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COVID-19 vaccine: What to know

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Indiana received its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine this week, marking a major milestone on the path out of the pandemic that has afflicted the United States since March.

State health officials offered some answers about the vaccine during a COVID-19 update Dec. 9, including how long it will take for most people to have access to the vaccine and what scientists have learned during clinical trials.

How does the vaccine work?

The vaccine, produced by Pfizer, is an mRNA vaccine, and it became the first to be granted emergency use authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 11. Other COVID-19 vaccines in development use the same method.

Unlike vaccines for other viruses, which put a weakened or inactive germ into the body, an mRNA vaccine teaches cells how to make a protein — or part of a protein — to trigger an immune response. The immune system then produces antibodies, which is what the body uses to protect itself against the real virus.

The COVID-19 vaccine teaches cells to make a “spike protein,” which is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. The immune system recognizes that the protein doesn’t belong in the body and begins building an immune response.

Is the vaccine safe?

The mRNA technique for vaccines is new, but researchers have been studying this method for years, which is part of the reason why scientists were able to develop a COVID-19 vaccine quickly.

Trial participants for the Pfizer vaccine experienced headaches, fatigue and muscle pain — side effects are common with vaccines — and the FDA has said there are “no specific safety concerns identified that would preclude issuance of an EUA.”

The Pfizer vaccine will be administered in two doses, ideally three weeks apart. The FDA says side effects were more common for trial participants after the second dose.

How many doses will Indiana get?

Indiana will receive 55,575 doses in the first week, according to Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer for the Indiana State Department of Health.

The state will get more doses of the Pfizer vaccine — along with another COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna — in the following weeks, but state health officials don’t know the exact amount.

Who gets the vaccine first?

First in line will be frontline health care workers such as doctors, nurses and other hospital staff. Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis is one of five hospitals around the state slated to get the first doses. Weaver said 50 hospitals are expected to have doses by the end of the week.

Priority also will go to long-term care facility workers and residents.

The next phase of the vaccine rollout includes teachers and other “critical infrastructure” workers.

What about everyone else?

Weaver said the health department’s goal is to have a vaccine available for everyone by summer. Vaccines won’t be offered to those under 16 yet because researchers are still conducting clinical trials for younger teenagers and children.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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