COVID-19 Information

It’s been more than a year since OMSI first closed its doors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and we're grateful that science is leading the way as vaccines become available and we begin to resume in-person activities.

Interested in getting science-based information about vaccines? Get the facts below or follow us on social to learn more about science and vaccines.

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Let’s Have an Honest Conversation about Vaccines

There’s a lot of information out there, and you’re smart to ask questions. It can be hard to sort through how you feel or what you should do. We get that. We also understand that hesitancy around something new is common.

We are here for you and want to help you understand the science behind vaccines. Science is all about asking questions and discovering more information. We may not have every answer, but as a science museum and trusted community organization, we want to share what we do know and help you make an informed decision.

We’ve posted the below series on Facebook and Instagram and are continuing to share information about what vaccines are, what they do, and how they are impacting the COVID-19 pandemic and our community.

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How many lives have been saved by vaccines?
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Did you know vaccines have saved millions of lives?

Before vaccinations were widely available, people—and especially children—were vulnerable to prevalent diseases like polio, measles, diphtheria, and mumps. These may sound like uncommon diseases now because, after widespread vaccination efforts, they are.

More than 2 million people have died of COVID-19 worldwide, but authorized COVID-19 vaccines are proven to be nearly 100% effective at preventing death from the virus. These vaccines have the power to prevent millions of cases and deaths across the globe—and could help make COVID-19 an uncommon disease, too.

Sources: 

CDC: Why Are Childhood Vaccines So Important?

Do vaccines completely eliminate diseases?
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Vaccines have completely eliminated some diseases.

Historical accounts from China and India, some as early as 200 BCE, describe purposeful exposure to diseases to prevent future illness. However, the first modern vaccine was developed in 1796 to provide immunity against smallpox. 

The smallpox vaccine was born from a rumor that prior exposure to a different disease called cowpox meant you were likely safe from becoming sick with smallpox. Dr. Edward Jenner tested the idea and introduced one person to material from a cowpox sore—and two months later, after being exposed to smallpox, they did not get sick! Scientists know now that cowpox and smallpox both come from the Orthopox virus family.

After mass vaccination across the globe, The World Health Assembly declared that smallpox was eradicated in 1980. Since then, there have been zero naturally occurring cases of smallpox in the world.

Sources:

College Physicians of Philadelphia: History of Vaccines - A Vaccine History Project of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

What exactly is herd immunity?
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Vaccines help build herd immunity—but what exactly is herd immunity? 

Imagine a community where most people are immune to a disease. Even if one person gets the disease, the majority of people—or “the herd”—they encounter are immune and will not catch or further spread the disease. In this community, the disease does not become widespread. This is herd immunity.

Vaccines can build herd immunity. However, some children and adults cannot be vaccinated because of their age or medical background. When you choose to receive a vaccine, you are protecting your own health as well as the health of those vulnerable people in your community.

For COVID-19 vaccines to be effective, many people need to receive them. Experts estimate that COVID-19 vaccination rates must reach 85% or higher to limit spread and control the pandemic.

Sources:

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: What is Herd Immunity and How Can We Achieve It With COVID-19? 

CDC: Why Are Childhood Vaccines So Important?

What’s in the COVID-19 vaccine?
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What’s actually in the COVID-19 vaccine?

The authorized COVID-19 vaccinations from Pfizer and Moderna are very similar and contain only a few ingredients. They are basically just a tiny piece of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), or genetic material, floating in salt, sugar, and fats: 

  • - mRNA: Simple genetic instructions that will teach your cells how to look like COVID-19, triggering an immune response that builds antibodies to fight the virus.  
  • - Sugar and salt: Sucrose and potassium chloride (table sugar and a type of salt) balance the pH levels (acidity) and ensure the vaccine remains stable after it is manufactured.
  • - Lipids: Fatty substances (like cholesterol) that encase and protect the mRNA, as well as help it “slip” into cells.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have confirmed that their vaccines do not contain preservatives. There has been some confusion about storage requirements, but the ultracold temperatures are necessary to keep the fragile mRNA from breaking down during transit—and these vaccines are fully thawed before they are given to people. 

It is also important to note what is not included in the vaccines! The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain mercury, formaldehyde, microchips, egg protein, human cells, animal products, or the COVID-19 virus itself. While mRNA vaccines do contain genetic material, this material is incapable of altering our DNA—in fact, the mRNA contained in COVID-19 vaccines can only produce one protein before being destroyed by our cells. 

In the end, the threat of a COVID-19 infection far outweighs the risk posed by the vaccine’s ingredients.

Sources:

Hackensack Meridian Health: A Simple Breakdown of the Ingredients in COVID-19 Vaccines

Mayo Clinic: COVID-19 Vaccine Myths Debunked

Do vaccines help the body recognize and fight infectious cells?
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Vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, help the body recognize and fight infectious cells.

All cells look different to our immune system. When an infectious cell enters the body, the immune system spots it as an intruder because of its appearance. The virus that causes COVID-19 has distinct spike proteins on its surface. 

If your immune system encounters a new infectious cell, it can take time to mass-produce the right antibodies needed to neutralize or stop the infection. During this time, you might get sick. 

This is where vaccines come in! Vaccines trick your body into thinking it has been infected. This is a win-win situation, because you stay healthy while your immune system builds antibodies to fight the infection. If you ever come in contact with that infectious cell in the future, your vaccinated immune system is ready to immediately fight it off. 

 

How do mRNA vaccines impact your immune system?
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mRNA vaccines trigger the natural power of our immune system. 

COVID-19 is a new virus and most of us do not have the antibodies needed to neutralize it. Without specific antibodies, our body cannot fight the virus and we get sick. 

Authorized COVID-19 vaccines trick our immune system into thinking we are infected with the virus. It does so by using virus messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) or DNA to teach vaccinated cells to display harmless spike proteins on their surface. Our immune system sees these spikes and leaps into action, thinking we have COVID-19 and mass-producing antibodies against it! 

The best part? The vaccine can’t actually make us sick with COVID-19, so our body can take its time producing antibodies. The immune system also remembers how to produce these antibodies, so we’re ready to fight off a real COVID-19 infection in the future. 

How long has mRNA research been around?
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mRNA research is exciting, but it is not new—it has actually been around for decades.

The idea to use messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) in vaccines is not new. Since the early 1990s, researchers have been studying and perfecting methods to make mRNA vaccines effective. It was a complicated process that took years of dedicated research to work out!

Once they had developed a baseline technology, scientists could use their discoveries to build an mRNA vaccine for any virus by simply entering the target mRNA. In fact, there are multiple clinical studies that have used mRNA to teach the immune system how to fight cancerous tumors.

So while authorized COVID-19 vaccines are the first to use mRNA technology, the science itself has been studied and tested over several decades. 

Sources:

CDC: Understanding and Explaining mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines 

Harvard Health Publishing: Why are mRNA Vaccines So Exciting?

Do COVID-19 vaccines contain COVID-19?
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The authorized COVID-19 vaccines do not contain COVID-19. 

All vaccines trick our immune system into thinking we are being infected without actually giving us the disease. There are several ways for a vaccine to achieve this effect on our immune system. 

Some vaccines contain a live but weakened version of a virus, like the chickenpox vaccine. Others, like the seasonal flu vaccine, contain inactive or dead versions of the virus. 

Authorized COVID-19 vaccines are different. They contain a small piece of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) or DNA that teaches vaccinated cells how to display spike proteins on their surface. Our immune system recognizes the spikes and thinks we have COVID-19, causing it to mass produce antibodies to neutralize “the infection.” 

The beauty of the currently-authorized vaccines is that they do not actually contain any COVID-19, so there’s no risk of these vaccines infecting anyone with COVID-19.

Sources

CDC: mRNA Vaccine Basics

How effective are the currently-authorized COVID-19 vaccines at preventing death?
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Data and efficacy rates can be confusing. When a vaccine is listed as 89% effective, that number is referring to the prevention of any illness. In other words, if 100 people got the vaccine, 89 of those 100 people stayed healthy. The remaining 11 people had some level of illness, from mild to severe. 

However, what we should care more about is the prevention of death and severe illness! For all currently-authorized COVID-19 vaccines in the United States, zero people have died from the virus after receiving a vaccine! This means that the vaccine provides such a strong immune response that most people’s bodies can immediately fight the virus. And for those that did get sick, their symptoms were almost always mild and did not require hospitalization. 

Curious about the exact numbers? Of the more than 18,000 people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech clinical trial vaccine, only eight got COVID-19 and one had a severe case of the disease. During Moderna’s clinical trials, more than 14,000 people received the vaccine and only 11 people got COVID-19, none with a severe case. 

So the next time you see an efficacy percentage below 100%, remember to dig deeper and look into what really matters: prevention of death and hospitalization.

Sources:

Johnson & Johnson: Announces Single-Shot Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate Met Primary Endpoints in Interim Analysis of its Phase 3 ENSEMBLE Trial

FDA: Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ

FDA: Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ

Do vaccines have side effects?
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Most vaccines may have side effects (and that’s a good thing!)

Recently vaccinated individuals sometimes get a slightly sore arm, or experience a low-grade fever. But there’s a scientific reason for why this happens.

When you get a vaccine, your immune system thinks it is under attack and leaps into action! Even though you aren’t really sick, your body reacts as if you were. As a result, most vaccines cause mild side effects like injection site pain, tiredness, headache, muscle aches, fever, or swollen lymph nodes. These are great signs that your body is learning how to defeat that particular disease!

Most people (but not all) experience COVID-19 vaccine side effects that are mild and temporary. These reactions are a good sign that the vaccine is working to trigger the immune response you need to stay safe!

Sources:

CDC: Vaccines and Side Effects

Who benefits from getting vaccines?
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Getting a vaccine protects you, but also your family and community! 

There is no way to predict whether or not someone is capable of fighting off a virus successfully. While you could be exposed to COVID-19 without getting sick or dying, others in your family or community may not be as fortunate. 

We continue to learn more about COVID-19 each day, but in general, some individuals are at a much greater risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19: older adults; people who are pregnant; and those who have underlying diseases like cancer, heart conditions, kidney disease, and others. 

Some individuals, including many who are most at risk, may not be able to receive a COVID-19 vaccine due to a weakened immune system or other reasons. 

If you can be vaccinated, it is the safest and easiest way to protect everyone in your family and your community—including you! 

Sources:

CDC: People with Certain Medical Conditions

Frequently Asked Questions about Vaccine Science

Looking for more in-depth, scientific explanations about how vaccines work with our immune systems? 

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Additional Resources for COVID-19 and Vaccine Information

OMSI encourages you to learn more and ensure you have scientifically-accurate information. We trust the following sources, which offer reliable, relevant and comprehensive information about COVID-19 and vaccines: 

Recursos Adicionales