"The race to find a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine has been one of the most collaborative healthcare efforts in history," says Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Science and Technology and Director of Bryant’s new Center for Health and Behavioral Sciences.
News about the COVID-19 vaccine trials breaks continuously, so we asked Professor Hokeness to share her perspective and expertise on the current contenders, potential side effects, and other top-of-mind questions.
Several companies recently announced positive news regarding their COVID-19 vaccine trials. In your opinion, which companies are the top contenders?
Currently, there are three front runners: Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, which have all recently submitted data from their Phase III clinical trials to the FDA for approval.
What are the vaccine candidates and how do they differ?
The AstraZeneca vaccine uses a non-replicating viral vector from a chimpanzee cold virus that carries DNA coding for the COVID-19 spike proteins into the body. The body will then make the proteins that are coded by the inserted DNA sequence. The immune system will respond and mount an attack against that foreign viral spike protein. The memory cells produced will, in theory, provide protection from future encounters with COVID-19.
Pfizer and Moderna are both using a new technology that involves the use of messenger RNA or mRNA. This molecule is encoded by the DNA and then used by the cell to produce proteins. So, rather than inserting viral DNA, it uses the message instead to induce protein production and the subsequent immune response to it.
How fast can we expect a vaccine to be made available to the public?
"If FDA approval is granted following a meeting on December 10, it is possible that the first recipients of the vaccine could get it by the middle of December."
If FDA approval is granted following a meeting on December 10, it is possible that the first recipients of the vaccine could get it by the middle of December.
In terms of worldwide distribution, there are some concerns, particularly for countries less equipped to handle the rollout. The Pfizer vaccine requires -70-degree temperatures for storage, while the Moderna vaccine requires -20-degree temperatures, which poses some inherent concerns. The AstraZeneca vaccine will be easier to distribute since simple refrigeration is all that is required.
Is the vaccine approval timeline quicker than anticipated? If so, why?
The fact that we have three promising candidates at this stage is faster than many had anticipated. AstraZeneca was fortunate in that it was already working on a vaccine for MERS, a relative of COVID-19, so much of the platform was already in place and required minimal changes to make it effective for this virus. In contrast, the mRNA technology from Pfizer and Moderna, although new, uses computer technology to map the mRNA, which is far faster than the traditional methods which require manipulation of the virus or its DNA. Therefore, it too had a timeline that was far quicker than anticipated.
In addition, governments worldwide invested large sums of money to support not only the development of the vaccine but also in the production prior to approval in order to fast-track the process. Lastly, all three companies are applying for FDA emergency use authorization, an authority from Congress that allows for vaccines to be available earlier than normal.
Is it possible for more than one vaccine to be approved and released to the public? If so, how might that work? Would you be given a choice as to which vaccine you would prefer to take?
Yes, it is likely that multiple vaccines will get approved. However, it is unlikely you will have an option early on; it will depend on what is available first in your area. For example, Pfizer has Rhode Island as one of the states that will be first for rollout, according to its phases.
The big question on everyone’s mind is: will the COVID-19 vaccine be safe to take? What are the possible side effects?
"Like many other vaccines, the side effects reported include muscle pain, fatigue, joint pain, redness at the injection site, and mild fever. These are all common as they are a result of the immune system doing its job and not a result of you being sick."
There is still a lot of data that needs to be evaluated, and long-term data is still forthcoming, but early reports indicate that the vaccine is very safe. Like many other vaccines, the side effects reported include muscle pain, fatigue, joint pain, redness at the injection site, and mild fever. These are all common as they are a result of the immune system doing its job and not a result of you being sick.
With your background studying vaccine hesitancy, especially in young adults, what information would you like to share with that audience? Is this vaccine “more important” than the other vaccines that are typically disputed?
All vaccines are important, but this vaccine can be considered extremely important given the nature of the pandemic and the tragic impacts it has had on our health, economy, and even our daily lives.
I hope young adults take the time to make decisions based on evidence that they themselves collect from many different sources. This is a generation that uses social media, which can be plagued with misinformation, as a primary source of information. As faculty, parents, and friends, I hope that we can encourage the use of thoughtful critical thinking and the process of collecting information from multiple sources, in order to make decisions that impact the health of not only individuals, but of the community at large.
Is it possible for the COVID-19 vaccine to become a requirement – from an employer in order to work on-site, for travel purposes in order to enter a country, or other circumstances?
This is a tough question that remains to be determined. Employers, schools, and travel to certain locations already require vaccinations in many cases. The question lies in terms of how much safety data will need to be seen and individual trust in the vaccine in addition to the benefit it poses to the population and its need to return to some level of normalcy in order to make the COVID-19 vaccine a requirement.
About Professor Hokeness
Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., is an expert in immunology, virology, microbiology, and human health and disease. She serves as Chair of the Department of Science and Technology and Director of Bryant’s new Center for Health and Behavioral Sciences.