In my work as a primary care provider, I regularly advocate to all patients that they get the COVID-19 vaccine. One question I am regularly asked: "The C19 vaccine was rushed; how do I know it’s safe?"
I think medicine in general struggles to explain complex subjects in a media environment where only soundbites are heard and only a few characters are read. Nuance is difficult. So I try to be clear: The COVID-19 vaccines are incredibly safe and effective. Do not wait, go get vaccinated.
Importantly, no steps in the approval or safety testing of these vaccinations were skipped. Some steps were done at the same time, but none were skipped.
"But Nick, most vaccines take years to be approved. How could these vaccines have been done so fast?"
When completing vaccine safety trials, there are three limiting steps:
1. Funding: Medical research costs money.
2. When the starting point is: Finding enough sick people to test the vaccine.
3. Manpower: Vaccine research groups are usually small.
With COVID-19, the entire world came together to research these vaccines as fast as safely possible: the world pooled resources, experts shared knowledge, and the incredible number of sick people and volunteers allowed vaccine trials to proceed as quick as possible.
I always try to make the point that when exploring the safety of mRNA vaccines, it’s important to separate the vaccine platform from the vaccine code. The platform is the "how" vaccines teach our immune systems to recognize and destroy a pathogen. The vaccine code is the "what" we are teaching the body to fight — the particular pathogen. These mRNA vaccine platforms have been around since the 1990s and are proven safe and effective. We have mountains of research that this vaccine platform is safe.
Now, I appreciate that people are careful about what they put in their bodies. Truth be told, I wish people were more careful about what they consumed. My goal is to encourage people to think about these vaccines as a safe, simple and effective way to reduce the chance of severe COVID or death.
These vaccines are composed of a small snippet of RNA (the “code,” a simple chain of sugar molecules), fat particles (i.e. polyethylene glycol, a relative of Miralax), and buffers (i.e. sodium acetate, found in IV fluids). These are all safe molecules.
A good analogy: Imagine there is a thug around town threatening to beat you up. We take a picture of that thug. We show that picture to you, your friends and family, and law enforcement. We tell them: "If this guy shows up, call the police." Then when the thug shows up we are prepared to identify and arrested him.
It is the same for the mRNA vaccine. The vaccines teach your immune system how to recognize and ultimately destroy the attack protein used by the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the “coronavirus”). You cannot get COVID-19 from the mRNA vaccine but there is a great chance that if you later encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus, your body will be prepared to recognize and destroy it.
I want to say with no hesitation or wavering: The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are safe and are effective. They will help keep you out of the hospital if you get COVID and they reduce your chances of getting sick in the first place. If you have not gotten vaccinated, I urge you to get vaccinated now.
Nick Lawyer is a physician assistant and provider informaticist at Clark Fork Valley Hospital. He is also the public health officer for Sanders County.