Alexandra Holyk for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.
To clear up any hesitancy or confusion surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine among Ukrainian-Canadian community members, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) held a virtual town hall discussion on April 13.
The town hall was hosted by Christine Czoli, who is trained as a public health researcher and is a supporter of the UCC. It featured several Ukrainian-Canadian physicians from across the country along with Dr. Cora Constantinescu from 19 to Zero, a national coalition of public health experts.
Aside from Constantinescu, the town hall panellists included Dr. Olesia Markevych from Edmonton, Dr. Yuri Huculak from Toronto and Dr. Artem Luhovy from Montreal.
While reviewing some of the most frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, Constantinescu addressed concerns surrounding the record development time of the vaccine compared to others.
She said since messenger RNA — or mRNA — vaccine platforms and viral vector vaccine platforms were already in place, it was easy to adjust those platforms to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s like a CD player. You already have the CD player and you’re just changing the CD that goes into that platform,” Constinatinescu said.
Constantinescu also pointed out that the clinical trials took the necessary safety measures, with between 20,000 and 40,000 people included in the Phase 3 vaccination trials.
However, she noted that since the trials were conducted within a short period of time, the long-term efficacy has yet to be guaranteed. Additionally, not all populations were included in the clinical trials, specifically children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people.
“This is exactly where you’re going to see more information come out and more studies because now the vaccines have been administered to millions of people around the world,” Constantinescu said.
As of April 19, more than 10 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered and the numbers continue to rise on a daily basis.
Constantinescu also detailed what the mRNA and viral vector vaccines are designed to do.
“All of these vaccines contain some form of genetic material, either an mRNA or DNA of the ‘spike protein.’ The spike protein is a protein on the actual virus that our immune system recognizes and builds immunity to,” Constantinescu said.
Viral vector vaccines, on the other hand, use a non-replicating virus to carry information to the cells in order to teach them how to manage spike protein found in the virus.
Constantinescu also listed the effectiveness of each of the vaccines currently available, including mRNA vaccines PfizerNBioTech with 95 per cent efficacy and Moderna with 94.1 per cent efficacy. The viral vector vaccines are Oxford AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson, which provided 100 per cent and 85 per cent protection from severe disease, respectively.
Constantinescu acknowledged that although AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson have had a “bumpy road,” they are still protective against COVID-19.
“Both of these vaccines are really good at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and therefore death,” Constantinescu said.
“The reason our whole country and the world has come to a standstill is because of the issues around hospitalizations, [Intensive Care Unit] stay and death. So if we can prevent that, then that plays a huge role to the effect this pandemic has on our society,” she added.
Constantinescu also stressed that the vaccine cannot give those who receive it COVID-19 or any other infection, nor should recipients expect to see side effects lasting longer than the first few weeks after getting their shot.
When it came to the side effects of receiving the vaccine, Constantinescu pointed out that a reaction to the vaccine is expected, but most are mild and can be monitored at home.
Once the vaccine is administered, it usually takes about two weeks to have some effect, said Constantinescu. However, the vaccine remains effective in all age groups as well as ethnicities.
Constantinescu also addressed concerns surrounding blood clots appearing after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. However, she said the possibility of this happening is rare, with a one in 250,000 chance. The possibility of blood clots when having the virus is much higher, with one in three ICU COVID-19 patients having this happen.
“The reason…we recommend this vaccine is because this vaccine has been shown time and time again to be very effective at preventing hospitalization, severe disease and death,” Constantinescu said.
Constantinescu said she anticipates that vaccinations for teenagers under 18 years of age will be available prior to the new school year.
Hearing from the panelists
Markevych said the most common concern she hears from her patients about the COVID-19 vaccine is about safety. She currently works as a sports medicine specialist, surgical assistant and clinical lecturer for the department of family medicine at the University of Alberta.
“I think the key [point] here is that the research was not rushed,” Markevych said.
“Everyone saw the need — and so we got a vaccine faster because all the researchers and policymakers and people involved worked together.”
With around 30 years of experience in family and community medical practice, Huculak said one thing he’s hearing about a lot is vaccine hesitancy. Some of his patients are fearful of how fast it was approved and developed, while others, he said, want to “wait and see” to make sure the vaccine is OK to receive.
“I would say to those people, ‘If you are fortunate enough to get in and get your vaccine done, do it’,” Huculak said.
Luhovy currently works at a COVID-19 evaluation centre in Montreal North. He said the beginning of the pandemic was extremely difficult since many of the clinic’s staff became infected, however, the vaccines brought hope to the community.
“It is scary when your entire team gets isolated one after the other,” he said. “The only thing that’s been shown to permit some sort of normalcy quickly is the vaccine.”
Luhovy also mentioned that he’s been asked if getting the vaccine would result in a positive COVID-19 test. He said this would not occur since the vaccine is mRNA and only introduces one spike protein into the immune system rather than the entire virus.
Questions from the audience
One question that was raised by audience members was about side effects differing after the first and second doses of the vaccine, with more noticeable reactions occurring after an individual is fully immunized.
Constantinescu explained that it is completely normal. “The first dose does something called ‘priming’ your immune system,” she said, adding that it initiates the creation of antibodies in the immune system. “The second dose is the one that boosts all that.”
Another question was about the importance of getting the second dose of the vaccine and what could happen if someone misses their second dose.
“If we had enough vaccine, we would be doing two doses,” Constantinescu said, referring to the importance of vaccine equity. She also said data from the AstraZeneca vaccine showed that a longer interval between doses proved to be more effective, which in turn extended the time period for individuals to receive their second dose of the vaccine.
However, once Canada starts receiving more vaccines to administer the second dose, Constantinescu said she anticipates that immunocompromised people, including blood cancer patients in particular, will be prioritized to receive their second dose sooner to ensure their protection.
When looking at other immunocompromised groups, such as though who received organ transplants, Constantinescu said after one dose, those people are only 40 per cent protected, however, once they receive their second dose, that number increases to 70 per cent.
Looking to the future, Constantinescu said she is more optimistic about the longevity of protection of these vaccines.
“I think we’re probably going to get protection longer than we thought, longer than a year,” she said. “They’re definitely more efficacious and effective than any of the flu vaccines we’ve ever had.”
“The question about the booster and the yearly need comes down to variants,” Constantinescu continued. “If we’re not going to get this under control worldwide and we’re going to have all kinds of variants, then we’re going to need a boost with a different spike protein that’s going to provide different protection against whatever variant comes.”
Having experience with several COVID-19 long-haulers, Luhovy said he’s seen people experience physical and psychological symptoms beyond the reasonable duration of having the virus.
“It’s scary to have that as a potential outcome whereas that really wasn’t the case with things like the flu and a cold, you eventually got better,” he said.
“We also need to understand that the vaccine prevents us from getting very ill or from having symptoms,” Huculak said. “It does not prevent us from transmitting the virus.”
Huculak said he’s seen many people get the first dose of the vaccine and believe they don’t have to follow the protocols anymore. Since the protective effects of the vaccine aren’t fully enforced until approximately 12 days after receiving the shot, it is still possible to get and transmit the virus.
“Long COVID-19 symptoms don’t affect just older people or people who maybe have a higher tendency to get [a] severe illness,” Markevych added. “Those types of people who may feel that they’re more immune to more severe symptoms are not immune to that or long COVID-19 [symptoms]. That’s something that can affect any population.”
When asked about what she would like to tell the community, Constantinescu said her message is: “Don’t lose faith and don’t lose hope.”
“Humanity has seen worse than this. We’re gonna beat it…Hang in there because it will be over and please get vaccinated and talk about the vaccine to your friends and family because you can have [a] great influence on the people who trust you the most,” Constantinescu said.