COVID-19 Vaccines: Changing the course of the pandemic

  • Published
  • By Greg Chadwick
  • Air Force Materiel Command Health & Wellness Team

A coronavirus is a type of common virus that can cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).  In early 2020, after a December 2019 outbreak in China, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified SARS-CoV-2 as new type of coronavirus. The disease it causes is called coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19).

In March 2020, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. COVID-19 is a disease that can trigger a respiratory tract infection. It can affect your upper respiratory tract (sinuses, nose, and throat) or lower respiratory tract (windpipe and lungs). The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily among people by respiratory droplets released when someone with the virus coughs, sneezes, breathes, sings or talks. Some people who have the virus don’t have symptoms, but they can still spread the virus.

Although most people with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms, the disease can cause severe medical complications and lead to death in some people. Older adults or people with existing chronic medical conditions are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.

There is no way to know how COVID-19 will affect you.

In December 2020, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna both reported that after late-stage trials, their vaccines showed approximately 95% efficacy at preventing severe symptoms of COVID-19. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency use authorization for the two vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines both contain a genetic material called messenger RNA (mRNA) that does not change or interact with your DNA in any way.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has spikes of protein on each viral particle. These spikes help the viruses attach to cells in your body and cause disease.

COVID-19 mRNA vaccines give some of your cells instructions for how to make the virus’ distinct spike protein, which does not cause the disease. Once a person receives (and completes a 2-dose series) with either of these vaccines, those cells will replicate the spike protein and display the proteins on their surfaces. Your immune system will recognize that the protein doesn’t belong there and begin building an immune response and making antibodies. If you are exposed to COVID-19 in the future, your immune system will recognize the spike protein and will have the antibodies readily available to rapidly destroy the virus.

Wearing masks and physical distancing will help reduce the chance of being exposed to COVID-19 or spreading the virus to others, but that alone is not enough.  COVID-19 vaccines, along with non-pharmaceutical interventions are the best hope for ending the pandemic. Published data shows the COVID-19 vaccine reduces the risk for serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 disease.

 If the COVID-19 vaccine behaves like other vaccines then it may help:

  • Protect you by creating an antibody (immune system) response without having to experience sickness
  • Prevent you from spreading the COVID-19 virus to others
  • Add to the number of people in the community who are protected from getting COVID-19, making it harder for the disease to spread and contributing to herd immunity
  • Prevent the COVID-19 virus from spreading and replicating, which allows it to mutate and possibly become more resistant to vaccines

As more people get the vaccine and data gathering continues, more will be known about these benefits and the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Department of Defense has an independent but collaborative program with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to provide COVID-19 vaccines to DoD uniformed service members. This includes active duty, Guard/Reserve, retirees, family members, civilian employees and selected DoD contract personnel. Getting the vaccine is voluntary, but all DoD personnel are encouraged to get it to protect their health, their families and their community.

Military hospitals and clinics around the nation may be in different phases of vaccine administration so contacting your local military hospital or clinic, or Tricare, is the best way to know when they are ready for you to get the vaccine. If you have questions on what phase you’re in, please contact your chain of command.