A call among readers has raised many questions about the corona vaccine. In a lecture for Utrecht University and Tivoli, professor of vaccinology Cécile van Els answers many of these questions. Read here how it is.
1. I have already had corona. Does a vaccine make sense?
Cécile van Els: ‘People react very differently after infection, the variation is enormous. One builds up a lot of defense against the virus and the other does not. That is precisely why it is good to vaccinate because then you at least ensure a good training of the immune system.
The vaccine is not the virus. The vaccine trains your cells to recognize the spike protein on the outside of the virus and to build a good immune response against it. A live virus is capable of fooling the immune system. As a result, not everyone gets a good immune response to the virus. If you are trained with the vaccine, you will develop an immune system in a controlled manner. So even if you have had an infection, serious or not, it is better to get vaccinated.”
2. I have stopped the flu shot for years and now have doubts about the corona vaccine. Is it safe?
‘As far as the vaccine is concerned, there are two sides of the coin – what are you doing it for, and what is the risk. As for the risk, you may be feverish and may need to take a day off after the vaccine. That’s annoying. But on the other hand, the virus now has a lot of leeways and causes a lot of social damage. The measures that apply now seem to be from the Middle Ages. We’re smart enough now to make vaccines, so let’s use them. Even if you do not belong to the risk group, you are an important link in the ‘dyke of immunity’, in other words, the protection of vulnerable people against the virus by vaccinated people. You should think about that.’
3. Will we need a corona jab every year?
‘We hear a lot about mutations and variants of the coronavirus. That may be a reason to improve the vaccines, but I do not expect that we will have to get a corona vaccine every year as with the seasonal flu. The flu virus is from a completely different family than the coronavirus. The flu virus completely changes its jacket every year. Coronaviruses don’t do that so dramatically.’
4. Have elderly people indeed died from vaccination?
‘In Norway, this has indeed been reported in very old and vulnerable people. It has been well looked after. These people were already at the end of their lives and could no longer handle the fever as a side effect of the vaccine. In the case of very vulnerable people, you should always consult the attending physician – can this person still handle it? A little bit of fever can sometimes be too much for very vulnerable people. Then it is better to vaccinate the people around that person.’
5. Can you get vaccinated if you have an autoimmune disease?
‘Not all autoimmune diseases were represented in the vaccine test groups. Some do, such as type 1 diabetes and a few other stable chronic conditions. People with an autoimmune disease are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because their immune system is suppressed with drugs. That’s a complicating factor when they get vaccinated – is your immune system doing what we hope despite the drugs? This will be looked at even more closely in studies.’
6. Or if you are being treated for cancer?
‘In general, if you are seriously ill, you should always talk to your doctor about whether you can be vaccinated and what side effects to expect.’
7. I have a huge puncture anxiety. Can I also be vaccinated without a shot?
There are more than 200 candidates for corona vaccines in the vaccine pipeline. It also contains mucosal routes, with a puff for example. We have a flu vaccine that works like that. But on the other hand, you want to be careful with the mucous membranes, especially in the lungs. So the vaccines that are administered in a different way are in development, but for the time being it is still an injection in the upper arm.’
8. Does the RNA vaccine change your DNA, like Pfizer’s and Moderna’s?
‘It takes some getting used to, but I don’t find anything scary about it. The RNA vaccines contain a genetic code, that’s true. But actually that’s what a natural virus infection does. When infected with a virus, a huge ditch of RNA or DNA enters. An ordinary virus takes over your cells to build virus particles. We don’t realize that, but biologically you have to deal with that all day long. Your immune system keeps cleaning up viruses that come in.’
9. Is healthy eating more important than vaccination?
‘Healthy eating and maintaining vitamins is important and good for the immune system. But it does not prepare you for a corona infection. Your immune system needs a few days to weeks to build up a defense against the coronavirus. The virus is much faster, so your immune system is too late. That is why vaccination is more important in the fight against the coronavirus. You can be part of the small percentage of people who don’t suffer from corona at all, but you can also become very ill unexpectedly.’
10. The vaccine from Pfizer and Modern is more effective than AstraZenea. Can I choose which vaccine I get?
‘We all want to, but we can’t choose which vaccine we get. The government’s vaccination strategy has chosen which target group will receive which vaccine. Only in people who are very vulnerable can we sometimes specifically choose a vaccine that works best for them, but those are exceptions.
By the way: we are not yet sure which vaccine works best. For example, we do not yet know what the effect is on contagiousness. The vaccine from AstraZeneca seems to score well in this regard. Any vaccine we can get that works and is safe will help end the pandemic.”
11. If the vaccine runs out after your first shot – can you get the second shot of another vaccine?
‘In principle, people get the second shot of the same product as the first shot. But there are limited amounts of vaccines while we want to vaccinate as many people as possible quickly. Behind the scenes, many people are very busy with this. Postponing the second shot is a point of discussion. We can extend the period between two vaccines to 6 weeks. The immune system will also be very well trained. But we don’t want to make that interval too long. It is not the case that everything is being prepared, while we do not yet know when the next series will be delivered. In theory, a second shot of a different type of vaccine might work just fine. But there are strict rules for it, so it’s not applied that way now. You first get shot a and then after a few weeks you also get shot a.’
Want to know more about the vaccines? View the lecture by professor Cécile van Els, organized by Utrecht University and Tivoli, in which she explains how corona vaccines work. Note that the lecture starts at minute 5, so ‘slide’ forward: watch it here on Youtube.