Will The Vaccines Get Us Back To Life As Normal? All Of Our COVID-19 Vaccine Questions Answered

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, January 12, 2021 - 2:31pm
Updated: Thursday, January 14, 2021 - 1:45pm

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A worker prepares to administer a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A worker prepares to administer a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the State Farm Stadium vaccination site in Glendale on Jan. 12, 2021.

LAUREN GILGER: As the numbers of new COVID-19 infections here continue to rise, so do the efforts to distribute vaccines to people throughout Maricopa County and across the state. But as economic and political leaders bank on the new vaccines to bring life back to normal — pretty quickly, even — others warn that the vaccine might not be the silver bullet. There are still a lot of questions about these vaccines, from how long they'll give us immunity to whether or not they'll prevent infection or just prevent disease. So to answer some of those questions and many more, I got ahold of vaccine expert Bert Jacobs. He's a professor of virology at ASU's Biodesign Institute and School of Life Sciences.

BERT JACOBS: I don't know that this will be a silver bullet. I think this will be part of the silver bullet. We know the vaccines, at least the current ones, the Moderna and the Pfizer are about 95% protective from disease. And that's remarkable. I mean, getting vaccines that quickly that work so well is far beyond any of our expectations. But I think what we don't know is really how well that's going to get us back to normalcy. I think to think that if we just get enough people vaccinated, we'll get back to normal — I think that's a little premature. I think we want to be sure we keep doing the social distancing, the public health measures that we know work until we get a really good idea that these vaccines really can make a huge difference.

GILGER: So the first question, right, is just this idea of herd immunity. We've heard Dr. Fauci say over and over we need 75% of the population vaccinated for that. I mean, you've worked on vaccines for many different diseases. Give us a sense of, of the scale of that. Like, how difficult, how unheard of is that?

JACOBS: The scale of that is dependent on how severe the diseases have been.

GILGER: Yeah.

JACOBS: If diseases are really severe, people get vaccinated. And, you know, one of the things I've worked on is the smallpox vaccine. And back in the days when smallpox was a severe problem, people got vaccinated and it was a, it's a nasty vaccine compared to anything that's being considered now. But the disease was so bad that people willingly got the vaccination. And so I would hope that, in fact, you know, we can get lots of people to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, we have skepticism on vaccines in this country. From everything we have seen for the current vaccines, they are incredibly safe. So hopefully that will convince people that it's a good thing to get vaccinated.

GILGER: About the safety. Like, when you're, when you're developing a vaccine, when you're looking at how that works, like, is it possible to do it this quickly and know what the long-term consequences of it will be?

JACOBS: Yeah. So long-term consequences, we cannot know. I mean, the reality is we've had people vaccinated maybe for six months now.

GILGER: Yeah.

JACOBS: But what we do know is that vaccines in general don't have long-term consequences. You know, it's not like if we're taking a pill every day for a year and our body then reacts to it over time. There are going to be two shots, or to, to these vaccines and then that'll be done. And so if there's going to be large numbers of severe consequences, we would have seen them in the clinical trials, which had 15 to 20,000 people in them, and there were no really severe consequences to, to that. We may start seeing some rare consequences, and we've seen that. Where we've seen a few people with an anaphylactic shock. But these were people who were prone to getting anaphylactic shock.

GILGER: OK, so then there's this question going forward of how long the vaccine will work, right? Like how long does it make us immune? Do we have a sense of that yet, and what does that mean?

JACOBS: I think we don't have a sense of that yet. I think we just haven't had the vaccine in people for long enough to know. On the one hand, we know we're getting really good immune responses from these vaccines, and usually when you get really good immune responses, the response stays there longer. On the other hand, we know that for some coronaviruses, immune responses don't last very long. Where we'll be with this vaccine? I don't think we know yet.

GILGER: Yeah. So we've heard people say also that these are therapeutic vaccines, that they don't necessarily prevent you from spreading the disease, but just from getting sick from it. Does that make a difference?

JACOBS: Oh, I think it makes a huge difference. What we do know is that these vaccines protect really well against disease — we don't know if they protect against infection. So the scenario would be that you get the vaccine, but you can still get the virus but wouldn't cause disease. What that means is that you could then spread the virus to somebody else. And so we don't really know whether they're going to end up blocking infection or just blocking disease. Clearly, they block disease. I don't think we know yet whether they block infection.

GILGER: What about the variations, Bert, that we're seeing pop up of this vaccine, though, which seem more infectious and scarier in some ways?

JACOBS: Yeah, they seem to be more infectious. They seem not to give more severe diseases, at least as far as we can tell, but they seem to spread better. Viruses do this. We know that. That's exactly what viruses do. They often mutate and the mutations are selected so that the virus is stronger in some ways. We know that coronaviruses don't mutate nearly as much as some other viruses, for instance, as in the flu. So we don't think that we're going to have the same mutation problem with the coronavirus vaccine as we see with the flu vaccine so we need to get a new vaccine every year. Yet, you know, we have seen these, these new variants. They are worrisome because they seem to spread easier. I don't think they're going to end up being as much of a problem as we see with flu. I think it'll be things that we'll have to deal with, but I don't think it's going to be anything like we've seen with flu.

GILGER: So it's a big question still to be answered about these vaccines, so take this with a grain of salt. But at this point going forward, like, what do you think this could look like long term? Like, do you see this is something where we get a flu shot like this every year, a [COVID-19] shot every year, because this is something that is not going to go away?

JACOBS: Well, with how effective these vaccines are, I have hope that we can get rid of this virus. Now, we've really primarily gotten rid of two viruses. We've completely eradicated one — that's smallpox. We're very close to eradicating another — that's polio. And we got there because we had really good vaccines for them. So far these vaccines are so good that I think it gives us hope that we'll be able to eradicate the virus and that, that in fact, we'll really at some point be able to get, to get rid of it. It's not going to be easy. But I, you know, I think given how effective the first vaccines look, I think we might be able to. The second thing I'd like to say, I think, is that, you know, these are the first vaccines and they work incredibly well to protect against disease. We almost certainly will have second and third generation vaccines. And hopefully those vaccines will clearly be shown to protect against infection as well as protecting against disease. And if we can get those vaccines that protect against infection, we really can get to herd immunity with those vaccines.

GILGER: Last question for you, Bert. So as this goes forward, then, if you have a real, you know, a real hope that this could eradicate this virus eventually, what's that timeline look like? Is this something, you know, I'm hearing people who are optimistic about this say, you know, things could get back to normal this summer or in the fall. Is that reality at all?

JACOBS: I think that's really optimistic. If we knew that the vaccine protected against infection as well as disease, you know, basically as soon as we get 75, 80% of people vaccinated, we know, you know, we'd be close.

GILGER: Yeah.

JACOBS: We don't know that yet. And so I think it's really premature to say that if we get 75 to 80% of people vaccinated, we're there. We just don't know if that's going to be what we want. The vaccine still will be incredibly effective because if we can protect people from getting disease to a large extent, then we can begin to get herd immunity from the natural infections. And if the natural infections will cause good protective immunity without causing disease, then the combination of the two could get us where we want. But that's going to take us a lot longer than simply the vaccine can get us there.

GILGER: All right. That is Bert Jacobs, professor of virology at ASU's Biodesign Institute and School of Life Sciences. Thanks so much, Bert, for coming on The Show. I appreciate you putting this all in context for us.

JACOBS: Thank you. My pleasure.

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