Human Writes: Get your Covid-19 lifejackets on, people, the water's rough


A mass vaccination site being set up to deliver the Moderna vaccine to people in a rural area in the state of Virginia. Health workers in the United States have administered more than 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses, as at March 12 - around 30% of the world's total of shots in arms so far. -AFP

The web of conspiracy stories about Covid-19 vaccines began before any existed: Bill Gates caused this “plandemic” so he could use vaccines to “microchip humanity”; the chips would link with 5G towers; the vaccines would alter your DNA... and so on and so forth.

A woman with large, pus-filled red sores on her feet was held up as an example of what happened to participants in vaccine clinical trials. Turns out she had only received the placebo. Deaths among vaccinated care home residents in Norway caused a scare, but they were old, frail and actually dying. In any group of millions of people, especially seniors, some deaths will occur.

The vaccines are our best way out of the pandemic – the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. But they’re only any good if people take them. An epidemic of misinformation and misplaced fear, spreading faster than the virus, stands in the way.

Some people don’t want to “take risks”. Others say they’re “strong enough” already. Really? Look at the Covid-19 numbers (from Worldometers): More than 120 million people infected with Covid-19 and over 2,600,000 lives lost worldwide. In one day last week, half a million more got infected and 10,000 died.

Meanwhile, more than 300 million vaccine shots have been given in 100 countries. Have there been mass deaths? No! We’d know by now if there were major issues. So far, not one death can be definitively linked to the vaccines. Many independent, regulatory bodies are looking for any adverse effects.

In fact, deaths are falling among vaccinated populations – in Britain, deaths dropped by nearly 70% over four weeks among people aged over 80.

In very rare cases, severe allergic (anaphylactic) reactions have been seen, almost always within a half hour. All these cases recovered. This is relevant for people who have had anaphylactic reactions, such as my husband who has a peanut allergy – but he’s not put off because he knows treatments are available. (Just to be clear, some reaction – such as pain at the injection site – is normal, a sign the immune system is working.)

Clearly, the risks of getting Covid-19 and dying from it are far, far higher than vaccine risks. As for long-term effects, consider “Long Covid” which goes on for months, wiping you out. We don’t know what Covid-19 – which affects the vascular system – may do in the long term.

Other concerns are that the vaccines were developed “too quickly” with new technology. Indeed, the speed of development was unprecedented, but corners were not cut. One factor that fast-forwarded the process was US$10bil (RM41bil) of public funding. Merely securing funding in the usual way can drag on for years.

Plus, some of the research didn’t begin last year but years earlier. The biology of coronaviruses which cause SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) had already been studied – their structure, lifecycle and, importantly, the weak spot: the spike protein.

Oxford University researchers had even developed a MERS vaccine with a viral vector (a common tool used). This provided the basis for their Covid-19 vaccine developed with Astra-Zeneca. The vector – an inactivated adenovirus (a virus that causes the common cold) – shuttles a gene code for the Covid-19 spike protein, which triggers an immune response. The vaccines from Russia, China’s CanSino Biologics and Johnson & Johnson’s are all adenovirus-vector vaccines.

The “messenger RNA” technology in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines has never before been used on a large scale, but the technology dates back to the 1990s and has been researched for vaccines against cancer (since 2011), flu, Zika and rabies.

There are fears that mRNA vaccines will “change” our DNA. But these vaccines – as well as the viral vector vaccines – never enter the nucleus of our cells, where our DNA lies.

All the Covid-19 vaccines also underwent rigorous Phase Three trials involving thousands of people (40,000 for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine). The trial data is now holding up against real-world data from mass vaccination, with hospitalisation and deaths falling in many countries.

Incidentally, it’s difficult to compare all the vaccines because of different parameters and conditions used in trials. Some were tested when variants were circulating. However, the key point is that all the vaccines protect against severe disease and death (but some were less effective for mild disease).

Many questions have yet to be answered: How long will immunity last? Do the vaccines stop transmission? It certainly looks like transmission is reduced but we need data and studies to confirm this.

The vaccines are not a magic bullet but they can take us from a health crisis to a manageable disease. One analogy I heard is that these vaccines are like lifejackets: If we fall in water (ie, get infected), the lifejacket will stop us drowning.

So people, get your lifejackets as soon as you can. The water’s rough out there.

To register for the vaccine, use the MySejahtera app or go to vaksincovid.gov.my or call 1-800-888 828.


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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