As we enter the New Year, in the first few days, weeks, and months of 2021, our attention will almost certainly be focused on the recently approved vaccines for COVID-19, which are now being administered to top-priority individuals, such as medical professionals, first responders, frontline workers, and those who are 65 years of age and older. Quite naturally, the elderly among us are concerned about taking the vaccine. The question uppermost in most people’s minds is, of course: Are the vaccines safe? And if they are safe, which of the two vaccines should I get, the Pfizer or Moderna, if I decide to get vaccinated?
Concern over the safety of the vaccines is tied mainly to the speed at which the vaccines were put through trials and received FDA approval. Vaccines usually take years to go through the careful process of development, clinical trials, and final approval. Prior to this, the vaccine that was developed and approved in the shortest period of time was the mumps vaccine, which received final approval in 1967, after four years of research and development and clinical trials. By contrast, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were made available to the public in less than a year. The major difference between the current COVID-19 vaccines and previous vaccines is that the new vaccines use new technology and a new approach to vaccine creation. In the past vaccines were created using weakened or deactivated “germs” to elicit an immune response from our body. In the new approach, the vaccine gives our body’s cells instructions on how to make a protein that looks like the outer surface of the COVID-19 virus. As these cells that look like the COVID-19 virus begin to multiply, our body mounts an immune response and starts producing antibodies to fight the virus in the same way that it would if it had been infected with the actual COVID-19 virus.
Apart from the speed, people are also concerned about how safe the vaccines really are. The two trials that were conducted, were the two largest trials in medical history, with approximately 34,000 people in the Pfizer trial and about 22,000 people in the Moderna, for a total of about 74,000 people. Of this large number of clinical trial participants, only 6 had an allergic reaction and 8 had a rare form of temporary facial paralysis. Allergic reactions to vaccines are common with other vaccines as well, and are easily treated with the usual anti-allergy treatments. So, the trials demonstrated that the two COVID-19 vaccines are about as safe as (or even safer than) other vaccines.
Another concern about the vaccine is the effect it may have on people who have a weakened or compromised immune system like the elderly, as the human immune system naturally weakens with age. The recommendation is that people with immune system problems can take either of the two COVID-19 vaccines if there is no other reason that prevents them from getting vaccinated. A relatively small number of elderly people were included in both clinical trials, but there is limited information on whether the vaccines have any negative effects on the elderly, and the vaccine may not have quite the same strong protective effect on the elderly with weakened immune systems as it does on younger individuals with more robust immune systems, but it is still better than nothing.
Finally, if you were previously infected with COVID-19 and have recovered naturally or received some form of treatment for the infection, the CDC recommends that you wait for 90 days following your recovery before you get vaccinated.
With regard to which of the two vaccines you should take, the guidance is that both vaccines are equally effective and it makes no difference which one you get.