Learning more about the COVID-19 vaccines with AU’s Dr. William Diehl-Jones
The world has been anxiously watching as the COVID-19 vaccines roll out globally. And, while the rapid rollout has been met with much excitement with the potential for an expectant return to normal, it has also been met with fear, hesitancy, and in some cases, misconception.
Dr. William Diehl-Jones is a Registered Nurse (RN) and an Athabasca University (AU) professor with a doctoral research degree in cell molecular biology. He has made it his goal to make people better-informed consumers of research and medical news by providing science- and evidence-based information about the vaccine.
He has been with AU since 2013 and currently teaches in the Master of Nursing program. We caught up with him to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines and had him answer some common questions about them.
Which vaccines are currently available for Canadians?
- Moderna (mRNA)
- Pfizer-BioNTech (mRNA)
- Johnson & Johnson / Janssen
- AstraZeneca (only approved for patients over the age of 55 in AB and many other provinces in Canada)
More information about the Canadian drug and vaccine authorizations for COVID-19 can be found on the Government of Canada website.
What does mRNA mean in terms of the vaccines?
The “m” stands for messenger, which relays a message from the nucleus to tell the cell what to do. It’s a rather novel approach to vaccinology that has enabled vaccine discovery to speed up. People are worried that these mRNA vaccines will alter our genetic code, but this is just not how mRNA works.
The great things about these vaccines is that they are very effective, which allows scientists to adapt the vaccine to newer variants. We are not yet sure how long the immunity will last, but there is hope it may be up to a year.
How do vaccines work?
Essentially, there are two types of vaccines:
Passive: If your body cannot mount an effective immune response and/or needs to produce antibodies quickly, you’ll likely receive a vaccine that includes the antibodies you require. Antibodies are the natural molecules body produces to recognize and neutralize a virus.
For example, some rabies vaccines confer passive immunity.
Active: Most modern vaccines are active, in that they stimulate your body’s B lymphocytes to make antibodies against the pathogen.
The COVID-19 vaccines are ACTIVE vaccines, which means they get cells in your body to produce the spike protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses to attach to your cells. Once these spike proteins appear in your blood, your B lymphocytes (B cells) go to work producing antibodies.
Are these vaccines safe?
Any drug comes with risk. The best available evidence to date suggests that yes, the vaccines are safe. These vaccines have gone through the same clinical trials and approvals that any other vaccine would have to go through. It is important to appreciate that no steps were skipped during the development of these vaccines.
What makes many people pause is the speed of the roll-out. There were several reasons why the rapid development of SARS-CoV-2 has been possible.
First, the technology has been around since the 1990s, but only recently have some of the technical hurdles been overcome.
Second, there was not as much difficulty getting people to participate in clinical trials, owing to the severity and global impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. There is always a chance of side effects with any vaccine or drug, but these have been exceedingly rare.
With regards to the AstraZeneca vaccine and the conversation around it, according to the European Medical Agency, at the time of this interview, there have been reported roughly 25 blood clots among the 25 million people who got the ‘shot.’ Despite the extremely low incidence of blood clots potentially linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine, it is always a concern when it impacts even a single life. Currently, scientists in Europe and North America are actively investigating who is at risk of this adverse event and why. It appears that a very small percentage of women under the age of 55 are at greatest risk of vaccine-related thrombotic events, which is why there is at this time a pause on administering this vaccine to people under the age of 55 years.
What are the side effects?
The classic ones include: headache, fatigue, chills, body-ache, and sometimes low-grade fever. People have said that those side effects are indicators that it is working because your body is generating antibodies, but again, this has not been scientifically proven.
Health Canada has a great resource called, “Do COVID-19 vaccines have side effects?“
Why is there vaccine hesitancy?
In my opinion, there are three main reasons:
1. This belief stems from people who believe that you should not put anything that is not ‘natural’ in your body.
2. The original polio vaccine was extremely effective in reducing the incidents of polio. Unfortunately, back in the 1950s, Cutter Laboratories was given permission to manufacture the vaccine on a large scale. At that time, however, there were relatively lax quality assurance (QA) standards, and Cutter Laboratories use poorly-trained people to manufactured the vaccine. Because of this, some people actually contracted polio from faulty vaccines. These problems were rectified, and the lessons learned are now part of the fabric of biomedical research and development, as well as QA protocols.
3. A since-discredited British physician named Andrew Wakefield tried to link the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. That study was discredited, and Wakefield ultimately lost his medical license after it was discovered that he stood to make money from his own patented version of another vaccine. His work was actually paid for by lawyers hoping to win a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine.
There are now stringent guidelines which mandate researchers declare any and all conflicts of interest, and again these are ‘baked into’ all funding and research publications. Moreover, the bar for publication has been very much raised, partly due to the spurious results published by the former-doctor Wakefield. Despite the ‘autism’ theory having been thoroughly and completely debunked, some celebrities (notice that very few of whom have medical or scientific training), social media groups, and even well-meaning parents continue to propagate vaccine conspiracies that are not based on empiric evidence. Health Canada and other international regulatory bodies demand high levels of transparency and oversight from vaccine manufacturers.
I have to reiterate: there are stringent regulations and QA processes for developing and manufacturing vaccines. Once a vaccine goes into widespread distribution, it is almost guaranteed that, in very rare cases, complications can and do surface. This is because there is a huge diversity of genotypes in humanity. Biomedical experts must ALWAYS weigh risk vs. benefit.
Check out Diehl-Jones’ video on vaccinology on YouTube.
When asked which vaccine he’d get, Diehl-Jones concluded the conversation by saying, “I’d take the first one offered to me.”
To learn more about research in the Faculty of Health Disciplines, visit the faculty research webpage. For more AU specific information about COVID-19, visit the COVID-19 Q&A for learners webpage.