COVID-19 Vaccines: Get 'em Before They're Hot!
February 1, 2021
t is my sincere hope that the day is near when I will not be devoting this column exclusively to Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). However, more Americans are dead from COVID-19 than died in the entirety of World War II. Pilots are in a unique exposure position. So it’s critical that we understand our options in dealing with this pandemic. As
I write we are seeing a surge from the post-Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s gatherings. A new, more highly infectious strain of the virus is spreading across the country. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Therefore everything we have been talking about remains critical. Wear a mask when you are out. Maintain social distancing of 6 feet. Avoid crowded indoor environments whenever possible. Those are the ideal hotspots for super-spreader events. When flying, screen your passengers and crew. If they are in any way feeling ill; if they are feverish, don’t fly with them! If they are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes
COVID-19, you have to assume they will infect you. If you feel ill, get a COVID test. If positive, quarantine yourself
for at least seven days. If you feel your condition is
deteriorating, especially your breathing, get into the Emergency Department pronto!
Fortunately there is hope on the horizon that we will not have to be quite as paranoid in our behavior in the future. Some very effective and relatively safe vaccines have received emergency approval from the FAA for administration. The first of these is manufactured by Pfizer and BioNTech, approved for use by the FDA in early December.
A second similar vaccine produced by Moderna was approved shortly thereafter. More options should be
coming soon. Both of these currently FAA-approved products use a new technology based on injecting a molecule called Messenger Ribonucleic Acid (mRNA). Messenger RNA is normally produced by every cell in your body. It carries instructions from your genes as to how to make the proteins that make up you. You might consider them to be like the blueprints that come off the architect’s desk to be sent to
the contractor. When a virus, like COVID-19 infects you,
it attaches to your cells by a receptor protein at the end of those spikes that come out of the body of the coronavirus. That’s how this guy got his name, the spikes looking like the crown or corona surrounding the sun. OK, maybe not, but virologists have pretty wild imaginations. Anyhow, this receptor protein acts sort of like a grappling hook that allows the virus to get into your cells. After it gets in, it hijacks the protein synthesizing mechanism, using its own mRNA to instruct your cells to make more virus instead of more you! These new vaccines work by injecting a synthetic viral mRNA that instructs your cells to make the receptor protein of the corona virus, not the whole virus. This
receptor protein is secreted by your cells and picked up by your immune system. The immune system in turn makes antibodies like crazy against the receptor protein. So, what
happens if you get the virus at any time in the future?
These antibodies attack the receptor protein and prevent
it from hooking up with your cells. Virus foiled…or at least slowed down a lot. In practice both vaccines have been found to stop infections in some 95% or so of cases. In
the other 5% or so, the severity of illness was dramatically reduced. So we know that both of these products are good stuff. How about side-effects? They seem to be pretty
much the same as what you see with other virus vaccines like the flu shot—headache, sore arm, feeling a little
crummy. There were two allergic reactions requiring adrenaline reported with the Moderna vaccine. Both patients however had a history of severe reactions and even carried injectable adrenaline.
The FAA is actively encouraging all pilots to get immunized when the vaccines become available. Their only restriction is to wait 48 hours after immunization before flying. Both vaccines require two injections for full effectiveness. Both have to be kept at sub-zero temperatures until they are reconstituted, so that has posed a problem in distribution. They probably won’t be widely available until late spring or early summer. So keep your ear to the ground and continue to play it safe!
Fly wisely. See you next month.