COVID-19 is far from over, but I think it’s safe to say that some major progress is being made in the fight against this virus. On Friday, December 11, the Food and Drug Administration released a letter authorizing the first COVID-19 vaccine to be developed and administered in the United States. This vaccine, created by Pfizer and BioNTech (a German biotech firm), is to be given to people ages 16 and older. And another biotech company, Moderna, isn’t far behind. They will be the second company allowed to start inoculating the American public, giving millions of people access to this desperately needed vaccine.
Now that the FDA is issuing emergency vaccine authorizations, you may have questions about what this means for yourself, your friends, and your family. Since it is unknown when exactly the vaccine will begin to be administered to the general public, it’s still very much a waiting game. So, how should we go about life with a vaccine on the horizon? Read on to learn more about how we can piece together an answer to that very question.
COVID and college campuses
It’s no secret that colleges and universities have been coronavirus hotspots in the United States. Tens of thousands of new COVID cases have emerged on college campuses this past semester alone. The New York Times surveyed more than 1,900 U.S. colleges and universities and found more than 397,000 cases and at least 90 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. For reference, this study included every four-year public institution and every private college that competes in NCAA sports.
According to that same New York Times survey, most college coronavirus cases have been announced since students returned to their campuses for the fall 2020 term. Each school is handling testing, treatment, and isolation protocols differently. However, it’s important as college students to learn from the mistakes of this past semester (or quarter, depending on your college’s academic calendar system). Maybe you contracted COVID while away at school, or you know someone who did. Or maybe you stayed home this semester just to be safe. Whatever these past few months looked like for you, remember that the authorization of a vaccine doesn’t mean the pandemic is over just yet. College students definitely won’t be a part of the first group to receive the new vaccines, so it’s up to us to slow the spread in the meantime.
What we know about the vaccine
First and foremost, we know a vaccine is here and that vaccine is coming soon. 2020 giving us a bit of good news? Unheard of, I know! But seriously, it’s amazing to know that there really is a light at the end of the COVID tunnel.
I touched on it briefly already, but as of right now we know there are two coronavirus vaccines that have been authorized for emergency use in the United States: Pfizer and Moderna. So, what do we know about the shots so far?
According to the Mayo Clinic’s COVID information webpage, the FDA-approved Pfizer vaccine begins working immediately after the first dose. And just seven days after the second dose, the efficacy rate was found to be 95 percent. This means around 95 percent of vaccine recipients are protected from becoming extremely ill from the virus. As of right now, the Pfizer inoculation is for people ages 16 and up, and does require two injections that are 21 days apart.
Similarly, Mayo Clinic’s data has also shown that Moderna’s vaccine has an efficacy rate of 94.1 percent. Moderna also requires two injections that are 28 days apart, and their vaccine is currently for recipients that are 18 and older, according to the CDC.
Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA (or mRNA), something you might remember learning about in a past biology course. To refresh all of us non-premed or bio majors, coronaviruses have a spiky surface known as an S protein. Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines give our cells instructions on how to replicate harmless S proteins that our immune systems can then recognize. After that, our bodies can begin building an immune response and producing antibodies that know how to fight and ward off the virus.
Of course, there’s been a lot of skepticism surrounding the decision of whether or not to get a COVID vaccine due to a number of factors, like how fast the injections were created in Operation Warp Speed, or how demographics may play a role. The goal of Operation Warp Speed is to create and distribute 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines with the initial doses available to U.S. citizens by next month, January 2021. Vaccines typically take years to be developed, so if you’ve ever worried about the coronavirus vaccine timeline you’re not alone. As for demographic-based hesitations, Black Americans have routinely been taken advantage of for medical testing, which can certainly contribute to a reluctance to trust the COVID vaccine. While some people are more hesitant, though, others are eager to receive the vaccine as soon as possible.
Ramona, a senior at Loyola Marymount University, shares her rationale for wanting to get the COVID vaccine as soon as it becomes available to her. “As a college student and young adult, I believe that it is part of my responsibility to protect others around me," she says. "At the end of the day, the risk of contracting coronavirus greatly outweighs the risk of experiencing potential side effects from the vaccine. I, as much as anyone, want this pandemic to end and want to resume the life I once knew to be ‘normal.’ For this reason, I will be getting the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to me.”
Bottom line: do your research! Take the time to educate yourself on things like when the vaccine will become available to you and the potential side effects you may experience after injection. Learn more about the clinical trials that were done in order for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to reach FDA approval and read up on the timeline of how vaccine distribution will turn the tide of this pandemic.
As students, what can we do while we wait?
I’ve been watching a lot more news since the pandemic began… probably too much. Seeing the case count and death toll on the side of the TV screen has been scary, but it’s also really helped put things in perspective for me. To quote CNN Tonight anchor Don Lemon, “We’ve blown past a quarter million preventable deaths.”
I know that as college students, we’re less likely to experience severe COVID cases, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune! If you aren’t worried about contracting coronavirus yourself, worry about potentially spreading it to others. A quarter million people have already paid the ultimate price and lost their lives, and we shouldn’t have to lose so many more. As we wait for our vaccines, we need to really hone in and listen to science and public health officials.
[bf_image id="xc8r5z296k4gbrq4699xrjcz"] Jonathan Reiner, Director of Cardiac Catheterization Laboratories at The George Washington University put it best in a recent CNN Tonight interview when he said, “You need to mask up. You need to avoid crowds. You need to, what I call, make your viral footprint as small as possible.” He gave the example of going to the store once a week instead of once a day, and advised viewers to be patient and hold onto hope, since we will be getting the vaccine relatively soon.
It’s definitely important to take the advice of a professional, but it’s also important to consider how to protect yourself and your friends while away at school (if you choose to return to campus in the new year). Jackie, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, speaks on how this upcoming semester it’s of the utmost importance to continue being just as cautious as first semester, if not more. “Some ways to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our general communities safe include keeping our in-person social circles small (while still staying in touch with our wider circle of friends via Zoom or FaceTime) and closely following public health guidelines about quarantine protocols, masks, physical distancing, etc.,” she says. “Sacrificing something small like sitting down to dinner at a restaurant (takeout is always a great option) is completely worth it to respect healthcare workers, our college town communities, and all the important people in our lives who we hope to reconnect with in person again soon!”
I’m sure college students everywhere can agree that COVID has done some pretty substantial damage to our college experience as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to continue our classes via online (or hybrid) learning, but nothing beats being on campus and being able to make those in-person memories with friends. So, in order to get back to those “normal” lives we all miss so much, do your part as we wait for the vaccine! Stay patient and stay strong — the end isn’t as far off as we think.