Does the COVID-19 vaccine give you coronavirus? Will it alter your DNA? Can we trust these vaccines, given how rapidly they were developed?
These are some of the questions Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham and the service’s top public health experts sought to answer during a Facebook Live event Feb. 18.
Billed as a Navy version of “Mythbusters” — but without the cool explosions or flying buses — the service made a full court press to promote COVID-19 vaccines and counter misinformation even as Defense Department officials said roughly one-third of all U.S. service members offered the vaccine have declined it.
Given that 162,842 U.S. troops, or nearly 8%, of the active-duty, Reserve and National Guard components, have contracted COVID since the start of the pandemic, the DoD has a vested interest in educating service members while the immunization remains voluntary under a Food and Drug Administration emergency-use authorization, DoD officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
“We’ve only been at this for about 60 days, but where we’ve seen vaccine rates a little bit lower — acceptance rates — the commands are getting involved, providing education forums, having the opportunity to have town halls and those types of things will provide that insight,” said Robert Salesses, a DoD expert in homeland defense and global security, during a hearing on the Pentagon’s support of the national response to the virus.
In the Facebook presentation, Gillingham said the vaccine is a tool to defeat the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, a “weapon in this fight” to end the pandemic.
“We’re all on the frontlines and, if you think about it, we have this biologic body armor to fight this,” he said. “The life you save may not only be your own. Could be a family member, could be a shipmate, could be a member of the community you’ve never met.”
According to the U.S. Navy, here are the Top 10 myths that Navy doctors have heard regarding the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and why they aren’t true.
1. I’ve already had COVID, so technically shouldn’t I be immune?
While having the illness provides some immunity, research hasn’t proven how long it lasts, and there have been cases of patients who have gotten the illness twice, said Capt. Bob Hawkins, commander for the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center.
Because of these uncertainties, he advises those who have had the coronavirus to get the vaccine.
“[If you had] COVID a year ago, we have no idea if you have protection, so the best way to ensure you have the most protection for yourself and others is to consider getting the vaccine,” Hawkins said.
2. The vaccine wasn’t developed with minorities in mind.
According to Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Hall, a member of the Navy’s advisory panel on COVID-19, the clinical trials for both vaccines included minority participants. For the trials, Pfizer enrolled 37,000 participants, 10% of whom were Black and 28% of whom identified as being Hispanic or Latino. For the Moderna trials, 10% and 20% of the 45,000 participants identified as Black or Hispanic, respectively.
“Ideally, it would have been higher, but there was certainly a number that demonstrates it is working in the population,” Hall said.
Cmdr. Richard Gilliard, who is Black, acknowledged that there are “legitimate concerns” among minority communities about getting the vaccine, but he said he did his own research and got the shot, along with his wife. He added that he has also recommended it to his 73-year-old mother.
“I encourage everyone of all races to get the vaccine,” Gilliard said.
3. We can’t trust these COVID-19 vaccines because they were developed so quickly.
While the vaccine technology using messenger RNA is new to widespread commercial use, it’s actually “decades old,” according to Capt. Matt Weiner, assistant deputy chief, M2, Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. The technology has been used in research to develop a number of vaccines and medical treatments, including immunizations against the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS.
In addition, the data from the research was reviewed by independent scientists at the FDA and elsewhere — further reason to trust the vaccine’s safety, Weiner added. Developers were able to study the vaccine’s effects rapidly because the pandemic was so widespread, adding more credibility to the safety and efficacy claims.
4. The vaccine is not safe for pregnant or lactating women.
The original Phase 3 trials did not include pregnant and breastfeeding women, and such participants are just now being allowed to join the research effort. More than 20,000 pregnant women have received the vaccine in the U.S. with no “safety concerns noted yet,” said Cathy Luna, a Navy midwife.
Medical experts say there is evidence that pregnant women are at higher risk for severe cases of COVID. The Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine and the Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists both recommend that pregnant women get the vaccine.
5. The vaccine should be reserved for the elderly, and the younger generation should wait.
“This is absolutely a very reasonable thing, ethically, intellectually … but the schema for priority vaccinations was based on in-depth conversations about population risks. … The more people get vaccinated, the more protection for the entire group. You are being offered the vaccine for a specific reason, and you have been chosen to help other people,” Hall said.
6. The vaccine can alter or will alter your DNA or genetic makeup.
According to Weiner, the messenger RNA technology used by the vaccines does not interact with a person’s DNA. DNA is protected in the nuclei of cells, while RNA is a set of “disposable directions” that enters a cell — not the nucleus — to direct it to create a version of the spike protein found on the coronavirus, eliciting the body’s immune response.
“Messenger RNA does not go to the nucleus and never interacts with DNA. Over,” Weiner said.
7. The vaccination will make you sick with COVID-19.
“This myth is not unique to the COVID vaccine. We see it with every vaccine I’ve ever recommended. It’s inevitable someone will say it will make them sick,” Hall said.
According to Hall and most immunologists, the malaise and side effects felt after a person receives the COVID-19 vaccine are the body’s immune response at work, gearing up to fight the targeted virus should a person contract it.
8. Since the COVID-19 survival rates are so high, I don’t think I need the vaccine.
According to Johns Hopkins University, 2.54 million people worldwide have died from COVID-19. Some studies have found that more than half those who developed symptomatic COVID had symptoms that lasted for weeks, including fatigue, headaches and “brain fog.”
The point, Hawkins said, is that “none of us know the long-term effects of getting COVID. … There could be long-term effects.”
“We don’t know if we are going to be the one to get severe COVID. … On an individual basis, getting vaccinated increases the chance you’re going to have a healthy life,” he said.
9. Will the COVID-19 vaccine affect my or my spouse’s ability to have children in the future?
Luna said the vaccine works to train the body to fight, and there is no evidence that the antibodies that form will cause problems with pregnancy. Since the vaccines “do not contain live virus, they do not alter DNA and do not cause genetic changes such as infertility,” she added.
10. The pandemic will be over soon. Will this be like a light switch now that we have the vaccine, and we can go back to normal?
Everyone wants life to get back to some modicum of normal, but “it’s going to take some time,” the Navy officials said.
According to Hall, achieving herd immunity, where the coronavirus has less opportunity to spread and kill, requires 70% of the population to be vaccinated or to have immunity as a result of having had the coronavirus.
Hall said he likes to compare getting the vaccine and continuing to take precautions with the “rate of enemy fire.”
“You have fire coming in all over the place. You put on your body armor. But while it’s coming in hot, you do other things. You take cover, use a helmet,” he said. “In this case, you get vaccinated, you wear your mask, face coverings, wash your hands, physical distancing. … You’ve got to keep doing these things until you get your rate of fire down.”
As of Tuesday, the DoD had administered more than 1 million vaccinations to beneficiaries, including more than 300,000 second doses, according to the DoD and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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