ELLSWORTH — Masks every winter? Annual vaccinations? Herd immunity? Variants of the virus? With many having questions about the COVID-19 vaccines and an uncertain pandemic future, Jackson Laboratory CEO and President Edison Liu led “COVID-19: The Vaccine Chapter,” an online presentation hosted by the Ellsworth Public Library on Feb. 17. State Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) posed the questions, with community members also chiming in.
Liu and Jens Rueter, the lab’s medical director, explained the different vaccines and how they work to protect humans against the virus that causes COVID-19 before entering into a little informed crystal ball gazing.
Traditional vaccines mimic the infection by using protein shells from the infection to inoculate. The body then responds with an antibody that protects it from the infection.
“This series of vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, is a radical departure from that, radical in a very positive way,” Liu said.
Instead of using proteins or a “killed virus,” the vaccines use RNA molecules developed from sequencing the virus. This meant the long process of generating, activating and testing the vaccine was shortened.
“This was precisely the reason why Pfizer and Moderna were among the first companies to produce a vaccine against this pathogen that has never been seen before,” Liu said.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have prevented infection in 90 to 96 percent of cases in studies.
“A few percentage points is really irrelevant to these large trials,” Rueter noted. The Federal Drug Administration’s bar for vaccine effectiveness was that a COVID-19 vaccine would prevent the disease or decrease its severity in at least 50 percent of vaccinated individuals.
The Oxford and Johnson & Johnson vaccines employ what Liu called the Trojan horse approach, using genetic material from the SARS CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. These vaccines prompt the body to generate antibodies against the virus. Clinical trials have shown their effectiveness rate as in the mid-60s percentage-wise, but they do not require the sub-zero storage temperatures of Pfizer and Moderna, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine takes one dose as opposed to the two doses required by the other vaccines.
“It’s clear that [they] protect significantly, absolutely against death, so the severity of the disorder is reduced, even though individuals might have a case of COVID-19,” Liu said.
The quick road to emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration was “primarily possible because of very intense work,” Rueter added. “This was not done on a 40-hour work week schedule. With the urgency of the pandemic, everyone just got to work and got it done.”
The typical clinical trial phases were conducted, eventually expanding to over 40,000 participants, Rueter continued. “It was done in a safe way [and] it was done in an appropriate way.”
Short-term side effects, such as achiness, fever and headaches, all show that the vaccine is working, Rueter said. And, while long-term side effects will take longer to track, “at the end of the day, we have to balance uncertainty with the certainty that COVID-19 can affect large amounts of people.”
Liu pointed out that a small percentage of people who contracted COVID-19 now have what is known as long COVID syndrome. Lingering effects include shortness of breath and coughing, difficulty concentrating, aka “brain fog,” and loss of smell.
“It’s exactly these long-term consequences that make it a very hard-to-predict disease, which is one of the reasons why the vaccination is so important,” Rueter added.
With rates of vaccinations racing against the emergence of faster-spreading COVID-19 variants, Liu said an estimated 70 percent vaccination level will spur herd immunity, protecting those in the community who did not receive a vaccination. But it is not yet known if being vaccinated stops you from spreading COVID-19.
“A lot of people are wondering, after they’re vaccinated, do they still have to wear masks and socially distance?” Grohoski asked.
The answer was yes.
“For now, there’s some things we just simply don’t know,” Rueter said. “Letting our guards down would be a mistake.”
Liu added that with a “huge swath of the human population” that has not been vaccinated and some countries that will not be able to mount a vaccination effort, “what we’re going to be seeing is this virus coming back. I would argue that it’s inevitable.”
Having advance stockpiles of vaccines is key, he said. Booster shots, like those for tetanus, may be needed. “And also, quite frankly, we may have to change certain aspects of our lifestyle.” Liu compared the post-COVID-19 world to that of post-9/11. “That one event changed how we do aviation in the world and we’re not going back. I think this is going to be a new reality for us.”
Economies will have to adjust, as will workplaces, Liu said. “The web-based business framework of communication is going to have a much greater role than the physical transactions. We’ve seen it very much in the Jackson Lab. It’s not going to go away.”
A recording of the presentation is available at www.ellsworth.lib.me.us.