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10 Sceptic Questions On The COVID-19 Vaccine, Answered By An Immunopathology Expert

We may finally see our seemingly endless months of WFH, mask-wearing, and social distancing come to an end, thanks to the country’s immunisation programme rollout. 

It will be done in 3 phases, with frontliners at the priority. As restless Malaysians await our turns, there are still many doubts about the vaccines. Who can and cannot get it? Will they mean life can immediately go back to normal? 

To clear our doubts, Vulcan Post spoke to Professor Poppema, President at Sunway University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences. He is also a specialist in immunopathology, the study of how the immune system is affected by diseases.

1. I’m afraid to get vaccinated. Why should I do it?

“First of all, accept that you are not doing this just for yourself, but for society as a whole,” said Prof. Poppema. You’ll be protecting your parents, grandparents, and children, the latter of whom can’t get the COVID-19 vaccines yet due to limited clinical trials. 

There are currently 3 main approaches to designing a vaccine, which is why there are many types being trialled and applied at the moment. The side effects for each one would differ.

Prof. Poppema elaborated, “The denatured virus vaccines give hardly any side effects. The vaccines that give the strongest immune response, like the Pfizer vaccine, will also give the strongest side effects, amounting to flu-like symptoms for a day or so.” 

“The clinical trials in phases 1, 2 and 3 were done according to all regulations in various countries and the results show that all approved vaccines are safe and effective. Effective means that all of these can prevent serious disease,” he also reassured.

2. What’s the point of getting vaccinated if I could still get infected and infect others?

“The vaccination has been shown to protect against serious disease because the immune system will be prepared and can kick in immediately to prevent the propagation of the virus,” he explained to Vulcan Post.

Think of the vaccine as trial battles for your immune system to learn how to fight the disease if or when it actually happens.

Not only that, the COVID-19 vaccine helps limit the virus’ growth in an individual’s body. This means that even if you’re infected, you’ll only spread minimal amounts for a very short period of time.

“The real goal is to limit the opportunities for the virus to such an extent that it will disappear from society,” the professor added.

3. Will the COVID-19 vaccine alter my genetic code?

In response to the rumours about microchips, autism, infertility, etc. Prof. Poppema shared his disappointment towards the fear mongers. He affirmed that none of these hoaxes is scientifically sound.

“Another example is that there is a misperception that RNA can change our genome. There is a one-way route in which DNA codes for RNA which in turn codes for a protein. This does not work the other way around,” he clarified.

DNA and RNA are the instructions our cells use to make proteins. In our cells, DNA is first turned into messenger RNA, which is then used as the blueprint to make specific proteins. / Image Credit: WHO

To address these concerns, repetitive explaining and giving the right example should be done.

He cited the example of the Prime Minister, who’s a cancer survivor, broadcasting himself taking the vaccine as the right move to show the public that there are no serious risks involved.

Muhyiddin getting his vaccination on TV / Image Credit: KKM

4. No one’s forcing me to get the 2nd dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, so what happens if I don’t?

“People will need to be urged to get the second dose,” Prof. Poppema affirmed. 

The reason being, the COVID-19 vaccine provides a limited protection after the first dose, and its efficacy is greatly increased after the second. “This is a very basic immunology principle where the second dose boosts the then-existing immune response,” he told Vulcan Post.

In essence, neglecting to get the second dose would mean making yourself more vulnerable to the virus once again.

5. What if I get a bad allergic reaction from the COVID-19 vaccine?

Those who are advised against getting the COVID-19 vaccine are ones who have serious allergies to certain drugs with similar components to the vaccines.

Doing so may cause a rare but serious side effect called anaphylaxis, which includes face and body swelling, breathing difficulties, and a drop in blood pressure. A few people have developed this after taking the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s a risk that would only affect a very small group of people.

Regardless, doctors are always prepared if someone were to unexpectedly get a serious allergic reaction from being vaccinated.

“That’s why you have to stay for a little while after the injection. Those that have such an allergic reaction should not take the second dose. But remember, this is an extremely uncommon situation,” Prof. Poppema explained.

6. Is this a one-off vaccine like the BCG and HPV ones? Or is it like the flu vaccine where we get it periodically?

Prof. Poppema stated that it’s not clear how long the COVID-19 vaccines will protect for now, but there is evidence that those who’ve survived COVID-19 still have protective antibodies after one year. He also added that re-infections are extremely uncommon.

The main reason for a yearly flu shot is because it’s optimised for the many flu virus variants each year, where such is not yet the case for COVID-19.

Nevertheless, scientists are following the virus’s mutations carefully. If necessary, the vaccines can be quickly adapted, shared the immunopathology specialist.

Image Credit: Sunway University

“There are some indications that the South African variant has mutations that make it less sensitive to the effects of some of the vaccines, although other vaccines may work well,” he cautioned.

“The bottom line is that we should vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible because then the virus stands no chance to propagate and acquire new mutations.”

7. Why can’t pregnant women get vaccinated in their first 2 trimesters?

“At present, it is advised for individuals that are pregnant not to be vaccinated,” said Prof Poppema. The reason being, there have yet been trials testing the vaccines on such groups, so there’s no proof that it’ll be harmless. 

“However, there is definitely also no proof that it is harmful. These trials are currently taking place and I would expect no serious side effects to be found,” he added.

As for the COVID-19 vaccine not being safe for those in their first and second trimesters, he reaffirmed that it’s out of precaution. 

Based on his understanding, he explained, “In the first and second trimester the development of the organs is taking place, whereas in the third trimester the child is only growing in size. That’s why theoretically there is a risk in the earlier phases of pregnancy.”

8. Can immunocompromised/autoimmune patients get vaccinated?

Immunocompromised patients are in a difficult situation. While they’re at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 symptoms, the vaccines may also not work well in these patients as their immune systems might not be strong enough to fight off the trial. So, it’s up to herd immunity to protect them.

For example, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy fall into this category. Their treatment works by killing off all their cells, cancerous and disease-fighting ones alike. Hence, they will not respond sufficiently to the vaccine.

“However, when the chemotherapy is completed and the immune cells return, they can be vaccinated,” Prof. Poppema added.

9. Can the vaccine be taken by someone who’s unknowingly already infected with COVID-19?

Image Credit: Unsplash

The specialist said that it can happen and has happened before during the clinical trials. But based on such cases, he told Vulcan Post that there’s no additional risk to get vaccinated even if you have an early-stage infection.

“Remember that the protection will only fully kick in after the second dose. Keep using the same precautions as before, including social distancing and facemask,” he said.

10. When will COVID-19 be eradicated once we’ve reached herd immunity?

That’s the million-dollar question; Prof Poppema shared that the results overseas are promising.

It has already been shown in a few countries that once a proportion of the population has been vaccinated, the number of infections dramatically decreases within a few weeks in this segment of the population while it may still progress in the majority of the population. 

Professor Poppema, specialist in immunopathology.

Therefore, he confidently told Vulcan Post that when 80% of the population is vaccinated, COVID-19 will be eradicated in a matter of a few months. 

However, this presumes that vaccinations are done globally. The risk of letting the virus smoulder in certain areas might lead to mutations. This can result in virus variants that are resistant to the vaccine and subsequently be reintroduced in areas that were free of disease. 

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Ultimately, life should return to normal once the country’s immunisation programme is complete. But in the meantime, we can start enrolling for it on MySejahtera, as the COVID-19 vaccine is voluntary and will be free for Malaysians.

As we wait our turns and for the rest of the Malaysian and global population who are able to be vaccinated to get their shot(s) too, let’s keep following the current SOPs.

  • You can learn more about Professor Poppema here.
  • You can read more COVID-19 Vaccine articles we’ve covered here.

Featured Image Credit: Professor Poppema, specialist in immunopathology and President at Sunway University / Unsplash

Categories: Lifestyle, Malaysian, We Ask

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