NEW HAVEN — Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, has an answer to those who are asking whether they should feel confident about taking the new coronavirus vaccines.
While COVID-19 was new, the creation of the vaccine was built on established scientific practices, Omer said, answering that question and others from the public as part of a discussion held by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Facebook Live Wednesday.
The biological structure of the coronavirus was well-known to scientists, Omer said — the family of viruses was discovered in the mid-1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are based on mRNA, as well, Omer said, and thus do not contain a live virus.
“Based on our understanding of biology, based on data so far, and based on ongoing monitoring, the benefits far, far outweigh the risks of this vaccine,” said Omer. “This is not a live virus. This is just a message to our cells.”
The long-term effects of the virus still are being studied, he said, but participants in clinical trials are months out from their doses of the vaccine. The most adverse consequences of vaccines usually occur in the first six weeks, he said.
“Folks have gone on well beyond two months ... and even now, we don’t have any signals to change our overall recommendation,” Omer said.
These type of vaccines have been safe in the past, he said, and the United States has been working to oversee the safety of vaccines for decades, which means it has the capacity to do so in this case, as well.
The Washington Post reported that the FDA authorized the vaccine for those over age 16 “after reviewing data from 44,000 participants in a randomized clinical trial,” and a 53-page analysis “by the agency found that some people who received injections had unpleasant but tolerable side effects, including fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, joint pain, chills and fever.”
Omer, in response to a question about when life would return to normal, compared the likely trajectory of events to a dimmer switch — things will dial back toward normalcy slowly as herd immunity builds up in the population, he said.
Restrictions may be able to be eased by June or July, with somewhat larger events permissible in the fall, he said. This is subject to change, he noted, as more information comes to light.
Some things likely will remain altered, as has historically occurred after pandemics, but people should be able to attend gatherings such as weddings in the future if they are vaccinated, he said.
“I think it’s safe to say that 2021 will be better than 2020, and 2022 will be way better than 2021,” said Omer.
Murphy noted that the federal government is aiming to vaccinate 100 million people by early spring.
It is likely the vaccine will have an effect on transmission, though that still is being studied, Omer said. More information likely will be available in the next six to eight weeks; the vaccines have been determined to affect the rate of symptomatic and severe cases, he said.
“We already know that it has a pretty substantial impact on severe disease, etc. So your own protection is there,” said Omer. “And so therefore the recommendations are likely to stay, for wearing masks, etc., even amongst vaccinated people, for the next few months as we get clarity.”
Health professionals then will be able to make decisions based on a person’s specific criteria, as well as the constraints of distribution, he said.
The vaccines developed by different companies likely will be similarly effective, Omer said, as that had been the case when considering diseases in the past.
“(I)t is unlikely there will be a huge difference from a patient perspective,” said Omer.
Murphy summed up the conversation as it came to a close, noting he would work to educate the public and increase access to the vaccines.
“(W)hile the FDA has the primary responsibility for deeming these vaccines to be safe and efficacious, scientists like you and others from around the world have had the ability to take a look at these approval processes, the data coming out of the trials, and there is a broad consensus, as you said, a pretty much unanimous consensus, amongst the scientific community that works in vaccines, that the vaccines that are beginning right now in the United States are safe, are efficacious,” said Murphy.
“And while we still have some details to learn about the degree of the benefit, the size of the benefit, everyone who has access to this vaccine should be taking it. I think that’s really important for people to hear,” he said.
The complete conversation can be viewed on Murphy’s Facebook page.