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Immunologist On COVID-19 Vaccine Technology

<p>Paula McMahon prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, as the mass public vaccination program gets underway, at the NHS Louisa Jordan Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland, Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020.</p>
(Jeff J Mitchell/Pool via AP)

Paula McMahon prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, as the mass public vaccination program gets underway, at the NHS Louisa Jordan Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland, Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020.

A vaccine for COVID-19 is on everyone’s minds right now. It’s seen as a possible light at the end of what has been a dark tunnel of a year.  

Governor Steve Sisolak said he expects the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to be available in the state as early as this week.  

But there have been concerns about the fast-tracking of a vaccine, and what it could mean in the long run. Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole, a professor of biomedical sciences at UNLV, told KNPR's State of Nevada there is no need for concern about the vaccine.

"The FDA analysis of this is as rigorous as any regulatory agency anywhere in the world," he said. 

Dr. Ebersole said the FDA doesn't just look at the data that pharmaceutical companies give it but at the raw data from the testing and trials. He said federal agencies in the U.S. have thoroughly tested the vaccine for safety and efficacy. 

There are two vaccines that have shown to be effective. One from Pfizer and the other from Moderna. Dr. Ebersole said both work very well.

“Each of them has been shown in the Phase 3 trials, very rigorous Phase 3 trials, to provide excellent protection and somewhat surprisingly excellent protection because a lot of current vaccines, particularly viral vaccines, like the coronavirus would be, maybe only have 70 or 75 percent effectiveness,” he said.

But the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been shown to be 94 to 95 percent effective. 

Some people's concerns about the vaccine stem from the speed at which the vaccines were developed. Dr. Ebersole explained that it is the new technology that the pharmaceutical companies used to create the vaccines that allowed them to be developed so fast.

“These are the first vaccines used in humans that have actually used the nucleic acid,” he said.

The companies used DNA from the virus itself to create an immune response in humans. Other vaccines, like those given in childhood for chickenpox, measles and diphtheria along with the annual flu vaccine, are made with parts of the pathogen or a killed virus.

Dr. Ebersole said those types of vaccines take much longer to create, but by using a part of the novel coronavirus's DNA structure the companies were able to create the vaccine much quicker. 

They had been working on vaccines based on DNA before the pandemic and used their knowledge of SARS and MERS, two other coronavirus epidemics, to create the current vaccines.

The part of the DNA they used controls what is known as the 'spike protein' on the virus. It is the spike protein that allows the virus to attach to human cells and infect them, Dr. Ebersole explained.

“If we can block that, we can prevent the disease from this virus,” he said.

Once the vaccine is injected, our own bodies react to the virus's DNA structure.

“They’re picked up by your own cells and your own cells start producing this spike protein that becomes the immunogen. In other words, it’s what causes the immunity to occur,” he said.

Because the vaccines are made with DNA and not a killed part of the virus, Dr. Ebersole said there will be even fewer side effects than what some people see when they get an annual flu shot.

“They’re only using a very small part of the DNA from the virus," he said, "So there is absolutely no way that you can get COVID infection from this vaccine.”

The side effects, like with the flu shot, are soreness at the injection site, slight fever and fatigue; however, Dr. Ebersole reminds everyone that those side effects are proof your body is reacting to the challenge of the vaccination and producing antibodies to fight exposure to the virus.

He did admit that some people will have a slightly more severe reaction to the vaccination, but it is impossible, right now, to determine who that will be.

Although he is not an expert in public health, Dr. Ebersole said looking at the data of past vaccination programs shows that when between 70 and 75 percent of the population is immune, either through getting the virus or being vaccinated, then we will hit what is known as herd immunity.

Herd immunity is when enough people cannot get sick that the virus cannot spread. 

“That’s part of the problem we have with COVID. It is so contagious. It is so easily transmitted that having an immune population will break that cycle,” he said.

Dr. Ebersole said if we want to get back to normal people need to get vaccinated. 

“You’re not getting vaccinated simply to protect yourself. You’re getting vaccinated to protect your family, to protect your community and we’re all part of that process,” he said.

He admits a portion of the population is against vaccines altogether and won't get vaccinated, but he notes this vaccine and other vaccines are not only safe but have changed the world.

“The impact of vaccines on the health of the population of the globe, let alone the United States, has been virtually immeasurable,” he said.

Previously devastating infectious diseases, like smallpox and polio, have been eliminated because of vaccines, he said. 

As the rollout of the vaccine ramps up from the thousands of people who got it during the trials to the millions of people across the country, Dr. Ebersole said researchers will start to get a better understanding of the efficacy of the vaccine and the side effects.

Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole, Interim Chair of Biomedical Sciences & Associate Dean for Research, UNLV

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.