Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is now being offered to members of the public, starting with those most at risk. The New Zealand Catholic Bishops are urging you to get vaccinated to protect yourself, your whanau and your community.

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Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that is being rolled out in New Zealand has been widely tested and it is:

  • at least 90% efficient in protecting people from catching COVID-19
  • 94% effective at preventing hospitalisations amongst fully vaccinated adults aged 65 years and older

COVID-19 is deadly for many people, especially those:

  • aged over 70
  • with existing health conditions such as serious respiratory disease (including chronic lung disease and severe asthma), serious heart conditions, immunocompromised conditions, severe obesity, hypertension that is not well controlled, diabetes that is not well controlled, chronic kidney disease, and liver disease
  • with a history of smoking who are also more likely to be admitted to intensive care if they catch COVID-19

Other risk factors that can increase the chances of developing COVID-19 include:

  • living in poor housing (because of the overall detrimental effect that poor housing has on health)
  • living in crowded housing (because this makes social distancing difficult)
  • difficulties accessing healthcare when it is needed

As well as protecting yourself, taking the vaccine will help to protect those who are not able to be vaccinated because of other health conditions, for example, some people with a compromised immune system (check with your doctor if you think you might fall into this category). However, these people will still have a great deal of protection from COVID-19 if they live in a community where most people have been vaccinated. This is because the virus has a harder time circulating when most people it encounters are immune to it. Those who have been vaccinated effectively form a protective shield around those who cannot be vaccinated. This is called herd immunity.

Although herd immunity is not 100% effective for those who cannot be directly vaccinated, it does provide substantial protection to them. The greater the number of people who are vaccinated in a community, the higher the degree of protection for those who are vulnerable.

Data suggests that the immune response gained from vaccination is stronger than the immune response that comes from having had the disease itself. Immunity gained through vaccination also reduces the risks of developing the serious health complications that can result from having had COVID-19.

So, do it for your whanau and your community as well as yourself.

Yes. To date, a very small number of people have been infected with COVID-19 after being vaccinated. When this happens, it is called a ‘breakthrough case’.

Several factors can contribute towards breakthrough cases happening, such as:

  • incorrect vaccine storage
  • incorrect vaccine administration
  • a vaccine being administered to someone who only develops a weak immune response to it because of other biological or medical factors

Although it is still possible to catch COVID-19 after being vaccinated, having the vaccine will mean you become less sick from the virus than you might otherwise have become.

COVID-19 affects all age-groups, including young, fit adults. Young, healthy people have died from COVID and have experienced serious, long-term health issues. Around the world, the rate of COVID-19 infection is rising amongst younger adults.

It has also been shown that young people are more likely to transmit the virus than others. Emerging data suggests that vaccines block transmission of COVID-19, including among people who might not show symptoms.

The vaccine is free for everyone in New Zealand. It is available to people regardless of visa or citizenship status. Because the vaccine is still being tested for use in children, it is currently only being given to those aged 16 and above.

The following people are at higher risk of catching the virus and have been given priority access to vaccination:

  • border workers and their families
  • health professionals
  • carers and residents in aged care facilities
  • those with certain pre-existing health conditions who are more vulnerable to the consequences of having COVID-19

No. Any information collected about you, such as your name and medical history, will not be used for any other purpose. This information will not be shared with Immigration New Zealand.

As with all medicines and medical treatments, vaccines are not 100% completely risk-free. However, evidence from decades of research and monitoring indicates that, on the whole, vaccinating against a given disease is much safer than not vaccinating. The vast majority of people can safely be given vaccines.

The clinical tests carried out on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine indicate that, to date, it has a safety record comparable with other non-COVID-19 vaccines that have been in use for decades. As of 6th April 2021, over 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been safely administered worldwide.

Medsafe, New Zealand’s Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority, is monitoring the rollout of the vaccine in New Zealand and is recording any adverse reactions that occur after being vaccinated.

Overall, the data collected indicates that most adverse reactions to the vaccine are minor – akin to what some experience when taking the flu vaccine. Whilst the possibility of developing a more serious reaction to the vaccine cannot be ruled out, serious reactions are likely to be extremely rare if they occur.

Based on this data and on the global health trends that have emerged during the pandemic, the risk of developing a serious, and even fatal, illness from COVID-19 is far greater than the risk of experiencing an adverse reaction to the vaccine. If you are worried, please speak with your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.

Has anyone died from having the vaccine?

No, not as far as anyone knows. Some deaths occurred during the trials that were set up to test the vaccine but, when these were investigated, no direct links between the vaccine and the deaths were found. It was determined that these people died for unrelated reasons, such as from pre-existing illnesses.

It usually takes years to produce new vaccines. Have safety checks on the vaccine been compromised in the production of it? How was this one produced so quickly?

No, safety checks have not been compromised in the production of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Vaccines usually take much longer to develop because pharmaceutical companies must invest billions of dollars upfront to produce them. Because of this, drug manufacturers have traditionally moved very slowly from one phase of vaccine development to the next so as to minimise their financial risk and financial loss.

However, given the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, these financial barriers were removed through a process of collective global funding and advance ‘insurance payments’ designed to protect the pharmaceutical companies from these risks and potential losses.

Pharmaceutical companies have also, historically, tended to work in competitive isolation from each other, with little if any collaboration or information sharing. Because of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, various pharmaceutical companies decided to work together – this level of collaboration on such a large scale has been unheard of until now.

The process of vaccine development has also been sped up by:

  • building on the existing knowledge about pandemics and epidemics from SARS in 2002, Swine flu in 2009, MERS-CoV in 2012, Avian flu in 2013, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2015
  • streamlining the process involved in approving the COVID-19 vaccines by reviewing the data in real time, rather than reviewing this in one go at the end of the development process
  • cutting out unnecessary red-tape and bureaucracy

When viruses, bacteria, or fungi get into our body, our immune system responds by producing proteins called antibodies to protect us. However, it takes time for our immune system to produce these antibodies the first time we are exposed to a new germ. Whilst this process is happening, we are susceptible to becoming ill and possibly dying from the disease in question.

The vaccine works by teaching our body’s immune system how to produce antibodies to the COVID-19 virus without being exposed to the virus itself. Once the vaccine has taught our immune system how to produce these antibodies, the immune system remembers how to make them. This means if the COVID-19 virus ever enters our body, our immune system will swiftly recognise it and quickly produce the specific antibodies needed to protect us.

I have heard the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is a new type of vaccine, an ‘mRNA vaccine’ – what does this mean?

There are several different kinds of vaccine and they each work in different ways. The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is an ‘mRNA vaccine’. ‘mRNA’ stands for ‘messenger ribonucleic acid’. mRNA is a molecule that occurs naturally in the body. It is involved in protein synthesis, the process by which our body produces all the different proteins we need to live, including the antibodies in our immune system.

mRNA vaccines essentially harness the body’s protein synthesis process. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine contains an mRNA molecule that carries the specific instructions for how to make the SARS-CoV-2 ‘spike’ protein – the non-disease-causing prickly projection on the surface of the COVID-19 virus that has often been shown in the media.

Once injected into the body, this mRNA molecule is taken up into our body cells. There, it instructs our cells to make this spike protein. When our cells have finished making this spike protein, our body recognises the spike protein as a germ that it needs to get rid of. Our immune system then responds by creating antibodies to do this. This means that if we are ever infected with the actual COVID-19 virus in the future, our body will recognise the virus and quickly produce antibodies to protect us from it.

Once the mRNA molecule in the vaccine has fulfilled its function in our cells, our body degrades the mRNA through naturally occurring processes and disposes of the debris.

Although the Pfizer/BioNTech is one of the first mRNA vaccines of its kind to be broadly tested and used, scientists have been working on mRNA vaccines for a long time, so the technology itself is not new.

How effective is the vaccine?

According to data so far, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is between 90-100% effective at protecting people against COVID-19 after two doses of the vaccine. Moderate protection has been observed after one dose of the vaccine.

Evidence is increasingly emerging that the vaccine is able to significantly reduce the transmission of COVID-19.  It is thought that this is a result of fewer symptomatic people producing and spreading large quantities of virus as a result of being vaccinated.

There is some evidence about how effective the vaccine is against new strains of COVID-19, such as the variants first identified in the UK and South Africa. Early data suggests that the vaccine has a similar efficacy against the UK variant, and is slightly less effective against the South African one. Nevertheless, even with these variations in efficacy, the vaccine still offers substantial protection.

The nature of the mRNA vaccine production process means that, if needed, the vaccine can, in the future, be adjusted to keep up with changes in the COVID-19 virus in order to maintain the vaccine’s effectiveness against new strains.

It is not yet clear how long immunity lasts following vaccination, as not enough time has passed between people being vaccinated and being able to assess how long the immune response lasts. It is, therefore, also not known whether booster vaccinations will be needed to maintain immunity.

Most people who have had the vaccine have not had any side-effects. The most common side-effects are minor – a sore arm, aches, a raised temperature, headaches or feeling tired.

No, the vaccine will not affect your DNA or your genes. This is biologically impossible because:

  • the mRNA molecule in the vaccine cannot enter the nucleus of our cells, the place where our DNA (genetic material) is housed
  • our body cells break down the mRNA molecule soon after it has served its purpose

Please speak to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist as they will be able to give you specific advice based on your situation.

No. It is not possible to catch COVID-19 from the vaccine because the vaccine does not contain any live virus – it is a lifeless substance.

Concern has been expressed by some people about the link between abortion and the vaccine, and it is true that there is a very distant, historical link between the two.

Some of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed rely on human cell lines (started with cells that originally came from an electively aborted foetus) for their production. While the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine does not require the use of such cell lines for its production, it has been tested using an ethically compromised human cell line called HEK293.

In the case of the development of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the HEK293 cells used in the testing phase trace their ancestry back to a foetus legally aborted in the Netherlands, in the 1970s, for reasons unrelated to medical research.

The cells used for testing are not the original cells taken from the foetus itself but are descendants of those cells. These descendent cell lines are referred to in biomedical research as ‘immortal cell lines’. This is because they are artificially maintained in a state of continual replication under laboratory conditions.

No new foetal tissue is needed to maintain the cell line. Therefore, the cell line in question, HEK293, does not require other abortions for its continued existence. This fulfills an important moral criterion for establishing moral justification in situations where a well-intentioned action has unavoidable negative consequences: the chosen action (being vaccinated) will not lead to further immoral outcomes (more abortions).

Given this, and given the very real danger posed by COVID-19, being vaccinated can be accurately described as an act of solidarity that upholds our duty to the common good. In being vaccinated, we protect not only ourselves but also those who are most vulnerable amongst us, especially those who, for medical reasons, are unable to have the vaccine.

Being vaccinated does not imply moral endorsement of the vaccine production process or complicity with abortion. The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stated that all vaccines recognised as clinically safe can be used in good conscience.

Web Links to Other Helpful Resources About COVID-19 and the COVID-19 Vaccines

Last updated 3 June 2021.

Tekupenga - Catholic Theological College

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