Unsure about COVID-19 vaccine safety? Here's what the science says.

·4 min read

Jun. 15—Whether you're worried about getting a COVID-19 vaccine or are already inoculated and want to help sway your hesitant friends and family, it may help to know the science behind some common vaccine fears and misconceptions.

Daniel Salmon is the director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, where his research focuses on vaccine safety and factors that influence vaccine acceptance.

The institute's website, vaccinesafety.edu, centers on providing objective, up-to-date information on vaccine safety. However, Salmon acknowledged that it's been a challenge combating the misinformation that's helping to fuel COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

"It's really frustrating, because here we have these great vaccines, and we're having real problems with getting enough people to get it — especially in some regions," Salmon said.

Vaccination is the safest option to protect yourself and loved ones from the negative effects of COVID-19 — yet, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama remain near the bottom of all states in terms of percent of the population who's received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and the rate of vaccine uptake has stalled in recent weeks.

This week, the Times Free Press will tackle some of the common questions surrounding COVID-19 vaccine safety starting with the following:

Question: How can the COVID-19 vaccines be safe if development was rushed?

Answer: While there's no doubt that COVID-19 vaccines were ready to deploy in record time, Salmon said that doesn't mean that their safety was compromised.

Vaccine development has historically been a long and financially risky process, making preparing vaccines for future epidemics a challenge, but global efforts to modernize the vaccine development process were underway long before COVID-19 was detected.

Salmon compared the speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were made available to driving a car to an important destination while still maintaining the speed limit but not making unnecessary pit stops along the way.

"[The COVID-19 vaccine] was definitely made a major priority, and there were a few ways that really made a difference in us getting the vaccine so quickly," he said.

First, although the COVID-19 vaccines themselves are new, the technologies used in all three of the vaccines currently authorized for use in the United States are not.

Research that followed in the wake of other devastating outbreaks, such as SARS, MERS and Ebola, helped lay the foundation for a COVID-19 vaccine so that the vaccine developers weren't starting from scratch.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, which is a technology that has been in development and thoroughly studied for decades for use in both vaccines as well as cancer treatment.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that "interest has grown in these vaccines because they can be developed in a laboratory using readily available materials. This means the process can be standardized and scaled up, making vaccine development faster than traditional methods of making vaccines."

Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine uses an adenovirus, which is a virus family that causes the common cold, that has been modified to the point that it's harmless in order to transport the information needed to teach the body how to recognize part of the coronavirus and fend off infections.

Adenovirus technology has also been in development for many years, can be easily tweaked and was already used by Johnson & Johnson to make an Ebola vaccine that was authorized by the European Medicines Agency in 2020.

Another factor that sped up the process was the amount of effort and resources that were poured into rolling out COVID-19 vaccines. For example, a limited number of institutions specialize in conducting clinical trials for vaccines, and the process is extremely expensive.

"Typically, they're working on lots of different vaccines and drugs at the same time, so their capacity's spread between these different vaccines. In the case of COVID, all that capacity went to COVID vaccines — everybody in the country and everyone in the world that had the capacity to do large, phase-three trials focused on COVID vaccines, and so that really helps," Salmon said.

Another aspect that got the vaccines from concept and into arms fast was the investment that the government put to scale up manufacturing before the vaccine trials were complete.

Usually, drug manufacturing doesn't begin until clinical trials for a vaccine are complete. That's because vaccine production is so specialized and costly that drug companies wouldn't want to risk building something until they know the final results of the trials.

But in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, the government bore that risk and invested in manufacturing upfront.

Normal production time for a vaccine was reduced by about a year, since scaling up manufacturing happened alongside clinical trials rather than after the fact, Salmon said.

"If you told me you rushed home for dinner, what did you mean? Does it mean you sped? Well, that's probably a problem. But if you mean 'I didn't dilly dally, and I didn't stop at the supermarket,' that's not a problem," he said. "Corners were not cut."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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