Demystifying COVID-19 Vaccines

THE world has fought several plagues and pandemics over centuries, some of which even threatened to wipe out the whole of mankind. Nature somehow found its way of defeating the infectious pathogens and the human race survived. About a century ago, the world also battled the Spanish Flu pandemic, and there are hardly any survivors to narrate the ordeal, but we know that it was also a very bad pandemic.

By Dr Grant Murewanhema

Now, coming to the COVID-19 global epidemic which was declared a pandemic just over a year ago, and the only pandemic that most of us can relate to, we know that’s it is not as fatal as previous epidemics and pandemics, but its rapid rate of spread due to globalisation and easier international travel has led to many infections and numerous deaths within a short space of time. However, its more devastating consequences have not just been on lives lost, but a tremendous disturbance to our ways of lives, including local and international trade and travel, sport, education, entertainment and many other aspects of human lives.

Some countries have plunged into economic recessions, with projections indicating at least a decade or more before reasonable economic recovery resumes, if the pandemic goes under control now. Unfortunately, several factors are threatening the world with further waves and more disturbances to people’s lives. Pandemic fatigue, complacency, increased human traffic and changing weather patterns all contribute to increased transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The virus also seems to be playing its own part currently by undergoing clinically significant mutations.

Population-level effective and safe ways of controlling the pandemic whilst allowing human life to return to normalcy are urgently needed, and based on science, vaccination is the most promising public health intervention to reduce the number of new infections, severity of disease, and deaths from the disease. However, there are several threats to successful uptake of vaccines to at least 67% in any population, which has been the estimated vaccination level to achieve herd immunity. These threats promote vaccination hesitancy, a phenomenon where people refuse or delay to be vaccinated, despite the availability of the vaccines and vaccination programmes.

Sources of vaccination hesitancy in any population include fear of unknown adverse events, mistrust of governments and vaccine manufacturers, religious, social and cultural factors, and several circulating myths and misconceptions, which must be addressed adequately to promote vaccine uptake.

Most people’s fears have been centered around being injected with COVID-19 containing vaccines and catching the virus, being implanted microchips which allow one to be tracked, or widely associated in some circles with the ‘mark of the beast’, which is a biblical concept signifying end times. Such myths have been propagated by prominent religious leaders in Zimbabwe and beyond, who have stood up on several platforms denouncing science and vaccines. Fears of DNA being altered, which are somehow baseless have also been widely circulated, more-so in religious circles.

 Fears of contracting COVID-19 from vaccines emanates from lack of understanding of the current types of vaccines and how they work.

So the question that needs to be answered for most people is, what is a vaccine, and how does it work? The discovery of vaccines goes back to over two centuries ago, starting with Edward Jenner’s discovery, and since then, several safe and effective vaccines have been developed. We all have been inoculated with one or more vaccines in our lifetime to protect ourselves from infectious diseases, either before exposure or after exposure to the infection.

The SARS-CoV-2 vaccines belong to the before exposure group, and are created to teach your body to respond effectively and timeously when you get exposed to the infection, blocking you from getting the infection, or reducing the severity of the disease. They are made in different ways, which are all safe. Some, such as the Sinopharm vaccine from China are made from chemically inactivated virus which have no potential whatsoever to reactivate and cause disease. Basically, billions and billions of the virus are produced in a lab, and are then inactivated, taking away their potential to infect.

However, they retain essential components of the spike protein, which is recognised by the body when vaccinated so that the body produces antibodies against this spike protein, and when you encounter the real virus in your lifetime these antibodies will recognise and neutralise components of this spike protein. The other vaccines such as Pfizer BioNtech and Oxford Astra Zeneca etc are made in different ways, but with one objective, teaching your immune system to recognise the infection when it comes and protect your body.

COVID-19 came at a time when the world is so advanced in terms of vaccine development, that it was easy to capitalise on past successes and failures to successfully develop vaccines in record time. This goes along with advancements in technology that have occurred over the past few decades. Most people have been concerned with the short time it took to develop and produced SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. Advances in technology and overwhelming numbers of volunteers to participate in clinical trials allowed all phases of testing to happen within an extremely short period of time. Being in a pandemic, the vaccines gained emergency use authorisation from various regulatory bodies across the globe to allow them to be used whilst other processes carry on.

To date, people who have been vaccinated all over the world are now in the millions, and the numbers continue to grow. Apart from rumors that circulate in social media, and a few adverse events as expected with medicines and vaccines, there have been no major safety issues globally. Zimbabwe has vaccinated over 50000 people to date, and there have been no safety concerns as well. We will continue to monitor safety and effectiveness issues as we go along with the programme, but for now it looks good.

Based on science there is absolutely no connection between vaccinations and the religious conspiracy theories or the depopulation theories that have been widely circulated. We must all embrace vaccines as an additional layer of protection against COVID-19. For now we will continue to observe all the other infection prevention and control measures, which include handwashing, wearing masks, physical distancing and avoiding unnecessary gatherings. We do all these not to just protect ourselves, but the community and country at large.

After all, we have one goal, the return of life to normalcy, so we can resume unregulated socioeconomic activities, our kids go to school, and we resume church services and other mass gatherings. Highlanders and Dynamos supporters miss Barbourfields etc and there is so so much we haven’t been able to do. Let’s look for wisdom, and embrace God-given science, as we move into the future.

 

About the Author: Dr Grant Murewanhema is an independent Epidemiologist and public health expert

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