This year, we’ve faced COVID-19, a new deadly virus that has changed our lives and brought up many new challenges like lockdowns, social distancing, and mask-wearing. To cope with the ongoing pandemic, scientists all over the world are competing to develop the COVID-19 vaccine that will be safe and effective.
While COVID-19 vaccines produced by industry leaders like Pfizer and Moderna give hope to many, more and more people ask questions: Will COVID-19 vaccines help us get back to normal? Will vaccination make you immune to Coronavirus? Are Moderna or Pfizer vaccines safe? What are the side effects of these new COVID-19 vaccines?
PissedConsumer invited Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole, a Professor of Biomedical Sciences, for a video interview to get expert answers to all COVID-19 vaccination questions. Dr. Ebersole is a UNLV Immunologist with years of experience in medicine and healthcare, and he helps us clarify the differences between viruses and vaccines.
...the spike protein has sufficient similar antigenicity so the vaccine will work.
In this video interview, Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole explains how the COVID-19 vaccine works, why it is important, and what’s the difference between Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
About Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole, UNLV Immunologist
Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole: My name is Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole. I'm the associate dean for research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine. I'm an immunologist by training. So that's my specialization. And I've been doing this kind of work since probably about 1973 at different institutions, major medical centers at Harvard and San Antonio, University of Kentucky before I came here to UNLV.
And actually, while I was in graduate school in Pittsburgh, I actually ran the blood bank in the evenings while I was doing my studying and everything like that. So I've been associated with healthcare facilities and academic health centers for many, many years. And I sort of got into this because while my focus is on infections in the oral cavity, how the body responds to infections, whether it's in the oral cavity or the lung or whatever, are fairly similar in the general immunologic concepts. And vaccines are a part of that.
Top COVID-19 Vaccination Questions Answered by Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole
- How COVID-19 is different from other viruses?
- Has COVID-19 mutated?
- Are Moderna and Pfizer Covid vaccines safe?
- Why does the COVID-19 vaccination require two doses?
- Can you choose which COVID-19 vaccine to get?
- Are there COVID-19 vaccine side effects?
- How do Moderna and Pfizer covid vaccines differ in storage?
- Will you carry the virus after COVID-19 vaccination?
- Biden public vaccination: good or bad?
- Will we have COVID immunity cards?
- Will COVID-19 vaccine get us back to normal?
How COVID-19 Is Different from SARS and MERS?
Michael Podolsky: This is not the first coronavirus that appeared in the world. This is third if I'm not mistaken, SARS, MERS, and now Covid. What can you tell us? How is this COVID-19 different from previous?
Dr. Ebersole: Well, there's no doubt that coronaviruses exist throughout the world. I think it represents the concern that we all must have in emerging infections. As the human population continues to spread out into areas where it did not inhabit before, it's going to run into animals, and those animals are going to carry a variety of viruses that the human population, and bacteria for that matter, that the human population has not seen before.
What's interesting about this particular coronavirus is if you go back, as you mentioned to the SARS and the MERS viruses that were out about a decade to 15 years ago or so, it was interesting that one of them was actually fairly contagious.
It had a characteristic genetics that allowed it to be fairly contagious, but it didn't have a lot of morbidity and mortality. In other words, the sickness and the death that really was not good at that.
The other virus that was out there actually was not particularly contagious. But when you did get infected, there was a fairly high rate of disease severity in those individuals. Well, it turns out that this coronavirus, the COV-2, actually put those two features together. And that's why we are where we are.
It was able to modify its genome to not only allow it to be contagious, but also have a high morbidity and mortality. So that's where we are with this pandemic. As importantly, this is not going to be the last one of these. There's going to be other ones in the future, whether it will be another coronavirus or whether it will be another type of virus that the human population has not experienced before. That’s going to happen.
One of the, I guess, the silver lining, if there is any silver lining in all of this is, the scientific community now has a very different game plan in how to attack these. It has new technologies. It has molecular capabilities that we did not have previously that in the future in identifying these viruses more quickly, we now have a much better system to strategically intercept them. We did not have that before when vaccines took four years to develop. Now, we did it, I mean...
technically we developed the vaccine in about eight months, but these two companies have been working on this technology for the last decade.
So again, to sort of assure the population, the consumers, this is not something that just sprung up in April as "La, la, we have a vaccine," these companies have had the technology. The other part about it, again, as you mentioned, is the SARS and the MERS coronaviruses actually infect the same way this coronavirus does.
So we had decades of knowledge on saying, "Well, what should be the target of this? How do we best prevent that infection?" So both of those came together for these two companies Pfizer and Moderna to allow us to do that really fast-tracking, warp speed of the vaccine.
Has COVID-19 Mutated?
Michael: Coronavirus is global and I've seen some news reports and I don't know whether to trust them or not, but the virus has mutated from different countries in the world, and based on Worldometer data, it shows the spikes in the infection.
Is the virus different in different parts of the world? Because it's mutated over some time.
Dr. Ebersole: I understand that every time the virus replicates, and replicating in different people, there will be small errors that occur just like occurs in the human genome. Every time your cells replicate there are small changes that occur.
When we think of viral mutations, we often think of the flu virus that changes itself so dramatically each year. The HIV has such a high mutation rate that it has been very difficult to prepare a vaccine because of that mutation.
Okay, now let's compare the COVID virus to that. We don't have any evidence that the COVID virus is like that. What they can do is because of these small differences in the virus itself, the genome of the virus, the molecular biologists can identify a COVID virus from Europe, the COVID virus from China, a COVID virus from Washington State.
They can do that. These small molecular differences they can track, but there's no evidence that any of those are sufficient enough to change this spike protein, how it infects, and how the vaccine would work against it.
So that doesn't mean down the road there won't be another coronavirus that has scrambled things enough that we won't have immunity. But all the ones that are circulating out there now, the spike protein has sufficient similar antigenicity so the vaccine will work.
...the spike protein has sufficient similar antigenicity so the vaccine will work.
Are Moderna and Pfizer COVID Vaccines Safe?
Michael: What would you say to consumers about the safety of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines?
Dr. Ebersole: The thing to keep in mind is that the FDA in the United States and regulatory agencies in Great Britain now and Canada, I think I just saw another one that was Australia, I think just approved it as well.
These are our very robust regulatory groups. They are extremely conscientious scientists, infectious disease experts, public health officials, and a number of these also have a sort of ethic, scientific ethics folks on them as well.
So all of these regulatory agencies have done their diligence in assessing this information. From the US standpoint, the FDA actually is even a bit more rigorous than some of the regulatory bodies in other countries, because in other countries, those regulatory bodies will take the summary data from the companies and they'll review that summary data.
The FDA, and why it took them a bit longer, actually goes into the raw data provided. The companies have provided them all the data on every patient that has been vaccinated, whether they got the placebo or the vaccine, all of the clinical data, all of the side effect data, all the outcome data.
The FDA reviewed all of that data before they came to their rather substantial vote last week in approving that this is used in the American population.
So again, from the public standpoint, these vaccines, this technology has been being worked on for many years, even though there has not been an mRNA vaccine used in humans as of now. This is the first one.
So it is a bit new, but I was around when the polio vaccine was new, quite honestly. And every vaccine that comes on board has these same kinds of issues. It's the first time that that vaccine has been used. Even though previous vaccines may have used a similar type of technologies, different from the mRNA each of the vaccines was new at some point in time.
And the epidemic problem with polio when that came out there was a global problem. It was massive morbidity and mortality, particularly in children in those days. And it spurred a similar kind of acceptance of the importance of the vaccine, not just for me, I get this vaccine and it protects me, which a lot of the vaccines do.
But this vaccine for COVID is also helping to protect your community, your family, your neighbors. So as people are considering, yeah, someone has to be first in line, but
...we need to rapidly move towards a large portion of the population, maybe 70% or so the population that is immune to this virus to finally move us back to a more normal situation across the globe.
Why Does COVID-19 Vaccination Require Two Doses?
Michael: Why are two vaccinations necessary? With a period of three weeks between vaccinations. Are those vaccines different? First, then the second, or they are the same, just to reinforce the effect.
Dr. Ebersole: If you look, a lot of the vaccines that the population gets over the years are two doses. That's because what happens is your immune system has what we call memory. It recognizes when it has seen something before so that even though each year we get a new flu vaccine, our bodies still have some immunologic memory.
They remember the flu that they've seen before. So they're much more effective in combating. That's how this vaccine works. The first dose is sort of a priming dose because, for the most part, the human population has not seen this coronavirus before. This is brand new, which is why we're having such a big problem with it.
So that first dose primes the immune system to enable it to have immunologic memory. Nevertheless, though, you do develop some immunity to this first vaccination. We know that.
It's not as optimal and probably not as long-lasting, although they don't data on that yet. The booster dose, which occurs about three weeks later, then uses that immunologic memory and boosts your immune system dramatically.
So at the end of that, about 30-day period, you've reached that optimal immunity, the optimal protection there. Although the data is still not conclusive on how long that immunity will last.
The most recent information that I saw is that, I don't know if it was Pfizer or Moderna, has shown the protective antibodies still exist at least three months after the vaccination. Obviously, we would hope much longer than that. And that will be part of the data that's being gathered.
Michael: So in the worst-case scenario, you may be in a position to get vaccinated every three months. I understand that right now it's not enough data. The study group was collected in July. We only had three months. So you don't know for how long it's going to last.
Dr. Ebersole: Yeah, that would be the half empty cup that you presented there. I agree with that. However, again, looking historically at vaccine data, there's no reason it should not last longer than that. We just don't have that data yet. But most vaccines, the immune system will last longer. And again…
...the immunologic memory doesn't go away. It's there for each of us that get vaccinated. And for that matter in individuals that have been infected and recovered, they also have that immunologic memory.
Can You Choose Which COVID-19 Vaccine to Get?
Michael: Moderna will also require a second dose of vaccine, right? Both Moderna and Pfizer.
Dr. Ebersole: Both require a second dose. And I've heard people ask this question again, if both of these are available, how do I know which one I'm getting? So what's the parameters associated with that?
And basically what's going to turn out is that it will sort of be almost a random draw. In other words, if your doctor, or if the facility you go to happens to have the Pfizer vaccine, that's what you'll get. If it has the Moderna vaccine, that's what you'll get. Down the road, if it has the AstraZeneca one, that's the one that you will get.
They have shown effectiveness where you get two Pfizer vaccines or two Moderna vaccines. They have, and people have asked, well, what if I get one, the first one? And then the booster with the second one, that has not been tested yet.
From a biological immunologic standpoint, that should work quite well as well. We just don't have that data at this in time. So I think what they're homing in on is that individuals will get both doses of the same vaccine because you're going to the same place.
What I think is a concern, and you brought this up earlier, and that is if individuals come in and get the first vaccine and say, "Oh, I got one. I'm good now." That's not going to be sufficient. They still pose a risk to themselves and the community.
So we have to encourage, which logistically makes it much more difficult when you're doing 200 million people. How do I track that? How do I make sure that all those individuals are coming back, or at least encourage them, as best as we can, to come back for the second dose. And that will be really sort of public service, public health messages that will continue to come out over the next eight to nine months probably.
Are There COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects?
Dr. Ebersole: One of the things that is clear with this vaccine as it is with all vaccines. And that is, there's a subset of the population that after that first vaccine dose, they're going to have a sore arm. They may have a little bit of a fever. They may feel lethargic for about 24 hours. And with the second dose, it may be even a little bit more than that, but it'll still be short-lived.
Basically that reaction is your body telling you that I'm responding to this challenge, this vaccine challenge. So while you may not feel great, your body is telling you that it's doing what it's supposed to do.
So again, the information that I saw was potentially 40% of the population that is out there with this vaccine may get a little bit of this type of a side effect, but we have to make sure that doesn't dissuade them from getting their second dose, as well as them putting out there to their friends and family. "Oh, this is terrible. You shouldn't get the vaccine." That's just not going to be a good thing.
So they need to accept that. It happens with the flu. That's not an uncommon thing, and that will occur in individuals. We don't have any way of predicting that ahead of time.
So if you get it, you may have a side effect and I'll have none at all. That doesn't mean it's not working, but we just can't predict that.
How Are Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccines Different in Storage?
Michael: Pfizer needs to be stored at minus 70 and Moderna I believe minus 20 Celsius. Is that right?
Dr. Ebersole: My understanding of the Moderna vaccine is literally it can be stored in the freezer of your kitchen refrigerator. It doesn't need anything particularly fancy. And the other thing that the public often mixes up is a lot of times you'll hear about Pfizer having been stored at minus 94 degrees. And it's actually minus 94 Fahrenheit, which most in America would be familiar with.
As scientists, we deal with minus 70 centigrade. So those temperatures are the same. It's not like you're getting different stories from Pfizer.
Michael: Why such a difference in storage? I assume it's because of different types of production. So how are those vaccines different?
Dr. Ebersole: I don't know the nitty gritty details of the difference in the vaccines, but the critical part is we knew, and again, this is part of the history of science, how it builds to help prepare us.
So both Pfizer and Moderna knew that if I was growing cells in a plate in my laboratory, I could add DNA to those cells, free DNA, and I could add free RNA to those cells. And those cells would pick it up. They'd pick up that nucleic acid and they would work with it. They wouldn't recognize that it was any different than their own nucleic acids.
So we knew that that happened in a plastic dish in a laboratory. So they said, "Well, why wouldn't it work if we provided that same DNA or RNA to cells that are in our body?" Voila, the vaccine approach there.
However, what is very clear, particularly with mRNA, which is how each of these vaccines work is, it's a fairly fragile molecule. It will break down quite easily. So both Moderna and Pfizer have approached it with their packaging, their vaccine, in some sort of a carrier material. In other words, to protect it once it's injected into the body.
Both of them may be using sort of bubbles of lipid, liposomes, to carry the vaccine. And my only interpretation from the data that I know right now is the one that Moderna uses makes the vaccine a bit more stable at the lower temperature than the Pfizer does, but neither of them are due to the vaccine antigen itself. They're really due to differences in how the carrier is constructed to administer the vaccine.
Michael: Should the Pfizer vaccine be warmed up to room temperature before being put into someone's body? Will I get a minus 94 Fahrenheit into my body?
Dr. Ebersole: So again, not sure about the Moderna because it hasn't been released yet, but the Pfizer vaccines are supplied. They're shipped. They come in at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the side of distribution, and you've probably seen on the news as well. All of these hospitals and places that are going to administer vaccines, are really developing strategic plans about how to do this. So it's not just a matter of pulling it out off the shelf and taking care of it.
So basically they take the vaccines, the vials, each of them have five doses of the vaccine in them. They reconstitute those, so now they're at room temperature, or let's say at least a little cool, but they're not obviously at those freezing temperatures. They administer from one of the vials. Let's say vials, they take out a single dose. They administer that. The remaining doses can actually be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days.
So it's not like they have to finish using that vaccine vial within minutes or something like that. They will actually store for a little bit of time there, but then they become inactivated. So the hospitals are logistically or the vaccine places are logistically saying, "How do we use every drop of this as effectively as possible?" And that's part of the processes.
Will You Carry the Virus After COVID-19 Vaccination?
Michael: So once a person is vaccinated, can they still spread the virus, or pretty much the immune system of the person will be killing the virus the moment it enters?
Dr. Ebersole: Excellent question. And it is maybe a $64 million question at this point in time. What the vaccines did is they showed that within the individual that was vaccinated, the vaccine was highly successful in preventing disease and in particularly severe disease.
Now we could extrapolate and the likelihood is it also lowered the viral load. So in other words, those individuals would be less able to transmit it, but we don't have that data at this point in time. So once you are immunized, it takes about 30 days to develop protective immunity. Clearly, you should use a mask during that period of time, social distancing, and everything like that.
However, what we don't know at this point in time, and it's going to be data that will be gathered, and is being gathered, and that is, is a subset of those individuals still that have the potential to spread the virus, to unvaccinated individuals in their community. And we don't have data to say that that won't happen.
So the recommendation is still masks, social distancing, public health. The vaccine is just helping us get to that point of normalcy quicker than we would without the vaccine.
Biden Public Vaccination: a Good or a Bad Idea?
Michael: I've heard that the president-elect Biden has chosen that he will take vaccination and make it public. That he'll make a public vaccination statement. Do you think it's a good idea or a bad idea?
Dr. Ebersole: Oh, I think it's a good idea. I go back in time again. How do we help to inform and encourage the general public to accept this? We go back to the time where Elvis was televised on TV, getting a vaccine there because he was a very popular individual.
So I don't think it is just not only Biden, but I saw where Bush and Clinton and Obama all said, "You want to film us getting the vaccine, please do. We're out there." But I think it also, the public doesn't respond to science the way we might all like it to, but they respond to pro sports and they respond to Hollywood individuals and they respond to, in theory, political leaders.
So I think we need to encourage participation from as many constituencies as we can, that will help assure the public of the safety and the value of getting vaccinated.
Will We Have COVID Immunity Cards?
Michael: But what about immunity cards? That's a conspiracy theory. That's not going to be happening. What do you think?
Dr. Ebersole: Yeah. Again, I think what we're trying to do, if we don't get too carried away with this process, and that is, we're trying to understand how do we encourage people to participate in this public health protection? Because they're protecting themself, they're protecting their community as well.
Somehow we need to implement a tracking system for everybody so that we know who's had the vaccine and who hasn't had the vaccine. I'm not sure that we have to get to that level where we have our immunity cards to protect us.
At what point in time, I don't have an answer to this, but at what point in time, do we take some ownership for our community, for other people that we come in contact with. We need to be part of that process. Not saying, "Well, gee, how am I going to get away with not doing it?"
You know, or having this immunity card there all of a sudden frees me up to be something that maybe I shouldn't be, or it's not helping the community. So I haven't, other than hearing, just sort of, as an aside about the idea of immunity cards, I think fundamentally the idea is how do we encourage the public to fully participate in protecting us all from this COVID infection?
And again, as I said, from the very get-go, this is not a one-off, we're going to have this type of a virus, we're going to have a crop up again. And the public needs to come to terms with that.
We're all part of the problem, and we need to be part of the solution.
Michael: How would the immunity card work together with HIPAA?
Dr. Ebersole: Yeah, I, again, I think we're all learning from this. I mean, we don't have any, but hardly anybody left here from the 1918 flu that we could have learned this from, but I think we're all going through a learning process here, not only in how to more rapidly deal with this massive deadly infection than we've ever had to in any of our lifetimes.
But how do we learn from this to most effectively protect the population going forward as well. And again, we're sort of, as you suggest, how do we balance individual freedom with the concept of public health?
And there are individuals out there that see those as, see the public health side of it, as impinging upon their personal freedoms. And the activities that the government is making us go through, including the lockdowns that occurred and are now occurring again, the mask wearing, the smaller gathering. So those kinds of things there. They're a reality where science has proven that they work.
So the people that are fighting against that are saying, we don't believe in science. And literally, I've seen this out there where that subset of the population believes that scientists, all of us, are somehow conspiring against them to take their freedom away and doing this.
Which again is, is crazy because we're all part of it as well. We're under the same circumstances. I'm not getting to spend Christmas with my kids and grandkids for the first time in 20 years, we're not doing it kind of thing.
So it's not like this is something that we relish in inflicting on the rest of the population. That's not how it works out there. So I think what we're still continuing to do is to learn how do we better prepare for this in the future? How do we prevent these kinds of things from becoming so widespread as they were this time?
...I have not seen or heard anything out there relative to the management of people, the mask wearing, the social distancing that is not based upon sound science, it's all based upon sound science.
And I think that we've had folks at the government level that have done a great job in trying to educate the population, providing the data. And we've had folks in the government that have been the antithesis to that, and every time you turn around, they've tried to undermine the value of that.
And unfortunately, I thought I saw it yesterday, that over the last week, we had a million more people infected. Because we have folks that either don't believe or are unwilling to accept the science that says that this is going to work.
Will COVID-19 Vaccine Get Us Back to Normal?
Michael: First vaccines, now, when are we going to get back to normal?
Dr. Ebersole: Oh, wow. Well, that's really a public health question. I'm not a public health doc, but I do try to review the science as it's coming out. And what it appears to be is enough of the vaccine will be accessible and available for the population, probably we're talking late spring, early summer, when we're really approaching the idea of getting that herd immunity with where the vaccine is being administered.
Again, Dr. Fauci brought it up. Vaccines don't prevent disease, vaccinations do. Critical part there. So until we have that level of the population actually vaccinated, we're going to have issues. We're going to have risks for the population out there. We're going to have issues relative to the economy totally recovering. Restaurants, movies, theaters, everything getting back to normal is going to take a period of time. And the more resistance we have from the population and accepting the vaccine, the longer that time is going to take.
But the last that I heard is probably into the summer months where we'll be in a position to be back to a more normal environment, less or no mask wearing, breaking down social distancing a little bit, allowing a larger congregation of individuals, but it's going to take time. Took us time to get here. It's going to take time to get out of it.
We can do the greatest science that is humanly possible and that happened with this COVID vaccine. Not that I was part of that at all. But if in fact, we can't effectively convey to the public that in fact scientists are part of them.
We're in this same mix. And what we're doing here is as much as we can to help protect the public. If the public doesn't adopt the behavior of accepting the vaccine, I'm affected, you're affected just like all the other folks. If 50% of the population doesn't get vaccinated, we're going to be in this for a very long haul.
This vaccine will protect you as an individual, but by getting it, you will help protect your community and move us along.
And I think that's maybe the most important story that needs to get out there.
Michael: Jeff, thank you very much. Thank you for your time.
Dr. Ebersole: All right, Mike, glad to be of help.
To summarize, the COVID-19 vaccine is still in the stage of acceptance in the public. With all the questions and doubts around the Covid vaccination, it’s always recommended to consult the experts' opinion who can provide you with scientifically-based answers and facts.
We thank Dr. Jeffrey Ebersole for his time and for sharing his expert point of view about COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, how the COVID vaccination works, and how these vaccines may impact the human body.
Please stay safe, show due diligence in any questions concerning your health, and seek answers from qualified experts.
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