Lead researcher behind Moderna vaccine answers your questions

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — With the Moderna vaccine expected to be approved within a matter of hours to days, the researcher who helped make it happen answered some questions.

Dr. Spyros Kalams, at Vanderbilt University, addressed some of the posts many are seeing on social media about the vaccine. He spoke with WATE 6 On Your Side via Zoom from his “Star Trek” themed backdrop. He was able to transform scientific research into terms the average human would understand.

Many posts are citical of how quickly the vaccine was created. Specifically, some question how a vaccine for COVID-19 was created in under a year, but there is still no vaccine for HIV.

Dr. Spyros Kalams spent two decades working on an HIV before he began work on the COVID vaccine for Moderna.

He said the difference is that HIV mutates and changes rapidly. COVID doesn’t. For instance, you have to get a different flu vaccine each year because the flu virus changes. So far, he said, COVID isn’t. That made creating a vaccine much easier and faster.

Some wondered how there is still no cure for cancer. Dr. Kalams said it’s just not comparable. Cancer isn’t a virus. Cancer also has many different causes. It’s simply more complicated.

As for any skeptics, Dr. Kalams said he is hopeful they will come around.

“I have a feeling that as they see their colleagues get the vaccine and do okay that they’re going to say ehh maybe I’m going to give it a try. There will be the hard core people that are against it. I don’t know how to reach them apart from just this kind of dialogue. Asking them what they’re worried about and why,” he said.

You may wonder how they came up with the vaccine so quickly and it it’s safe do do this that fast.

He said funding poured in because this was a pandemic. So many people have the virus and it is spreading. The entire population of the world is dealing with this. Resources were dumped in to finding a vaccine. That’s unusual.

He said the same steps to approval were followed including trials like the ones he headed up. Everything was just sped up.

Meanwhile, though he calls the potential approval of this vaccine exciting, he recognizes his work is far from over.

“Kind of pleasantly, I can’t say surprised, but it’s just amazing that everything worked out very, very well and there were no major hiccups. The participants did very well in the trial,” Dr. Kalams said.

Ironically, he very well may get the Pfizer vaccine. It’s no slight to his own work. It’s just because Pfizer’s will come to Vanderbilt first.

“Vanderbilt’s more full now with COVID patients than its ever been. They’re putting us on backup to take care of patients in the COVID unit. Not to do anything special about COVID, but if somebody’s got heart disease and COVID or if somebody has COVID and another infection or a bacterial pneumonia that comes in, right, I’m an infectious disease doctor, so I take care of those things, so I’m on backup,” he explained. “I may have to take care of patients through the holidays because we’re just running out of people and, you know, staff gets sick.”

That’s why he said he’ll take the first vaccine he can get. The actual manufacturing of the vaccine doesn’t happen at Vanderbilt even though the clinical trials took place there.

He said the people who got the placebos in the clinical trials will be given the Moderna vaccine once it arrives and the study is unblinded.

He said one vaccine is not better than the other. Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been proven about 95 percent effective with minimal side effects. Both require to shots to be effective spaced out over several weeks. He said you shouldn’t mix them and you don’t need to get both brands. Additionally, those who have had COVID should also be vaccinated because he said researchers aren’t sure how long natural immunity actually lasts.

He said we’d need about 75% of the US to be vaccinated to really get back to normal as a society.

Additionally, he suggests continuing to wear a mask even once you are vaccinated.

That’s because, he admits, though the vaccine is showing to be almost 95% effective, they still don’t know how it will hold up over time. Will it prevent infection or will it just make symptoms milder if you are infected? His team will continue to monitor people in the trial.

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