With quarantine fatigue long since set in, many people are putting all their eggs in the vaccine basket. They’re burnt out and stressed and lonely — and the only thing keeping them going is the promise that they’ll get the COVID vaccine soon. But with the media treating every small vaccine development like a major news event, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s really happening and what matters.
Confused about what’s going on? You’re not alone. We’ll keep this list updated to answer your most important questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.
When Will COVID Vaccines Be Available?
They’re here! The Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are all approved for emergency use in the U.S. Rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is currently on hold as the FDA investigates rare reports of blood clots after vaccination.
Five companies have publicized their vaccine results. Pfizer was the first company to share that its vaccine is 95 percent effective, and it may soon apply for full licensure from the FDA. Moderna was second with 94 percent efficacy. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was approved at the end of February, is 77 percent effective at preventing severe and critical COVID-19 in the U.S.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine is 76 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, and it offers even stronger protection for people over the age of 65, the company recently announced. AstraZeneca had previously stated that the vaccine was 79 percent effective, but U.S. health officials expressed concern that this number was based on outdated and cherry-picked data. Several countries have given emergency approval to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, but it probably won’t be available in the U.S. until May — if it ever is. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said that the US may not need doses from AstraZeneca to vaccinate the entire U.S. population. The vaccine has come under recent scrutiny abroad after reports of blood clots and hemorrhages in vaccinated people. So far, there is little to no evidence that it causes either condition. However, all of these setbacks combined have shaken the credibility of what is likely a safe and effective vaccine.
The COVID-19 vaccine from Novavax, a company that has not yet brought any vaccine to market, was 90 percent effective in a British trial. Approval for the Novavax vaccine could be several months away. Experts warn not to compare the efficacy rates between vaccines because the trials for each are too different for accurate comparison.
At this point, it’s not a race between the various vaccine companies. The more vaccines that become available, the better next year looks for all of us.
Do the Vaccines Work Against the UK, South Africa, and Brazil Variants?
In Israel, where the so-called U.K. variant has been responsible for more than 80 percent of all COVID-19 cases since mid-January, the Pfizer vaccine is 94 percent effective against asymptomatic infection and at least 97 percent effective against symptomatic infection, hospitalization, and death, according to a recent study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. Early trials also suggest that the Moderna vaccine is mostly effective against the coronavirus variant that originated in the U.K., which is now the dominant version of the virus in the U.S.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines produce less neutralizing antibodies against the variant that emerged in South Africa, but antibody numbers don’t directly translate to efficacy and experts expect the vaccines still offer significant protection. In a study in South Africa, Pfizer found that its vaccine is highly effective against the variant that originated in the country. Johnson & Johnson found that its vaccine is 57 percent effective in South Africa, and vaccine manufacturers have already started to create a booster shot targeted at the South Africa variant.
The variant from Brazil is expected to react similarly to the one from South Africa. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 68 percent effective against all forms of COVID-19 and 88 percent effective at preventing severe disease in Brazil.
Who Can Get the COVID Vaccine?
Vaccine eligibility varies from state to state. However, it generally is only available now to healthcare workers, residents and employees of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, people 65 and older, and some essential workers and people with underlying conditions. Some states are beginning to open up vaccinations to anyone over the age of 16.
Most children won’t be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine until more studies are conducted. The one exception: Teenagers aged 16 and older are allowed to get the Pfizer vaccine. Pfizer recently announced that its vaccine is 100 percent effective in teens and tweens aged 12-15 and requested emergency approval for this age group, which it may receive as early as this fall. The company will launch a study for children as young as six months old, which may allow young children to be vaccinated in early 2022. Johnson & Johnson has begun testing its vaccine in adolescents aged 12-17. Moderna has started testing its vaccine in children as young as six months. It’s trial for children aged 12-17 may be complete by the end of the summer, and children in that age group may be able to get vaccinated before school starts in the fall. Vaccines that are safe and effective in adults are generally safe and effective in children, but they must be tested on kids first before they are mass distributed to them.
President Biden has a set a deadline of April 19 for all states to open up vaccine eligibility to all adults. For a more personalized look at when you could get the vaccine, check out this short quiz from the New York Times that estimates your place in line. Most people will have to wait until the spring at the earliest.
Where Can I Get the COVID Vaccine?
Healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities should check with their institutions about when and where they can get vaccinated. Everyone else should look to get the vaccine through select pharmacies such as Walgreen’s and CVS, Walmart, Target, Publix, Kroger, hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, and more, according to CNET. Some mass distribution sites also give out vaccines to eligible groups at locations such as school gymnasiums, NFL stadiums, and even Disneyland.
If you’re eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine but having trouble finding an appointment, there are resources available to help. The Washington Post has a useful guide, which you can find here. You can find six more tips from a vaccine appointment master here.
Not every vaccine will be available everywhere, which is one reason why it’s important to have multiple options. Pfizer’s is the hardest to distribute. If being stored for more than two weeks, it must be kept at the ultra cold temperature of -70 degrees Celsius, and not all healthcare facilities are capable of this type of storage. Once a box of vaccines is removed from the freezer for use, it only lasts for five days before going bad. Luckily, Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at a much more manageable -20 degrees Celsius, and it lasts for 30 days in the refrigerator. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is particularly convenient because it only requires one dose.
What’s in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID Vaccines?
Pfizer and Moderna are both using a new kind of vaccine called a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. Messenger RNA is a type of genetic material that encodes the instructions for making proteins. The mRNA in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines encode for the spike protein on the coronavirus that grabs and infects human cells. After being vaccinated, the body builds up antibodies that respond to this spike protein in case it gets exposed to the real coronavirus later on. The mRNA doesn’t stay in the body but is broken down after a few days.
Vaccines usually contain a common set of added ingredients, including:
- Aluminum: boosts the body’s response to the vaccine
- MF59 or Squalene oil: boosts the body’s response to the vaccine
- Thiomersal: preservative
- Gelatin: preservative
- Sorbitol: stabilizes the vaccine
- Emulsifiers: holds ingredients together
(For more information about these ingredients, many of which are in the flu vaccine, click here.)
Pfizer has released its full list of ingredients, which include many of those listed above. It includes lipids, or fats, that surround the mRNA and help it enter cells. It also contains four types of salts that keep the vaccine at the same acidity as the human body and sugar, which keeps small particles in the vaccine from sticking together when they’re frozen. The vaccine contains no preservatives, a choice Pfizer made because some preservatives are at the center of disproved worries that vaccines cause autism, according to the MIT Technology Review. Moderna has also published its ingredients, which are similar to Pfizer’s.
What’s in the AstraZeneca COVID Vaccine?
AstraZeneca’s vaccine uses a more traditional approach. It’s active ingredient is a defunct virus that gives chimpanzees the common cold. The virus is modified so that it won’t make humans sick and so that it contains the gene that encodes for the coronavirus spike protein. When a person is injected with this vaccine, the chimp virus hijacks the human cells to produce the spike protein. The body then does it’s thing, taking out the proteins and creating antibodies to attack them if they come back around.
What’s in the Johnson & Johnson COVID Vaccine?
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, similar to AstraZeneca’s, uses a defunct virus instead of mRNA. The company’s vaccine uses an adenovirus that typically would cause the common cold, but it’s modified so it can’t replicate inside the body. The adenovirus carries a coronavirus gene into human cells, which read that gene and make the coronavirus’s spike protein but not the virus itself. The immune system reacts to that spike protein and builds up immunity against it so antibodies can attack the spike protein on the coronavirus if the person ever gets infected. This adenovirus technique has been used for other vaccines in the past and is well-studied.
The FDA has called for a pause in the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as six women in the US have reported developing blood clots after receiving the vaccine. All of the women fell ill within one to three weeks after getting their shot. One died, and another has been hospitalized. Considering that nearly seven million people have received the vaccine in the US, the blood clots appear to be an extremely rare complication. The FDA may resume use of the vaccine in several days, after hospitals have had enough time to prepare for the potential side effect. It may recommend that the vaccine be used in certain populations only.
I Got the COVID Vaccine. What Now?
After your first dose, you’ll need a second (unless you get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). Originally, the second dose was supposed to be administered about three or four weeks after the first, depending on the brand. Now, the CDC says you just need to get it within six weeks, although closer to the original timeline is better.
Two weeks after you receive the final dose of your vaccine, you are considered fully vaccinated. At this point, you can have a bit more freedom socializing, according to new CDC guidelines. Fully vaccinated people can:
- have small gatherings with other fully vaccinated people without masks or social distancing
- meet up with unvaccinated members of one low-risk household without masks or social distancing
Yes, that does mean the kids can hug their vaccinated grandparents, so long as the children aren’t at high risk of severe COVID-19. However, vaccinated people should continue to wear masks and social distance in public. For now, the CDC also recommends against long-distance travel.
If a vaccinated person is exposed to COVID-19, they should not quarantine or get tested, so long as they don’t develop symptoms.
Life as normal won’t return until enough people vaccinated, which could be spring or summer at the earliest. Then, public health officials will make the call that we have reached herd immunity in various communities. In the meantime, get the vaccine and keep playing your part to drive infections down.
This story is developing. We will update it as new information becomes available.