By Christopher Martin, MD
You know, and are probably getting very tired of, the necessary measures used to limit the spread of COVID-19: mask wearing; hand washing; physical distancing measures, which include routinely keeping a distance of at least 6 feet; quarantining if you’ve been exposed and isolating when sick. Everyone’s lives have been disrupted by COVID-19, many lives have been taken from us, and you are wondering when this will ever end.
Our experience in addressing this pandemic has taught us many important lessons. One is that each of these control measures is only as successful as the degree to which large numbers of people in our community consistently practice them. The more people who wear masks, the harder it is for the virus to spread.
We now have a new tool, which may prove be the most powerful of them all – vaccination. It’s through vaccination that we successfully eradicated two infectious diseases from our planet, smallpox and a disease of cattle called rinderpest. We are extremely close to doing so very soon for a third, polio. We don’t have to ever worry about smallpox again, because it is gone forever. One of the reasons vaccination is such a powerful tool is we leave the remembering to our immune system, not our brains. By introducing the instructions for an outer part of the virus through the vaccine, we ‘teach’ our immune system to recognize the virus as foreign and eliminate it so it does not cause disease. Unlike relying on our brains, which have to remember to practice all the other measures, all the time, once our immune system learns through vaccination, it doesn’t forget.
But, like the other tools, vaccines will only be effective in stopping the pandemic if enough of us choose to get vaccinated. Some hesitate because of the speed of development of the vaccines. It feels to them like, under pressures of a pandemic, this was rushed. After all, vaccines until now have taken many years to develop.
Were corners cut? No. The COVID-19 vaccines were studied in clinical trials with the same number of people followed for the same length of time in the same ways as vaccines we currently give our children. They became available so fast by doing steps at the same time that were previously done one after another. Millions of doses of vaccines were manufactured while the clinical trials were still under way. A financial risk was taken, but not a safety risk.
The vaccines have both been shown to be not only safe but highly effective – up to 95% effective after the second dose, exceeding our hopes. If enough of us choose to be vaccinated, the virus will not be able to circulate from one person to another. And, if the virus cannot get into people, it cannot reproduce, and it will die out.
Who has the power to end this pandemic? The answer is that you do.
Christopher Martin, MD, MSc, is a Professor in the WVU Schools of Public Health and Medicine and currently serves on the West Virginia COVID-19 Vaccine Medical Advisory Group.