Anju Goel, MD, MPH, is a board-certified physician who specializes in public health, communicable disease, diabetes, and health policy.
A vaccine is a major component of preventing COVID-19. In an unprecedented effort to curb the pandemic, scientists from around the world have come together to condense a 10-year research and development timeline into roughly 10 months. There are over 200 vaccines in development, and dozens are in clinical trials. In the United States, two vaccines have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
To move at such a rapid pace, researchers explored new vaccine platforms, like mRNA. Manufacturers produced batches of vaccines without waiting for final clinical trial results in order to have them immediately ready if proven safe and effective. In spite of the speed, safeguards like data and safety monitoring boards remained in place throughout the process. A vaccine is only FDA-authorized once it is proven to be safe.
In the U.S., there are currently two vaccines with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emergency use authorization: the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine and Moderna vaccine. There are large-scale Phase 3 clinical trials in progress or being planned for three additional COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S.: AstraZeneca’s vaccine, Janssen’s (Johnson & Johnson's) vaccine, and Novavax’s vaccine.
The available COVID-19 vaccines underwent extensive safety and regulatory processes. In order for the vaccines to receive FDA emergency use authorization, each clinical trial was subjected to review from a panel of scientists who are independent of Pfizer and Moderna. These scientists are members of data and safety monitoring boards (DSMB) that review clinical trials of drugs and vaccines. DSMBs have vetted drugs and vaccines for decades.
The COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed in phases. The first phase prioritizes healthcare workers, residents of assisted living facilities, essential workers, older adults, and adults with certain medical conditions. Phase 1 distribution has already begun, and experts believe it may run until April, May, or June 2021. Phase 2 will prioritize schools, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and more. Phase 3 will include children and young adults. Ultimately, state and county health departments determine who is eligible to currently receive the COVID-19 vaccine, so eligibility may vary.
The best place to start is your county’s health department website. Vaccines are being distributed locally, and eligibility to sign up may vary. Some counties have vaccine registration portals available, while others are only providing information and phone numbers at this time. Many states are encouraging residents to go to their local county health departments for specific information about making an appointment.
Public health officials say to expect largely mild side effects. You may feel pain and redness at the injection site, fatigue, a headache, joint and muscle aches, and/or a fever. New reports suggest if you have a history of severe vaccine reactions, you may experience a similar reaction if you get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. A very rare symptom may include a temporary weakness or paralysis of the facial muscles called Bell’s Palsy.
Even if you’ve previously been infected with COVID-19 and recovered, experts recommend getting vaccinated. Your natural immune response may not be strong enough to protect you from future infections. The CDC says you may delay vaccination for 90 days after initial infection—since you are considered immune and unlikely to be reinfected for at least this duration of time—in order to give others a chance at protection. But if you currently have an active case of COVID-19, wait until after the isolation period is over to make your appointment to prevent spreading the virus at the vaccine site.
While the vaccines were not tested on pregnant women or those who were breastfeeding, federal health officials are allowing pregnant women to receive the vaccine if they choose. Pregnancy is considered a risk factor for severe COVID-19 illness by the CDC. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that pregnant and breastfeeding individuals who fall into COVID-19 vaccine priority groups should be able to receive the shot. Federal officials are leaving this decision up to the individual, and recommend you seek advice from your healthcare provider.
New research found that both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines will protect against the U.K. and South African variants of the virus. Moderna and Pfizer are also both developing booster shots to help increase immunity against virus variants. Scientists say the virus would have to mutate extensively to escape the vaccine response. They believe the vaccines will still be protective against new strains that are not significantly different from the original virus.
Experts believe immunity from the virus will likely last at least a year, and Moderna reports its vaccine will provide immunity for at least that period of time. It’s possible you may have to receive the shot annually like a flu shot in order to boost waning immunity. But more research needs to be done before experts can know for sure.
Experts are recommending you practice safety precautions like wearing masks and staying away from large gatherings until herd immunity is achieved, or a larger portion of the population—at least 70% based on some of Dr. Fauci’s estimates—is vaccinated. More research needs to be done to learn about the duration of COVID-19 immunity and whether transmission is possible after vaccination.
Experts believe it’s unlikely the government will institute a COVID-19 vaccine mandate to protect public health. Instead, the government will likely release recommendations and national standards for the vaccine. Vaccination requirements may be implemented through employers and schools—both of which have instituted vaccine requirements in the past.
Explore interactive models that show how the human body responds to a COVID-19 vaccine, and what the body of a vaccinated person would do if exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Different COVID-19 Vaccines. Updated December 28, 2020.
Pronker ES, Weenen TC, Commandeur H, Claassen EH, Osterhaus AD. Risk in vaccine research and development quantified. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(3):e57755. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057755