Answering long-standing questions about the COVID-19 vaccine

In this podcast, Collin Frazier talks to UF’s Dr. Robert Charvat, a microbiologist and expert on infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance. Transcription of the audio is provided below.

Collin (00:01):

Hey everyone. I’m Collin Frazier, the secretary of the University of Findlay Digital Media Club [UFDM] and writer for The Pulse. Today, I’m joined with Dr. Robert Charvat, assistant professor of biology right here at UF, who will provide a little more information on the COVID-19 vaccines, as well as answering different questions and addressing different arguments regarding the vaccine per the employee directory for Findlay.

Collin (00:22):

Dr. Charvat received his bachelor’s degree from Manchester University, where he was enthralled by microorganisms and how infectious diseases have shaped human history intrigued by this tiny world. Only visible through a microscope. Dr. Charvat pursued a graduate degree in microbiology and immunology studying equine herpes virus, and the molecular basis of persistent infection. His passion for microbiology led to a post-doctoral fellowship at the Indiana university school of medicine, where he examined mechanisms of drug activity and resistance in the parasite toxoplasma gondii, Dr. Charvat’s fascination with microbes and antibiotic resistance has continued, which have become the focus of many of his research projects here at the University of Findlay.

Collin (01:05):

Dr. Charvat, thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Charvat (01:08):

It’s a pleasure to be here with you, Collin. Yep.

Collin (01:09):

Hopefully you can provide some accurate information on the COVID-19 and the vaccination itself. With that let’s get started.

Collin (01:16):

First question here: How do the vaccines even work, be it Johnson and Johnson, Moderna or Pfizer?

Dr. Charvat (01:22):

So as you’ve heard, Moderna and Pfizer are mRNA-based vaccines, which means when you are injected with a vaccine, basically there are little lipid nanoparticles or bubbles of fat that surround the messenger RNA that’s delivered into the recipients. And so once delivered your body takes that messenger RNA and turns it into protein. And at which point the protein is then attacked by the immune system to make antibodies.

Dr. Charvat (01:46):

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine’s a little bit different. They use an adenovirus vector. So they basically take another respiratory virus, adenovirus, and they have engineered it so that it cannot cause disease. And now that virus then delivers the DNA that encodes the spike protein of SARS-Co-V 2 or COVID. And then again, your body is injected with this virus particle, and now you make antibodies against the spike protein. And so it doesn’t really matter the type of vaccine, the, the recipe or the instructions for making the protein is delivered so that you can make antibodies.

Collin (02:23):

Some people feel the vaccine is pointless because we are still seeing cases of COVID-19 rise. Some even to vaccinated individuals. Why are we still seeing vaccinated individuals get sick? Do these people have a valid argument?

Dr. Charvat (02:35):

It’s a really great question. One of the things that we have to dispel first is that vaccines are 100% effective because there is no vaccine that is 100% effective. There’s always going to be a small percentage of breakthrough cases, and these are the ones that we see in vaccinated individuals. But I would say that they’re not overly concerning. We have sort of these low background level infections and for COVID-19, the breakthrough case rate is about 0.01%. So that means for every 10,000 individuals vaccinated, we see about 10 cases of breakthrough cases.

Dr. Charvat (03:08):

Reasons for these breakthrough cases, you can have weak or ineffective immune responses to the vaccine. So you may make antibodies as effectively as someone else. We also are seeing decreased immune activity. So over time our immunity can decrease. And then we also have sort of the evolution of the virus.

Dr. Charvat (03:27):

So changes in the virus means that the antibodies that you made in the beginning, may be less effective at new variants. Okay. I don’t think the breakthrough cases are really a valid argument against vaccines, because the data suggests that the there’s an increased risk of infection for unvaccinated individuals. It’s about 10, eight times higher. And then for those that are hospitalized, unvaccinated individuals are about 25 times more likely to be hospitalized and vaccinated. So even though there’s these low levels of breakthrough cases, I still think vaccination is probably the strongest route for avoiding significant severe disease.

Collin (04:11):

Some people feel that because of these different variants, running rampant, such as the Delta variant, getting COVID-19 is inevitable. How are these different variants? How do they even mutate, and what is the best way to minimize these chances of mutation?

Speaker 2 (04:23):

Another great question, right? We’ve heard about the Delta variant and the Mu variant, right? But I’m going to say that getting COVID-19 is not inevitable. Uh, I’m a strong believer that, um, due diligence, including masking vaccinations, social distancing, quarantining are all necessary steps in avoiding COVID-19. Um, and especially it reducing the risk of getting infection. Now, as far as the mutants and the variants go an RNA virus, which is SARS Co-V 2, COVID-19 is an RNA virus and they’re prone to mutation rates greater than DNA viruses. For example, let’s say the chicken pox virus, and the reason for this is that the polymerase or the enzyme that makes the RNA genome has no proofreading capabilities, which means that when it makes a mistake, it doesn’t have the ability to go back and say, ‘Ooh, that’s a mistake. Let’s fix it.’

Dr. Charvat (05:14):

Whereas DNA polymerase does. And because of that, when a mistake is made, it perpetuates, and now we know you have mutations that arise that lead to these new variants. So with that, to limit the perpetual development of these variants in order to do that, we decrease the total number of susceptible individuals because as the infection progresses and it spreads, there’s more chances for those mutations to arise. So by getting vaccinated, we reduce the proportion of the population that’s susceptible to infection, which means there’s less opportunities for those mutants and those variants to arise.

Collin (05:52):

Okay. I’ve seen a couple posts on social media that go– that basically they go along the lines of ‘why are you so concerned about me you’re vaccinated? So you should not care about my decisions.’ My question here with that is what are your thoughts on those type of statements,

Dr. Charvat (06:06):

To be honest and frank they’re really disparaging. And it kind of hints towards a larger issue within society that we’re failing to it, compassion and concern for our fellow neighbors and citizens, right? And so the, the issue is that even though I might be vaccinated and you by choice are not right, not everyone can be vaccinated. There are medical exemptions that prevent folks from getting vaccinated individuals that might be undergoing human of therapy might have a decreased immune system and getting vaccinated won’t be very effective, right?

Dr. Charvat (06:42):

So there are medical reasons why individuals can’t be vaccinated. So when someone refuses vaccination, it places those that are incapable of receiving a vaccine at risk of infection. So this is why you hear sort of the importance of quote-unquote ‘herd immunity,’ right? The more individuals that get vaccinated, the less likely an infection is to spread because we’re reducing the number of susceptible individuals that can pass it onto those that can’t protect themselves. So herd immunity really is about protecting yourself, but protecting those who can’t protect themselves.

Collin (07:18):

Other social media accounts are claiming that vaccinate to individuals are quote-unquote, ‘the real guinea pigs,’ Implying that they’re the ones getting tested and there’s no true actual testing done that we’re gonna be the, that they’re gonna be the ones to show the real results. Could you provide some clarification on how the vaccination process goes?

Dr. Charvat (07:34):

Sure. You know, what if I’m, I’m a Guinea pig to help better the human condition, you know what, I’ll allow it. So when a vaccine is being developed or any other therapy for that matter, it goes through a very rigorous testing process to ensure two major things. One it’s gonna work, right. It’s gotta be effective and two, it needs to be safe. And so that’s where the function of enrolling willing, okay. Willing participants in clinical trials is important. These individuals know the risks they’re signing up to be test subjects. So in a sense, they’re the true guinea pigs, right? T o make sure that it’s effective and that it’s safe. Now, these trials are designed to be as inclusive of, of as many demographics as possible, um, including ethnicity, age, immune status, but obviously they can’t be so large to encompass everyone.

Dr. Charvat (08:31):

So in, in a sense, there is a tiny sliver of truth to individuals that are receiving the vaccine are still guinea pigs. Right. And it’s because the more vaccines we give, the more information we learn. And so we’ll learn more about the efficacy. We’re also gonna learn more about the potential for adverse events that occur following vaccination. So yes, in a sense, I think all of us that are getting vaccinated are still guinea pigs, but it’s to make sure that we’re learning as much as possible. We learn as we go. Essentially, we learn as we go.

Collin (09:04):

Okay. Another claim why some people don’t get the vaccine. And this is probably one of the more popular ones, especially early on. Most people tend to survive COVID-19. There’s a very high survival rate of COVID-19. With that said, why is it that we all need to get the vaccine despite this high survival rate?

Dr. Charvat (09:22):

So while the COVID-19 does have a high survival rate, let’s say, compared to smallpox or Ebola, um, that doesn’t mean that it would be best to just let nature run its core. Okay. It’s not a simple black and white, um, death or survival with COVID-19. So you’ve probably heard of long COVID right. This, long term persistent effects that result from having COVID-19 infection. Okay. Some individuals experience what’s known as agnosia, right. Where they lose their sense of smell and taste. Some individuals never recover their sense of smell and taste. Yeah.

Collin (10:03):

My older brother got it back in December and he’s still– he’s every now and then he can’t smell and can’t taste.

Dr. Charvat (10:09):

Yeah. So it, it persists for a long period of time. And what’s sad and sort of dis disheartening about that is that this is a respiratory infection, but now we’re seeing impacts on the neurological system, right? The inability to smell and taste, um, other individuals have lasting heart palpitations. So a lot of the athletes here on campus that have had COVID have been left with arrhythmias, and others in let’s say the 30 to 40 age category, you’re having strokes and that’s leading to long term memory deficits.

Dr. Charvat (10:41):

So even though the survival rate for COVID-19 is really high individuals that have had the infection, there are much greater proportions that have long term lasting effects. And I think we just don’t know enough about what’s going to happen long term to be comfortable, just let science run its course. And as an example, um, it took about 20 years for scientists to make the connection between the virus that causes genital warts, HPV and cervical cancer. That’s not a risk I’m willing to let people take, right, to just let nature run its course.

Collin (11:18):

Okay. Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been told that masks save lives. How do– how is it that a mask can protect people?

Dr. Charvat (11:27):

So this is obviously a very touchy subject for individuals. Um, the biggest thing is that SARS-CoV-2, COVID 19, is caused by a respiratory virus. And so any form of respiratory droplet has the potential for carrying infectious virus. And we can generate these respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, even simply having a chat with you right now is enough to generate droplets that could carry virus from one person to another. So by introducing the wearing of masks, what we’re doing is trying to limit those droplets from being formed and spread.

Dr. Charvat (12:00):

And so we’re protecting in two ways, one an infected individual wearing a mask is less likely to spread virus unencumbered. ‘Cause now we’ve got this sort of physical barrier that will trap droplets. Uninfected individuals are protected from acquiring those droplets from infected individuals. So it’s sort of a multifaceted approach to protect individuals by reducing spread from infected and from uninfected people, acquiring virus. And so it’s not a lifesaving intervention, but more of a prophylactic, right. That if we can prevent the spread of the virus, we will, by default, save lives.

Collin (12:40):

In your opinion, why do you feel the goal post is constantly being moved as to why people don’t take the vaccine? Like. First it was because it was made too fast; then it’s because it didn’t have full FDA approval. Well, now it does. And people still aren’t getting the vaccine. Do you think this vaccines become too politicized?

Dr. Charvat (12:57):

Sadly, yes. So there are a lot of individuals that view the pandemic and the vaccine as a political endeavor. But what the reality is that what people are seeing now of the vaccine being rushed or not being fully FDA approved, what people are seeing is the scientific process pan out in front of them in real time. So for the other vaccines that we receive, there’s already been those 10 years of development and research into the efficacy and the safety and the adverse events that occur because of the nature of this pandemic. So widespread, um, and the concern of long COVID and death from it, we haven’t really accelerated the timeframe. It’s just, we’re seeing it in real time.

Dr. Charvat (13:45):

And so now, instead of seeing a developed product come to market, we’re seeing the research is going behind it. We’re seeing how efficacy changes as more and more people get the vaccine. So what I like to say is that science is not truth. Science is the finding of truth. And so when science changes its opinion or it stands, it’s not that it, you were lied to in the beginning, it’s that we have actually simply just learned more. So it’s, again, it’s a learn as you go, right? The more people that get vaccinated, the more we learn about COVID, the more we learn about the vaccine efficacy, the more we can anticipate that our understanding is going to update, um, and we can be more informed moving forward.

Collin (14:31):

Okay. This last question here, what would you do to encourage people to get the vaccine?

Dr. Charvat (14:37):

This is a really loaded question. Um, some people are motivated by compassion and caring and concern for others. Some people are motivated by fear of getting sick and dying or the unknowns of having COVID. And then there are other people that simply are not going to be motivated at all. They are in disbelief that COVID is a real concern or that it’s even real to begin with. Right. And so getting the motivations of every individual covered is going to be a challenge.

Dr. Charvat (15:09):

I don’t believe there’s some one, just one way to encourage folks. I think there has to be education of the population. What are the vaccines? How effective are they? How do they actually reduce our risk of infection or serious complications? And then to get them to understand that this is the scientific process at work, as we learn more, our opinions and our assessment of the situation will change.

Dr. Charvat (15:34):

Right. And we’ve seen that with Dr. Fauci and the recommendations by the CDC. First, it was masking and then there was no masking and then it was double masking. And some of you’ve been taking that as far as you know, ‘oh, maybe we should triple mask.’ And it’s because we are learning more and more about it. We’ve changed our social distancing measures as well. It was six feet. And I think now we’ve reduced it down to three feet because we understand that the virus is carried by larger droplets and they don’t, they don’t travel as far.

Dr. Charvat (16:01):

So I think to encourage individuals will be getting them the information they need and then getting them to understand that as we know more, the information might change and we just have to adapt to that. But the one thing that I am fairly certain of is that if we don’t get individuals on board with reducing the spread, limiting our exposures, what we’re going to see are additional variants arise. And unfortunately, we’ll probably see this pandemic extend into the foreseeable future. It might be around longer than we would like.

Collin (16:35):

Anything else?

Dr. Charvat (16:37):

Nothing else add other than I’m a strong proponent of vaccination and I encourage everyone to get it. The more we can do to limit the spread, the better off we are as a society. You know, look out for your neighbors, right? Take everyone into consideration.

Collin (16:54):

Dr. Charvat on behalf of UFDM. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and hopefully put some people at ease on the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Charvat (17:02):

I hope so. And if anyone has questions and would like to come to me, I’m more than happy to, to sit and chat with other individuals. And, and Colin has been a pleasure sitting and talking with you.

Collin (17:10):

Thank you. All right. Thanks for listening. Oilers. Have a great day.

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