As the world prays for safe and effective vaccines to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, it is important and useful to review just exactly what a vaccine is and what vaccination means for the people of our planet. It is widely thought that through vaccination we can defeat this dangerous scourge, much as we have defeated smallpox and polio, among other infectious diseases, in prior times.

The news is full of stories about the new coronavirus vaccines: who is producing it, how effective and safe is it, how will it be distributed and will it eventually lead to the defeat of the virus that causes COVID-19 infection? But few lay people fully understand what vaccination means as a scientific concept. My hope is that once you learn the basics of the science behind vaccination you will be more accepting of the prospect of getting vaccinated once a safe and effective vaccine has been shown to exist.

Vaccination has been around for centuries and has proven to be successful in the eradication or amelioration of infectious diseases due to bacteria and viruses. In simple terms vaccination refers to the introduction of an inactivated or weakened form of a pathogen (disease-causing agent, usually a virus or bacteria) in the hopes of raising the organism’s natural immunity to fight the infectious invader. Without getting too technical, immune cells in the body called B lymphocytes, which are involved in the production of antibodies, are activated by vaccination. The resultant increased production of these antibodies enables these soldier-like chemicals to fight off, in increased numbers and a more effective manner, the dangerous infectious invaders. Today, effective and safe vaccines exist that enable humans to stave off over two dozen formerly dangerous viruses and bacteria. Truly this is a great testament to modern science, and millions of lives have been bettered or saved due to their development.

In the case of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, vaccines are being designed, according to WHO, with four different strategies in mind. Vaccines are being developed using recognition of

  • inactivated or weakened virus
  • protein fragments of viruses
  • genetically altered viruses, and
  • genetically modified RNA and DNA fragments.

Companies like Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna, among others, are all over the news with information related to alleged breakthroughs in vaccine production. Indeed, the world holds its collective breath to hear that, finally, a proven safe and effective vaccine is at hand. It was thought that Pfizer’s candidate fit that bill, until breaking recent reports about a few people having severe allergic reactions tempered the unbounded enthusiasm.

Certainly challenges remain. Normally vaccine development takes years. While the world is hopeful that a safe and effective vaccine has arrived, do we know for a fact that what we have available now will prove, in the long run, to be both safe and effective? Yes, in tests the vaccines appear to be effective. But they have been tested in thousands of people, not the millions who are slated to receive it.

  • Will they be effective if the virus mutates?
  • Will they be safe in the long term?
  • Are there side effects we do not yet know about?
  • Does the speed with which they were produced mean the possibility of a compromise in safety?

Complicating things further is that many of the world’s most vulnerable people may have an aversion to getting vaccinated. A joint survey by the COVID Collaborative, Langer Research, UnidosUS and the NAACP shows that Black and Latino people have doubts about trusting the vaccination process.

Despite my wariness, it is important to understand the long history of overall safety and effectiveness in the process of vaccination and to learn the basic science behind it. If you understand that vaccination has safely saved millions of lives over the decades it has been in widespread use, it may prompt even the most skeptical among us to reconsider. I am hopeful that the vaccines developed are safe and effective. Only time will tell.

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