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Local scientist addresses COVID-19 vaccine, misconceptions, in Zoom event


Elizabeth Pattman   | Times-News

Tectonic Plates: Alamance County’s Science Café recently hosted a special Zoom session for the public  during which Elon University biology professor Jessica Merricks explained the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.

In starting the presentation, Merricks highlighted the December 2020 Elon Poll that showed 40 percent of the surveyed population was still unsure about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is extremely important. This is a large number of people and if we don’t convince them to get the vaccine, it is not going to do what it’s supposed to do,” Merricks said. “My focus is not to preach to the choir … but to help you help me teach everyone else and those folks who are not sure that this is something they should do.”

Merricks’ professional focus is on helping people, particularly not science-focused students, understand scientific topics, which fit in with her goal of educating the public Tuesday night. Merricks also emphasized that she is not a medical doctor, but rather her presentation focused on the scientific concepts behind the vaccine.

“I’m not an expert but I’m going to give advice based on sound science, but I’m not a doctor,” she said.

More: COVID-19 vaccine appointments now available

Vaccine development

In the early part of Merricks’ presentation, she sought to explain vaccine development, how vaccines work and how they are evaluated for safety and effectiveness.

“Our body has lots of different ways to fight infections, to fight pathogens,” Merricks said.

Merricks went on to explain that the body has a pathogen-fighting strategy called adaptive immunity. She compared this strategy to a football game, stating “If you’re constantly getting beat by the same opponent, you study that opponent’s moves in order to figure out how to beat that opponent.”

“That’s essentially the way our immune system works. We get exposed to a threat, we figure out exactly who that threat is and then we learn what the right moves are to defeat that threat,” she added. “So the goal of adaptive immunity really is to teach our body how to fight against foreign invaders when we get exposed to some foreign pathogen.”

As part of this adaptive immunity strategy, the body uses helper T cells to fight specific pathogens and the body replicates more helper T cells to fight that specific pathogen. The body also creates memory cells which stay in the body after the virus has been eliminated so your immune system knows how to fight it is you are ever infected with that pathogen again.

More: COVID-19: A Year in Review

“What’s great about vaccines is they force our bodies to go into fight mode by developing antibodies and T cells, but we don’t ever have to get the unpleasant or life threatening symptoms that come with areal infection,” Merricks explained. “The vaccine is going to trick our bodies into thinking that we’re being invaded, but we’re not really in actual danger.”

Merricks went on to explain that most vaccines use inactive and non-threatening pieces of the virus so it cannot hurt you.

The COVID-19 vaccines, however, use a different technology that is also not harmful to you. These vaccine types, called mRNA vaccines, give the body instructions on how to fight back, rather than injecting the body with real pieces of the virus.

“We are essentially giving our bodies the instructions to produce the enemy or at least something that looks kind of like the enemy,” Merricks said. “When that happens, the immune response goes forward as if it were being invaded by the whole virus.”

Implementation of the mRNA vaccine type is new, she said, but it has been studied for a long time in flu research, rabies research and some cancer studies.

More: Alamance doctor among the first to receive COVID-19 vaccine

Most vaccines take between 10 and 15 years to be approved and only about 6 percent of vaccines make it through the series of trials and are proven effective, Merricks said.

“However, in unprecedented times like the one were in right now, this timeline is just unacceptable,” she said.

Merricks added that the COVID-19 vaccines went through all of the same testing stages as typial vaccines, but in a condensed timeline.

“A lot of people see this emergency use authorization and they feel like maybe we cut corners, like maybe scientists cut corners with the development of the vaccine,” she explained. “That really couldn’t be farther from the truth. The vaccines that are going through this process still had to go through all of the same phases and there’s still the same amount of rigor.”

More: Vaccine roll-out a long haul for Alamance County

Misconceptions about the vaccine

Moving along in her presentation, Merricks noted the top two concerns people have reported about the vaccine: personal choices and a lack of trust.

The first category of these is personal concerns in which many Americans have reported that they believe their risk of getting COVID-9 is low based on their age, location, lifestyle or other factors.

“That’s problematic,” she said. “We know that the infection rate is astronomical, we know that it’s possible to pass the virus on without knowing you have it. We really have to fight against this perception that just because I may not get it or I may not get really, really sick, it’s still really important that I get vaccinated.”

A second category of public perceptions is a lack of trust in the development of the vaccine, which Merricks said has also been influenced by politics.

“We know that, unfortunately, partisanship is playing a huge role in some of these factors,” she said. “We have to recognize that this is a global health concern and that politics really don’t have a place in the conversation.”

More: High turnout for COVID-19 vaccine

Merricks said she has also heard concerns about and a lack of trust in vaccinations in general.

“Another thing that people say that I’ve heard and that is kind of a common sentiment among people who don’t trust vaccines is that vaccines might cause autism or it might give me COVID-19,” she explained. “That’s just completely false. It’s really important that you recognize that vaccines are absolutely safe and that if you look at these side effect that we tend to see with vaccines, they’re really minimal.”

Some adverse side effects include skin irritation, fever or small rashes, Merricks said.

“None of these side effects are severe enough to warrant not getting a vaccine,” she said, adding that adverse side effects are monitored.

More: Medical staff get first COVID vaccines in Alamance County

Following Merricks’ presentation, the meeting was opened for specific questions from community members that ranged on topics from the long-term effects of the vaccine to the logistics of vaccine distribution to vaccinating children to some false rumors about the vaccine mutating our DNA.

To view the recording of the full presentation and to hear Q & A responses from Merricks, visit www.facebook.com/TectonicPlatesScienceCafe.