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Black Immunologist Shares Ins And Outs Of COVID Vaccines

Breanna Grow
Dr. James A. Thompson, top right, answered COVID-19 vaccine questions during a virtual town hall Sunday night.

Dr. James A. Thompson is one of many Black physicians who have taken up the mantle of educating communities of color about the new COVID-19 vaccines.

Thompson spoke Sunday evening as the featured guest in a virtual COVID-19 vaccine town hall, hosted by the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP and Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bloomington.

The groups organized the event to help address hesitancy in the Black community to get vaccinated.

Thompson specializes in allergies and immunology, and currently practices in the south Chicago suburbs. He responded to dozens of questions submitted online, including the following:

How does the COVID-19 vaccine work?

Both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines and the upcoming Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines essentially work the same way, Thompson said: by telling a human cell to manufacture a “spike protein” that the immune system will recognize and fight should the body become infected with COVID-19.

The vaccines differ in their approach to getting the cell to make the spike protein. The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use a fat bubble containing a strip of messenger RNA, or mRNA, to deliver the spike protein instructions.

The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines use what Thompson called a “virus vector,” derived from a virus similar to the one that causes the common cold, to deliver DNA instructions to the cell.

“You take the genetic material in them, and you carve them out, so now it’s just the shell of a virus, and you put in your own instructions to make the spike protein,” he explained. “Then the immune system is able to ramp up antibodies so that if we get infected with it, they’ll be ready, and they can deal with it.”

Studies have shown the Moderna and Pfizer-BioN-Tech vaccines to be 95% effective against severe infection and death from COVID-19.

What’s not known is whether the vaccines have a “sterilizing effect.” Thompson said that has nothing to do with a recipient’s fertility-- rather, a vaccine is “sterilizing” if it stops the recipient from getting infected, and from passing the virus on to someone else. 

“If you think about it, if these aren’t sterilizing vaccines, they really make us asymptomatic carriers for a while,” he said, adding that’s why it’s still important to wear masks and practice physical distancing even after getting vaccinated. 

Can it make me sick or change my DNA?

Thompson stressed that none of these vaccines contain genetic instructions to produce a whole COVID-19 virus; it’s impossible to get COVID-19 from a vaccine. 

Thompson also emphasized that even though the vaccines use DNA and mRNA to tell human cells to make the spike protein, they can’t change the recipient’s DNA. That’s because the part of the cell that houses your genetic material--the nucleus--remains untouched, he said.

When recipients report side effects like headaches, body aches or fatigue after getting the vaccine, that’s a sign of the body’s normal response to the spike protein, Thompson said.

What physicians are more concerned about is an allergic reaction to the vaccine; symptons like wheezing, shortness of breath or itchy red skin, he said, noting that--so far--severe allergic reactions to the vaccine have been rare, with no fatalities.

How can we trust vaccines that were developed so quickly?

Thompson acknowledged that many people believe this new technology was rushed. 

But he said scientists have actually been studying messenger RNA for nearly 20 years, starting with Hungarian-born biochemist Katalin Karikó’s research into using mRNA as a therapeutic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic simply gave researchers the opportunity and the funding to apply what they’d learned to create a vaccine, Thompson said.

“The reason why I feel comfortable is two completely different companies ended up coming to the same conclusion and using the same platform and showing the same safety data,” he said, referring to BioNTech and Pfizer’s collaboration. 

And while neither the Moderna nor the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have received full FDA approval, Thompson said that shouldn’t be cause for concern. Both vaccines received emergency use authorization from the FDA following a preliminary data review--data the FDA will continue to monitor as more Americans receive the vaccines.

If the vaccines had to wait for full approval, “there’d be no vaccines out there right now, and there would probably be millions more people out there dying,” Thompson said.

Was there ample participation of Black people in the vaccine development to ensure it’s safe?

Thompson said trials for both vaccines included about 10% Black participants--close but not eclipsing, the 13% national representation.

But, Thompson said, “Relative to other studies that I have reviewed before medicines have come out on the market, this was pretty good.”

He pointed to an irony about Black mistrust of the medical community.

“It’s hard to have it both ways” he said. “We also don’t tend to volunteer for studies. We’re so skeptical that we don’t trust being study clients. So then we say, ‘There aren’t enough Blacks in the study.’”

He said higher Black participation would help generate more trust in new medical technologies.

Who shouldn’t get the vaccine?

Someone who’s received another vaccine, even the flu shot, should wait two weeks before getting vaccinated against COVID-19, Thompson said. 

Also, those who experienced an allergic reaction to a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine shouldn’t get a second dose, he said. 

But people who’ve already had COVID-19 should still get the vaccine, Thompson said. Even though having survived the virus gives the body some defense against future infection, “We don’t know how much,” he explained. 

Otherwise, “to my knowledge there is really no medical condition...that would give you pause,” said Thompson, adding it’s always a good idea to check with your physician first.

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