Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Jan. 15, 2021. Updates were made on March 1, 2021, upon the authorization of a third vaccine for the U.S. population.
After a difficult year, 2020 ended on a high note – with two vaccines available to protect against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. On Feb. 27, 2021, a third vaccine became authorized for use in the U.S.
You may have some questions about the effectiveness, safety and administration of the vaccines, especially for those who have preexisting conditions like pancreatic cancer, or those who are in close contact with patients.
What do the COVID-19 vaccines do?
There are several companies developing vaccines against COVID-19, and currently, there are three versions that have been shown to be safe and effective for use in the public in the U.S.
The goal of the COVID-19 vaccine is to protect the recipient from infection with the coronavirus. Clinical trial results showed that after complete vaccination (two injections for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, one for Johnson & Johnson), there was a significant decrease in risk of infection in vaccinated volunteers. In the rare instances where someone vaccinated still got infected, their disease has been less severe.
We do not yet know whether COVID-19 vaccination will also prevent or minimize spread of the disease, even among those who have been fully vaccinated. At this point, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated, “There is not enough information currently available to say if or when CDC will stop recommending that people wear masks and avoid close contact with others to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Experts need to understand more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide before making that decision.” Therefore, it’s recommended to continue following safety guidelines even after vaccination.
How do vaccines get proven safe and effective for use?
Like experimental treatments for diseases like pancreatic cancer, vaccines undergo rigorous clinical trials to make sure they’re safe and effective.
Clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccines happened remarkably quickly – partly because the foundational science and technology required for their development had been studied for many years before this pandemic hit. Another reason the clinical trials were so fast was because the virus is unfortunately so prevalent and easily transmissible that researchers could quickly determine whether the vaccinated had lower rates of disease than the nonvaccinated.
A third reason that the vaccines were able to go through testing so quickly was an unprecedented international collaborative effort, fueled by funding as well as the willingness of volunteers to participate in the clinical trials.
It’s important to note that the speed of the clinical trials does not undermine their rigor. Every appropriate step was taken, and all data were carefully analyzed to show that the vaccines are safe and effective over the period of time the volunteers have been followed.
How is the COVID-19 vaccine administered?
All three COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are injected into the recipient’s muscle, typically their shoulder. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses – separate injections administered three or four weeks apart. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one injection.
What are the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?
The side effects from all three vaccines are typically mild and may include pain and swelling at the injection site, fever, chills, tiredness and headache, according to the CDC.
As with other medications and vaccines, some individuals may experience severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) to a COVID-19 vaccine. If you have a history of severe allergic reactions from other vaccines or injectable therapies, it is important to consult with your healthcare team to determine if the COVID-19 vaccine is appropriate.
Are COVID-19 vaccines safe for people with pancreatic cancer?
The clinical trials studying COVID-19 vaccines did not include people with health conditions like cancer, so there are no data on the vaccine’s effects on cancer patients. We recommend discussing with your healthcare team, who will weigh the risks of the vaccine’s possible side effects versus its benefit of preventing a COVID-19 infection.
There is no evidence to suggest that these vaccines would not be safe for cancer patients. Healthcare teams have experience providing other types of vaccines to cancer patients and would be able to determine if and when it may be most appropriate for a patient to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. For example, in order to optimize effectiveness of these vaccines, oncologists may choose to administer them between treatment cycles.
Those in close contact with pancreatic cancer patients should consider getting vaccinated for their own safety as well as the health and safety of their loved one.
Can people who are immunocompromised get COVID-19 vaccines?
According to the CDC, we don’t yet know the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness in people with a compromised immune system. It’s possible their immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine may be reduced.
Can patients receive the COVID-19 vaccine while participating in a pancreatic cancer clinical trial?
You should contact the clinical trial site to find out if receiving a COVID-19 vaccine will impact your eligibility or continued participation in the study.
When will pancreatic cancer patients be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine?
The timing and schedule of administering the vaccines may vary by state or region.
The CDC has provided guidelines for a phased approach of vaccine administration, starting with healthcare professionals and residents of long-term care facilities.
Who receives the vaccine next depends on their age, profession and health status.
If you have pancreatic cancer, it’s important to openly discuss with your healthcare team whether and when you should be vaccinated against COVID-19.