Get the Facts on the COVID-19 Vaccines, the Delta Variant, Breakthrough Infections and More

Date: Sep 22, 2021

Since December 2020, the COVID-19 vaccines have brought hope to a fight that has spanned across the world. All three vaccines available in the United States are safe and prevent an overwhelming majority of severe and life-threatening cases of COVID-19, so they can save lives and protect our health care systems from becoming overwhelmed.

As the virus continues to mutate, it’s more important than ever for us to come together to separate fact from fiction about the COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States.

As of January 20, 2021, three COVID-19 vaccinations have been approved for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

*The Pfizer vaccine was issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA on December 11, 2020, and received full FDA approval on August 23, 2021.

Here, we’ve compiled some of the most commonly asked questions about the vaccine to help you make an informed decision that’s best for you and your family.

How was the COVID vaccine able to be developed so quickly? Is it really safe?

COVID-19 vaccines were able to be developed less than a year after the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China, thanks to a global community of experts coming together. This effort was helped by:

  • Immediate publication of the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which allowed scientists to begin working on a vaccine before some countries had ever seen COVID-19 cases.
  • Decades of prior research on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines that scientists were able to build on to create the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
  • Many volunteers, including some right here at Emory, who were willing to help test the vaccine.
  • Support from government programs and private funding.

While the vaccines were developed quickly, they still adhered to stringent safety protocols, including:

  • Closely regulated and monitored clinical trials to ensure the vaccines were safe without serious side effects.
  • Development and implementation of vaccine safety monitoring to ensure serious side effects aren’t present in the general population over time.

Why should I take the vaccine if the COVID mortality rate is relatively low?

From January 2020 to September 20, 2021, there have been at least 675,071 deaths caused by COVID-19. Many experts believe this number is likely significantly higher, largely due to limited early testing and confusion about how to record deaths in the beginning of the pandemic. As a comparison, the CDC estimates that there were approximately 22,000 deaths from influenza (flu) during the 2019-2020 season.

Currently, the mortality rate of COVID-19 in the United States is 1.6%, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. With so many people infected, that has meant hundreds of thousands of deaths, including people who were our family, friends, and neighbors. If everyone in the United States were infected with COVID-19, a 1.6% mortality rate could lead to as many as 5 million deaths.

Additionally, even if your mortality risk from COVID-19 is lower because of your age or health status, you could still spread the virus to someone more vulnerable – for example, a parent or grandparent, or someone immunocompromised – who might be at high risk for complications and death.

Finally, recent studies estimate that between a quarter and a third of all people infected with COVID have long-term symptoms. So even if you aren’t at significant risk of dying, a COVID infection could still leave you with debilitating symptoms that prevent you from working or doing daily activities that you enjoy.

The vaccine and continued public health efforts (mask wearing, physical distancing, handwashing) all help to slow the spread of the virus and prevent deaths.

Is getting the COVID-19 vaccine a bigger risk than contracting the virus?

No, the COVID-19 vaccine is not a bigger risk to your health than becoming ill with the actual virus. COVID-19 can cause many serious short- and long-term complications and has killed more than 675,000 Americans, including more than 21,563 right here in Georgia. The COVID-19 vaccine has been proven safe and effective at slowing the spread of this very serious virus.

You may experience side effects after receiving the vaccine, such as soreness at the injection site, fatigue, or fevers, but they are not dangerous and generally go away 24-72 hours later.

True adverse events from the vaccine, like allergic reactions, are extremely rare, with less than 5 cases reported per million doses given. Given the mortality rate and the risk of long-term complications from COVID-19 infection, the benefits of vaccination far outweigh these very rare risks.

When you get a COVID-19 vaccine, you’re not just protecting yourself from a potentially deadly virus, you’re also protecting your family, friends and neighbors.

What is herd immunity?

Herd immunity occurs when a large enough portion of the population becomes immune to an infectious disease to stop disease spread. Both vaccination and natural infections can lead to herd immunity, but vaccinations could allow us to reach herd immunity without further deaths and long-term complications from COVID infections.

Whether or not we will achieve herd immunity to COVID depends on the speed with which we can vaccinate people, both in the United States and around the world, and how many people choose to get vaccinated. If COVID-19 infections continue to spread, we run the risk of the virus continuing to mutate and developing additional variants that may not be as well-covered by current vaccines.

Do your part to help stop the chain of COVID-19 infections: Get vaccinated, continue to wear your mask indoors when out in public, maintain at least 6 feet between you and individuals outside of your immediate household, and wash your hands thoroughly and often.

Do I need the vaccine if I’ve had COVID-19?

Yes, you should still get the vaccine even if you’ve been sick with the COVID-19 virus. Not everyone who has had COVID-19 develops immunity, and researchers are still working to understand how long immunity from infection with the virus lasts. Reinfection is also possible and appears to be less likely if people are vaccinated. The CDC, therefore, recommends that individuals who have been sick with COVID-19 still receive the vaccine.

Can I still get COVID-19 after being vaccinated?

Yes. The vaccines are highly effective – most importantly at preventing >90% of severe illness and death – but they are not 100% effective. They also don’t work immediately, and we now know that some immunocompromised people do not have a good immune response to the vaccine. Additionally, with the Delta variant, while the vaccines continue to work extremely well at preventing severe illness, we are seeing more breakthrough infections that are asymptomatic or mild.

Fortunately, vaccinated individuals who do become sick have a very low risk of becoming seriously ill, being hospitalized, or dying from COVID-19. The CDC even stopped tracking breakthrough cases on May 1 because the number was low and because illness was not severe among vaccinated individuals.

Can vaccinated individuals spread COVID-19?

Yes, there are documented cases of people who are fully vaccinated who have breakthrough infections and have infected others, particularly with the Delta variant. However, because you are less likely to get infected if you are vaccinated and you may be contagious for a shorter time period, being vaccinated still decreases COVID transmission.

It’s important for vaccinated individuals to take steps to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, particularly to friends and family not yet vaccinated. Wear a mask in indoor public places, maintain 6 feet of physical distance from others when possible, and wash your hands frequently.

Do the COVID vaccines interact with or alter my DNA?

No. The mRNA in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contains the genetic code to make one of the spike proteins found on the surface of the coronavirus particle. Your cells use that genetic code to make spike proteins that your immune system learns to recognize. Then, if you are exposed to coronavirus in the future, your immune system will react to it as well. The mRNA code is translated to make the spike protein without entering the cell nucleus, which is where your DNA is protected, so the mRNA in the vaccine never interacts with your DNA. The mRNA then disintegrates quickly and does not stay in your body.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses an adenovirus vector – a virus that has been modified so that it cannot cause an infection in people – to deliver the instructions for making the COVID spike protein. Those instructions are transcribed from DNA to mRNA, and then the same process described above takes place. The small piece of DNA carried by the adenovirus vector does not interact with your DNA and also disintegrates quickly.

Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?

No, you cannot get COVID-19 from any of the vaccines because they do not contain any part of the COVID virus. They only contain the genetic instructions for your body to make a copy of the COVID-19 “spike protein.” When your body makes that protein, it is recognized by your immune system, which makes antibodies to it. Then, if you are ever exposed to the actual COVID-19 virus, your immune system will recognize it and fight it off.

Although you cannot get the virus from the vaccine, you may experience some side effects. The most common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine tend to be relatively mild and typically subside within 24-72 hours. They include:

  • Pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site
  • Fever/chills
  • Tiredness
  • Headache

What are the ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines?

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both contain mRNA, lipids (fats) that help the mRNA to get where it needs to be, and salts and sugars to keep the vaccine stable. The exact formulations are slightly different:

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 ingredients

  • mRNA – The instructions to help your body make a copy of the COVID-19 spike protein so that your immune system learns to recognize it and make antibodies
  • Lipids – Lipids are fats that help protect the mRNA and help it get into cells in the body
    • ((4-hydroxybutyl)azanediyl)bis(hexane-6,1-diyl)bis(2-hexyldecanoate)
    • 2[(polyethylene glycol)-2000]-N, N-ditetradecylacetamide
    • 1,2-Distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine
    • Cholesterol
  • Salts – Salts help balance the acidity in your body
    • Potassium chloride
    • Monobasic potassium phosphate
    • Sodium chloride
    • Dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate
  • Sucrose – Sugar helps the molecules maintain their shape during freezing and shipping

Read more about the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Moderna COVID-19 vaccine ingredients

  • mRNA
  • Lipids
    • SM-102
    • Polyethylene glycol [PEG] 2000 dimyristoyl glycerol [DMG]
    • Cholesterol
    • 1,2-Distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine [DSPC]

Ingredients to help stabilize and protect the vaccine during freezing and distribution

  • Acetic acid
  • Tromethamine & Tromethamine hydrochloride
  • Sodium acetate
  • Sucrose

Read more about the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 Vaccine

The Janssen COVID-19 vaccine uses a “disabled” adenovirus to deliver instructions to your body’s immune system on how to fight COVID-19. The adenovirus is modified so that it cannot make you sick.

The Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccine ingredients include:

  • Recombinant, replication-incompetent adenovirus type 26 – This disabled virus carries the genetic instructions for making the spike protein to teach your body how to fight it.
  • Acids
    • Citric acid monohydrate
  • Salt
    • Trisodium citrate dihydrate
  • Sugars
    • 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HBCD)
    • Polysorbate-80, sodium chloride
  • Ethanol

Read more about the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccine.

Do the COVID-19 vaccines contain any human tissue, such as fetal cells?

None of the vaccines contain fetal tissue. Some vaccines use fetal cells from remote abortions in part of their testing or manufacturing process, but no fetal tissue is ever involved. No fetal cells OR tissue are part of the vaccines themselves.

The mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) do not contain any part of the virus that causes COVID, and so there is no need for fetal cell use in any part of the vaccine manufacturing. There was some early testing of how well the vaccines worked that was done on fetal cells, but there are no fetal cells involved in the process of making the vaccine or contained within the vaccine.

Are people who receive the COVID-19 vaccine tracked in any way?

There’s nothing within the vaccine itself that would allow anyone to gather your personal information or to track you. The person administering your vaccine doses will record your details in an electronic database for your state – this helps to make sure you get your second dose on the right schedule and that the state gets resupplied with vaccine based on what it has distributed. You will also get a card for your wallet that shows you have been vaccinated.

How do I know if I’m allergic to the ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines?

Instances of severe allergic reactions have been reported among people immediately following the mRNA vaccines. However, these severe allergic reactions are extremely rare, with the CDC reporting a rate of 2-5 cases per million doses.

If you have a history of an allergic reaction to any of the listed ingredients, you should not get that COVID vaccine and should discuss with your physician whether a different COVID vaccine would be safe.

You should talk to your doctor before receiving an mRNA vaccine if you have experienced a severe allergic reaction from a vaccine or injected medication in the past. If you have a history of a severe allergic reaction to something else (e.g., oral medications, foods, insects, latex), you can receive an mRNA vaccination per CDC recommendations.

Anyone with a history of a severe allergic reaction will be monitored for 30 minutes after vaccination, while all others should be monitored for at least 15 minutes. Vaccination sites have safeguards in place, in the unlikely event you do experience an allergic reaction.

Are antibiotics effective at preventing or treating COVID-19?

Antibiotics do not kill the COVID-19 virus. Antibiotics are an effective treatment against infections caused by bacteria but don’t help to treat or prevent viruses like COVID-19.

Additional resources on COVID-19 and the vaccine

We continue to monitor COVID-19 research developments focused on diagnosing, treating and preventing this very serious public health threat. Our team at Emory Healthcare has compiled helpful resources and answers to your questions to help you take steps to protect you and your loved ones.

Read more frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and how we’re keeping you safe and informed.

Schedule your appointment today.

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