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Dr. Gregory Weiss reflects on his experience receiving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and his thoughts on the ongoing rollout process.
So, this happened to me back in December. Working daily as I do here in the trenches of healthcare, I generally learn about my external world via text and email. Like most clinicians I know, during November into December 2020 I watched and listened with great interest as the first COVID-19 vaccines completed trials and were presented to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization. Unlike many, I had a different idea of what I wanted for my holiday present.
I got the email the day after initial approval for the Pfizer mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. “Dr. Weiss, you have been identified as a first-tier recipient for the SARS-COVID-19 vaccine, please login to your MyChart portal and schedule your first dose.”
Very much like a child opening a present, I immediately logged in assuming that the first available appointment would be months in the future. To my incredible delight, I was able to schedule my first dose the very next day—during the second week of December 2020. I was ecstatic.
I cannot speak for all of my colleagues, but I suspect that many experienced the same reaction I did to being selected to receive the vaccine early. I knew that a heavy weight had been building on my mind and in my heart all year but as with all burdens I got used to it and didn’t notice it as much until this happened. Even before receiving the first vaccine and weeks before it would afford me any kind of protection a haze of worry started to dissipate, worry that I would get sick and become a burden to my family or even worse orphan my children. It was not a blind decision, but one easily made, I couldn’t wait.
I am a scientist and, as such, I generally look into things before I endorse them. I listened to vetted and well-known experts and found out all I could about messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. I found out that the trials were not rushed out of thin air but built on the foundations of decades-old research and at least one vaccine designed to combat a previous coronavirus. Understanding how mRNA vectors work, I knew that the vaccine did not enter the nucleus having no interactions with human DNA.
I further recognized the elegance of tricking our own ribosomes to “print” COVID spike protein imposters triggering a response to the appearance of the virus rather than growing real virus in culture which is a time-consuming and potentially problematic method often used in vaccine development. I decided that the development was not rushed but facilitated by a great deal of money and backing from the public and private sectors, something I will revisit at the end of this piece.
On my way to receive my first vaccination, I was not even the least bit apprehensive. As with most healthcare workers, I receive at least one vaccine per year along with tuberculosis skin tests. There is always a chance that one can suffer a serious complication from a new or old vaccine, but the data suggests that the risk is no greater than with any other established vaccine. I was further impressed that the vaccine clinic, set up by my hospital, was staffed by nurses I know and required that all those vaccinated remain in the clinic for fifteen minutes after the vaccine just in case a reaction occurred. Needless to say, they were prepared and did it right. I received my vaccine, waited fifteen minutes, and left with a smile under my mask.
So, what did the vaccine feel like? My first impression was that the physical pain of the actual injection was subjectively worse than say, a flu shot. Initially, I wondered if it was because the vaccine was quite cold having come directly out of refrigeration. Although sore, it was by no means intolerable. Over the next day or so I expected other symptoms, I experienced none. My arm did remain noticeably sore for several days with a level of discomfort comparable to that of a tetanus shot. I knew that in about ten days I would likely have a 50% lower chance of becoming seriously ill if infected by COVID-19. It was a good day.
Twenty-one days later I traveled to the same clinic for my second dose. This time I was expecting to develop some symptoms since my immune system had been primed by the first dose. To my welcome surprise, the second dose was followed by less arm pain than the first and absolutely no symptoms or side-effects. I felt like I had just won the lottery. I felt like things might just be ok, like the corner had been turned. Now ten plus days after my second dose I can expect a 95% reduction in the possibility of developing significant COVID-19 disease.
I have some final thoughts with regards to the vaccine(s). While I experienced almost no symptoms or side-effects, a substantial portion of those I know who also received the Pfizer vaccine reported mild fevers and chills with or without headaches and body aches after the second dose. While reports of Bell’s palsy and other reactions circulate, they are just as likely in patients receiving a placebo. As for the rapidity with which these vaccines were developed, I believe this fact underscores the sometimes dark reality of therapeutic invention while at the same time highlighting what can be accomplished with the right effort.
The reality is that developing medicines and vaccines is expensive. Add to that realization that, in most cases, the companies that develop these lifesaving products do so for profit. Operation Warp Speed withstanding, imagine what drug companies could accomplish if someone else paid for their research and development and then guaranteed that all of their product will be purchased and given away to everyone? I suspect the truth is that if every disease were treated like COVID-19 by the global community, we would have a lot less disease in general. Food for thought and a shot in the arm for all of us.