Matthew Tracey

Matthew Tracey is an assistant professor and medicinal chemist at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Getting more people vaccinated against COVID-19 is crucial to leaving the pandemic in the dust and returning to active lives, two experts said Tuesday during an online forum.

University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown faculty members Matthew Tracey, assistant professor of chemistry, and Jill Henning, associate professor of biology, explained the science behind COVID-19 vaccines and answered questions during COVID Questions.

“We are well on our way to getting close to herd immunity,” Tracey said, explaining widespread vaccine distribution will speed up the process.

Current estimates are that herd immunity could be achieved by autumn, but could possibly not be reached until early next year.

Henning encouraged those who were hesitant to be among the first to receive a vaccine to reconsider their decision because 14 million doses have been distributed.

“If there was something that was going to happen, it would have happened by now,” she said. “You are not in the first round now.”

COVID Questions is sponsored by In This Together Cambria, Pitt-Johnstown and The Tribune-Democrat. A video of Tuesday’s event can be viewed on the In This Together Cambria Facebook page.

The group is posting the series of COVID-19 forums on YouTube.

All of the vaccines in use or in final clinical trials in the United States or abroad fall into one of three categories, Henning explained. Each delivers what the body sees as a pathogen related to the proteins on the familiar “spikes” of the coronavirus.

The current Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is under final review for distribution, uses a harmless virus that has been altered. A third group of vaccines use a small section of protein.

The pathogens convince the body to create what Henning called “an army of antibodies that bind to the spike protein on the surface of the virus if you are exposed and won’t allow the virus to get into your cells.”

Because it takes up to three days to produce the full army of antibodies after exposure to the virus, scientists are studying of the virus can reproduce enough to spread to others before being eliminated in those who have been vaccinated, Henning said. 

A study showed there was virus in the noses of monkeys that had been inoculated.

“We are trying to see if that can be transmitted to someone else,” she said. “If there’s enough virus in your nose, you may not see the symptoms. The vaccine will stop the clinical infection for you, but it may not stop you from giving it to someone else in that two-to-three-day window after exposure.”

Until that is known, experts recommend mask-wearing in public even after receiving both vaccine doses.

Both scientists said they are frustrated with vaccine hesitancy caused by misinformation about the science. Too often, people believe the first things they hear about the vaccine, even from unreliable sources, Henning said.

“Then you run into the whole confirmation bias,” she said. “If they believe it, they are going to continue to find things that support what it is that they believe.”

Tracey said he found the same thing when talking to those who won’t get the vaccine.

“You can’t reason somebody out of an opinion they didn’t reason themselves into,” he said.

Henning said side effects have been mild for a majority of those who received the vaccine, with only a handful experiencing allergic reactions.

“The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have had significant, comprehensive safety evaluations like no other vaccine in infectious disease history,” she said.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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