While vaccines have been an invaluable tool in slowing or stopping pandemics, one of the greatest challenges they have faced in recent years is decreasing public confidence in their safety and efficacy. Especially with a vaccine produced under such unusual conditions, doubts from the general population are alarmingly high. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center of over 12,000 people from a variety of backgrounds, only 60% of participants said they would get the vaccine if available to them. Among Black respondents, the most heavily-hit demographic by this pandemic, the figure was a concerning 42%. Overall confidence in a vaccine has risen slightly since September, but widespread participation is necessary for any vaccine to effectively control a pandemic. Can we really trust these vaccines?
Development of COVID-19 vaccines began in January of this year. After just eleven months of research and trials, the first of these vaccines are becoming available to select members of the public. This timeline is a major source of concern for many skeptics. Most vaccines take several years to create because of rigorous measures in place to ensure safety and efficacy. With thousands of deaths worldwide daily, a process on the scale of years would lead to immeasurable losses. Time is of the essence in order to limit impact.
However, the vaccine was not produced rapidly because vital corners were cut. As soon as COVID-19 was recognized as a global health emergency, companies and agencies devoted maximal resources towards creating a vaccine. Phases like the exploratory research phase were expedited because of the number of well-funded labs conducting research simultaneously.
Although extensive trials were conducted, the time scale for these trials was shorter than most vaccines due to extensive resources and time demand. The first phase I trials (small scale human testing) were conducted as early as March, and since then many more successful trials have been conducted to ensure their safety and efficacy.
To get the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to the public as soon as possible, many agencies, including America’s FDA, have used emergency authorization with advanced review to allow for distribution. However, this is not the same as approval as specific groups—including young children and the pregnant—have not been tested comprehensively for adverse reactions.
In phase III trials and studies of the first administrations of the vaccine in the UK, side effects have been relatively minimal. While some symptoms including pain in the area of administration and mild fatigue were somewhat common, these are relatively harmless and are to be expected of any vaccine because of the body’s natural response. More serious side effects like allergic reactions and temporary weakness or paralysis of the injected arm were spotted, but only in extremely rare cases. This is consistent with most other widely available vaccines. These occurrences should only get rarer as more vaccines roll out and existing ones are improved.
Given the tested 95% efficacy rate of the Pfizer vaccine and 94% efficacy of the Moderna vaccine, these vaccines are proven to work in protecting their recipients. While it is yet unknown whether these vaccines prevent transmission or merely stop symptoms, having as much of the population vaccinated as possible would save innumerable lives. Present fears about these vaccines are somewhat unwarranted, as the potential symptoms come nowhere near the impact of the virus itself.
Among respondents to the aforementioned Pew Research Center survey, only 37% would be comfortable receiving the first publicly administered doses of the vaccine. Gaining the trust of the public will be a tall task for all agencies involved, but as more and more vaccines are administered successfully and positive impacts of the vaccine are seen, trust can be built.