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A shot of light in the darkness

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Newfoundland and Labrador administered its first doses of COVID-19 vaccine in St. John’s Wednesday, but the province’s chief medical officer of health says the public will still need to be patient.

“This is really the beginning of the end, but we are really only about halfway there,” Dr. Janice Fitzgerald told reporters in a morning technical briefing. “I say that not to crush hope, because I believe we should be very hopeful today, but to bring awareness to the reality of our situation.”

Here are some common questions and concerns that have arisen in recent weeks, with answers drawn from local public health officials and other reliable sources such as Health Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Was this vaccine rushed?

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Yes and no. One of the most common misconceptions has been that companies haven’t properly tested the vaccine. This is not true. Vaccines go through three phases of human trials. The first two establish if there are any obvious adverse effects and determine what dose is appropriate, among other things. The Phase 3 trial involves tens of thousands of participants and provides statistical data as to its effectiveness. All three phases were completed before approval, and no steps were skipped.

But vaccines usually take at least two years from development to approval. The difference in this case is that some of the stages of development overlapped. Government subsidies helped companies manufacture millions of doses in advance of approval without companies risking their own money if the vaccine flopped. Developers also had a head start in research from their experience with earlier coronaviruses, such as the one that caused SARS.

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Are there unknowns about this vaccine?

There are. This is a new vaccine for a new virus, so there is no benefit of hindsight. It’s not entirely clear to what extent the vaccine prevents the recipient from spreading the coronavirus. It’s also not completely clear how effective it is across different age groups, although Pfizer did find it was more than 94 per cent effective in those over 65. It’s also not known how long immunity lasts, but it’s likely to wear off at some point. That is why, for example, we need to get a flu shot every year, even if it’s for the same strain of the virus.

What are the risks and side-effects?

The risk of adverse reaction is low, but it’s not non-existent. Any vaccine can cause adverse reactions, and in rare cases those reactions can be serious. After the first doses of the vaccine were administered in the United Kingdom, a couple of recipients had allergic reactions. Anyone prone to allergic reactions to any of the vaccine’s ingredients is therefore advised not to get it. But this is a routine warning that comes with any drug.

The most common side-effects of the vaccine are soreness at the injection site and mild, flu-like symptoms that last for a day at most. These are signs the vaccine is working.

Why are the first doses only being administered in St. John’s?

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at a temperature of at least -70 C. That requires shipping it with dry ice and storing it in a specially designed freezer once it arrives. The developers added a proviso that, for now, its doses be kept and distributed from one site. For this province, that means all the first injections are taking place at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s. The province expects to have at least three other ultra deep freezers up and running at other locations some time in January. Other pending vaccines, including a similar product from U.S. company Moderna, do not require such deep freezing, making distribution far more flexible.

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Who will be the first to get the vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccine requires a booster shot a few weeks after the initial one. That means the 1,950 initial doses bound for St. John’s will be earmarked for 975 people. The first recipients are health-care workers. Subsequent shipments will go to residents and staff in long-term care. As per federal guidelines, Indigenous populations must also be given top priority, as well as anyone of advanced age. Beyond that, plans are still being worked out.

Who can’t get the vaccine?

Because of insufficient data, anyone under 18 years of age will not be vaccinated. The same goes for pregnant women and those with suppressed immune systems. If you’re uncertain whether you qualify, contact your primary health-care provider. These exclusions will likely change as more data is obtained by vaccine developers and regulators.

Can we all stop wearing masks once people start getting vaccinated?

No, for a few reasons. First, 80 per cent or more of the population has to be vaccinated before herd immunity is achieved. Herd immunity is where enough people are resistant to the virus to stop it from spreading. It will likely be several months before that happens. As well, as mentioned above, it’s still not clear whether the vaccine stops you from transmitting the coronavirus to others. So, even if you got your shot, you have to play it safe.

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When will everyone be vaccinated?

The province hopes to have 28,000 people vaccinated by March 2021. If you’re not in a priority group, don’t expect to get a vaccine until summer at the earliest. As other vaccines come on stream, officials are optimistic everyone will be vaccinated before the end of 2021.

Will this vaccine alter my DNA?

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This myth likely arose after a comment by philanthropist Bill Gates was taken out of context. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines feature a ground-breaking biotechnology called messenger RNA, or mRNA. Instead of injecting dead viral protein into the arm to invoke an immune response, mRNA is injected instead. It’s basically a genetic code that instructs your own muscle cells to create a bit of the viral protein. The effect is only fleeting, but it’s enough to spur the immune response. A few muscle cells are briefly repurposed, but your DNA is not altered.

Will this vaccine insert a microchip into my arm?

No. But at least one person has quipped that it may come with U2’s latest album.

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