This past Sunday, a leading expert on vaccination spoke at a forum sponsored by more than a dozen Jewish organizations, seeking to encourage the public to take the shot against COVID-19. Among the sponsors was the Queens Jewish Link. “There are many legitimate questions that people have about vaccines,” said COVID Plasma Initiative cofounder Chaim M. Lebovits. “On the other side, there are some rumors that are flat out false and have absolutely no basis in truth.”
His organization also includes Queens-born Mordechai Serle as a cofounder. It coordinates plasma donations from survivors of the coronavirus to hospitals in need. In his line of work, Lebovits met Dr. Jeffrey Bander, Medical Director for Network Development at Mount Sinai Hospital. In turn, Dr. Bander served as the event moderator, posing questions to Dr. Peter Marks, Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA.
“Almost every question or conspiracy theory has something behind it. Sometimes there’s nothing really there,” Dr. Bander said. His first question concerned the relatively fast pace of the COVID vaccines, asking how they were developed within a year of the pandemic being declared by the World Health Organization.
“Vaccine development is not one of the biggest moneymakers for pharmaceutical companies when there’s no pandemic,” Dr. Marks said. When there isn’t a pandemic, they take a careful approach where each phase is administered separately over the course of many months. “The manufacturers came and talked to the FDA and we worked with them.” This resulted in a quick succession of vaccine trials involving 45,000 patients.
“When they got to the end, if they got something that worked, they could then start shipping the vaccine,” he said. “I wish that they would have had more, but at least they had millions of doses to ship, which is normally not how it would work.
Dr. Bander noted that with so many people being infected, it allowed for researchers to study more people from many walks of life during their testing of vaccines. Dr. Marks said that other viruses that received international attention, such as Zika, also have their vaccines with recipients being monitored over a long period of time to see its effectiveness.
The actual vaccine does not remain in the body for a day or two, but it leaves proteins that “tickle” the immune system to make a response that the body remembers. It then develops antibodies and cells that repel the virus. He said that this does not mean that a patient’s DNA would be altered, as one myth asserts.
Dr. Marks quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci (the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the President),
who said that among the choices of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, it is worth getting any of them.
He spoke of Israel as likely the first country to have herd immunity, as most of its citizens will soon be vaccinated, and it would serve as an example to other countries.
Dr. Bander asked whether the constantly evolving virus would make vaccines ineffective at some point. Dr. Marks conceded that we do not know for how long a vaccine can protect an individual against the virus. “Six months to a year,” he claimed, adding that if enough people take the shot, then the virus would be eradicated. “We might have to get a booster, just like with the flu vaccine.”
Dr. Bander asked that with concerns on the body’s reaction to the vaccine, which people have legitimate reasons not to get vaccinated. One group are people who have been vaccinated with their first shot to wait two weeks before taking another vaccine. “We don’t know how the vaccines interact with each other. Pregnant women, people with immunodeficiencies, should speak to a doctor first.
“The reason for people to get vaccinated is not because it is mandatory; it’s because it will help themselves and their communities,” Dr. Marks said. “It should not be mandatory; it should be because we feel comfortable about helping our communities.”
On convalescent plasma, he noted the generosity of the Orthodox Jewish community in donating plasma, with some individuals being “off the charts” in antibodies. “It made an incredible difference, and it makes a difference as a therapy that saves lives. When all the dust is settled, we clearly see a survival advantage given to a number of people treated with convalescent plasma.
Rumors about the vaccine’s effect on pregnancy were studied by the FDA and ruled as having no adverse effects. Concerning allergic reactions, it would be one in 250,000 patients, none fatal.
Concerning vaccination, he concluded to say that one who is not vaccinated can spread the virus, and to do so is to not have one’s neighbors in mind. “This (getting vaccinated) is part of what we do to help our communities, making sure that we are doing our part,” Dr. Marks said. “The whole point here is that the reason smallpox doesn’t exist anymore is that it has been eradicated. Enough people had been vaccinated that the virus did not have anywhere to go but out. That’s what we need to do here.”
Concerning people who were vaccinated, the day after this online presentation, the CDC issued guidelines allowing vaccinated people to live a less restricted life and interact with each other without masks.
The video for this 53-minute event, titled You have Questions, They have Answers is available on the Queens Jewish Link website for another week ( www.queensjewishlink.com ), as it informs the public on the status of the vaccines, their effectiveness, and what it would mean to take the vaccines.
By Sergey Kadinsky