KSL Investigates: Does A Rushed Vaccine Make It Less Safe?

Dec 4, 2020, 11:38 PM | Updated: Dec 5, 2020, 11:54 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — With two pharmaceutical companies ready to obtain approval for their COVID-19 vaccines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, many Utahns are asking: “Is it safe?”

The FDA will review the first COVID-19 vaccine, produced by Pfizer, on Dec. 10. This vaccine was approved in the United Kingdom and has begun distribution.

As the U.S. rollout of a vaccine waits for FDA approval, Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah, said the public should feel comfortable with the vaccine, if approved.

“There’s no evidence that any of the components of any vaccine that’s approved for use is fundamentally dangerous,” he said. “If it were, it wouldn’t be approved.”

Pfizer vaccine production. (Pfizer)

Money, Resources & Prior Research Helped Speed Up Vaccine

There are multiple reasons scientists were able to so quickly develop and test the COVID-19 vaccine.

“There was a lot of economic investment, unparalleled amount of economic investment – both by the companies involved in developing these, as well as the government,” said Swaminathan.

Since March, Operation Warp Speed has devoted more than $10 billion into research and development at seven pharmaceutical companies. This includes two companies seeking FDA approval: Moderna and Pfizer.

Rapid research was also a necessity to curb a global pandemic.

“We’ve really never had in our lifetimes a threat like this that has led to such widespread sickness, shutting down of economies and death,” Swaminathan said.

It is also worth noting that researchers didn’t start from scratch in vaccine development.

“MRNA vaccines had been in the process of development for some time, and so this was a perfect opportunity then to sort of slot in the COVID-19 protein that’s being made by the vaccine,” he added.

Also helpful was the access to trial participants.

Dr. Swaminathan pointed out that a widespread pandemic of the COVID-19 virus meant access to a statistically significant sample of those who had contracted the virus or could have a better chance of contracting the virus in order to test the vaccine.

“The trials got done sooner than you would expect because the disease has spread so alarmingly throughout the United States that they were able to enroll and have enough cases develop that they were able to demonstrate efficacy for the vaccines,” he said.

After tens of thousands of people participated in each study for three drugmakers, researchers found the vaccines offer at least 90% efficacy.

Pfizer announced 95% vaccine efficacy (VE), Moderna listed 94.1% VE, and AstraZeneca claimed 90% VE. AstraZeneca is still conducting phase III of their trials after restarting it in October.

“The measles vaccine is one of the most effective vaccines,” Swaminathan compared. “It’s over 90-95% and [the COVID-19 vaccine] is reported to be achieving that level of efficacy.”

Past Pandemic, Epidemic Vaccines

To get an idea of how the COVID-19 vaccine might work, we looked at past epidemic and pandemic data.

As explained by Intermountain Healthcare, “An epidemic is a disease that affects a large number of people within a community, population, or region.”

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014-2016 is considered an epidemic.

A pandemic is an “epidemic that’s spread over multiple countries or continents.”

COVID-19 is a pandemic, as was the H1N1 influenza virus in 2009.

The Health Resources and Services Administration operates the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program to review claims of injury from pandemic countermeasures like emergency-authorized vaccines.

It covers diseases like Ebola, Zika, H1N1 and Anthrax exposure.

According to data gathered since 2009, only 494 claims of injury from countermeasures have been reported and requested compensation. Of those, 39 were eligible for payment for those injuries and 29 claims received a cumulative $6 million in compensation.

CDC data showed that during the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic, an estimated 80.8 million vaccines were administered. A review of multiple studies of the vaccine’s efficacy showed the H1N1 vaccine was about 80% effective in preventing the Swine Flu. It was most effective for children.

Are Side Effects Severe? 

Another rumor circulating on social media is that side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are severe.

In analyzing safety data from Phase 1 of the Moderna trial, most participants saw mild to moderate side effects. The most frequently reported symptoms included those associated with the shot itself that were usually resolved within two days.

Moderna safety data. (Moderna)

The more severe symptoms were more frequent after the second dose of the vaccine and in the 71+ age group.

Pfizer reported fewer than 4% of a random subset of 8,000 of their study’s participants experienced severe side effects. The greatest were fatigue (3.8%) and headache (2%). “Severe” was defined as “interrupting daily activities.”

KSL previously reported Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, was a participant in the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine study.

“I thought I might as well give it a try,” Eliason said.

He said he experienced minor side effects similar to those one might experience with a seasonal flu vaccine: a low-grade fever and some body aches.

“They were easily managed with a dose of Tylenol or Advil and lasted less than a day,” he said.

A Utah teen who participated in the Pfizer study also reported mild side effects.

Clinical trials monitor participants following the injections to make sure there are no widespread adverse reactions. These would then be further studied to determine if it is a safety concern and if changes should be made.

What’s In The Vaccine?

Until the FDA approves the vaccines, ingredient lists have not been made public.

What we do know is that they are being developed with mRNA.

“The mRNA vaccine is unique in that it’s neither a protein nor an organism, dead or alive,” said Dr. Swaminathan. “What it is, is the mRNA, which is a molecule which instructs the cell how to make a protein. So, what you’re doing is you’re injecting an RNA molecule that’s synthesized in a laboratory that has the code for the protein. So, the cells in your arm will take up this mRNA particle and that particle tells the cells to make the viral protein.”

He continued, “Once that viral protein is made by your own body, the body generates an immune response to it that basically teaches it how to fight off the virus if it actually encounters it in real life.”

Swaminathan told the KSL Investigators that the vaccine will likely also contain lipids – tiny fat molecules that assist in the delivery of the mRNA.

“They sort of coat and encapsulate the messenger RNA, so that they get taken up by your cells,” he said.

Ultimately, he said people should feel confident in receiving the vaccine if it is approved by the FDA.

“There’s no evidence that any of the components of any vaccine that’s approved for use is fundamentally dangerous. If it were, it wouldn’t be approved,” he said.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

COVID Misconceptions

FILE: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 (left) and Moderna COVID-19 (right) vaccines are seen at a vaccinati...
LAURA UNGAR AP Science Writer

Is COVID-19 winding down? Scientists say no

New booster shots have arrived and social distancing guidelines have eased but COVID-19 infections aren't going away anytime soon. Experts predict the scourge that's already lasted longer than the 1918 flu pandemic will linger far into the future as the virus continues to cause deaths and may well mutate or evolve into a new disease.
5 months ago
Brittany Glas & Cindy St. Clair, KSL TV

Are Fetal Cell Lines Used In The COVID-19 Vaccine? KSL Investigates

In an ongoing series on COVID-19 misconceptions, the KSL Investigators separate fact from fiction. What’s in the vaccines? Brittany Glas digs into the ethical background of these drugs.
2 years ago
A close-up of a syringe containing a Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine as it is given to a patient a...
Brittany Glas, KSL TV

Experts Say Fast-Tracking Vaccine Doesn’t Mean It’s Less Safe

Health officials said local hospitals have been preparing for months to administer a COVID-19 vaccine. While some said this the hope they've been waiting for, others are hesitant. 
2 years ago
FILE (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)...
Jared Turner, Brittany Glas & Cindy St. Clair, KSL TV

KSL Investigates 3 COVID-19 Myths & Misconceptions

It's been a year since the novel coronavirus first started making global news, and nine months since much of the country went into lockdowns, quarantines and isolation. It's no secret a lot of ideas and misconceptions are out there. The KSL Investigators have looked into some of the more prevalent ones. 
2 years ago
Brittany Glas & Cindy St. Clair, KSL TV

KSL Investigates: Are COVID-19 Deaths In Utah Inflated?

Are deaths being reported as COVID-caused, even if that’s not actually the case? The KSL Investigators look at the facts vs. fiction in claims around coronavirus deaths.
2 years ago
FILE (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)...
Brittany Glas & Cindy St. Clair, KSL TV

KSL Investigates: No, Flu Is Not Worse Than COVID-19

With lots of information about COVID-19 floating around social media, the KSL Investigators look to separate the facts from COVID misconceptions, including the question, “Is the flu really worse than COVID-19?"
2 years ago

Sponsored Articles

Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Ask these questions before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Cloud storage technology with 3d rendering drawer with files in cloud...
PC Laptops

How backing up your computer can help you relieve stress

Don't wait for something bad to happen before backing up your computer. Learn how to protect your data before disaster strikes.
young woman with stickers on laptop computer...
Les Olson

7 ways print marketing materials can boost your business

Custom print marketing materials are a great way to leave an impression on clients or customers. Read for a few ideas to spread the word about your product or company.
young woman throwing clothes to organize a walk in closet...
Lighting Design

How to organize your walk-in closet | 7 easy tips to streamline your storage today

Read our tips to learn how to organize your walk-in closet for more storage space. These seven easy tips can help you get the most out of your space.
KSL Investigates: Does A Rushed Vaccine Make It Less Safe?