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What's Going on with COVID-19 Vaccines?

By: Haanya Quadri

COVID-19 vaccines have been on almost everyone’s mind since the start of the pandemic. With two vaccines pending approval in the US, there has been a flurry of questions by people across the nation. How exactly do the vaccines work? When will they be available? Over Thanksgiving break, I had the unique opportunity to have a discussion with Dr. Michael Ison of Northwestern Medicine through the NM Discovery Program to clear up many frequently asked questions about the virus and the vaccines.

There are four major types of COVID-19 vaccines:

  1. Nucleic acid vaccines work by inserting either viral DNA or viral RNA into a cell through a lipid bilayer vesicle. Two of the most promising vaccines in the US, developed by Moderna and Pfizer, utilize this ‘action plan’ to work effectively.

  2. Viral-vectored vaccines work in a similar way. These vaccines use different, weakened viruses so they can’t cause disease. Currently, companies like AstraZeneca, CanSino, Gamaleya, and Johnson & Johnson are developing this type of vaccine. In fact, vaccines developed by CanSino and Gamaleya are currently being distributed in countries like China and Russia.

  3. Weakened virus vaccines utilize weakened or dead coronavirus protein shells. It is important to note that these weakened viruses can’t harm anyone; they are effectively disabled before distribution. Sinovac vaccines are currently being utilized in parts of the Middle East and China.

  4. Subunit vaccines work by inserting an empty viral shell, without any genetic material, or actual spike proteins into the body. Currently, only one company, Novavax, has been able to develop this type of vaccine.

As mentioned before, the two most promising vaccines here in the US are those produced by Moderna and Pfizer. These vaccines come with a few challenges because of their delicate nature. Both vaccines must be stored at very low temperatures, although the Moderna vaccine is less reliant on this ultra-cold storage. Both require two shots over the course of 21-28 days and are extremely effective, with a 95 percent efficacy rate, producing only minor side effects like pain at the injection site. Dr. Ison explained that the vaccine will be available in 4 phases.

  • Phase 1 includes frontline workers, elders, and people with underlying health conditions.

  • Phase 2 includes school teachers, workers in high-risk settings, people in prisons, and homeless shelters.

  • Phase 3 includes young adults and children.

  • Phase 4 includes everyone who did not get a chance to get vaccinated.

Dr. Ison expects the entire process to take roughly 6-8 months. From this rough timeline, we can start to get an idea of when we will be able to get back to our “normal” lives. There are approximately 8-9 more months of strict social distancing, mask-wearing, and, most probably, virtual learning. If we attempt to go back to in-person learning before then, we may shut down very quickly, exactly like we did in October. Although teachers may be vaccinated earlier, there is still a huge risk for students. One of the things Dr. Ison stressed is the importance of being cautious, even if you are young and healthy. Some physicians are suggesting that people keep social distancing until early 2022; they compare the vaccine to a garden hose trying to put out a forest fire. If we don’t try to contain the spread of COVID-19 ourselves, the vaccine will do little to no good. So, for now, things are still very unclear as to when we can go back to school.

However, the vaccines can allow us to breathe a sigh of relief. One sophomore student here at Wheaton North comments,”Personally, I support the COVID-19 vaccine… I believe people should be vaccinated because (once the safety of the vaccine is ensured and side effects are explored of course) not only would it lower your risk of getting the virus, but also the risk of spreading it to others.” Amidst these unprecedented, trying times, these developing vaccines could be the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

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