Opinion

There’s a common fear among the vaccine hesitant that the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 shots could cause long-term health problems.

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There’s a common fear among the vaccine hesitant that the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 shots could cause long-term health problems.

There’s no evidence to support that fear. While it’s impossible to know the long-term impacts of any new medical intervention, researchers have found no reason to believe mRNA vaccines cause adverse effects later in life.

Unlike other types of immunization, including routine childhood vaccinations for diseases such as polio, measles or rubella, COVID-19 vaccines are relatively new. Most use a different technology: the Pfizer and Moderna brands use messenger RNA technology.

Researchers have been studying mRNA vaccines for decades, including for cancer treatment.

However, that technology is not entirely new; researchers have been studying mRNA vaccines for decades, including for cancer treatment. Moderna was developing mRNA vaccines for avian influenza and Zika virus before COVID-19 hit. The speed at which mRNA vaccines can be developed (in large part because of how quickly genetic sequences can be shared and turned into a vaccine), is one of the great achievements of vaccine science in recent years. It’s especially useful in responding quickly to a pandemic.

That speed, though, has some people nervous. How can they develop a vaccine that fast? Did they cut corners in the clinical trials or the regulatory-approval process?

The answers to those questions depend on where you look for information. Most of us are not scientists. We can either get our vaccine information from reputable sources, such as medical journals, independent scientists and trained medical professionals from public health agencies. Or we can get information from non-credible social media sources, most of which use misinformation and indoctrination to make money selling products and ads. The latter is where the unfounded fears about the vaccine emanate.

Like any new medical intervention, it’s impossible to say what the long-term risks are around COVID-19 vaccines. It takes decades of research to answer those questions.

New, cutting–edge medical interventions would never have seen the light of day if concerns about long–term risks prevented its use.

The issue then becomes: should people always reject new drugs or medical treatments because the long-term risks (no matter how slight) are unknown? If they did, society would deprive itself of any new scientific developments. The world would still be ravaged by communicable diseases such as polio, smallpox and diphtheria.

New, cutting-edge medical interventions, such as the gamma knife (a neurological treatment that made its Canadian debut in Winnipeg in 2003) would never have seen the light of day if concerns about long-term risks prevented its use. Immunizations such as the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, approved in Canada just over 30 years ago, would be excluded from routine childhood vaccination programs.

We would be stuck in the dark ages if long-term risk of any kind prevented the introduction of new medical interventions.

What scientists do know about COVID-19 vaccines is they are incredibly effective and have very few adverse effects in the short term. In Canada, only .009 per cent of 56.7 million doses administered resulted in a report of a severe side effect.

In Canada, only .009 per cent of 56.7 million doses administered resulted in a report of a severe side effect.

While there’s no way of knowing with absolute certainty whether mRNA vaccines cause long-term problems, decades of immunological science suggest that whatever adverse effects vaccines do cause are short term. According to the vast majority of scientists who devote their lives to studying vaccines, the likelihood of long-term effects from mRNA vaccines fall somewhere between extremely small to non-existent.

It’s probably why about 99 per cent of physicians in Manitoba have opted to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The benefits of the vaccines speak for themselves. Unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to get infected with COVID-19 than those who are fully immunized; they are 36 times more likely to be hospitalized, according to the most recent data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Meanwhile, the health risks from a COVID-19 infection, which has killed more than 28,000 Canadians, are well known. One thing medical researchers do know for sure: the risk of harm from a COVID-19 infection is far greater than from an mRNA vaccine.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.