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Doctors address questions, concerns about COVID-19 vaccine

PITTSBURGH — As we await FDA approval for a third COVID-19 vaccine, many still have lingering questions and concerns about the two versions that have already been distributed.

A recent poll shows that 1 in 3 American adults say they “definitely or probably won’t” get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Throughout the community, we frequently hear from folks who say they don’t understand what it means when experts say the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are “Messenger RNA” or “mRNA” versions.

According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines have “strands of genetic material called mRNA inside a special coating. That coating protects the mRNA from enzymes in the body that would otherwise break it down. It also helps the mRNA enter the dendritic cells and macrophages in the lymph node near the vaccination site.”

>>CDC information on the different COVID-19 vaccines

But, an explanation like that can be overwhelming to someone without a medical background, and so, we went to local experts to have them put things into simple terms.

“Think of mRNA simply as just the set of instructions, and whenever you get the vaccine, those instructions are taken up by your cells and they’re instructed to create a piece of that spike on the outside of the coronavirus... and when that happens, they’re quickly degraded out of your system, your immune system then kicks into gear,” said Dr. Matthew Moffa with Allegheny Health Network.

Dr. Anita McElroy, with the University of Pittsburgh has another analogy:

“It’s sort of like showing the body’s immune system an FBI Most Wanted Poster... it’s able to recognize the face of the virus. And the immune system, once it recognizes the face of the virus, can say ‘that’s different from me, and it’s time to attack it,’ so that when you see the real thing, when you get infected or exposed to the virus, your body already knows what it looks like and it’s ready to go.”

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While the mRNA versions are new, doctors say the technology has been studied for years. Unlike many other vaccines, they do not involve placing a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies.

“It’s important to note that there’s no live vaccine at all so you cannot become ill with coronavirus from the vaccine,” said Dr. Moffa. “It does not enter the nucleus of your cells and it does not alter your DNA, that’s a common anti-vax misinformation talking point.”

Another talking point among vaccine skeptics is how quickly Moderna and Pfizer rolled out their versions.

Dr. McElroy says it was a “proper alignment of the stars,” citing a significant amount of resources and money via Operation Warp Speed. She adds that mRNA vaccines are quick and easy to develop once learning the sequence of a virus.

“And, for better or for worse, we had a lot of ongoing transmission in the community which means you were able to very quickly decide if the placebo group versus the vaccine group was different, because we had lots and lots of people getting infected, those two groups separated very early on, so the speed was due to all of those factors,” she said.

Dr. Moffa noted that having so many volunteers who were willing to take part in clinical trials helped expedite the process as well.

“No shortcuts were taken with development,” he said. “All the normal phases of clinical trials were completed, all the rigorous safety assessments by the FDA were completed and there were no serious safety signals at all,” he said.

Surely, however, short-term side effects have been reported, ranging from a sore arm to aches to a fever. But the doctors tell Channel 11 that’s just signaling that your body is doing its job.

Folks in the community, however, have expressed concerns about the “long-term” side effects, including Pam Meckler from Millvale.

Dr. McElroy admits, we can’t predict the future, but says it would be “highly unlikely” for there to be long-term side effects, noting that when it comes to vaccinations, typically a side effect occurs as an allergic reaction soon after the shot.

“It would be really unusual, and we’ve not seen this in another vaccine scenario, where there’s a side effect from a vaccine a year down the line,” she said. “I will contrast that with the side effects of actual COVID disease... we’re learning so much about what they’re calling these COVID ‘long-haulers.’”

Hundreds of thousands of others, in the meantime, have died from COVID-19.

The doctors tell us no one has died from a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Moffa notes that even if a vaccine can’t totally prevent someone from catching the virus, studies show it should make you feel less sick.

“The ability to change the trajectory of having something that could potentially kill you, to not having anything at all, or just a mild cold, is really quite remarkable,” he said. “And should make everybody excited to get vaccinated.”

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