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COVID-19 Vaccines and Side Effects: What We Know So Far

From common to rare.
by Ara Eugenio
Feb 26, 2021
Photo/s: Shutterstock

Roughly half of Filipinos prefer not to get vaccinated for COVID-19, citing safety concerns. Even before the first shipment of jabs (from China's Sinovac) arrives on Sunday, countries that have started immunizing their citizens have reported side effects.

Take note that all vaccines come with side effects, what varies is the gravity or severeness of these. From common to rare, here's what we know so far about COVID vaccines and their side effects.

What are side effects?

A side effect is secondary to the intended purpose of a drug which can be therapeutic or otherwise. 

While side effects occurand in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, some recipients have had to take a day off from work to deal with them—they are a sign that the body is starting to build protection from the virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said.

Common side effects

According to the CDC, common side effects of COVID vaccines include:

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  • pain and swelling on the arm where you get jabbed
  • tiredness
  • headache
  • fever
  • chills

In final stage clinical trials, Pfizer/BioNTech, Astrazeneca, and Moderna said their vaccines were found to be safe, as they remained transparent about side effects. 

For Pfizer whose efficacy rate is up to 95%, "some 80% of recipients felt pain at the injection site. Many also felt fatigue, headache and muscle-pain and some had temporarily swollen lymph nodes," Agence France-Presse reported.

In Europe, Astrazeneca's vaccine that has 70% efficacy was reported to cause more side effects than Pfizer's. Health workers experienced chills or headache that faded within a day or so as expected. 

Like the two, Moderna's vaccines also reported similar mild to moderate side effects after administering the second dose. 

Details on side effects of China's Sinovac have yet to be made public though it reported an efficacy rate of 50.4% 

Rare side effects

A 72-year-old Filipina living in New York developed thrombocytopenia, a rare blood disease that is a lack of blood platelets, after she received Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine, her daughter told The New York Times.

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Health officials in the U.S. also said her case, also experienced by few others, "could also be coincidental" as no definite links to the vaccine were identified .

Four cases of Bell's palsy—a facial paralysis that is often temporary—were observed among 18,000 volunteers over two months in the Pfizer/BioNTech trial, AFP said, quoting medical journals.

Anaphylaxis, the most severe type of allergic reaction, was reported in about 11 cases per one million doses of the vaccine, a rate health authorities have describe as "exceedingly rare". There are also treatable, which is why staying for at least 15 minutes after a jab is recommended for immediate treatment in case it occurs. 

Transverse myelitis, a rare neurological condition that causes inflammation of the spinal cord, was experienced by less than five of thousands of clinical trial patients of the Oxford AstraZeneca jab, medical journal The Lancet said. 

The cases that provoked the temporary global shutdown of trials in early September were noted as a "serious side effect possibly related" to the vaccine. 

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Severe (but rare and isolated)

In Norway, 33 elderly people died after getting the Pfizer vaccine. However, European regulators said these weren’t related to the vaccine, as underlying conditions were present before vaccination, The Conversation said. 

Norwegian authorities stressed that doctors should individually consider whether these types of patients should receive the vaccine, as they may already be too sick to withstand even common side effects. 

There are also other cases of unique and rare side effects among COVID vaccines, but like most cases, it's either no definite links were found in connection to the jabs or a case is extremely rare or isolated. With regards to long term side effects, scientists do not know for sure yet as the vaccines are new. 

Now, big question: are these risks worth taking?

In the Philippines, health experts have continuously urged the public to get vaccinated. 

The Food and Drug Administration has approved three vaccines for emergency use ruling that "benefits outweigh the risks": Pfizer, Astrazeneca, and Sinovac (although not recommended for health workers)

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The first two have secured the approval of the Health Technology Assessment Council, an advisory board to the DOH.

Clinical trials are also underway, which could give data on how the vaccine's will particularly affect Filipinos based on ethnicity, DOST's vaccine expert panel head Nina Gloriani had said.

Despite these regulatory measures, vaccine fears persist in the Philippines which had been widely blamed on the Dengvaxia vaccine recall of 2018.

"Developing immunity through vaccination means there is a reduced risk of developing the  illness and its consequences. This immunity helps you fight the virus if exposed," the World Health Organization said.

"Getting vaccinated may also protect people around you, because if you are protected from getting infected and from disease, you are less likely to infect someone else," it said. 

More data on side effects could emerge as vaccines get developed, and rolled out for emergency use globally. 

- With reports from Agence France-Presse, Reuters, and the Conversation.

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