OpEd: "The Only COVID-19 Miracle Cure Is the One That Keeps You from Needing a Cure"

October 29, 2021


Marc T. Kiviniemi, PhD, CPH


Growing up, I idolized my Uncle Keith. I was obsessed with space travel, and he was an Air Force officer who worked with real live rockets. Fortunately, he was kind-hearted, loving, and put up with my nonstop rocket questions. Unfortunately, two weeks ago I went to his funeral. He contracted COVID-19 and spent three weeks in the hospital, much of it in the intensive care unit, as his body fought a long, brutal, and ultimately unsuccessful fight against COVID-19.


Since vaccines became widely available, 95% of hospitalizations and 92% of deaths from COVID-19 in the US were not vaccinated, my uncle among them. If you are not vaccinated, I hope my uncle’s story can save you from the wake-up call of a loved one's suffering and death.


While there was no miracle cure for my uncle, vaccination is a way not to need that miracle cure. Today we know more than ever about how effective and how safe the COVID-19 vaccines are. Let's talk about the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna (the third approved vaccine is safe and effective but not as widely used).


All vaccines work by getting your body to create defenses against the virus before you are infected. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do this by using mRNA. Your body makes and uses mRNA all the time — it is a key, natural part of your body's "manufacturing system." The vaccine gives your body an mRNA instruction telling it how to make a protein that is on the virus' surface. Your body then builds up defenses — antibodies — to attach to that protein. Because antibodies are in place and ready to fight, they can stop the virus before it gets started. That's why illness is so much less likely after vaccination.


To see if a vaccine works, you compare the chances of a vaccinated person getting sick to the chances of someone who is unvaccinated. In one study, researchers gave the same number of people the Moderna vaccine or a placebo (a shot without vaccine). Over the next six months, more than 800 of those receiving the placebo got COVID-19; 30 were life-threatening cases. Fewer than 100 who were vaccinated got COVID-19, and only one case was life-threatening — that's a substantial reduction in illness. Once vaccinated, you are as much as 90% less likely to get sick, be hospitalized, or be in an ICU from COVID-19.


There is also careful monitoring to ensure vaccines are safe. Systems are in place to watch closely for “adverse events” — any bad reactions following the shot. Public health professionals carefully compare the number that happen to vaccinated people versus people who are not. In the study described above, out of more than 20,000 people who got the vaccine, 15 people died in the following six months. For the same number of people in the placebo group, 14 died. If vaccines led to deaths, you'd see more deaths in the vaccine group than the placebo group. After millions of people in the US have received these vaccines, NO deaths have been attributed to the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. At this point, it is improbable that there are adverse events we haven't seen yet.


Because of the extensive, ongoing safety monitoring, we do know of two kinds of adverse events. The first is a chance of heart inflammation. It is very rare -- 1 person experiences heart inflammation for every 100,000 people who are vaccinated (0.0012% -- a number so small it is hard to grasp). Many of these inflammations resolved on their own, and the others were responsive to treatment. Second, in very rare cases — 2 people for every MILLION doses given — there can be an allergic reaction immediately after vaccination. This reaction is entirely treatable. That is why vaccine providers ask people to sit for a few minutes after vaccination -- to immediately treat a reaction if needed.


Finally, it is essential to consider relative risk. That's the chance of illness if you do (or don't do) one thing versus the chance if you do (or don't do) another. The possibility of heart inflammation because of the vaccine is virtually zero (0.0012%). If you don’t vaccinate and have severe COVID-19, the chance of serious heart inflammation is as high as 60%. No one has died because of receiving an mRNA COVID vaccine -- the chance of dying if you are hospitalized for COVID-19 is about 1 in 10. The relative risks are clear — gambling with COVID is much riskier.


The bottom line is that the risks of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are minimal and are treatable. There have been no deaths due to these vaccines, and they offer strong protection against COVID-19. By contrast, COVID-19 infection is increasingly common for the unvaccinated, not always treatable, and has killed millions worldwide. Please don't wait for you or a loved one to suffer as my uncle did. Protect yourself and those you love and get your first vaccination dose today.