Explainer: Five things about vaccines you need to know

syringe, world, medicine

Do vaccines work? Why did the UK get theirs first and … where are OURS? We unpack five key vaccine questions.

Vaccines, vaccines, and more vaccines. It’s all anyone seems to be talking about these days, as countries race to get enough of the precious jabs to their populations. 

But are these vaccines working? Will they end Covid-19? Every day, more information about these vaccines emerge, and it can be really tough to keep up. Here are some answers to some of the most pressing vaccine questions.

How do the vaccines work?

Two of the vaccines – the Pfizer and Moderna ones – are a new type of vaccine called a mRNA vaccine. According to the US Centres for Disease Control, these vaccines work by instructing the cells to produce a tiny part of the Covid-19 virus. That, in turn, prompts the body to fight off that part – called the “spike” – and the body learns how to protect itself against the virus itself.

The AstraZeneca vaccine works slightly differently. It uses an adenovirus – similar to the kinds of viruses that cause colds and flu – from chimpanzees, to inject into the body’s cells. The adenovirus is engineered so that it can’t replicate. It essentially sets off the cell’s alarm system, as The New York Times explained. This prompts the body to produce antibodies which can also fight off Covid-19.

Do they work against the new SA variant?

The broad consensus is, yes, although some vaccines may not be as potent towards the new variant. But this week, Moderna said its vaccine IS effective against the new variant found in SA.

Quartz reported that the increased transmissibility of the new variant is one of the reasons that US president Joe Biden issued travel restrictions against South Africa. Other countries including Turkey and the Netherlands have done the same. Initially, it seemed as though the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines may be less effective against the new variant, according to the publication. But Moderna now says its vaccine IS effective against the variant. To err on the safe side, the company is producing a booster shot.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the government’s ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 told the SABC on Wednesday that a recent study of 44 people showed that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines still worked against the new variant. The results of a similar test for the AstraZeneca vaccine were expected in a few days time, he said.

Why did the UK get their vaccines so quickly and…where are ours?

In SA, much of the criticism over our government’s handling of the vaccine debacle has centred around its supposed delay in talking to drug companies. Other countries were in talks with pharmaceutical firms much sooner than us. They also invested in the research and development of vaccines, which meant they were charged less by the pharmaceutical companies to buy the vaccines. But there’s more to it than that.

The UK’s drug regulators are notoriously quick at approving vaccines, the Washington Post reported.

They usually review data being released by companies throughout clinical trials and so, as one expert put it, by the time the vaccines were ready to be cleared by most of the world’s regulators (a process much like climbing Mount Everest), the UK government was “already at base camp”.

European Union (EU) regulators also started reviewing the data coming out of clinical trials early, in about October last year, but due to regulatory hurdles, the EU didn’t approve the vaccines as fast as the UK. 

The US’s regulators came under similar criticism for taking longer to approve the vaccines than the UK.

In SA, our processes are much slower (but still thorough). It’s also not clear whether any of the vaccine companies, except Johnson & Johnson, have applied for their vaccines to be approved in SA, News24 reported. *Our first batch of vaccines are on their way, and will arrive in SA on 1 February. Health minister Zweli Mkhize announced this week that it will take about 10-14 days for regulators to clear the vaccines for use.

Are they working?

Covid-19 vaccination programmes around the world are pretty new, so it will be some time before we know how well they’re working. But preliminary data from Israel is really promising. Nature magazine reports that people vaccinated in Israel were one-third less likely to test positive for Covid-19 than those who had not gotten the shot.

Israel and the United Arab Emirates have reportedly vaccinated about a quarter of their populations – more than any other countries.

Will vaccines end Covid?

We don’t know, and certainly not yet. Experts say that Covid-19 suppression remains the most important tool we have, while we wait for a majority of the world’s populations to be vaccinated. Tulio de Oliveira of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who is the lead scientist on the team who discovered the SA variant, told the UK’s Financial Times there are variants emerging independently in places like London, the Eastern Cape, and Brazil. De Oliveira, who is on the World Health Organisation’s Virus Evolution working group, said these places all have one thing in common: they were hit hard during the first wave.

He said it’s possible that the variants grew in those places, because people who had been previously infected with the virus’s immunity wore off over time, making them vulnerable to the virus again when the second wave hit.

He said we should be taking a leaf out of the books of Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, who aimed to eliminate the virus completely, and were not badly affected. That means putting in place vaccination programmes, but also ensuring that testing is done fast, that contact tracing happens quickly, and infected people are quarantining and isolating efficiently.

“This should be a wake-up call for all of us who want to control transmission,” he told the Times. “This virus will keep outsmarting us if we don’t take it very seriously.”

That means that no matter how fast our vaccines arrive, or how well they work, we simply can’t let our guard down yet. 

*Updated to reflect the latest information from the health minister

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