If you’re anything like me, the COVID-19 vaccine bring up some contradictory emotions. I'm surprised they were able to come up with an effective vaccine so quickly. I'm hopeful that maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and we may one day be able to travel to see out-of-town family, hold birthday parties and send our kids to school without masks and hand sanitizer. But I also have a little bit of doubt. How on earth did they develop a vaccine so quickly? And given the speed, could it really be safe? When the vaccine is eventually available to me and my family, how will I know for sure that I’m doing the right thing by getting it?
Amanda Cruz, a mom of an 18-month-old and three-year-old in Toronto, feels the same way. “It’s that mama bear in me,” she tells me over the phone. “My biggest thing is that they haven’t done a lot of testing around the vaccine when it comes to children.” Cruz is by no means an anti-vaxxer. She gets her flu shot every year and her kids are up-to-date on all their vaccines. But there’s something about this particular vaccine that’s giving her pause.
Cruz’s hesitation, and my own, is completely normal, says Ran Goldman, a professor in the UBC department of paediatrics who is studying parental willingness to get the COVID-19 vaccine. “Parents in general are concerned about new vaccines. We all want to make sure that those vaccines were tested appropriately,” he says. Goldman led an international survey of 1,541 caregivers and found that 65 percent planned to get the COVID vaccine for their children. Out of those that said they wouldn’t get it, the novelty of the vaccine was the reason most often given.
Eve Dubé, a medical anthropologist and researcher in the scientific group on immunization at the Quebec National Institute of Public Health, says hesitancy to accept a new vaccine isn’t new. “We saw it with the rotavirus vaccine against gastroenteritis. We saw it with the HPV vaccine against human papilloma virus. At first there’s always more worry about a new vaccine,” she says.
But when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine, there’s another element at play. “I think that the fact that we're seeing the fastest vaccine ever developed in front of our eyes and being kept abreast of what's happening is part of the reason for concern,” says Goldman. Dubé agrees: “The focus in the media that it’s been a speedy development, that it’s been a rush, gives the false impression that some corners have been cut or that the vaccine might be less safe. Talking about vaccines with terms like 'warp speed' might increase people’s hesitancy,” she says.
It's definitely the speed at which the COVID-19 vaccine was developed that’s casting that little bit of nagging doubt for me. If a vaccine normally takes a decade to develop, how was it possible to have one tested and almost ready to go in less than a year? It feels like a part of the process must have been skipped.
To find out just how a vaccine can be developed so quickly, I reached out to Alyson Kelvin, a virologist and assistant professor at Dalhousie University who relocated to Saskatoon in January to work on Canadian efforts for COVID-19 vaccines. Kelvin also happens to be a mom of two. She assures me that even though these vaccines appeared to come out of thin air, that’s not the case.
“There are researchers like myself who focus on emerging viruses and how to be prepared for a pandemic,” she explains. “For example, the Moderna vaccine came from a group who had worked on the original SARS virus from 2003 and MERS [Middle] and they were really watching because we all knew that coronaviruses were possible pandemic potential,” she says.
So even though most of us have had a crash course in what a pandemic is, scientists have long been ready for this. And there are other reasons this vaccine was developed so quickly, she says. For one, the normal barriers, like lack of funding or lack of interest in the vaccine, were removed. “We're in a global emergency, so everybody's attention and efforts—as well as almost unlimited amounts of money—are being used to support this vaccine development.”
Another thing to consider is that one of the reasons why vaccines often take years to develop is because there needs to be enough time in the Phase 3 trial for people to naturally be exposed to the virus, in order to see if the vaccine is protecting them. That's not an issue for coronavirus. “Right now, unfortunately—yet, fortunately for the development of this vaccine—we have several pockets throughout the world where high numbers of people are being infected on a daily basis, which gives us those robust numbers,” she says.
Which brings me to another point that Goldman makes. A lot of parents are feeling like they don't want their kids to be the guinea pig and get the vaccine first. But Goldman reminds me that by the time a vaccine became available in Canada, at least 40,000 to 60,000 people already received it in trials. “I think parents should be reassured once the vaccine is approved that it has gone through the rigorous scientific process of approving a vaccine,” he says.
In the end though, kids aren’t actually high on the priority list when it comes to who has been getting the vaccine first. Initial doses are going to health care professionals and those at risk of severe disease, like the elderly and those with other health conditions. Which means there are still many months before I, or Cruz, or any Canadian parents need to make a decision about vaccination. When the time comes, I intend to do what all experts in the story recommended: talk to my health care provider about whether this vaccine is right for me and my family.