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Allergic Reactions to COVID Vaccines

John Bankston John Bankston July 28, 2021

The development of a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is a modern miracle. As SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) raged across the planet, leaders championed vaccination as the best way to end its spread. In the United States, President Donald Trump endured criticism about his administration’s handling of the pandemic even as he authorized Operation Warp Speed. Announced in May of 2020, its stated goal was to develop a safe vaccine and distribute it to the general population by January of the next year. The idea that a safe vaccine could be produced in around six months struck many experts as ludicrous. 


The record-setting mumps vaccine traces its development to 1963 when Maurice Hilleman realized his daughter had symptoms consistent with the virus. After swabbing her throat, he brought the sample to his lab to culture. On March 30, 1967, four years later, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed Mumpsvax––the vaccine he’d developed. Between 1967 and 2020, there were scores of vaccines that were developed more quickly. All of them were ineffective, dangerous, or both. 


Yet as 2021 passes the midway point, skeptics have been proven wrong. The U.S., along with Israel, Canada, and the United Kingdom, is in the top ten for vaccination delivery. “It’s absolutely astonishing that this has happened in such a short time—to me, it’s equivalent to putting a person on the moon,” pediatric infectious-disease specialist Cody Meissner at Tufts University School of Medicine and Tufts Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts recently told Nature. “This is going to change vaccinology forever.”


Becoming a world leader in vaccinations meant the U.S. was no longer a world leader in COVID-19 fatalities as the virus’s worst impacts spread south to countries including Brazil and Peru.  Still, true herd immunity may be a long way off. Yes, millions of infected survivors likely have some resistance to the virus––and are more likely to be amongst the young who are least likely to take the vaccine. Still, in the U.S. and many developed countries, there are pockets of populations where far less than half are vaccinated. There are many reasons for hesitancy, but a big one is being scared of allergic reactions to COVID vaccines. So what are the known reactions and how do these differ from side effects?


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COVID mRNA Vaccine Explained

COVID mRNA Vaccine Explained

Fast Development


Being concerned is normal. The vaccine was developed very quickly. It’s natural to wonder if corners were cut or unacceptable risks accepted. Yet when it comes to the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, much of the speed has more to do with money than testing. 


The COVID-19 vaccine’s development was fast because of unprecedented funding levels and scientific involvement. In the U.S., the basic structure for the vaccine’s development began with President George W. Bush after he read a book about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Warp Speed shaved the time in part because of the virus’s rapid genetic sequencing. Although it took years after the first SARS pandemic before the SARS-CoV-2 structure was mapped, this information was published online just weeks after it was first identified. In mere minutes, scientists across the world were working on an mRNA vaccine. Unlike earlier vaccines that use a weakened virus, these new vaccines don’t use a virus at all. Instead, they trigger your body’s immune response by “looking like” the coronavirus. In general, an mRNA vaccine teaches our cells how to make a protein or part of a protein. This motivates an antibody-producing immune response. Not only is this identical to what happens when your body encounters the virus for real, but in the rare cases when a vaccinated person tests positive for COVID-19 they almost always are either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.


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COVID-19 Vaccine

COVID-19 Vaccine

With the sequencing and vaccine development structure already in place, an eight-month process was trimmed to five. Then, by using larger groups of volunteers in Phase III trials and funding multiple vaccines, a 42-month process was trimmed to just six. Although granted Emergency Use under the FDA, the two main vaccines (Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna) had data and studies to back them up. These vaccines, along with those by Oxford AstraZeneca and J&J/Janssen, have now been used over one billion times across the planet. Allergic reactions to COVID vaccines have proven to be very rare.  


Side Effects vs Allergies


There is also a difference between side effects and an allergic reaction. Because the vaccines train your body to mount an immunological response, there are often side effects. Getting a runny nose when you are fighting a cold is actually a sign your immune system is hard at work. Often younger adults who tested positive for the virus were completely asymptomatic. Ironically, this cohort is the one most likely to feel side effects which include muscle pains, chills, fever, nausea, and other flu-like symptoms that typically disappear within 24 hours. Older adults who are at greater risk for hospitalization or death usually have weaker immune systems and experience fewer side effects from the vaccine.


The first thing to keep in mind is that most allergic reactions happen within 15 minutes of getting vaccinated. For this reason, sites across the world ask that people wait around after getting their shot. While the vaccine is training our immune system, in some people it overreacts and allergic antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) cause an immediate reaction which can include anaphylaxis. In those who have reacted to the vaccine, common symptoms include difficulty breathing, confusion, blue lips, and even loss of consciousness. It is still unclear if these reactions are all true IgE mediated anaphylactic reactions. These reactions, however,  have been linked to the inactive ingredients in the vaccine. The U.S. Centers for  Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned those with an allergy to PEG (an ingredient in the mRNA vaccines) and polysorbate (an ingredient in the J&J/Janssen vaccine) should avoid those vaccines. However, if you have other allergies––even to food or medication––the vaccine is still recommended. 


Besides allergic reactions, side effects including blood clots and heart inflammation (myocarditis) have been reported in a very small number of cases. Anaphylaxis allergic reactions in one study came in at less then three per 10 000 vaccinations, while serious side effects are even more rare than contracting COVID-19––even amidst a widely vaccinated population.

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John Bankston


John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.

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