared its mighty head.

Bob Frenck, MD, director, Vaccine Research Center, and executive chair, Institutional Review Board (IRB), is excited and hopeful as he talks about the role Cincinnati Children’s and the James Gamble Center for Vaccine Research are playing in the fight.

“We are one of four sites in the U.S. participating in a Phase 1 and 2 clinical trial for the COVID-19 vaccine created by BioNTech SE and Pfizer, Inc.,” said Frenck. “We are also testing the Astra Zeneca vaccine, and after that is completed, we will start testing the Sanofi vaccine.”

Meanwhile, UC is testing a vaccine from Moderna.

Pfizer recently announced that their vaccine is 95-percent effective, while Moderna is reporting an efficacy rate of 94.5 percent. Scientists expect the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the vaccines for emergency use this month for high-risk groups, like frontline healthcare workers and the elderly. They could be licensed as early as spring or early summer and ready to be distributed broadly before the beginning of the next school year.

“These results far exceed our expectations,” said Frenck. “This is a game changer.”

Biggest Challenge to Come

Having an effective vaccine against COVID is a huge win, but it will require at least 70 percent of the population to take it to achieve herd immunity. That could be a big hurdle.

“People hear the term ‘Operation Warp Speed,’ and it makes them nervous,” said Frenck, referencing the Trump administration vaccine initiative. “They think it means we’ve cut corners to put something out there. But that isn’t the case.”

Frenck credits the shorter turn-around time for the vaccine to advances in technology that allowed researchers to compress timelines.

“Within a few weeks, we were able to identify the virus and sequence it,” he explained. “We learned the virus has four main proteins, including a spike protein, and we were able to figure out what each one did and which ones were critical. It became obvious that the spike protein allowed the virus to attach to cells in the body, so it was the important one to block. We followed all the same steps we normally do, but we were able to gather information at an incredibly faster pace than we ever could before.”

It also helped that Pfizer had recruited more people to work on the study, which meant their labs could complete analysis of data in days instead of weeks or months.

When the Astra Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson studies were paused briefly over questions about side effects, it caused an added stir of concern about vaccine safety.

“Those pauses should make people feel comfortable,” said Frenck. “If we were going full-speed ahead and cutting corners, we wouldn’t have cared about safety signals. We would have kept pushing on. But instead, vaccine enrollment was stopped, and all the data for those vaccines were evaluated by the FDA and the Data Safety Monitoring Board, which is an independent body. They found no causation and determined it was okay to proceed. All the correct steps were followed at the first sign of a potential problem, and they concluded that there was no issue.”

A Matter of Trust

When conducting any kind of clinical trial, trust is essential. Cincinnati Children’s goes out of its way to establish and maintain that trust with the scientific community and its study volunteers.

“We are upfront with those who participate in our trials,” said Frenck. “We go over what the trial is about in great detail, what they will be experiencing and what we want them to do. We explain that the protocols have been reviewed by independent bodies, and we provide a 24/7 nurse line if they have questions or concerns. We’ve been doing clinical trials here for over 25 years, and the reason people come back to enroll in multiple studies is that we are good on our word. We treat them well.

“I feel very strongly that it’s our duty to provide every safeguard for our volunteers. They are doing a service, and without them, we can’t do clinical research. We need them to trust us and to feel comfortable and know we will be there for them.”

Cincinnati Children’s reputation for excellence in this area is one of the reasons why we were chosen as one of nine sites in a network called the Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation Units (VTEU). The sites are selected and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to test vaccines. We are one of the longest standing VTEUs in the U.S., and to date, we have tested hundreds of vaccines, including the rotavirus vaccine developed at Cincinnati Children’s by Richard Ward, PhD, and David Bernstein, MD, which has saved the lives of millions of children around the world.

Said Frenck, “This has been a very difficult year emotionally and financially for many people. While it has been a great struggle—and we still have a way to go—I have great hope that we soon will have one, and probably multiple licensed vaccines against COVID. I strongly believe that these vaccines will lead us out of the pandemic and let us resume a normal life. When a vaccine is available, my family and I plan to get it as soon as we are able. My deepest hope is that others, especially all the members of the Cincinnati Children’s family, will follow our lead.”

“People hear the term ‘Operation Warp Speed,’ and it makes them nervous. They think it means we’ve cut corners to put something out there. But that isn’t the case.”

Bob Frenck, MD

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine? No. The Pfizer vaccine works by having our body make a piece of the virus called the spike protein. The body then makes antibodies to the spike protein designed to protect people against COVID-19 should they be exposed to the virus. Because the vaccine does not contain the whole virus, it is impossible to get COVID-19 by receiving it.

How is the vaccine administered? The vaccine is administered via injection in two doses, with the second dose being given three to four weeks after the first. It is important to get both doses.

If I get the first dose of one vaccine, does it matter if I get a second dose of a vaccine from a different company? We aren’t sure if it matters, so to be on the safe side, we likely will recommend getting the same vaccine for both doses, if possible. For people who have participated in the vaccine trials, there will be provisions to ensure all the participants receive COVID-19 vaccine. The exact method is still being worked out, and once plans are finalized, all the participants will be notified of the plan.

Does the vaccine have side effects? Almost 90 percent of people who have received the COVID-19 vaccines have had no side effects. Of the other 10 percent, participants reported having headaches, fever and injection-site pain for a few days after receiving it, all of which can be addressed by taking ibuprofen. But these side effects are temporary and are a sign that the vaccine is working. While we would prefer that no one who received the vaccine had any side effect, we think the benefit of protection against a potentially lethal virus FAR outweighs the possible risks of the vaccine.

How long will immunity last after I take the vaccine? At this time, we don’t know. Some vaccines, such as those against hepatitis and the measles, seem to last a lifetime in most people, while others, like the flu vaccine, must be given annually. The Pfizer vaccine is designed to attack the spike protein. We believe the spike protein is critical for the virus to cause an infection. Thus, it may be that even though the virus changes in other areas, it has to keep the spike protein “as is.” If that turns out to be true, it is possible that the vaccine could last many years. However, more research is needed to know if this will be the case.

How many people need to receive the vaccine before it would be safe to go back to normal life? We would need at least 70 percent of the population to get the vaccine to achieve herd immunity. This would allow us to go back to being able to eat at restaurants, go to movie theaters and gather with family and friends indoors—the usual activities we enjoyed before COVID.

The overall fatality rate for COVID is 2-3 percent. Why not just open everything up and take our chances with getting infected, since most people will survive anyway? Taking this route is one way of getting us to herd immunity, but it comes at a hefty price. While a 2-3 percent fatality rate may sound small, if you apply it to the entire population, you are talking about 5-10 million people who would die from COVID. Along with overwhelming our healthcare systems, which are already strained, and decimating the economy, it would result in a lot of human suffering and exact a huge emotional toll on families faced with losing their loved ones. The goal of science is to get us to immunity with a lot less morbidity and mortality.

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