Vaccine Safety and Science—Q&A with Dr. Courtney Lappas

The Key to Normality

June 2, 2021

As LVC prepares for the upcoming academic year, Ali Wenger, content strategist at LVC, talked with Dr. Courtney Lappas, professor of biology with expertise in immunology and molecular biology, about COVID vaccines.

What would you say is the most important fact(s) for people to know about the safety of the vaccines?

First, I would say that as is the case with any drug or vaccine, it is completely normal and prudent to think about safety. The great news is that all evidence indicates that the three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S. are remarkably safe. The dangers of COVID-19 are much, much greater than any vaccine side effect. Almost 600,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 to date. So far, approximately 300 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the U.S. alone. Many people have experienced no side effects. The most common side effects are temporary and minor—things such as pain at the injection site, fatigue, muscle aches, etc. There have been very, very rare occurrences of allergic reactions, as is the case with almost every vaccine, but even these reactions are treatable and temporary.  

Most people are probably aware that a very, very rare blood clotting disorder has been linked to the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. The important thing to realize about this observation is that the risk of blood clots resulting from the J&J vaccine is exceedingly low—very significantly lower than the risk of blood clots resulting from remaining unvaccinated and contracting COVID-19. 

Some people might be concerned about potential long-term side effects of the mRNA vaccines in particular—the Pfizer and Moderna shots. Rumors have been circulating about potential effects on fertility, cognitive function, etc. Thankfully, there is no scientific reason for concern. If any side effects are going to occur because of vaccination, they generally happen within six weeks of receiving a vaccine dose. There are no documented reports of delayed side effects of vaccination, in other words, side effects that first show up many months or years after vaccination. It might help people to know that the components of the mRNA vaccines are completely cleared from the human body very rapidly—within days. The mRNA in the vaccines cannot change your DNA, and it will not persist in your cells.

Finally, the safety of the vaccines currently approved for use in the U.S. has been thoroughly investigated. No “shortcuts” were taken in the clinical trials or approval process. 

How established is the science behind the vaccines? Has it been used in other vaccines that are more common?

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the first mRNA-based vaccines to be deployed. However, the technology has been studied for decades and is very well characterized and understood. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses a different technology—it is an adenovirus-based vaccine, which is what some folks might think of as a more “traditional” vaccine. The adenovirus vaccine platform has also been studied for decades—most recently in vaccine trials in response to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.  

Although some people might wonder if the development of these three vaccines was rushed, it is important to remember that the reason the vaccines could be developed so rapidly is because the technology was already so well established. This is a real scientific success story in which technologies that had been studied for decades were applied to a public health crisis as it unfolded. We can all feel very confident about the science behind the vaccines.    

How does one person getting vaccinated benefit our community?

Currently, more than half of the population in the U.S has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and this number continues to grow. This is great news, and it indicates that most people in the U.S. believe getting vaccinated is the right thing to do. This vaccination rate is directly linked to the very significant decrease in COVID-19 cases and deaths nationwide. However, we need even more people to join their friends, neighbors, and classmates in receiving their vaccination so that the virus will not have the chance to mutate and potentially undo all the progress that has been made.  Everyone who gets vaccinated protects not only themselves but also everyone they interact with. And we must remember that we are truly in this together. Children younger than 12 currently cannot receive a vaccine, immunocompromised individuals may not be protected even after vaccination. Unvaccinated individuals may unknowingly transmit the virus to these vulnerable populations. Every additional vaccine administered reduces these risks.  

From a scientific point of view, what are the benefits of a vaccinated community?

The benefits of a vaccinated community are immense. Simply put, vaccination is the path back to normality. At LVC, a vaccinated community would allow us to gather once again in classes, sporting events, concerts, and parties without many of the strict precautions that have been in place for the past year. Vaccination of the LVC campus also protects the surrounding community—the younger siblings, children, parents, and grandparents of our community members. 

What else do you think is important for people to know about the vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccines are remarkably safe and effective and are the culmination of decades of scientific and medical research. Getting vaccinated will protect you and the people around you and allow a return to normality. Vaccination has long been regarded by many as the single most important public health measure to which we can all contribute, and each individual who receives the COVID-19 vaccine contributes to the overall health and welfare of the community.