The potentially rare and long-term side effects of COVID vaccines, if they occur at all, could occur after the immunization of millions of people, experts told Washington Newsday. However, they stressed that the benefits of vaccination against a virus that has killed over 1.4 million people worldwide and is still raging in many countries far outweigh the risks.
The pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca are currently leading the way in introducing COVID vaccines in the West. Phase 3 studies have shown that the former two are 95 percent effective against COVID, while the latter are 62 percent effective after two full doses and 90 percent effective after half and one full dose.
The United Kingdom made history on Wednesday by becoming the first Western country to license a COVID vaccine after its independent drug regulatory agency gave the green light for the launch of the Pfizer vaccine. The government expects to start vaccinating high-risk groups early next week. In the United States, Pfizer and Moderna have applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency approval of their COVID vaccines. It is hoped that distribution can begin in December.
What are the side effects of the COVID vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca?
The side effects of a vaccine can be divided into two categories: mild, short-term effects that subside within a few days, sore arms, and possible severe side effects such as allergies or autoimmune diseases.
In general, most side effects occur within two months of a person’s immunization, meaning that anything serious would probably have already been seen among participants in the COVID vaccine study, experts told Washington Newsday.
Short-term side effects of the Moderna vaccine include soreness at the injection site, fatigue, muscle and joint pain and headaches. Pfizer/BioNTech have reported fatigue and headaches as common side effects. Vaccination with AstraZeneca may cause side effects similar to those of Moderna and Pfizer and may feel feverish. This is a welcome sign that the body’s immune response has begun.
What do we know about long-term or rare side effects?
Experts told Washington Newsday that it is possible that long-term or rare side effects may occur after millions of people have been vaccinated. They will not know if and when the FDA or other health authorities will approve the vaccines, said William Moss, director of the International Vaccine Access Center Executive at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s why scientists, manufacturers and officials will keep an eye on the side effects after the vaccines are launched.
Howard K. Koh, former Assistant Secretary of Health under President Barack Obama, Professor of Public Health Leadership Practice at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said: “Monitoring these results and reporting on them is critical to ensure confidence in any vaccine.
But by definition, rare side effects are just that, “rare,” said Alessandro Sette, Professor at the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccine Research at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.
And it can be difficult to determine whether a problem is due to a vaccine or whether a person has fallen ill for an untreated reason. “Some of the health problems observed may be due to chance rather than a vaccine,” said Professor Peter Chin-Hong, a specialist in infectious diseases at UC San Francisco.
Al Edwards, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Reading, UK, said: “No one ever stops monitoring the safety of medicines – all medicines, not just vaccines – even after the end of trials and the start of implementation. We generally do not expect long-term side effects from vaccines”.
America’s COVID deaths could equal 9/11 every day until Christmas
It should also be remembered that the safety thresholds for the approval of vaccines are higher than for other medical interventions, such as drugs, because they are used in healthy people.
Edwards continued: “There are still ‘unknown unknowns’ and there may be surprises, but in general vaccines have never been as safe as they are today because we are so much better at the advanced manufacturing required to make them clean, controlled, pure and very refined in composition, storage, distribution and administration.
Capturing COVID is riskier than getting a vaccine
The academics who spoke with Washington Newsday emphasized that the benefits of a COVID vaccine far outweigh the potential risks.
Edward Hutchinson, a scientist at the Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow in the UK, said: “If you are not part of a clinical trial, if you ever receive a vaccine, a vaccine has been approved because its benefits have been shown to outweigh the risks. If you decide to get a vaccination for yourself or your family, it is really important to remember that there are real risks involved in deciding not to get vaccinated, and these are probably much, much greater than any risk associated with the vaccination.
“We now know that the risks associated with these COVID vaccines are so low that they did not cause serious problems when they were administered to many thousands of volunteers. On the other hand, we know that the risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 [COVID] is currently very high.
Even those who are not at risk of developing serious COVID, such as young people or people without underlying health conditions such as diabetes or heart problems, should consider vaccination.
“If you have a mild dose of the virus, you could end up passing it on to someone else and make them seriously, even fatally, ill. After all, and this is important, do you want to live like this forever? Vaccination is the only way we can control the spread of this disease and return to a normal life,” said Hutchinson.
His comment comes at a time when COVID is on fire in the U.S. and experts predict that by Christmas the U.S. could be hit by a 9/11 per day in terms of deaths. More than 270,000 people have already died in the USA.
said Moss: “Given that we are in the middle of a pandemic that is not under control in the United States and that the infection is potentially fatal, I think it would be wise, given the efficacy data, to procure the vaccine when it becomes available. I believe the benefits outweigh the risks, especially for those who have a high risk of infection and serious illness and who will be the first to receive the vaccines”.
Professor Prakash Nagarkatti, an immunologist at the University of South Carolina, took a similar view. “The vaccine should be taken as soon as it is offered to you, especially if you belong to the population at risk. The more people take the vaccine, the better the spread of herd immunity that can eradicate COVID-19 so that we can lead normal lives again,” he said.