Doctors: Don’t wait for ‘better’ vaccine

Side effects are expected, normal, transient

BOSTON — The reactions are remarkably consistent, both in substance and duration.

“I had 26 hours of fever, chills, muscle aches, joint pain...” one health care worker told Boston 25 News.

“I had severe fatigue for 24 hours then was fine,” another added.

“Fever of 100.5, chills and body aches the next day for 24 hours; that’s it,” a third health care worker said.

Such were the side effects reported to Boston 25 News by some of those after receiving the second dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, but they could just as well have been from those getting the similar product from Pfizer.

“This response means that the immune system recognizes the second vaccine,” said Dr. Roger Shapiro, an assistant professor of immunology and infectious disease at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It’s been primed. Your body is saying I’ve seen this once before and I know what to do, I’m going to react to it.”

In other words, the reaction is completely normal. And, Dr. Shapiro said, it’s what clinicians expect to see.

“You want people to get this response to know that the immune system is responding,” he said. “We don’t want it to be too vigorous, and we want to make sure people are comfortable afterward. But, by and large, this is a manageable and completely predictable effect of the second vaccine, and we welcome it.”

Patients, on the other hand, may not welcome it. So much so that some may be considering waiting for a different vaccine to come out in the hopes it won’t have such side effects. They may be disappointed, Dr. Shapiro said.

“We certainly expect that you’re going to get this normal vaccine reaction with whatever vaccine you get, and it’s way better than getting COVID,” he said.

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That would include Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine now under FDA review. The agency is expected to vote whether to authorize emergency use of the product on February 26. If approved, it may not be available until late March.

That’s too long to wait if you don’t have to, Dr. Shapiro said, especially with variants bearing down on the U.S. A recent study found the British variant, B.1.1.7, is on its way to becoming dominant, with a range now across 30 states. That study estimates it is 35-to-45% more transmissible than the original COVID-19.

“The first two vaccines, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, are really excellent vaccines,” Dr. Shapiro said. “And waiting just really doesn’t make any sense given the race against time we’re facing here.”

Dr. Christopher Gill, a professor of global health at the Boston University School of Public Health, agrees.

“This is not abstract,” he said. “And for the front-line workers who have just been working for eight months solidly dealing with patient after patient after patient after patient in the ICU or the wards, many of whom do not survive, this is not abstract. This is as bad as it really ever gets.”

Still, surveys continue to show some reluctance to commit to the vaccine. The health research firm KFF found the number of those ‘waiting to see’ how others fared dropped from 39% to 31% between December and January.

“In December it was more of a hypothetical COVID vaccine, people did not actually see it being rolled out to people that they know,” said KFF Vice President Liz Hamel. “And by January we actually had people available to get the vaccine.”

But along with that 31% on the fence, the KFF survey found another 20% who said they won’t get the vaccine or will only take it if forced to do so.

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