In a virtual panel and Q&A session, five UCSB professors tried to tackle some of the most frequently asked questions regarding the COVID-19 vaccines, explaining the efficacy, timelines and overall safety of the Pfizer, Moderna and soon-to-come Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
The bottom line the panel reached was that the general public should trust the vaccine, and get whichever one is first available to them immediately when they become eligible.
Dr. Scott Grafton, UCSB’s COVID-19 coordinator and professor of psychological and brain sciences, brought his medical expertise to the discussion.
“We’re all trying to keep abreast of how good these vaccines really are,” he said. “The news, overall, is very, very good.”
Dr. Grafton pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sets a “pretty low bar” for vaccines’ efficacy at 50%, and all three vaccines exceed that low bar, Pfizer and Moderna exceeding it with flying colors.
“To have a vaccine be 90% effective or better is absolutely phenomenal,” he said. He also pointed out another portion of Israel’s Pfizer study that he thinks is crucial, saying, “If you look at people who got the vaccine and you measure whether or not they’re carrying the virus a week after their second dose versus people who didn’t get the vaccine, there’s about a 90% reduction in them being infected and that includes asymptomatic infections.
“That’s always been a big worry, right? This is a virus that transmits in a lot of people asymptomatically, but if you can show 90% protection even in asymptomatic cases, that’s a huge win for all of us.”
The professor said that there’s also been a recent “precipitous” decline in the number of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes, which indicates that things are starting to kick in with the vaccines in the human population.
Carolina Arias, an assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at UCSB, spoke to the safety of the vaccines.
“One thing I can tell you is that the safety of these vaccines is under tight scrutiny by different entities,” she said. “So far, it is pretty encouraging that we are not seeing any of these delayed adverse effects when the first dose of these vaccines were used in clinical trials. It’s not that we have just a couple of weeks or months to evaluate these adverse effects — we have several months so we can follow them.”
Participants of each vaccine’s clinical trials also represented different races and ethnicities, she said, including 10% to 17% black representation, 20% to 45% Latino representation and 3.5% to 4.7% Asian representation. However, she said information about efficacy and safety among children under the age of 18 is still missing, but will likely come around the summertime.
The assistant professor also spoke to COVID-19 variants.
“These vaccines are going to be one of our best lines of defense and offer protection even to other variants, even if it’s not exactly the variant used to develop the vaccine,” Ms. Arias said. “They (the vaccines) are offering protection from some of these variants and could provide protection from some of the variants that could arise in the future. And, these mRNA vaccines are very versatile — they can be easily changed and easily manufactured so that we could have a booster that could offer protection to us.”
Chuck Samuel, a research, C.A. Storke and distinguished professor emeritus of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at UCSB, shared how mRNA vaccines work and how other vaccines like the COVID-19 vaccines have fared.
To do this, he pointed out that measles, mumps, rubella, polio and smallpox cases have almost all been at least mostly eradicated, if not totally eradicated.
“Immunization and vaccination can work marvelously well,” he said. “To achieve success, not of one but of two of these vaccines that work just marvelously well in less than a year is a real scientific triumph.”
Dr. Stu Feinstein, a professor and coordinator for UCSB’s COVID-19 Response Team, discussed the history of vaccines and how the COVID-19 vaccines were able to be created as rapidly as they were. He said that it’s been a result of decades of research examining how cells work and how biomolecules make them work.
“We know how they work and we know how they work well enough that we can make them do things for us in test tubes,” Dr. Feinstein said. “Mixing and matching them in clever and creative ways enabled us to build these new COVID vaccines much faster and much simpler and much less labor intensive than using traditional vaccine production methods.
“Everything was really beautifully set up at this particular time in history for us to take advantage of this knowledge and implement so we could make these vaccines. All the choirs and cast were ready to go — it was just a matter of writing the text of the play.”
He added that in theory, variants could still pop up and throw these vaccines for a loop, but the vaccines are still very capable of protecting individuals from getting seriously ill.
Joe Incandela, the vice chancellor for research and a professor of physics at UCSB, mentioned the physics of COVID protocols such as masking, social distancing and COVID-19 transmission.
“What you should always do is be aware of your circumstances,” he said, referring to well-ventilated areas versus stuffy rooms indoors. “If you’re outside running behind someone who’s also running and breathing hard, there’s a wake of spray that’s just pouring all over you. Just be aware of where you are.”
He did recommend double masking, saying it increases filtering capability, specifically using a surgical mask and then a well-fitting cloth mask on top to achieve both good filtering and a tight fit so droplets cannot escape.
“We know for sure that if people mask, distance and keep in ventilated spaces, we’re going to keep this to a minimum. There’s just no doubt about it,” Dr. Incandela said.
He added that when the pandemic began, there was a lot of emphasis on droplets on material and transmission that way, but now more of it is airborne transmission. His advice when it comes to different transmission pathways is to never assume any way is gone or not a pathway for transmission.
Overall, the professors came to a consensus that the most important takeaways from the panel are: for everyone to get the first vaccine they have access to, to continue adhering to COVID protocol, and, to be patient.
“The good news is production is really scaling up quite a bit right now with Pfizer and Moderna and J&J being approved tomorrow, that wave coming in in another month or so,” Dr. Grafton said. “Be patient … Hang in there.”
The session was recorded and will be made available to the public in the near future via The Current, at https://www.news.ucsb.edu/.