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December 2020

Getting Ready for the COVID-19 Vaccine

Around the world, thousands of scientists and researchers have been working at a fast pace this year to bring vaccines to market that can help prevent COVID-19. What do you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine right now? Learn the latest below.

Man with sleeve rolled up, getting a shot

When will a COVID-19 vaccine be available?

As of today, the FDA has not approved any vaccine for COVID-19. The companies that have had successful clinical trials for their vaccines are applying for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA. An EUA lets the FDA approve treatments or vaccines faster than the normal amount of time it takes to go through the approval process. The vaccines are carefully assessed by the FDA. If they are approved, they’ll be produced in large amounts, and then distributed.

Some vaccines may be ready by late December 2020 for healthcare workers and high-risk people. Other vaccines will be available in the next 1 to 2 months. The vaccines may not be ready for widespread use until Spring 2021.

How do the COVID-19 vaccines work?

The COVID-19 vaccines are made differently from traditional vaccines. They don’t expose you to any real virus. They’re not made with dead or weak virus. Instead, they're made from messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). This is a type of molecule that gives instructions about how to make different kinds of proteins. The mRNA in the vaccines tells your cells how to make a harmless piece of a protein called a spike protein. This protein is found on the outside of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Your immune system sees this spike protein as a threat, and creates antibodies against it. It will help your body's immune system recognize to fight the real virus if it ever shows up. It’s kind of like recognizing someone by the hat they wear. Your body is then prepared to spot COVID-19 and fight it off before it grows in your body’s cells.

How are the COVID-19 vaccines approved for safety?

The vaccines were tested first in animals. They were then tested in a series of clinical trials that included thousands of people. All of the data from these tests is collected and submitted to the FDA and other scientific groups. These committees of scientists and public health experts carefully look at the data to see if a vaccine is safe and effective. The FDA then assesses the EUA request for a vaccine. If the vaccine meets the FDA’s strict standards of safety and quality, the agency tells the vaccine company they can make the vaccine for emergency use.

Vaccines have typically taken longer to be approved and come to market. But over many years of creating vaccines, research groups and public health agencies have been making the vaccine process work faster. For COVID-19, a special program called Operation Warp Speed (OWS) was created to help get COVID-19 vaccines ready even more quickly. OWS is a partnership of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Defense, and many medical research and manufacturing groups. These organizations agreed to work together as closely as possible to communicate and move through a robust process to develop safe COVID-19 vaccines more quickly. Learn more about Operation Warp Speed.

How might the COVID-19 vaccines help?

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine can help protect you from getting ill with the disease. But the vaccines may also cause more widespread changes. The more people who get the COVID-19 vaccine, the more local and regional policies may change about what types of businesses can be open and how people can gather together. Schools may be back in session in person faster. Workplaces may reopen. Events may be allowed, travel may resume for many people, and it may be easier to see family and friends.

Important things to know about the COVID-19 vaccines

  • There will be more than 1 vaccine on the market. Many companies have been working on creating vaccines. Several companies in the U.S. have gotten far enough in the process that they will be able to offer a vaccine in the coming weeks or months. But you may not be able to choose which vaccine you can get. It will likely depend on what is available at your local healthcare facilities and pharmacies.

  • You may need 2 doses. The vaccines may be given in 2 doses, spaced a few weeks apart. You’ll need both of these doses to get the best COVID-19 protection from the vaccine.

  • Not everyone can get a COVID-19 vaccine right away. It will take a while for the vaccine to be available to everyone. The first doses will be available to healthcare workers, other essential workers, older adults, and people with high-risk health conditions. But you should keep in touch with your healthcare provider and your local pharmacies to see when it’s available in your area.

  • The vaccine will have side effects for some people. A vaccine activates a person’s immune system. It causes the immune system to create antibodies to fight off a specific virus or bacteria. When your immune system goes into action, you may feel your immune system kick into gear as though it’s fighting an illness. People who have been part of the COVID-19 vaccine trials have reported headaches, body aches, fever, and chills. These are signs that your immune system is working on its defense. You can get these kinds of effects after many kinds of vaccines. But these symptoms likely last a short time–around 1 to 2 days. In comparison, COVID-19 symptoms can be severe and last much longer, and cause complications, long-term illness, and death. The FDA approval process makes sure that the discomfort and risks of a vaccine outweigh the risks and complications of the illness it helps prevent.

  • If you’ve had COVID-19, you may still need the vaccine. Research has shown that people can be infected more than once with COVID-19. If you’ve had the illness, it may still be important to get a vaccine.

Should you get the COVID-19 vaccine?

People have a lot of questions about the vaccine for themselves. Should you get it? If so, when? What are the possible risks and benefits to you? The best way to answer these questions is to talk with your healthcare provider. They can let you know when and what kind of vaccine is available, and what you should consider.

To learn more

FDA COVID-19 vaccines

CDC coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines

Operation Warp Speed

Online Medical Reviewer: Watson, L Renee, RN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2020
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