At the start of a big week for vaccination in New Zealand, Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris lay out the stakes, and tackle the frequently asked questions.
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Listen up, Aotearoa. This week, culminating in Super Saturday, we’re making a really big push to get as many people vaccinated as possible. Why? Because the clocks have changed, the weather is improving, and summer is just around the corner.
But this summer is likely to be really different to last summer. Last year, we didn’t have Covid-19 in our community. This year, the delta variant is here. That means to stand a chance of spending this summer doing the things we enjoy with the people we love we need everyone who can be vaccinated to roll up their sleeve and get vaccinated.
Why Super Saturday? Because time is ticking, and the vaccine doesn’t work straight away. The Pfizer vaccine requires two (identical) doses for you to be fully vaccinated. You will have some protection two weeks after you get your first dose but won’t be fully protected until one to two weeks after your second dose. That means to be ready for summer, you need to get your first dose now. You don’t have to wait till Super Saturday, but if you do get your first dose that day, and your second dose three weeks later, you’ll be fully vaccinated in late November. If you wait six weeks between doses, then you’ll be fully vaccinated by mid-December.
If you’ve still got questions, we’ve have pulled together this FAQ which will hopefully help. If you are already on the V Team, then spend this week helping to get your unvaccinated friends and family over the line so that come Super Saturday they’ll roll up their sleeves and join the rest of us. Most importantly, though, approach them with patience, understanding, and empathy.
How were the vaccines developed so fast?
No shortage of money and super-streamlined processes! I explain more here.
Is it true the vaccine trials will continue for the next few years?
Yes, but this doesn’t mean we don’t have enough information to use the vaccines now. Rather, the trials are continuing because we need to know how long a person’s protective immune response lasts after they’ve been vaccinated. We’re also getting information on the millions of people around the world like us being vaccinated outside of those trials.
What’s in the Pfizer vaccine?
You can check out the Consumer Medicine Information summary for the Pfizer Comirnaty vaccine from Medsafe here.
The “active” ingredient is the recipe our cells need to make the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike protein. It comes in the form of mRNA and is very fragile. Because the mRNA can’t enter our cells on its own, it’s wrapped in what’s called a lipid nanoparticle coat. That’s a fancy way of saying teeny tiny balls of fat. The other ingredients are salts and a sugar called sucrose. The sucrose keeps the fat balls intact when the vaccine is stored at low temperatures.
Who can’t take the Pfizer vaccine?
The only people who can’t take the vaccine are people who are allergic to any of the ingredients. Because the teeny tiny fat balls are used to deliver other medicines too, some people may have already made antibodies to them. The likely candidate is the lipid (2-hexyldecanoate), 2 [(polyethylene glycol)-2000]-N,N-ditetradecylacetamide.
Who can take the Pfizer vaccine?
Everyone who isn’t allergic to any of the ingredients. The vaccine is safe if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding. I’ve written a lot more about that here. It’s also safe for people with cancer, HIV, and who are immune compromised.
Do I really need to get vaccinated even if I’m young and healthy?
Yes! As Toby and I have explained before, Covid is a multiplayer game, and we need every player on the field. If you are worried about the health of your heart or your future fertility, I’ve explained why you should get vaccinated here.
Why do we need two doses, and should I wait three or six weeks between them?
The trials showed that one dose offers some protection, but we get much better protection with two. The trials tested a three-week gap between doses but countries like the UK and Canada rolled out the vaccine using a longer gap. Studies are suggesting people might make a better or longer-lasting immune response with the longer gap, but the data is still for from crystal clear. That means either gap is fine but with Covid-19 in the community, it would be better to take the three-week gap. I’m between doses and moving mine to the three weeks so I can get my second dose this week.
Is it true vaccinated people can still get Covid?
Yes, but their chances are much, much, much lower. I’ve explained more about that here. But it’s also why it’s really important that we still wear masks even if we are vaccinated.
Will we need boosters?
I’d say so, but what kind and when isn’t clear yet. I’ve written all about that here. It’s likely that the elderly and those with compromised immune systems will be getting them sooner than everyone else and I imagine the Ministry of Health’s vaccine taskforce are looking at the data now.
How does the Pfizer vaccine actually work?
The vaccine uses a process that happens in our cells every single minute of the day. Our genetic material is in the form of DNA which sits inside a special compartment in our cells called the nucleus. When a gene is turned on, its DNA is copied into mRNA. This process is called transcription. The mRNA then makes a one-way trip out of the nucleus and into the main body of the cell, known as the cytoplasm. In the cytoplasm are little machines called ribosomes, which take the mRNA and build a protein out of the message it contains. This process is called translation.
As I explained earlier, the Pfizer vaccine is made up of the mRNA recipe to make the virus’s spike protein encased in a lipid nanoparticle coat. When it’s injected into our body, the lipid nanoparticles help the mRNA get taken up by some of the cells that are hanging around in our arm. Once inside the cytoplasm of the cells, the mRNA is unwrapped from its lipid coat and used by our ribosomes to make the spike protein.
Once the spike protein is made, the cell destroys the mRNA, so it probably only hangs around for a few hours or days. The cell also chops up the spike protein and displays the pieces on its surface for our immune cells to see. That triggers our immune response which trains our immune cells to recognise the spike protein and so destroy the real SARS-CoV-2 virus if they see it in the future.
How will we know the long-term effects of vaccines?
Its true that vaccines have only been used for a short time so we can’t know for certain how they will affect us long term. But they are based on decades of research and there is nothing that would suggest they are going to have long term effects. It’s a little bit technical, but Dr Helen Petousis-Harris has written a nice summary of how the safety of the Covid vaccines is being assessed here.
How do I talk to my friends and family who’ve fallen for misinformation?
The important thing to remember is to approach people with patience, understanding, and empathy. You won’t be able to help them by getting angry and shouting facts and figures at them. Instead, you need to approach the task not as a battle to be won, but as a conversation to get to the underlying reasons why someone has been susceptible to misinformation in the first place. That means asking questions and really listening to their answers. Find the values you share and build from there.