Westmoreland County Commissioners Doug Chew and Sean Kertes hosted a second online educational forum Tuesday regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines featuring experts from the University of Pittsburgh.

University of Pittsburgh Professor of Medicine Dr. Sharon Riddler provided background on the three COVID-19 vaccines that have been authorized for emergency use so far in the United States and others still in development.

All of the coronavirus vaccines, she said, and aim to get the body’s immune system to recognize proteins on the outside of the COVID-19 virus and create antibodies to attack them.

“The goal is to have our cells see the full protein or a piece of the protein and make an antibody against it,” Riddler said. “Should we be exposed to the virus, our immune system will recognize that (protein) and will block that virus from entering into cells and creating an infectious process.

Two of the vaccines already authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — use messenger RNA, or m-RNA to get the body’s cells to produce those proteins.

“The m-RNA vaccines contain a small piece of RNA that matches up with the spike protein,” Riddler said. “It’s encapsulated or covered up with a little bit of lipid or fat particle, which helps it get into our cells. Then our body processes that and makes that protein, and that starts off the immune response of making antibodies.”

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is considered a vector vaccine, Riddler said, meaning it uses a cold virus, or adenovirus, as its delivery model.

“That adenovirus is altered so it’s not able to make copies of itself, so it can’t give you a cold, for example, but it’s carrying a similar piece — it’s not RNA in this case, it’s DNA — of the virus,” she explained. “That enters into our cells, the adenovirus is a good way to get that into our cells, and then our bodies again make the protein and the immune response ensues.”

A protein vaccine would involve introducing proteins from the outside of the virus directly into the body, along with other ingredients designed to produce an immune response. So far, no protein vaccines have reached emergency authorization in the United States.

Riddler addressed concerns over the accelerated timeline under which the vaccines have been developed. Under normal circumstances, it could take a decade or more for pharmaceutical companies to get a new vaccine to the market, she said. Under the federal government’s Operation: Warp Speed program, some of the steps in that process were compressed and adjusted.

“What Operation: Warp Speed aimed to do was really try to compress the timelines and put funds toward things like building factories and manufacturing capacity even before approval,” she said. “The typical pharmaceutical company developing a vaccine would never be able to commit resources to building factories before they even knew if their product was effective or had a market. The funds that were put forward really have kind of compressed and overlapped some of the timelines to move the process along more quickly.”

The COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for emergency use still went through the typical three phases of clinical trials, though those trials didn’t stretch over the course of multiple years as would normally be the case.

“Even though these vaccines were developed more quickly than usual, they’ve really been extensively tested for safety and for efficacy, meaning how well they work. They’ve all met the FDA safety standards. And since these are not yet approved, they’re authorized, there’s an extensive amount of information that’s still being collected,” Riddler said. “Each of these vaccines that’s authorized so far has been in at least one very large clinical trial with 30,000 or more participants, and all of those participants are continuing in those studies so that we can see over time, in a very controlled population of people, to detect any safety events and monitor antibody levels over time. The CDC and FDA have set up systems to monitor for any problems or side effects that might occur.”

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard, as of Tuesday’s webinar, 53,372 people in Westmoreland County were considered fully vaccinated while another 52,848 were considered partially covered.

As of Tuesday’s event, Riddler said, about one in 12 Westmoreland County residents had tested positive for coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. There had been 705 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the county as of Monday’s update to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard — about one in 500 people in the county, Riddler noted.

Chew and Kertes both tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020, as did their colleague Gina Cerilli Thrasher. Kertes suffered coronavirus complications that required treatment at Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital in January.

While Chew and Kertes both expressed hopefulness that their prior COVID-19 infections would provide ongoing immunity to the virus, Riddler said both should also consider being vaccinated when they’re eligible to do so.

Riddler tried to clear up some misconceptions about COVID-19 and the available vaccines during Tuesday’s webinar.

“You definitely will not get COVID-19 from a vaccine, similarly to how you won’t get the flu from an influenza vaccine,” she said. “There’s just a tiny little bit of the virus, it’s not the whole virus and it can’t really make one sick. You definitely can get symptoms, and that’s because your immune response is kicking in and preparing for the possibility that you might get exposed to the virus in the future. The vaccine also won’t change or damage any of our genes. The genetic material or little bits of protein that are administered in the vaccine don’t stick around. They really have a pretty short timeframe within our cells or within our bodies and they don’t change our DNA.”

She also advised those who have been fully vaccinated that their vaccination status doesn’t make mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines obsolete.

“I’m guilty of hoping we can all take our masks off soon and be a little more normal, but I think at the current time, even if you’re vaccinated, we should still be wearing masks,” she said. “Everyone in our workplaces are vaccinated and we still have masks all the time. Until we know more and until more people are vaccinated, it’s really important to continue to use good common sense and keep everyone safe.”

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