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'A Way Out Of The Pandemic': Canadian Vaccine Expert On Risks & Benefits Of Pfizer Vaccine

“I think 2021 will be a better year than 2020. We’re moving in the right direction.”
'A Way Out Of The Pandemic': Canadian Vaccine Expert On Risks & Benefits Of Pfizer Vaccine

The past year has been history-making for a number of reasons. At the forefront of the trials and tribulations of 2020 has been the COVID-19 pandemic which has stretched around the globe and altered life profoundly. Recently, the Pfizer vaccine has been deemed "promising" by researchers and said to be 90% effective in the trial stages.

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The vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech, an American pharmaceutical company and German biotech company, has gained notoriety since this announcement. Since then, questions of all natures have arisen among the public. 

Narcity interviewed Dr. Karina Top, a researcher at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology to learn more. Dr. Top is also an associate professor of pediatrics and community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University. 

We spoke about the promising nature of the vaccine, the potential side effects, what the availability to the public might look like, and a forward-looking glance at COVID-19 in general.

The expert shared what she knows of the Pfizer vaccine at this time along with her professional insight on vaccines of its nature and infectious diseases like the novel coronavirus.

Above all else, Dr. Top wants the public to remember that "While this is promising and presents a potential way out of the pandemic, we still need to keep going with keeping our distance, washing our hands, and wearing a mask to control this disease."

How does the Pfizer vaccine work?

Dr. Top said that "the Pfizer COVID vaccination is based on messenger RNA. So, it essentially contains the generic instructions to produce the spike protein, which is the protein on the surface of the coronavirus that the virus uses to attach to our cells and infect them."

Basically, a messenger RNA vaccine stimulates the production of antibodies through proteins that are identical to those of a virus. They help build the body’s immune system to fight against a pathogen such as that of the novel coronavirus.

This vaccine is two doses to be taken three weeks apart.

From your perspective, does this vaccine sound promising?

“Yes, it is promising. It’s exciting not only for this particular vaccine but it also suggests that other vaccines that are in the same stages of clinical trials, that phase three, are also likely to be effective at a similar level.”

She continued to say that these results in the trial stages indicate that the approach "of targeting the spike protein, which most vaccines are currently exploiting" is effective. So, the success of the Pfizer clinical trials bodes well for other current prototypes, too.

Dr. Top was sure to mention that these studies are not yet complete and that the data still needs to be published and reviewed independently.

"At the end of the day, it may not turn out to be 90% effective, it may be a bit less effective when the final results come in and we also need to look at how safe it is, as well," she said.

"This was exciting early news, but we need to see more evidence to really be confident in the results."

What are the potential side effects?

Recently reports of hangover-like symptoms in trial patients have surfaced and we asked the specialist what she thought of those claims.

"There’s now been over 40,000 people enrolled in that particular trial. Half have received the vaccine and others would have received a placebo or a saline injection," she told us.

Though, at this point, those individuals do not know if they received the vaccine or a saline solution. Therefore, reporting side effects is difficult.

"When they release the safety data, where they will have information on every participant in the trial for at least two months, then they’ll be able to look to see what the rate of side effects is in people who got the vaccine versus the placebo group, then they can determine what those risks are," said top.

She told us that with any vaccine, there can be side effects, referencing sore arms, redness at injection sites, and general unwellness that can be felt after receiving a flu shot.

Though, in terms of serious side effects, she said that “Pfizer hasn’t reported any serious safety concerns so far. There is nothing that has required that trial to pause, which is reassuring.”

Is a vaccine enough to eliminate the pandemic?

“A vaccine is really going to be an important and critical tool in our toolbox to beat this disease and get through the pandemic," the doctor responded. Though, she went on to say that a vaccine on its own will not be enough, especially not just one.

“It’s going to take time. We’re going to need multiple vaccines to get enough doses in order to get doses to everybody who needs it," said Top.

She said that "ultimately, we need to get the vaccine to every country in the world. That’s 8-billion people, which means 16-billion doses for many of these vaccines."

Though, she did say that "a vaccine will really help us get to the point where we can manage this disease more like we manage influenza every year and have a more normal life in-between.”

How many Pfizer vaccines will be produced?

“Pfizer has said that they could have about 50 or 60 million doses by the end of this year and 1.3 billion doses in 2021. But, that still means that there are only about 650-million people that would be able to get access to the vaccine because it’s two doses." For everyone, we need several billion.

If we just relied on this one vaccine, she said, it could take 10 years to have enough for everyone.

"We just need more products on the market so that we can have different companies making vaccines at maximum capacity and rolling out enough. We need billions of doses over a two-year period, for example, to get 60-70% of people vaccinated."

She said that at least 70%, ideally 80% of the population would need to be vaccinated to "really have community protection."

Right now, it's unclear how long the vaccine will protect those who take it.

Do you feel hopeful?

“I am hopeful because of the really unprecedented worldwide effort and collaboration that’s gone into vaccine development. It normally takes 10 years for a vaccine to get from animal models and clinical trials to being licensed and available for use in the population and we may get there in a year.”

Dr. Top called this rapid work extraordinary and finished by saying “I think 2021 will be a better year than 2020. We’re moving in the right direction.”

This article's cover photo is for illustrative purposes only.

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