If we check the current news, we will most likely see headlines about vaccines popping upright on the list. As there are more than 160 research groups around the world racing to develop vaccines against SARS-COV-2 with a tight deadline, it certainly stirs up public concerns about the efficacy and safety of these vaccines. Looking at the history of vaccines created in the past, some of them could take decades to be used safely on us. Some experts claim there will be hardly any chances of developing a vaccine because of the safety and production challenges while other virologists have high hopes for their vaccine research. As this can affect everyone on the planet, we must be clear of where we are at with vaccine development and what options do we have in the future.
Vaccines are designed to protect us before we are exposed to a certain virus. They are normally killed or weakened versions of the virus that are injected into our body. Our immune system will remember the virus and know how to destroy it. Vaccines produce immunity to a disease without us getting sick first. When a large percentage of the population is vaccinated, viruses can’t affect those people and therefore can’t pass the virus to others. This is the principle of herd immunity and also the goal that governments want to achieve if vaccines are successfully produced.
What Stage Are We At?
Even though governments around the world have been investing billions of dollars in vaccine production, scientists believe that the fastest we can put a successful candidate in the market is in 12-18 months assuming that every phase is conducted smoothly. Although some steps can be done simultaneously, finding a viable vaccine candidate is difficult because it requires testing, licensing, manufacturing, and distribution – all of them need to be done logistically until it is ready to go. The most important part is the testing. It contains three phases and none of them should be eliminated:
Phase 1 – Pre-clinical testing in small animals to evaluate whether the vaccine is safe for healthy individuals and whether it can trigger an immune response.
Phase 2 – Testing on larger populations to evaluate vaccine safety and see how different dosages affect the production of antibodies.
Phase 3 – Large scale testing with 1000+ people to see if the vaccine creates immunization.
Given that we have only come into contact with Covid-19 virus for less than a year, it is very risky if any steps in the way get rushed. One lesson we learned from the past is that some vaccinated people can be more severely ill than those who are infected by the virus. Unfortunately, the only way to find out if the vaccine works is to test them out on a lot of people, including healthy people that have not been infected before.
President Putin recently announced to the world that Russia approved a vaccine, Gam-COVID-Vac developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute in Moscow on August 11. This is the first country to officially approve a vaccine for Coronavirus and this vaccine is yet to go through phase 3 trials. Despite warnings from global authorities, the country will begin a vaccination campaign in the fall and they will start from teachers and medical workers.
In the U.S., 30,000 healthy Americans will be voluntarily recruited to participate in phase 3 trials as part of the government’s Operation Warp Speed, which aims to produce 300 million doses of vaccine by January 2021. In Canada, Dalhousie University is enrolling 696 people for phase 1 and phase 2 trials as CanSino’s vaccine candidates and researchers claim that they were overwhelmed by the number of people who want to volunteer in the trials. Participants are given either a dose of the vaccine prospectively or a placebo to be monitored for two months to four years. They are asked to return to normal life where they may or may not encounter the virus. On the other hand, the “1 Day Sooner” movement in the U.S. is promoting trials that would intentionally expose the volunteers to the active virus to get instant testing results. Although they will be overseen by ethic boards and governments, there is no guarantee that a participant will be fully recovered after being exposed to the virus.
Experts are trying their best to come out with a solution and it looks promising at the current stage. However, there are doubts that we will ever have successful vaccine candidates because we don’t know enough about this highly dangerous virus. Even though tests are conducted on a large group of people, we should think critically about who those people are and how they can affect the test results. One of the main concerns is how would the vaccine react when it is injected into a child? If we were to vaccinate the elderly who are already suffering from other diseases, how would vaccination affect them, and if they suffer more illness, who is accountable for the results? To be able to examine the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, the trials are required to be conducted with extra care and consideration of all risk factors.
If We Have A Vaccine, Who Will Get It And Should It Be Mandatory?
There are lots of questions to be answered once a vaccine is successfully invented. How do we determine who should get the vaccine and would the government require everyone to take the vaccine? The answers remain unknown. But key stakeholders from different fields have expressed approaches based on experiences like pandemic flu vaccination. One suggestion is that we should look at who is the most vulnerable or who is most likely to pass the virus when they get infected. Another way is to look at where outbreaks are the most active and if there is a specific group that is accountable for a transmission. You may also be looking at who is most at risk of severe disease and try to protect them. These would likely be health care workers, essential workers, those with certain medical conditions, and the elderly.
Nevertheless, scientists claim that at least 70% of us will need to get the shot to be able to achieve herd immunity based on the calculation of the R-naught factor, which indicates the average number of infections caused by each infected individual. Experts suggest that there is a possibility to make inoculation mandatory if there are not enough people volunteering.
What about other perspectives from the public? If we look at history, vaccines do not always come with great results. Considering all the risks mentioned above, many people are concerned about whether the vaccine will create side effects that we are not prepared for. Therefore, If an individual is not willing to take the risk, does she/he have the option to say no? Is COVID-19 vaccine for children going back to school required? What if parents refuse to get the shots? Does that mean their kids cannot go to school? What about essential workers? Does that mean they are not allowed to work until they get immunization? There are certainly many more shortcomings in the context but we have to know what are our rights. A person should not be forced to make decisions without completely understanding what’s behind their choices. If a vaccine does threaten someone’s life, they should be notified and have the right to make their own decision.
What can we do to protect ourselves now?
While all of us are waiting for the results of vaccine development, we should not stop protecting ourselves from infection simply because the economy is reopening. Even though we are still not certain of whether children are going back to school, we must be prepared for the days that come. We have to rely on everyone to strictly adhere to public health practices for better prevention. Practices involve but are not limited to social distancing, frequent handwashing, staying home, and wearing masks in public indoor spaces. It would be even better to keep a list of all the people you have contacted so that when someone does get sick, you will be aware of the potential risk.
Other than that, keeping your body stronger and your immune system functional by taking proper nutrients is also important. Make time for physical workouts to strengthen the body and remember to take supplements to boost the immune system. Supplements are essential nutrients to improve our health. For example, Vitamin D helps the immune system to function properly and keep you away from the common cold. But you might not get enough of it when you take it alone. If you take it with Magnesium, it helps with metabolism and increases Vitamin D level in your body. Another important vitamin for the immune system is Vitamin C, known as Ascorbic Acid. We need to have a steady intake of Vitamin C to produce antibodies and also to support the function of our white blood cells to fight off viruses. There are times when you may have low immunity because of different factors such as stress or lack of sleep. Be sure to keep taking the immune booster to minimize your vulnerability.
The most we can do now is to stay positive and live our lives to the fullest while following the rules. Although it’s only been 6 months, we have already learned so much. This is a group effort and we should all participate in this. Keep educating yourself and others of what is happening and pass the message to your near and dear ones, especially those who are at the frontline, and kids who are going back to school. Knowledge is power – protect yourself and your family by making wise decisions.
By: Maria Chen
Photo by National Cancer Institute From Unsplash