How COVID-19 vaccines work as young adults in Quebec remain hesitant to get jab

Click to play video: 'Are misunderstandings to blame for COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy?'
Are misunderstandings to blame for COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy?
Quebec says more people aged 18-39 years old need to get their COVID-19 shot in order to achieve immunity and regain our freedoms. But many are reluctant to get the jab because they say they don't understand how vaccines work. Global's Gloria Henriquez explains here is how the three COVID-19 vaccines available in Canada work. – Jun 23, 2021

Daniel Bouie, 20, was the very first person in line at the Bell Centre’s pop-up vaccination clinic, an initiative organized by the local health authority in order to facilitate access to vaccines for young people.

Bouie’s friend had finally convinced him to come get his first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I just don’t like needles, that’s it,” Bouie said.

The province’s data shows that 18-39 year-olds are trailing behind everyone else in either getting their first shot or making an appointment to do so.

Some of the reasons for their reluctance include a lack of knowledge on how vaccines work.

“A lot of them hear these conspiracies online, things like that,” said Ishanul Islam, Bouie’s friend.

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Read more: How Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines work

How do COVID-19 vaccines work? 

Dr. Don Sheppard, immunologist and director of the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity or MI4, says all vaccines do the same thing: they deliver a tiny piece of the virus to train your body how to fight it.

But there are different ways to deliver that training.

Vaccines such as AstraZeneca are called viral vector vaccines. They use a crippled virus to deliver the coronavirus spike protein.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Conspiracy theories and vaccine hesitancy'
COVID-19: Conspiracy theories and vaccine hesitancy

It’s called a hybrid virus, because you take the virus that causes the cold and put the gene of the coronavirus spike protein in it.

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There are also mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna.

These vaccines use mRNA, the part of the coronavirus’ genetic code which creates its spike protein.

Scientists then put that code inside a tiny fat pouch called a nanolipid. Think of it like putting a message in a bottle.

Click to play video: 'How COVID-19 vaccines work'
How COVID-19 vaccines work

The recipients are your body’s cells responsible for printing the proteins your body needs to survive.

The cells scan the instructions or code the vaccine carries and print proteins that look like COVID-19.

The harmless proteins will teach our immune system how COVID-19 looks like and will trigger the production of the antibodies needed to fight the virus.

“When you inject the RNA into your arm, your cells take it up and they actually turn to little spike protein factories, as long as that RNA hangs around,” Sheppard said.

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Sheppard adds that mRNA has a short shelf life, it disappears.

But your immune system has a memory and will now know how to make antibodies.

Read more: mRNA technology could soon be used to fight cancer, vaccine scientist says

“What people don’t realize is it isn’t a brand-new technology,” said Dr. Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Moderna, BioNtech and many others have been working on this platform for many, many years. We had clinical trials in people five years ago using this platform.”

Weissman is one of the pioneers of mRNA science. He’s been working on it for 23 years, ironing out every detail.

“We haven’t seen any long-term unexpected adverse events, which is people’s biggest concern. But you see those within the first six weeks and it’s been up to a year of people being immunized and we’ve seen nothing. So it’s a completely safe vaccine,” Dr. Weissman says, speaking of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.

Read more: Quebec reports 3rd case of blood clot linked to AstraZeneca vaccine out of 500,000 doses administered

All vaccines pose certain risks. The AstraZeneca vaccine has so far caused the death of three Quebecers due to rare blood clots, while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been linked to anaphylactic reactions within the first 15 minutes of receiving the shot.

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They’ve also been linked to mild myocarditis or heart inflammation, mostly in young men and teens aged 12-24 years-old after their second shot, according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), but most have fully recovered and no deaths have so far been reported.

“A first dose of AstraZeneca probably 1 in 50,000 chances of a clot. The second dose, 1 in 500,000,” Sheppard explained. “We know that the chance of an allergic reaction to an mRNA vaccine is in the one in 1 million range. And right now, the numbers for the cardiac inflammation are so low that we have trouble measuring them. But most people think they are probably going to be in the 1 in 1 million range.

“When it comes to the mRNA vaccines, it’s very important to know that those anaphylaxis allergic reactions and these cardiac inflammations have so far not cost anyone their lives. The same cannot be said, of course, for the clots in AstraZeneca.”

Read more: ‘The world is watching us’: Pressure mounts for Canada to share surplus COVID-19 vaccines

Epidemiologists say everyone has a role to play in ending the pandemic. Getting vaccinated is the most important step.

“It’s not an accident that we’ve seen these variants appear in countries where there are higher levels of replication, transmission,” said Sheppard.

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“If we clamp down on the number of cases, that gives the virus much less of a chance to evolve into a new variant and some day that variant may not be so kind and gentle to 18 to 39 year-olds.”

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