Ask Your Pharmacist

December 30, 2020
Q:

Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available? It’s so new. Do you think it’s safe?

A:

I’ve had lots of questions from folks about whether or not the new vaccine is safe. The commonality among the questions has been, “Can we be sure that the vaccine is safe given that it is so new”?

Vaccines will play an essential role in the ability of Canadians to recover safely from the COVID-19 pandemic. On December 9, 2020, Health Canada authorized the first vaccine in Canada for the prevention of COVID-19.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, regulatory approval of a new vaccine in Canada typically takes six to ten months. In the case of COVID-19 vaccine approval, this time frame was decreased to two months. How was this accomplished? Simply put, more people power, and more public and private dollars were made available to accomplish this task. Reviewers were given the opportunity to review data seamlessly as it became available for clinical trials compared to waiting until all the data was in to begin review. A large amount of federal dollars and private dollars was allotted to fund the approval process. Participant recruitment for clinical trials was conducted in areas of high risk COVID-19 transmission. This shortened the time it usually takes to get a large enough sample size of people to study.

Participants were followed up for 14 weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and for 10 weeks after the Moderna vaccine. For the Pfizer product, only one patient experienced a serious side effect in the treatment group, while nine experienced a side effect in the placebo group. None of the patients who received vaccine in the Moderna trial experienced side effects. Both vaccines had very low rates of adverse events, considering that the Pfizer trial studied over 40,000 participants and the Moderna trial studied 20,000 participants.

Vaccine side effects included short-term, mild to moderate pain at the injection site, fatigue, and headache. The occurrence of serious side effects was not different between the treatment group and those who received placebo. Localized injection site reactions occurred in less than one per cent of participants and generally resolved within one to two days.

Fever (temperature above 37.9 C) occurred in about 16 per cent of recipients aged 16 to 55 years of age and 11 per cent of recipients older than 55. Fever resolved within one to two days.  

Recently there have been reports of significant allergic reactions in two patients who received the vaccine in Britain. It is known that anyone with a true allergy to polyethylene glycol (PEG) should not receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

If you experience a significant reaction to the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, the recommendation is to receive consultation from an allergist or other qualified specialist prior to the second dose. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, people with peanut, penicillin or egg allergies are generally considered safe to receive the vaccine.

It is perfectly okay to be nervous about the vaccine. It is however not okay to accept misinformation from others and from social media, and it’s even less okay to spread that misinformation. Spreading falsehoods and misinformation is never okay but in the case of immunization against COVID-19, it is irresponsible because it can lead to someone getting very sick or even dying.

Make a sound decision based on the facts. Closely self-examine and determine exactly what your hesitation is about the vaccine. Many of us are afraid of the unknown. If this is the case with you, then find power in getting informed with knowledge.

In the coming weeks and months, take the time to talk to your pharmacist, physician, or nurse practitioner about the risks and benefits of immunization for your particular health situation.      

Will I take the vaccine? You better believe I am going to take it the first chance I get. I realize that even after immunization I will still need to wear a mask for a period of time until Public Health advises that enough of us have been immunized and the risk of infection with COVID-19 has abated. Immunization is the fastest way for us to get back to the day-to-day life we remember pre-COVID.

Based on the scientific evidence presented in clinical trials to date, I feel confident that the vaccines on the Canadian market work and that they are safe. 

Dr. Kevin Duplisea (PharmD BSc. Pharm, BSc. ACPR) is a pharmacist at Sharp’s Corner Drugstore in Sussex, New Brunswick. His opinions expressed in this newspaper are published for educational and informational purposes only, and are not intended as a diagnosis, treatment or as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Send your questions to AskYourNBPharmacist@gmail.com.