COVID-19 vaccines: Preparing for patient questions


With U.S. approval of one coronavirus vaccine likely imminent and approval of a second one expected soon after, physicians will likely be deluged with questions. Public attitudes about the vaccines vary by demographics, with a recent poll showing that men and older adults are more likely to choose vaccination, and women and people of color evincing more wariness.

Although the reasons for reluctance may vary, questions from patient will likely be similar. Some are related to the “warp speed” language about the vaccines. Other concerns arise from the fact that the platform – mRNA – has not been used in human vaccines before. And as with any vaccine, there are rumors and false claims making the rounds on social media.

In anticipation of the most common questions physicians may encounter, two experts, Krutika Kuppalli, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, and Angela Rasmussen, PhD, virologist and nonresident affiliate at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, Washington, talked in an interview about what clinicians can expect and what evidence-based – as well as compassionate – answers might look like.

Q: Will this vaccine give me COVID-19?

“There is not an intact virus in there,” Dr. Rasmussen said. The mRNA-based vaccines cannot cause COVID-19 because they don’t use any part of the coronavirus itself. Instead, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines contain manufactured mRNA molecules that carry the instructions for building the virus’ spike protein. After vaccine administration, the recipient’s own cells take up this mRNA, use it to build this bit of protein, and display it on their surfaces. The foreign protein flag triggers the immune system response.

The mRNA does not enter the cell nucleus or interact with the recipient’s DNA. And because it’s so fragile, it degrades quite quickly. To keep that from happening before cell entry, the mRNAs are cushioned in protective fats.

Q: Was this vaccine made too quickly?

“People have been working on this platform for 30 years, so it’s not that this is brand new,” Dr. Kuppalli said.

Researchers began working on mRNA vaccines in the 1990s. Technological developments in the last decade have meant that their use has become feasible, and they have been tested in animals against many viral diseases. The mRNA vaccines are attractive because they’re expected to be safe and easily manufactured from common materials. That’s what we’ve seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. Design of the spike protein mRNA component began as soon as the viral genome became available in January.

Usually, rolling out a vaccine takes years, so less than a year under a program called Operation Warp Speed can seem like moving too fast, Dr. Rasmussen acknowledged. “The name has given people the impression that by going at warp speed, we’re cutting all the corners. [But] the reality is that Operation Warp Speed is mostly for manufacturing and distribution.”

What underlies the speed is a restructuring of the normal vaccine development process, Dr. Kuppalli said. The same phases of development – animal testing, a small initial human phase, a second for safety testing, a third large phase for efficacy – were all conducted as for any vaccine. But in this case, some phases were completed in parallel, rather than sequentially. This approach has proved so successful that there is already talk about making it the model for developing future vaccines.

Two other factors contributed to the speed, said Dr. Kuppalli and Dr. Rasmussen. First, gearing up production can slow a rollout, but with these vaccines, companies ramped up production even before anyone knew if the vaccines would work – the “warp speed” part. The second factor has been the large number of cases, making exposures more likely and thus accelerating the results of the efficacy trials. “There is so much COVID being transmitted everywhere in the United States that it did not take long to hit the threshold of events to read out phase 3,” Dr. Rasmussen said.


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