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I Asked My Family Doctor To Explain How Vaccines Work & How It Fights COVID-19

Vaccines have existed since we were little kids, but most of us have a lot of unanswered queries about how they work, especially in light of the current coronavirus pandemic. So, I asked my family doctor, Dr. Sagar Bhattacharya, MBBS DCH, everything I wanted to know about COVID-19 and vaccines. Here are all the questions answered in a simple way for us laypeople.

First things first: What do they put in a vaccine that we don’t get the disease but get immunity?

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Turns out, vaccines are of different kinds. But, one thing is common across the board. They don’t have the harmful parts of a virus. Here’s how they are made in a way that keeps it harmless but still gives the body immunity.

“Covishield is a vector vaccine. They have taken an adenovirus (a type of virus like coronavirus) harmless to humans. In the case of AstraZeneca, it's a chimpanzee virus. Chimpanzees used to get some kind of flu caused by this adenovirus. So they have taken that, killed it, put in the spike protein of the present coronavirus on it. Coronavirus has got certain spikes. One of the spikes, which triggers immune response, is called a spike protein. They have added this spike protein as a rider, to the horse that is the adenovirus. Now our body will recognize this rider and think that it is the coronavirus and start generating immunity against this. The body has been fooled into believing that it has been infected with coronavirus. "

Our friends in the US are getting a different type of vaccine though: “The mRNA vaccines are something different. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which seem so far to generate 90% immunity and seem to be better vaccines. It's very advanced technology, and this is the first time that an mRNA vaccine is being used. That is why there is a lot of discussion about what will happen in the future. "

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What does an mRNA vaccine have? "The mRNA is a type of RNA that is generated when the disease happens. They take this mRNA and they inject it. They don’t take the virus at all. They take messenger RNA from the virus. But again, it is time-consuming, difficult, and costly to produce, and has to be stored under very critical conditions. And there are big copyright issues. "

What does one do about vaccine side effects?

Getting fever after getting the vaccine does not mean you got Covid-19, and it is not so much a side effect as a desired result. Here’s why: “It's just like any other vaccine. If anybody has taken any other vaccine in their life, that fever and body ache happens when children get that DPT vaccine. You take a chickenpox shot, you'll get a fever. "

"Getting a fever after a vaccine means that your body is responding very well, because fever and inflammation are immune responses."

As for actual side effects, here’s the deal: “Some vector vaccines have reported side effects like blood-clotting, but it is very rare. We do know that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have reported the least side effects. "

How is immunity from the disease different from the vaccine’s immunity?

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The biggest confusion everyone has is about the difference between getting immunity from the actual disease, and immunity from the vaccine. Dr. Bhattacharya clears up the difference:

"If someone gets a disease, they get some natural immunity. This natural immunity may not be very robust. It may not last for a very long time. Also, it may not be able to cover the variants. Someone getting a very mild disease may not have very good immunity. "

“But with the vaccine, that is very standardized. The variants are also covered and the immune response is created by some particles in the vaccine which do not cause the disease, but trigger an immune response from the body. There's a difference. The disease caused by the virus is the whole virus which goes into your body. Here, instead of the virus, only a certain part of the virus is injected into the body by the vaccine. That gets some immune response from the subject. So the immune response is more standardized. "

Lesson? Take the vaccine: “That is why they’re saying in spite of getting the disease, you must take the vaccine. So, we don't know how long this immunity lasts from the disease itself. Play safe, take the vaccine. "

Are we immunized with one dose, or do we NEED a second dose?

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Many anti-vaxxers claim that the vaccine “doesn't work” because they still got Coronavirus after getting one dose of the vaccine. Here’s why that’s flawed logic. A second dose is necessary for the vaccine to be effective.

“They (researchers) say that the first dose triggers an immune response in the body. There are certain cells that begin to recognize that this is the culprit. When the second dose comes, the system quickly produces more and more antibodies because they remember the first dose. There are certain cells called T cells which will remember what pathogen came in which triggered the response. So the antibodies produced in the second dose are much better, higher in number, and faster than the first dose. Second time, you're prepared, your body is prepared to fight. The first time, it is not prepared, it gets everything ready.

There may be a third dose. Now, we don't know. The vaccine has been around only six months. So only when after the six months have elapsed will we know. Now, we know if in three months-six months time if the immunity goes down, we may need a booster, another booster. We may need a booster every year. We still don't know that. "

Once you've got the vaccine, including both the doses, and you still get COVID, is the severity of COVID going to be less?

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Partial protection is better than no protection, so here’s why taking a chance on a vaccine is MUCH better than not taking one at all. According to researchers, the severity of the infection is reduced after vaccination. Is that true? “That is what they are saying right now but we still don't know. Even if you get the infection, it will not be so bad. There may be certain individuals who could get COVID. You're seeing this 60%, 80% effectiveness measure mentioned with regard to vaccines. This means, if a vaccine is claiming to be 60% effective, 60% people would have a very good immune response. The other 40% may not have a very good immune response. But, they will still be partially protected. So, now they are saying, if you have taken both the doses and 15-20 days have elapsed after the second dose - that is the time the vaccine took to act — then it is unlikely that you will need hospitalization, because you may not have a very serious case of the disease. But, 60% of those who receive it, will not get it at all. The other 30% will or could get it, but will be partially protected. "

That seems like reason enough to get the vaccine regardless, because it won't be as serious: "The vaccine won't harm you. You may not be fully protected. But you will certainly have some degree of protection. "

What is the deal with strains and vaccines?

“There are certain strains which are able to resist the immunity which has been produced by the vaccine. For example, I've taken a vaccine. It has produced immunity against certain strains. But then a new strain comes which has a different nature, and the body’s immune system is unable to recognize that or produce enough antibodies against that. You can read about the flu vaccine. They change the vaccine every year according to the strain that is currently going around. Every year it has to be changed. So similarly, this vaccine may also have to be changed. The Oxford Astra Zeneca is doing this for the South African strain because it was not acting very well against that strain. "

Many people seem to have thrown the towel in upon hearing news of new strains. But does it make sense to not get vaccinated because you may get infected by a strain the vaccine doesn't cover? Here’s what the doctor has to say.

"Regardless of the fact that there are new strains coming up, people should still take the vaccine because we don't know what strain you're going to get." This means, we're very likely to catch the strain a vaccine could immunize you against. Why not take that chance?

Are some vaccines better than others? Given a choice, which vaccine should one take?

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"If you've been immunized with a particular vaccine, say Covishield, the second dose should be taken of the same." But now is not the time to be picky and choosy with vaccines if you're yet to get the first shot: "You should take whichever vaccine you're getting."

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