Taking a closer look at the COVID-19 vaccines

A lot of information — not all of it reliable — has been circulating about the vaccines currently authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to fight COVID-19.

When gathering information to help you make informed decisions about vaccination for yourself and your family, it’s important to follow the science and weigh your own personal risks and benefits.

How the vaccines were developed

The first two vaccines, manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, have been administered to millions of people in nearly 100 countries so far. It appears that the administration of the vaccines already is driving a significant drop in new COVID-19 cases across the United States.

The FDA recently authorized a new vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, which is already being distributed to clinics across the country.

You might have questions about the vaccines and how they affect those who get vaccinated. Some people have asked whether the vaccines were properly developed and tested, and have questioned whether making them available quickly means regulatory steps were skipped.

The production speed was the result of need and opportunity. The pandemic shut down the whole world for the better part of last year. Scientists and researchers — some of the brightest in the world — had a mandate to turn their time, attention and resources to developing and testing a vaccine.

Given the urgency of the situation and its worldwide impact, Pfizer and Moderna took advantage of a new vaccine technology, allowing the vaccines to be developed rapidly for testing in clinical trials, confirms Brahm Segal, MD, Chair of Internal Medicine and Chief of Infectious Diseases at Roswell Park.

The world’s leading researchers had already been working on a new kind of vaccine that uses only a small piece of a virus’s genetic information. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed using this approach and do not contain any live virus. Rather, they include the information needed to help your body develop immunity against the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine differs from the other two in that it requires a single dose, but it also does not contain the live virus. You can learn more in the video at the top of this page.

Despite false information you may have seen on social media, the vaccines will not change your DNA and will not give you COVID-19; also, there is no evidence that they will interfere with a woman’s ability to have a baby.

“The regulatory scientists at the FDA followed all the normal steps in testing and giving the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines,” Dr. Segal says. “Their interest is in the health of our citizens, and the review given to these vaccines has been to the same standard as any other vaccine or medicine.”

The long shadow of history

There are concerns based on history as well. Mistrust of medical experts or therapies has existed for many years, caused by unequal access to care and documented instances of unethical, exploitative medical research. The Tuskegee experiments that began in the 1930s and continued for 40 years, for example, denied treatment to Blacks for a potentially deadly disease, syphilis, while not informing them  of the true nature and goals of the research in which they were asked to take part.

The individuals and organizations behind the COVID-19 vaccines have taken many steps to ensure that Black and Hispanic individuals and others from minority or underserved communities participated in all stages of the creation and testing of these vaccines.

One of the leading scientists involved in developing the Moderna vaccine, for example, is Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, PhD, a young Black immunologist from the National Institutes of Health. She was integral to the research and trials of the vaccine and has spoken openly about its safety, efficacy and her trust in the process that resulted in the vaccine. A Latina professional, Nanette Cocero, PhD, oversaw the development and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in her role as Global President of Vaccines at Pfizer.

More than 2,000 people of color were included in the vaccine clinical trials, ensuring the results would be relevant for a diverse population. Among them were two notable African Americans — Dr. Walter Kimbrough, President of Dillard University, a historically Black university, and CNN journalist Stephanie Elam.

Let’s start to heal: Caring for your community

COVID-19 has hit the Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities particularly hard: Data collected by the CDC on COVID-19 cases shows that more than two million Hispanic/Latinx people have been infected by COVID, in addition to 1.2 million Black people. Some 37,000 Black Americans have died from the disease, as have 31,000 in the Hispanic/Latinx community. Black and Hispanic/Latinx individuals represent 33% of all illnesses and 28% of all deaths from COVID-19.

Based on information from the clinical trials, only 5% of people who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine later became infected with COVID-19, making those vaccines 95% effective in protecting against the virus. In the Johnson & Johnson trials, the vaccine was found to be up to 85% effective in preventing severe/critical cases of COVID-19 infections 28 days after it was administered. The people who later tested positive for COVID-19 had less severe cases of the virus, compared with unvaccinated people.

There’s no basis to pick one vaccine over another. The most important thing is that all three of the vaccines are highly effective at reducing severe COVID, meaning the number of hospitalization and deaths. My strong advice is: If one is offered to you, take it. Dr. Brahm Segal

If you still have concerns or questions about the vaccine, the best thing to do is talk with your doctor or clinician. Speak with someone you trust in your community.

The most effective way to protect your family and your community is to get the vaccine and help get the U.S. reach the 70% vaccination rate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says is needed before we can take off our masks and gather together again as we did before last year.

Stay Informed

More information on the COVID-19 vaccines can be found at www.roswellpark.org/covidvaccine; information in Spanish can be found at https://espanol.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/index.html