On Wednesday, two health workers in Alaska also had reactions. One was too easy to be considered anaphylaxis. The other, which occurred in a middle-aged woman with no history of allergies, was severe enough to warrant hospitalization, even after receiving an epinephrine injection.
“What is happening seems really unusual to me,” said Dr. Kimberly Blumenthal, an allergist, immunologist and drug allergy researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. Vaccine-related allergic reactions are usually rare, occurring at a rate of about one million.
Dr. Blumenthal also pointed out that it is a bit bizarre to see allergic reactions that cluster in just two locations: the UK and Alaska. Zeroing over the commonalities between the two hotspots, she said, could help researchers discover the source of the problem.
Do we know for sure that their reactions were caused by the vaccine?
The British and American agencies are investigating the cases, but no official has stated a direct link.
But Dr. Blumenthal suspects they were connected to the photos because the reactions were immediate, appearing within minutes of the injection.
“We have to believe she was tied up because of the schedule,” she said.
It is not even known if a certain ingredient could have been the cause. The Pfizer vaccine contains only 10 ingredients. The most important is a molecule called messenger RNA or mRNA – genetic material that can instruct human cells to produce a coronavirus protein called a peak. Once manufactured, Spike teaches the immune system to recognize the coronavirus so that it can be fought in the future. Messenger RNA, which is found naturally in human cells, is unlikely to pose a threat and degrades within about a day of injection.
The other nine ingredients are a mixture of salts, fats and sugars that stabilize the vaccine. None is a common allergen. The only chemical with a history of allergic reactions is polyethylene glycol or PEG, which helps pack mRNA into an oily sheath, protecting it as it enters human cells.
With the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine starting in the US, here are answers to some questions you might be asking yourself:
- If I live in the US, when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, it will most likely put health care workers and residents in long-term care institutions. If you want to understand how to make this decision, this article will help you.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains sufficient protection against coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they will only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens within the first two months. The unvaccinated majority will remain vulnerable to infection. An increasing number of coronavirus vaccines have robust protection against the disease. But it is also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they are infected because they have little or no symptoms. Scientists do not yet know if vaccines also block the transmission of coronavirus. So for now, even vaccinated people will have to wear masks, avoid internal congestion and so on. Once enough people are vaccinated, the coronavirus will become very difficult to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly, as a society, we reach this goal, life could begin to approach something as normal as the fall of 2021.
- If I was vaccinated, do I still have to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. Coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be sufficient protection to prevent the vaccinated person from becoming ill. But what is not clear is whether it is possible for the virus to bloom in the nose – and be sneezed or expired to infect others – even though antibodies from other parts of the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. Vaccine clinical trials are designed to determine if vaccinated people are protected from disease – not to see if they could spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of the flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to hope that vaccinated people will not spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone – even vaccinated people – will have to think of themselves as possible silent scattering and still wear a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is given as a blow to the arm, as are other typical vaccines. The injection into the arm will not feel different from any other vaccine, but the rate of short-term side effects seems higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines and none of them have reported serious health problems. Side effects, which may resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last for about a day and are more likely to occur after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine studies suggest that some people may need to take a day off from work because they feel unwell after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects have occurred in at least 25 to 33% of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle aches. Although these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is creating a strong response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? Not. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to create the immune system. This molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily balloon that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slide. The cell uses mRNA to produce coronavirus proteins, which can stimulate the immune system. At any given time, each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce to make their own proteins. Once these proteins are manufactured, our cells then destroy mRNAs with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules that our cells produce can only survive in minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is designed to resist the cell’s enzymes a little more, so that the cells can produce additional viral proteins and elicit a stronger immune response. But mRNA can only last a few days at most before it is destroyed.
But PEG is generally inert and widespread. It is found in ultrasound gel, laxatives such as Miralax and injectable steroids, among other drugs and products, said Dr. Blumenthal. Despite the ubiquity of the chemical, she said: “I’ve only seen one case of PEG allergy – it’s very, very unusual.”