By ERIC J. HANLY, M.D.
I am a surgeon here in Grand Junction, and for the past nine months I have spoken with unveiled skepticism about a COVID-19 vaccine.
Throughout the developing pandemic I have doubted that we would ever have a vaccine against a coronavirus; I have doubted that we could develop a new treatment fast enough to answer the pandemic in a meaningful way; and I have very much questioned whether an mRNA vaccine could really appear safe enough for me to be willing to receive it before its safety had been monitored for many years. But I’m a skeptic no longer. I’m getting the COVID-19 vaccine — and I mean just as soon as I can.
So, why my change of heart? This past weekend I read the results of the clinical trial of the first of two COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna, respectively) to which western Coloradans are likely to have access in the coming months. The Pfizer vaccine study results were published late last week in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) — the world’s most highly regarded and trusted scientific publication within the field of medicine. The article is available for free for anyone to read online (nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2034577), but the non-physician reader might find their eyes glazing over at all of the scientific jargon. So, let me take a surgeon’s “stab” at giving you the Cliff’s Notes version.
For me, reading this publication early this Saturday morning was a rare emotional high after another stressful week at the hospital “dealing with COVID.” For the first time in nine months, I felt a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, we will be able to get back to life as we knew it. The study is impeccable in its design — really the Holy Grail of medical research: a massive (43,548 human volunteers), multi-national, multi-generational, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial that managed to operate just as President Trump promised — that is, at “Warp Speed” — without compromising safety.
The results of the study are nothing short of amazing. The study was large enough to be able to detect potential complications of the vaccine even if they were to occur in only 1 in 10,000 cases, and yet the side effects actually identified were ones that anyone who has ever had a “shot” is familiar with: short-term mild-to-moderate fatigue and headache (like the flu shot), and shoulder soreness at the injection site (like a tetanus shot). Basically, I just need to plan on squealing like a child when I get the shot (like I always do), and possibly be ready to take it easy for a couple of days — nothing more.
As to my concerns about the long-term effects of mRNA vaccines, the designers of both COVID vaccines managed to exclude all of the of the virus’s mRNA coding for viral reproduction — so my initial concerns were quelled. In brilliant irony, the scientists who designed the vaccine have given the virus a taste of its own medicine — the vaccine uses the body’s own cells to produce a protein which then primes the body to generate its own immunologic arsenal to combat the actual virus. Finally, the vaccine was 95% effective at preventing people from getting COVID-19. Let me repeat that: 95% effective. In the vaccine world, that is like hitting a walk-off grand-slam home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in game seven of the World Series. By comparison, the flu shot is only 40% effective in an average year. The COVID-19 vaccine is much, much better than a flu shot, and so much more important.
So, for the first time in nine months, I can actually see a light at the end of the dark tunnel that has characterized 2020—and these vaccines are the key to getting us into the light. Many feel that our entire response to the “pandemic” has been way out of proportion to the actual threat of COVID-19 — that the country and the economy have been shut down for irrational and/or political reasons. While my role as a physician at St Mary’s Hospital has brought me into contact with many of the western Colorado residents who have actually died from COVID-19, I remain sympathetic to these skepticisms.
But regardless of whether or not you think the response to COVID-19 has been appropriate, at this point an equal and opposite counter-response is necessary to get us back to normal — and normalcy is something that we all very much want. The vaccine is our best countermeasure to both the pandemic and the response to the pandemic. Not everyone has to be vaccinated for us to reach herd immunity and put an end to this maddening virus and the mayhem it has caused, but roughly 80% of us do. And thus, as soon as I can find a nurse willing to stick this brilliant scientific achievement and credit to humanity into my left deltoid muscle, I will enthusiastically do my part and allow them to do so. I hope you will too.
Eric J. Hanly, MD, FACS, is a pancreatic and bariatric surgeon at General Surgeons of Western Colorado and a trauma surgeon at St. Mary’s Medical Center. He will receive his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at St. Mary’s this morning. The views expressed herein represent Dr. Hanly’s personal opinion, and not necessarily those of his employers/affiliates.