With over 173 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine delivered across 77 countries, the spread of new variants has again rippled doubt in bringing the pandemic to a real end. New strains of COVID-19 detected in the United Kingdom have now reached most every state, resulting in around 1,100 cases, according to the CDC. The new strain is said to be more lethal than its predecessor, as the spike protein of the virus has a better binding mechanism to the human body.
However, there has been promising news that the Moderna vaccine is still effective against these new variants found in the U.K. The antibodies in the vaccine had no difference in their neutralizing ability for U.K.’s variant, but had a six-fold reduction in neutralizing titers for the South African variant. This more infectious variant has brought on an incentive to create a variant booster candidate and study the effect of boosting with strain-specific spike proteins.
With the emergency use authorization and recent distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine in the U.S., people are scavenging for reassurance in their concerns with the COVID-19 vaccine. As the vaccine is being developed and administered in record time, compared to traditional timelines of 10 to 15 years, many are wondering if the vaccine is safe to use in terms of now and the future.
Though COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Latinx populations, vaccine sites have also been found to be sparse in predominantly BIPOC communities. A study done by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the West Health Policy found that in multiple urban counties in the South, “Black residents were less likely than white residents to be within a mile of a site that could potentially distribute vaccines.” While research on vaccine distribution inequities is currently limited, emerging patterns point to possibly larger national trends that would harm marginalized populations.
With BIPOC populations historically discriminated against in the medical field, some BIPOC feel uncomfortable receiving the vaccine due to concerns about clinical trial representation, disenfranchisement from the healthcare system, and the speed at which the vaccine has been developed and distributed. Although Pfizer-BioNTech’s third phase of their clinical trials enrolled 42% BIPOC globally, only 30% of U.S. participants were from BIPOC communities and so this may come as a caution to marginalized peoples.
To debunk skepticisms about the vaccines, Eraced spoke with Dr. Mehnaz Shafi from MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Shafi is a gastroenterologist who regularly performs emergency procedures on COVID-19 patients.
Noor: A lot of people are worried about clinical trials for the vaccine not showing enough diversity, what would you say to people who are concerned about that?
Dr. Shafi: I understand where they are coming from because this is a new vaccine and some degree of concern about something that is brand new is understandable. But the Pfizer vaccine trials were done on [more than] 43,000 people and the Moderna vaccine trials were done on 30,000 people, which are very big sample sizes. They had good perspective data and by and large high safety profiles with great outcomes.
I understand what people are saying, that they also maybe didn’t include pregnant women or very young pediatric patients. But, the data is reassuring that the trials had a good safety profile and most of the side effects that have been reported are flu-like illness, pain, [and] mild body aches and most of them [were] limited to the first two days.
N: Another concern is that this is the first time an mRNA vaccine is being administered and a lot of people are confused and worried about the mechanisms of the vaccine. Could you speak a bit on that?
S: mRNA vaccines have been around and they are targeted to give a primer initially. So the antigen presenting cells receive [the vaccine] and they trigger the body’s own messenger RNA mechanism, which leads to protein synthesis. And then three weeks later, for the Pfizer vaccine and four weeks later for the Moderna vaccine, there is a second dose, which will lead to increased protection against COVID-19. So I think there is good science behind it. There are many articles now written for the general public on how the vaccine works, so I would direct people to read those, especially for non-medical people to understand how it works.
N: Do you think the administration of the vaccine will affect how people are following social-distancing and masking guidelines?
S: In the short-term, of course we have been told to continue using all the protection and to follow all the recommendations that are there including wearing a mask, social distancing, washing hands, and not being in overcrowded places. We’ll wait and see how long the immunity from [the vaccine] lasts and I can see a future where these recommendations may ease up as more and more people get immunized and hopefully see a decline of the pandemic.
By increasing awareness and debunking misconceptions about the vaccine, the goal is for marginalized communities to feel more comfortable receiving the vaccine that will help the world through this pandemic. It is completely fair for BIPOC communities to be concerned due to the history of inequitable medical abuses they have experienced, especially in regard to vaccines, but the participation of these populations in clinical trials do support the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.
Last updated 2/12/21
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