The COVID-19 particle measures 125 nanometers. While minuscule, this virus has ironically made large impacts on the way we have to live our lives now.
The daily routines of always having a face mask on hand and trying to social distance from friends and loved ones without seeming to be rude, have weaved their way into our lives like nobody could have predicted a year ago.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the United States for almost a year now and ever since, scientists have been racing to engineer a vaccine in hopes of helping Americans return to what we once knew as normal. While the vaccine has shown promise and many are eager to take it, it still stirs feelings of fear and uncertainty among others.
How does it work?
Although the amount of time it takes to make a vaccine can greatly vary depending on the disease itself and how it spreads, it generally takes anywhere from 5-10 years to develop a vaccine from scratch. Remarkably, the COVID-19 vaccine was developed within less than a year, making some feel like that the vaccine was rushed.
However, the COVID-19 vaccines that are authorized for use were not developed from scratch. The coronavirus is not completely unknown. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a member of the coronavirus family. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there are hundreds of coronaviruses, four of which can even cause the common cold, as well as the SARS epidemic back in 2002.
Another factor that helped speed the development of the vaccine was the large amount of funding it received. The U.S. government has been pouring money into accelerating the development of the vaccine. Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company that produced one of the vaccines, received $1.95 billion to produce the vaccine by the end of 2020. Moderna, another company, received $1.5 billion in funding from the U.S. government.
The vaccine has been through rigorous testing to ensure that it’s as safe as possible, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA only does so for vaccines that have met the rigorous safety criteria and have been shown to be effective through data from manufacturers and large clinical trials.
The COVID-19 vaccine uses a relatively new approach to vaccines called messenger RNA, also known as mRNA, to protect against infectious diseases.
Instead of using the live virus that causes COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine teaches our cells how to make the protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. In turn, this produces antibodies, which is our bodies’ natural defense mechanism from infection from viruses.
Once the vaccine is administered, our cells use the mRNA, which provides the instructions to make a protein on the surface of our cells. Our immune system recognizes that the protein doesn’t belong there, and it begins building an immune response by making antibodies.
Through this process, our bodies are equipped to protect us against future infection. And with the new approach of the mRNA vaccine, those vaccinated would be equipped with this protection without ever getting sick with COVID-19 because their bodies would already be prepared to battle the virus.
What is the difference between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines?
The FDA has approved 2 vaccines so far — one from Pfizer-BioNTech and one from Moderna. While both vaccines use the same mRNA technology, they have a couple of key differences.
After Phase 3 of the vaccine trials, Moderna reported that its vaccine was 94.5% effective, whereas the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reported to be 95% effective. Although both approved by the FDA, the Moderna vaccine is only authorized for use in people ages 18 and up, but the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is authorized for use in people 16 and up.
Both vaccines need to be frozen, but the Moderna vaccine is stored at a lower temperature. The Moderna vaccine only needs to be stored at -20 degrees Celsius, which is -4 degrees Fahrenheit, making it easier to distribute. However, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius, which requires special super cold freezers that are hard for some health care providers to obtain.
Why are some hesitant to take the vaccine?
Some have expressed concern about the vaccine because of our country’s history of medical racism, particularly black Americans and people of color who are at even higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. From 1932-1972, the impacts of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, conducted by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, linger in the minds of some to this day.
In the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 600 black men were enrolled in a medical study for syphilis under the impression that they were receiving free treatment, but in actuality, were being exploited by researchers. Researchers continued this unethical experiment for 40 years and prevented patients from receiving treatment, even after it was discovered, despite the fact that some patients died, became blind, and developed other severe conditions.
Another instance of medical racism that leaves many black Americans and people of color hesitant to take the vaccine is the case of Henrietta Lacks, a black mother of five children who suffered and died from cervical cancer at the age of 31. Her cancer cells were taken without her knowledge or consent and were used to experiment in medical laboratories. Unfortunately, many companies that profited and benefited from Lacks’ cells neglected to inform her family for decades.
What do Texans think about this?
According to a survey conducted by the Episcopal Health Foundation, only 37 percent of Texans said they are “very likely” to get a Covid-19 vaccine when it’s available. The groups that reported the highest likelihood of getting the vaccine were Democrats at 52 percent, Texans over 65 years old at 49 percent, college graduates at 48 percent, and people with higher incomes at 46 percent.
On the other hand, the groups that reported the lowest likelihood of getting the vaccine were black residents at 31 percent, Texans with some college education at 30 percent, Republicans at 30 percent, and uninsured residents under age 65 at 28 percent.
In a press release explaining the survey results, Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation said, “We know these vaccines will save lives, but communities most at risk of getting sick from COVID-19 may have to be convinced it’s worth it.”
What does the Akins community think about this?
A survey was sent out to Akins students, teachers, and staff concerning the vaccine. In the survey, 36.5 percent of the Akins community said they would be “very likely” to take the vaccine if they had the opportunity. Conversely, 25.6 percent said they would be “not likely” to take the vaccine. However, 23.8 percent said they would be “somewhat likely” and 14.1 percent said they are “undecided.”
Almost an even split, 48 percent of the Akins community said there’s nothing that makes them hesitant about taking a COVID-19 vaccine while 47.1 percent said that there’s something that makes them hesitant about taking it.
In addition to saying that he would be “not likely” to take the vaccine, sophomore Joseph Ybarra wrote in a survey response that he doesn’t trust it because he believes “it takes years to make a vaccine.”
Freshman Lillie Whiting said that she’s “undecided” about taking the vaccine. “I just want to know what goes in it. I just want it to be safe,” she wrote.
A majority of the Akins community — 56.2 percent — indicated that they trust the science behind vaccines as a safe means to protect from diseases while 18 percent said they do not, and 23.5 percent said they are undecided.
Junior Anika Stephens wrote, conversely, that they trust the vaccine.
“The people making the vaccines aren’t rookies,” they wrote. “They know what they’re doing. Most people can’t recite the main active ingredients of an Advil pill, so why worry about this? There’s not much of a difference, and it could quite literally save the lives of those around you.”
Social studies teacher Hannah Howard said that she has received the first round of the COVID-19 vaccine and did not experience any side effects. She wrote in her survey response that she trusts vaccines because they “have been around since the 1500s (probably even before!).”
Senior Eric Rayo Amado wrote that he doesn’t trust it because “scientists are under pressure to get a vaccine so they may not be effective.”
Senior Shanti Ramdeen said that she would be “not likely” to take the vaccine because she is concerned about long-term effects that are unknown.
“The 5-10 year process it usually takes to make a vaccine was rushed and made in a year so therefore they don’t know any of the long-term effects and I’m too young to be messed up because of a vaccine,” she wrote.
Many more students indicated that they are apprehensive about the vaccine than teachers, many of whom said they were eager to take it.
What do students of color think about it?
Though it is apparent that there is ambivalence about the vaccine in general, many students of color at Akins have expressed concern specifically about its accessibility.
Junior Isaias Balderas said he is concerned about accessibility to the vaccine for black, indigenous, and people of color.
“Minority communities are disproportionately affected by the virus and the pandemic,” he said. “As a Mexican-American person, if I were to get the vaccine, I wouldn’t feel like I was participating in a science experiment for lack of a better term. As I currently see, people don’t want to wear masks or social distance, so getting a vaccine is the best option for the public.”
Isaias is hopeful about the vaccine and says if it means getting back to normal, he would “most definitely” take it.
“There was and still is a lot of misinformation about the vaccine but from everything that I have read, this is the most funded vaccine, making it the most researched, effective, and thus was able to be manufactured and distributed quicker,” he said.
Sophomore Alishba Ali says she’s hesitant about the vaccine.
“I am Middle-Eastern, specifically from Pakistan. I’m very nervous about how the vaccine will react in the long-term … Ultimately, I do trust science. However, given the United States’ past, I am very nervous about how it will affect BIPOC,” she said.
Given the United States’ past, I am very nervous about how it will affect BIPOC.”
— Alishba Ali, Sophomore
Alishba said that she wouldn’t take the vaccine yet.
“I understand that it’s a very controversial topic but personally, I would like to see results in other people for a longer period of time,” she said.
She said she’s had some family members take it. “I am eternally grateful that they are feeling well but given that, I still don’t know how it could affect them later after they’ve received their second dose,” she said.
She said a part of her takes comfort in the fact that government officials have taken it for the sole fact of knowing that the government wouldn’t hurt itself.
“I know a lot of people are concerned about the fact that it was made ‘fast,’ but you have to take into account that it’s a global pandemic and that of course people are going to try and find a cure. What else would you expect them to do?” she said.
Junior Valerie Treminio said, “I am a Hispanic female and I wonder if I will get the vaccine anytime soon. I hope my race doesn’t affect anything.”
Valerie said she knows someone who got Covid-19.
“Everything went by so fast, it was almost shocking to know what this virus does to people. It really was like a wake-up call to not underestimate Covid,” she said.
She also said that Covid has made her become extremely grateful of the things around her such as her “family, friends, and just the little things.”
“I would really consider taking the vaccine, I miss having a normal life. I no longer want to be in fear of this deadly virus,” she said.
Americans are eager to return to their normal lives, where they could learn in classrooms and didn’t have to be on Zoom for eight hours a day, see friends and family without masks, go to gatherings and celebrations, and not live in fear of a particle that’s only 125 nanometers.
The vaccine could bring us one step closer to this by developing herd immunity, which is when enough of the population, about 80 to 90 percent, has developed some form of protective immunity against the virus, either through vaccination or prior infection.
However, the development of a vaccine doesn’t signify the end of the pandemic. Until further notice, the CDC still recommends wearing a mask and social distancing, even with both doses of the vaccine, to offer the best protection against the virus.
In an interview with Immunize Texas, an organization that promotes vaccination efforts, lead Jinny Suh said that the vaccine is a “crucial step needed for us to return to our way of our pre-pandemic lives.”
Suh said that Americans need to stop treating facts as though they are just opinions to stop the spread of misinformation surrounding the vaccine.
“As humans facing a global pandemic that has taken the lives of over 460,000 people in our country, it is imperative that we use logic to evaluate what we see in front of us and make decisions that are supported by solid evidence,” Suh said.
Jinny Suh leads Immunize Texas, an organization that promotes vaccination efforts. She answered our questions about rumors and misinformation that is often spread about the COVID-19 vaccines.
Eagle’s Eye: What is your response to those who are hesitant about taking the vaccine? Especially for POC and members of the black community that are hesitant, given the history?
Jinny Suh: There are very real reasons why a POC might be skeptical of the medical establishment, given the history of how communities of color have been treated in this country. However, the wrongdoings of people don’t counteract the great deal of evidence we have today to support the COVID-19 vaccine. We want everyone to get the vaccine because we want everyone to be safe and protected. The vaccine is the best way to get to safety and protection. We especially want our communities of color to get the vaccine because we also know they suffer more from the disease. Understanding the reasoning behind the vaccine, what it is meant to do, and why it is so important is why so many POC leaders have received their vaccine and are trying to spread the word amongst their communities.
EE: How can we stop the misinformation surrounding the vaccine?
JS: We need to stop treating facts as though they are just opinions. We also need to think critically when we hear something that provokes any extreme feelings we might have, whether it’s fear, anger, or paranoia. It’s very easy to be swayed by emotions as strong as these, but feelings don’t change the science. As humans facing a global pandemic that has taken the lives of over 460,000 people in our country, it is imperative that we use logic to evaluate what we see in front of us and make decisions that are supported by solid evidence.
EE: What would you say to those who think the vaccine was rushed or to those who are fearful that it will change their DNA?
JS: We’ve actually known about other related coronaviruses for some time and have studied them, so in that sense, we didn’t have to start the process of developing a vaccine from scratch. We also had a lot of investment into finding vaccines that work so numerous companies got into the business of trying to find a COVID-19 vaccine. And finally, with the rapid spread of COVID-19 vaccine and the willingness of so many to be part of research trials, we were able to accomplish stages much more quickly than we normally would in non-pandemic times. The combination of all these factors led to the impressive speed with which we were able to develop and produce COVID-19 vaccines. However, nowhere along the way were shortcuts taken when it came to safety. I, myself, have looked to several experts in the field to get their take on the development process, and they have all come out strongly in favor of the evidence supporting the vaccines and have themselves advocated for everyone to get a vaccine.
As for someone worried about their DNA changing, it’s just impossible. That’s not how the technology works and this idea is unfortunately just another example of people who are anti-vaccine making things up out of whole cloth.
EE: Were you disappointed when Episcopal Health Foundation came out with the results for Travis County that said only 38% are likely to take the vaccine?
JS: I do my best not to pay attention to polls like that, as I think they can be more problematic than helpful. I think what you’ll see in real life is that as more and more people get the vaccine and show by way of their own lives that the vaccine is safe and desirable, then others who may have felt some vaccine hesitance will be confident in their decision to get the vaccine.
EE: What does a vaccine mean for our future? Will we be able to return to school? Will we still have to wear masks?
JS: The vaccine is a crucial step needed for us to return to our way of our pre-pandemic lives. However, we will have to see how that plays out on a day-to-day basis. There are so many factors involved and it’s hard to say with any real confidence what exactly will happen. For instance, I think we will have to return to school eventually but what that looks like and how our behaviors might change as a result remains to be seen. As for masks, I hope we can go back to not wearing them on most days, but I know that we’ve learned a lot about disease transmission and hope that mask usage will continue not just to curb the spread of COVID-19 but for other diseases that we know spread in a similar way.
EE: How long will the vaccine’s protection last?
JS: Unfortunately, science is not able to predict things without any evidence. At this point, we have not lived with the disease or the vaccine long enough to know the answer to this question.
EE: How accessible will the vaccine be for people of color and low-income families?
JS: The answer to this really depends on where you are located and how well your local health authority is able to handle issues of inequity. There’s so much involved from supply to access, infrastructure to ability, and everything in between. However, I will say that there are many of us involved in the vaccine work who are dedicated to trying to increase the ability for POC and low-income families to get the vaccine because we value those individuals and want to see them protected.
EE: Can someone who has been vaccinated still spread the virus?
JS: Again, the data is still unable to say how exactly the vaccines are able to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 and the reasons may be different depending on the vaccine you’re talking about. A vaccine could either be preventing an infection from happening at all, or it could be greatly reducing symptoms and hopefully preventing transmission to another person by not allowing the body to make great quantities of the virus to spread to others. Scientists are actively collecting data as we speak so that they will eventually be able to say which mechanism is at work with each of the vaccines that are available now.
EE: Will the vaccine remain effective as the virus evolves?
JS: So far, that seems to be the case and I think there’s a very good reason to believe that will remain true. Vaccine researchers do their best to find those common parts of the virus to use so that even if there is mutation, the human immune system will still be able to mount a response. But if someone is concerned about the virus evolving to the point where the current vaccines will be ineffective, then they should be in favor of getting vaccinated as soon as possible because viruses need a body in which to grow and time to change. If we can get everyone vaccinated quickly enough, then we could effectively stop this virus from mutating to an even more dangerous strain.
EE: Do you have any advice for those on the edge about taking the vaccine?
JS: I, myself, do not claim to be an expert on vaccine research, development or production. And I recognize that. None of us can be an expert on everything. But what we should be doing in times like this is looking to the people who are the experts in those fields. When I do that with regard to the COVID-19 vaccines, I see a strong consensus of experts who have the training and knowledge I don’t have saying that the COVID-19 vaccines should be trusted and that everyone who can get them should get them.