The nation has started administering COVID-19 vaccines. Most people expect the vaccine to be effective in preventing outbreaks and getting everyone’s lives back to normal. However, the following popular myths and misunderstandings need to be clarified based on scientific observations in the fields of epidemiology, public health and immunology.
The first myth is that when you have been vaccinated, you can go ahead and travel anywhere without fear of contracting COVID-19.
However, vaccines are not 100 percent effective. Some vaccines can give 95 percent protection, but this means they are ineffective for 5 percent of those who receive them.
This might be due to various factors, such as the characteristics of a particular batch of vaccine, an individual’s physical constitution or aspects of the distribution process such as the cold chain, which could all prevent the recipient from having the desired immune response of producing effective antibodies. In such cases, the vaccinated person is known as a “nonresponder.”
So, while the virus is still causing havoc in many countries, people should not mistakenly think that vaccination would make them invulnerable to all viruses, which would give them a false sense of security.
The second myth is that after being vaccinated, you cannot transmit the virus to other people. This is another misconception. If you come into contact with the virus after vaccination, the virus will not remain in your body for very long, because it will be neutralized by your antibodies. How long this takes depends on the concentration of antibodies in your system, but in the meantime you might still transmit it to other people who have not been vaccinated, so you should keep up the habit of washing your hands frequently.
The third myth is that the Pfizer vaccine, offering 95 percent protection, is more effective than the AstraZeneca vaccine with 70 percent protection.
The so-called protective power is derived from the observed results of phase 3 clinical trials. Since countries around the world are keen to control the spread of the virus by generating sufficient herd immunity, their focus is on public health. This means that they observe how many people in the vaccinated and control groups become infected or develop symptoms, making them more likely to reinfect others.
If the focus were on protecting individuals, the focus would be on observation whether there are severe infections that might result in hospitalization or death.
All clinical trials of vaccines involve statistical analysis of these two types of data, so the makers of the AstraZeneca vaccine can state that it produces 76 percent protection against infection, but can 100 percent prevent severe illness and death. In other words, after the AstraZeneca vaccine is administered, although some people might not gain a high-enough concentration of antibodies to avoid infection, it could still reduce their chances of becoming seriously ill or dying.
The fourth myth is when people think that immune responses are side effects and want to get a vaccine that has fewer “side effects.” The purpose of vaccination is to make the body produce an immune response analogous with a real infection, so that if and when you encounter a real viral infection, you will have antibodies that can neutralize the virus and reduce the occurrence of symptoms.
However, many people regard immune responses such as fever, fatigue and body aches as side effects of the vaccine, when they are actually the main effects that vaccines are supposed to have. People might even judge the safety of vaccines based on these immune responses, but this is a misunderstanding.
The Centers for Disease Control has a post-vaccination symptom notification system and a Vaccine Injury Compensation Program fund, but their focus is not on these immune responses, but on dealing with adverse reactions that might result in serious illness or death.
The fifth myth is that all symptoms that occur after vaccination are related to the drug. Some countries have reported cases of blood clots in individuals who have received the vaccine and immediately stopped vaccinations.
They were not wrong to suspend vaccinations, because further research by experts is needed.
If the occurrence of severe adverse reactions or death is not higher than the natural background value, then it is hard to determine that there is any causal relation. It might happen because of individual physical characteristics, while other people will not necessarily have the same adverse reactions.
The best way to handle this issue is to wait for the expert judgement of the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC). People should not be afraid and refuse to be vaccinated, because that would mean losing out on the protective effect that vaccination can give.
Now that vaccinations have started, various questions and problems are sure to keep cropping up. However, Taiwan’s public health and medical systems have implemented a policy of rapid and professional disease prevention, mobilizing the whole public to safeguard health.
Our success in this respect puts us in a position to learn from the problems associated with vaccination in other countries and formulate a more mature system accordingly.
We need to cooperate with the CECC’s schedule, so that we can all win this battle together.
Twu Shiing-jer is chairman of the Development Center for Biotechnology and a founding director of Taiwan Immunization Vision and Strategy.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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