The Covid-19 vaccine roll-out has been steadily gaining traction, especially since registrations for those 18 years and older opened up. However, many South Africans are still choosing not to vaccinate.
So, the question is – what are the arguments for the vaccine, and what are the arguments against it?
As a healthcare professional, Stephan Steyn, a pharmacist and senior lecturer at North-West University is pro-vaccine in general, but he is urging South Africans who are anxious about the Covid-19 vaccine to make the most informed decision possible.
“Before making a choice on whether or not to vaccinate, it’s important for people to make peace with their decision, whatever it may be,” says Steyn. “We don’t want to end up in a situation where everyone is pointing fingers because someone had a bad reaction to the vaccine or contracted the virus and died without it.”
Steyn believes there are three myths that can be dispelled based on medical evidence and advice.
Myth 1: The vaccine was rushed and there are too many unknowns
For Steyn, it comes down to the data. “The argument I see most often used against the vaccine is that it’s been rushed, and we simply don’t know enough. On the one hand, that is true. My children have received all of their usual vaccinations simply because there is an abundance of long-term safety data. The Covid-19 vaccine is slightly different. We can only work with short-term data. What we have seen, however, is that the benefit of the vaccine far outweighs the known risks and, I believe, the unknown risks, particularly because of how many vaccines have been administered.”
Blood clots and heart complications have been mentioned most often. Blood clots are referred to as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS). As of 7 May 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had reviewed 28 reports of TTS out of a total of more than 8 million Johnson & Johnson vaccinations. To date, the US FDA and CDC have not identified any cases of TTS after the use of over 240 million doses of mRNA vaccines.
According to Harvard Medical School, only 1,226 cases of myocarditis or pericarditis have been reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) after administration of about 300 million doses of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
“Medical professionals around the globe believe that the risks of the vaccine are far, far lower than the risks of Covid-19 complications or severe illness,” says Steyn. “In South Africa alone, we’ve seen how new variants are impacting young, seemingly healthy individuals who have previously undiagnosed underlying conditions.”
Steyn is also a firm supporter of how quickly vaccines were developed. “The argument against the vaccine tends to discount that for the first time in world history, the brightest minds across the globe were working on one question. I’d have been worried if we weren’t able to produce a vaccine in such a short time.”
Myth 2: The vaccine alters your DNA
“There are a lot of posts circulating social media that the Covid-19 vaccine uses gene therapy, which is then taken to mean that it can alter human DNA because gene therapy is defined as replacing a disease-causing gene with healthy gene.
“The reality is that only the Covid protein has been isolated and gene therapy has been used on that. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, was created using messenger RNA (mRNA), a new technology that allows a faster approach than the traditional way vaccines are made. mRNA uses the DNA of the Covid-19 protein to tell our cells what type of protein to produce so that our bodies know which immune response to mount. Once I’ve been vaccinated, my own cells look like the Covid-19 virus and my immune response generates antibodies to prevent future infections, but the mNRA strain doesn’t enter the nucleus of my cells, it sits on the periphery and is disappears within 48 to 72 hours. The chances of an autoimmune response are extremely slim, and if it does happen, it’s because there was an underlying condition that a person was not aware of.”
Myth 3: Vaccinated people can still spread the virus
“We know that vaccinated people can still contract the virus, however, the data shows that if this happens, an individual is far less likely to become seriously ill and while they can technically still spread the virus, their viral loads are very low, which makes their risk of spreading it much lower.”
According to CDC data, vaccinated people account for only 1% of Covid-19 hospitalisations in the U.S, and 0.8% of Covid deaths.The CDC also states that a growing body of evidence indicates that people fully vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna) are less likely than unvaccinated persons to acquire Covid-19 or to transmit it to others.
“The result is that vaccinated individuals are far less likely to contract Covid-19, and if they do, their risk of serious illness, complications and death is 1%. Of course, no risks can be completely eliminated, even amongst vaccinated people as long as there is continued community transmission of the virus, which is why herd immunity is so important, but all indications show that the vaccine does make a measurable difference,” says Steyn.
Speak to a professional
According to Steyn, the biggest challenge for medical professionals is that they are competing with social media. “We are in a strange situation where many people will believe what they read on Facebook with regards to Covid over professional medical advice but will trust their doctors for anything else. Medical aids are distributing a lot of excellent information and advice, and I believe that in South Africa more people are pro vaccine than against it, but the minority voices are so loud that they are drowning everyone else out. For those who are undecided, even a small grain of fear can be a powerful motivator to do nothing.”
Steyn believes the best way to combat misinformation is to stop Googling and reading Facebook posts and to ask doctors and pharmacists for data and information. “We’re here to answer any questions we’re asked,” says Steyn. “People are filled with anxiety and sharing information online, but they aren’t asking the medical professionals available to them. There is no incorrect question – if you are anxious, please ask.”