We Asked An Immunologist Your Questions About COVID-19 Vaccine Safety
Editor’s Note: We have a simple goal: tap into the power of the global diabetes community to save lives. Visit coronavirusdiabetes.org to learn more about what you can do as a person with diabetes to keep yourself and others safe from COVID-19 until we’re all safe.
This article was published on Tuesday, August 10, 2021.
Dealing with COVID-19 has felt like trying to hit a moving target—the COVID-19 delta and other emerging variants are more dangerous than the original virus, but what does that mean? Are we safe? Do we need to wear masks or not? Vaccines work, but do they for everyone?
To get some clarity, we spoke with Bernard Khor, MD, PhD, of the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason in Seattle, Washington. Dr. Khor’s laboratory is trying to find new ways to treat autoimmune diseases, specifically for people living with Down Syndrome as they are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes. Because he spends so much time researching immune responses, we published his interview on whether type 1 diabetes means a person is immunocompromised and wanted to talk with him more about COVID-19 vaccine safety for people with type 1 diabetes.
Beyond Type 1: Are people with Type 1 diabetes more likely to get COVID-19?
Dr. Khor: People who have autoimmune diseases aren’t necessarily immunocompromised; instead we can think of it as having a dysregulated immune system. That’s what causes the immune system to attack its own body. It does not necessarily mean that they don’t respond appropriately against infections.
What we do know is that, if they catch it, people with type 1 diabetes are more susceptible to worse outcomes from COVID. If it were my child or loved one living with type 1 diabetes, I would do everything I could to mitigate that risk.
What about the delta variant? How did we get here?
The delta variant and other variants we’re seeing start to develop are worse for everyone. These mutations happen because the virus has had time to persist and improve itself. If we were able to completely contain it, if everyone got the vaccines right now, we could stop this pattern by giving it nowhere to hide. But if the coronavirus is hiding in 30 to 40 percent of the population, it will come back and come back worse again and again. It’s just a matter of time.
That’s the thing about a virus—it’s not a one time threat. It’s an ongoing, adaptable threat. It’s a virus that mutates. It’s trying to survive. It can change and adapt to circumstances. There’s another variant coming out from Peru that’s getting more powerful—it’s affecting younger people, it’s leading to more rapid hospitalization, it’s a worse disease.
I cannot overstate how much COVID-19 needs to be respected. The writing on the wall was very clear from the beginning. We have seen outbreaks of diseases before and we have seen pandemics before. They are all agents that need to be respected immensely.
Other forms of coronavirus—SARS, MERS—were incredibly bad. In both cases we basically escaped worse outcomes because we got lucky; transmission rates of those viruses weren’t as high as COVID. Now we have COVID. We started off unlucky, and if we don’t respect it, it will get worse. It can cause death, it can cause disability, it can cause horrible outcomes. We’ve seen nursing homes decimated, it’s devastating.
We as scientists can make the best thing we possibly can, but it doesn’t matter if no one uses it. I see this as our generation’s World War event. We’re lucky that many of us are inside, that we have Netflix and ways to work from home. But the societal impact is every bit as serious.
Are people with Type 1 diabetes more likely to have a particularly bad reaction to the vaccine?
All the data points to no. You’ll rarely hear a scientist say never—one in millions is not never—but all the studies to date say no, and we can have confidence in that because there’s been a lot of post-marketing assessment of these vaccines. We have a lot of people who have taken the vaccines already worldwide to see how it’s working.
And that’s what we look at—the remarkably low rate of adverse reactions that are reported and tracked, versus the highly measurable rates of severe illness or death, or of long-term disability from long haul COVID.
What about the fear that vaccines in general can lead to new or more autoimmune issues? Can you explain the risk?
It’s a terrible thing to come down or have your child come down with a severe life-long illness. Type 1 diabetes is so diabolically difficult, and it’ll be different for different people. It’s a slog. So of course we want to know why it happens. Especially when you’re trying to find that important of an answer, our minds are programmed to look for patterns, but when you look from a single case, you’re only able to make the pattern from the single situation. Huge studies have uniformly debunked the idea that vaccinations commonly cause autoimmune issues.
That’s the benefit of our system—it’s very transparent. When there are adverse effects, we know about them. There are rare occurrences that have been seen; an example was a batch of flu vaccines in the 1970s, where several people came down with a rare autoimmune disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). Even in that instance, the risk of getting GBS was 10 times less than the risk of death from flu. The cost benefit ratio is not even close.
Editor’s Note: There have been 100 reports of GBS among people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, from approximately 12.5 million doses administered. Each year in the United States, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS. Most people fully recover from the disorder. Whenever health issues like these do arise from vaccines, the FDA requires revisions to the information provided to vaccine recipients and healthcare providers so that they know about potential risks. No similar pattern has been identified with the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.
How can we trust vaccines that only have emergency use authorization (EUA) and are not fully approved?
Editor’s Note: Since this interview was published on August 10, 2021, the FDA has granted the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine full approval for ages 16 and up, with the EUA still in effect for ages 12-15 and booster doses for immunocompromised individuals.
I think it’s incredible that we have a vaccine ready as quickly as we did—that has been due to immense collaborative work from the entire global scientific community. That work happened because of the immense threat and impact of COVID-19.
In this case, scientists worked hard, building upon decades of existing research to make this thing work. In a sense, we also got lucky. We are so fortunate that these vaccines work as well as they do. We built this nice big shiny thing, now we have to walk on in. Because scientists can build the best possible solution and it means nothing if people don’t use it.
Lack of full approval—which we know is coming soon—is due to the fact that the FDA has a rigid and bureaucratic approval process. It’s not wrong. But it makes it very slow even once the medicine and science has been proven, as is the case with the COVID-19 vaccines we offer in the US.
But no corners have been cut—the data has been reviewed, the process has been transparent. Everyone understands the need for post marketing surveillance, ongoing data from the vaccines as they are administered. No expense has been spared for that.
How do we know that people who take the COVID-19 vaccine won’t face health issues from it in twenty years?
I cannot think of a scientific mechanism to be worried about that. I do know that COVID is here and is a very real risk, right now. We fear the unknown; the fear of the known has become hard to remind people of. After more than a year, we’ve gotten used to the bear that’s in the house. We can get worried about how we’re dealing with the bear, or we can go ahead and get the bear out of the house.
We heard discussion a few weeks ago about the psychology of choosing to take the COVID-19 vaccine; that to humans, it’s scarier to face making a choice and something bad happening, like taking the vaccine and getting sick from it, and less scary if something bad happens to you passively, like getting COVID-19 when you are going about your daily life trying to be careful. It feels like less responsibility. What are your thoughts on this?
Choosing not to do something is as much a choice as doing something. It’s about the risk of not doing it, not taking the vaccine.
You can always be nervous about some infinitesimal risk of doing something, but there’s a true risk of not doing something in this particular case. And the risk is not just what might happen to you if you get COVID, it’s the risk of all the people you might pass COVID to, including grandparents and children.
Because it’s not a question of if you will be exposed to COVID-19, it’s a question of when.
Thank you to Bernard Khor, MD, PhD from the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI). BRI, a world-renowned biomedical research institute focusing on the immune system, is also a clinical center for type 1 diabetes TrialNet, an international network that conducts clinical studies that evaluate new approaches to preventing, delaying and reversing the progression of type 1 diabetes.
It’s important to remember that having well-controlled diabetes alone does not seem to put anyone more at risk for contracting the novel coronavirus, but diabetes care itself is made far more complicated after contracting COVID-19. That’s why we encourage everyone with diabetes to get vaccinated, if your healthcare provider recommends it, as soon as possible.