I. Is a COVID-19 Vaccine Available?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, researchers immediately entered a race to a vaccine for the highly contagious, potentially deadly disease. Because humans have no natural immunity to this coronavirus, scientists knew a vaccine would be essential for preventing the spread of the illness and limiting its severity.

First, let’s address what a vaccine is and how it works. When a person is vaccinated, their immune system develops antibodies against a disease, so that when they come in contact with it, their body knows how to properly fight it.

Although the human immune system can defend against most common germs, for unfamiliar diseases like COVID-19, vaccines are essential to providing protection that our bodies cannot produce on their own.

Vaccine development typically takes nine to 15 years, and prior to the first COVID-19 vaccination FDA approval on December 11, 2020, months after the pandemic hit the United States, the fastest vaccine development was the mumps vaccine, which took four years. Because of the urgency and severity of this pandemic, researchers have been working to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible. At one point, there were more than 155 vaccines in various stages of development, only nine months after the first known case of COVID-19.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized three COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use. Those are:

These three vaccines have received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), which allows the FDA to protect public health in pandemic situations like COVID-19 by allowing approval of medical products to use to prevent serious, life-threatening conditions. There are a number of factors that helped drive the speed of rolling out a vaccine. For one, researchers had already studied coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2, so they were not entering completely uncharted territory. Also, there was collaboration among pharmaceutical companies across the globe to achieve the same goal: stop the spread of COVID-19 by developing a vaccine. And, the United States through Operation Warp Speed, developed partnerships to develop and distribute the doses. Funding was provided through the government and private entities.

These efforts resulted in the FDA giving EUAs to Pfizer BioNTech on December 11, 2020, Moderna about a week later on December 20, and Janssen and Johnson & Johnson on February 27, 2021.

II. How Long Does It Take to Develop a Vaccine?

As we said, the COVID-19 vaccinations currently available are an anomaly in the world of developing vaccinations because the process happened so quickly. There are four stages of vaccine development, and the typical timeframe for each is several years. Here are the four steps scientists and researchers typically follow:

Stage 1: Exploratory

The preliminary stage in which researchers learn about the disease, and start identifying ways to prevent it. It typically lasts two to four years, but it moved much more rapidly with COVID-19.

Stage 2: Preclinical Testing

Scientists give a vaccine candidate to animals like mice or monkeys to see if it produces an immune response. While this stage usually takes one to two years, there are currently more than 135 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in preclinical testing. A significant number of vaccine candidates do not make it past this point.

Stage 3: Clinical Development

This three-phase stage is the most critical part of the process, when scientists test the vaccine in humans.

  • Phase I Safety Trials: Scientists give a vaccine candidate to a small group of people (typically less than 100) to test safety and dosage, and confirm that it stimulates an immune response in humans. Under normal circumstances, this phase lasts one to two years, but there are currently 15 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in Phase I.
  • Phase II Expanded Trials: Hundreds of people, split into groups like children and the elderly, receive the vaccine candidate to see if and how the vaccine acts among different groups, further testing its safety and efficacy. Usually lasting two years, there are currently 11 COVID-19 vaccine candidates at this phase. In the case of COVID-19, many labs are combining Phases I and II to accelerate the development process.
  • Phase III Efficacy Trials: This is the largest testing phase, with thousands of people receiving the vaccine. Scientists then wait to see how many people become infected, compared to other participants who receive a placebo. This long-term testing determines if the vaccine will actually protect against the disease it seeks to prevent. It can last anywhere from three to 15 years.

Stage 4: Approval

If a vaccine candidate makes it through all these stages, regulators in individual countries review the trial results, and determine whether to approve the vaccine for use in their country. This is also a time-consuming process, but in the case of a pandemic, a vaccine may receive emergency use authorization before formal approval. There is currently one COVID-19 vaccine approved for limited use in China.

III. COVID-19 Vaccines Available or in Development

Here are some of the different types of vaccines being tested for COVID-19:

  • Whole-virus vaccines, which use a weakened or inactivated version of the disease to stimulate an immune response. This is the most common type of vaccine.
  • Genetic vaccines, which use one or more of the virus’s own genes to stimulate an immune system response. To date, no vaccine built using this method has successfully passed through clinical trials to gain approval.
  • Viral vector vaccines, which provoke an immune response by delivering COVID-19 genes into cells using a virus. Currently the only COVID-19 vaccine with limited approval is a viral vector vaccine.
  • Protein-based vaccines, which provoke an immune response using a coronavirus protein or protein fragment.
  • Repurposed vaccines, in which an existing vaccine is repurposed for use against COVID-19.Who Can Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

If a vaccine is limited, the CDC makes recommendations on which populations should get vaccinated first. When the first three COVID-19 vaccines were approved for emergency use, the first wave of Americans who could receive it were healthcare workers and long-term care personnel. Immediately after, COVID-19 vaccines were available to those age 75 and older and non-healthcare frontline workers. The next phase included people ages 65 to 74, and those ages 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions.

At this point, all frontline and essential workers including teachers could get the vaccine. Today, individuals 12 and older can be vaccinated. Studies are still underway to test COVID-19 vaccines in children, with trials in progress to determine potential side-effects, risks and benefits for the youngest populations.

IV. What Are Common Side Effects of COVID-19 Vaccines?

As with any vaccination, everyone can react differently and there’s no way to predict exactly how you’ll feel after getting your first or second dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. We do know these vaccinations are safe, they have proven effective in trails, and the potential symptoms you’ll experience after getting the shot pales in comparison to getting COVID-19. When you get your COVID-19 shot, you will receive paperwork identifying common symptoms, along with information about the vaccine. Read it carefully and ask questions if you want more information.

According to the CDC, the most common side effects on the arm where you get the shot are: pain, redness and swelling. Additional symptoms can include:

  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea

V. When Are You Fully Vaccinated for COVID-19?

You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second shot in a two-dose series (Pfizer or Moderna) or after a single-shot vaccine (Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine). The CDC says, if you’ve been fully vaccinated, there are a number of benefits. You can gather indoors with others who are fully vaccinated without wearing masks, while social distancing is still recommended. You can expand your circle safely. And, you may participate in outdoor activities without wearing a mask, unless orders are in place. If you decide to travel within the United States, no testing or self-quarantine following your return is required. However, the CDC still recommends wearing a mask indoors if you’re in close contact with individuals who are at increased risk, such as in nursing homes or hospitals.

VI. Vaccination Updates: Johnson & Johnson Janssen’s COVID Vaccine

Vaccine development is ongoing, and for the latest updates, the CDC is constantly updating its vaccination information to help the public understand the latest developments.

You might be wondering: is the Johnson & Johnson Janssen COVID-19 vaccine safe? This vaccine was put on a temporary pause because of reports of a rare adverse event called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which is a condition involving blood clots with low platelets. How rare? There were 6 reports following 6.86 million doses administered. (This is a one-dose vaccination.) Therefore, 0.87 per 1 million of those who got this vaccine had a reported incident. Upon review, the FDA and CDC recommended the use of this vaccine because its potential benefits far outweigh “known and potential risks.”

VII. Should You Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Now that three COVID-19 vaccines are readily available for those ages 16 and older, you might be wondering if getting a COVID-19 vaccine is a good idea. The CDC advises getting vaccinated and assures that it, the FDA and other federal agencies are monitoring COVID-19 vaccination safety.

In spite of therapeutic treatments for COVID-19, there is no cure at this time. The best protection is vaccination, along with following guidelines regarding mask-wearing and social distancing.

VIII. Additional Resources

Name Website Summary
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html The CDC is the United States’ leading national public health organization. Its mission is to protect public health and safety through the control and prevention of disease, injury, and disability in the U.S. and abroad.
World Health Organization (WHO) https://www.who.int/ A specialized agency of the United Nations, WHO is responsible for international public health. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, it has field offices worldwide.
Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) www.aphl.org The APHL is a nonprofit organization in the United States that represents laboratories that protect public health and safety.

IX. Sources