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Covid-19 vaccine questions answered: Could there be long term side effects? Where did bizarre microchip theory come from?

With the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine set to roll out this week, 53% of KentOnline readers are still sceptical about its safety.

So we spoke to Professor Martin Michaelis, a virologist from the University of Kent, about the various concerns surrounding the vaccine.

What are vaccines and how do they work?

Vaccines are usually made with dead or inactive viruses injected into the body. This 'tricks' the immune system into responding as if the body is infected to create immunity.

The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is different - it uses the mRNA of the virus instead of the dead or inactive cells.

This is similar to DNA and RNA found in human cells, which acts as a genetic blueprint for the proteins that make up the virus - so the immune system reacts to the blueprint of the virus instead of the actual virus itself.

The delicate mRNA is injected into the body encased in lipid nanoparticles, a type of fat. It is normal for both lipids and mRNA to be found in the body and they break down incredibly easily.

How the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine works Picture: PA Graphics.
How the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine works Picture: PA Graphics.

Are we just the guinea pig for the new vaccine?

No, months of trials on thousands of people led up to making sure the vaccine is safe and effective.

Vaccine trials usually begin with testing on small animals such as mice or rabbits. If this produces no negative reaction, phase one begins where 10-100 healthy candidates are given the vaccine to see if it is safe in humans.

If it is, phase two tests on 100–1,000 people, then phase three on 1,000–100,000 people with more focus on the difference in reaction between children, adults and the elderly.

To test effectiveness, some people are given the real vaccine and some a placebo. No one knows who has the vaccine until someone is infected with Covid-19 and the reaction is studied.

In trials for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, only 94 of 43,538 participants contracted Covid-19 since July.

Microscopic view of Coronavirus, a pathogen that attacks the respiratory tract. Picture: iStock
Microscopic view of Coronavirus, a pathogen that attacks the respiratory tract. Picture: iStock

But how do we know the vaccine is safe after being rushed through in only 10 months?

After the outbreak of West African Ebola in 2014/15, the rVSV Ebola vaccine finished all three trials in 12 months. This makes the 10 months for the Covid-19 vaccine look impressive but not impossible.

Though this particular vaccine has taken months to approve, the model for the mRNA vaccine and other types of coronavirus are nothing new - so this vaccine is years of research in the making.

Dr Martin Michaelis added: “There are two main reasons why it was possible. The first one is the money. There's never been as much money thrown on a single health related project that I remember. It has been an unprecedented effort.

“The other reason why it was so quick is because we have a pandemic. If you have a disease like Ebola, you only have these relatively small outbreaks to test on. West Africa had between 25,000-30,000 cases. It's clearly still not a lot when vaccines have been tested in more than 50,000 people. It's very difficult to get the numbers together.

“But if you have millions and millions of infected people you can do such a trial much quicker.”

'Your average lunch is much more dangerous than this vaccine. If you started to scrutinise everything you do like you would this vaccine, you wouldn't eat bacon...'

Are long-term side effects, a stronger virus developing or yearly vaccines possible?

Dr Michaelis says: “Of course, you're never 100% sure. The question is which risk is greater. The most difficult myths to debunk are those for which there is not the slightest evidence that it could happen.

“Your average lunch is much more dangerous than this vaccine. If you started to scrutinise everything you do like you would this vaccine, you wouldn't eat bacon. You wouldn't do so many things.”

Dr Michaelis believes there is no reason to suspect long term side effects will be caused by the vaccine because fats and mRNA are not unusual to find in the body.

A stronger virus developing later is possible but will likely just lead to another vaccine being developed, in the same way new strains of flu are handled.

Immunity wearing off and yearly vaccination being needed is also a possibility. But the purpose of the vaccine now is not only to make people immune, but to drive cases down so the virus can be more easily controlled with contact tracing so lockdown can end.

Vaccinations are to start as early as this week Picture: PA
Vaccinations are to start as early as this week Picture: PA

Do vaccines cause autism?

Vaccines do not cause autism. This myth came from a 1998 study published by Andrew Wakefield and 12 colleagues claiming there was a link between the mass roll-out of the MMR vaccine in 1988 and the rise in children diagnosed with autism.

Dr Wakefield's methods were found to be far below standard and funding from an anti-vaccine lawyer was discovered. The paper was retracted, 10 of the 13 authors revoked their contributions and Wakefield's licence to practice was withdrawn. In 2004, an Institute Of Medicine committee published the 'Vaccines and Autism' report showing there was no link between the two.

But this was not enough to combat the fear generated from Wakefield's study being reported in the media. Child vaccination dropped to 80% across the UK - far below the 95% World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation - causing further measles outbreaks and deaths.

The Great Ormond Street Hospital have said: "It is believed [the rise in autism diagnosis] is likely to be due to increased awareness and better recognition rather than a genuine increase in the number of children."


How do we know there isn't a microchip in it?

The theory that a microchip will be implanted with the Covid-19 vaccine to control, track or keep record of people arose from an article widely shared in March.

The article linked prominent health philanthropist Bill Gates' suggestion that 'digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently' could be drawn up for those vaccinated, with invisible tattoos holding vaccine records being tested in a study funded by The Gates Foundation, but not rolled out.

There is no proof a co-ordinated effort to mass chip (or tattoo) people exists or is scientifically feasible - especially not from the people pushing the theory. But that hasn't stopped it from spreading.

Dr Michaelis said: “I understand the sceptics. You may get something injected in your body and you don't really know what that is. Then when you start searching on the web, you find all sorts of weird information.

“I always feel a bit flattered actually by [the microchip] idea because, as a scientist, that people think I am able to do such a thing means they think very highly of me. You can't get a microchip through a vaccine needle. That is not possible."

Mass roll-out plans are beginning to take shape in the UK Picture: PA Images/David Cheskin
Mass roll-out plans are beginning to take shape in the UK Picture: PA Images/David Cheskin

I still don't feel comfortable taking the vaccine - what am I supposed to trust?

No one can force you to have the vaccine - but the sooner it is rolled-out, the sooner life can get back to some sort of normal.

Dr Michaelis added: “These vaccines are safe. I will get one, my children will get one, I will tell my parents to get one. I’m convinced everyone should get vaccinated.

“But you need to be critical. When you try to get more information, don’t go to some random YouTube video where someone explains something that may or may not be true.

"Look for reasonable sources, look to the WHO, look at sources on Wikipedia, look at what different scientists say. All the Covid-19 research is open access so you can read everything that is known about Covid-19 and you can really make up your mind.”

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