An Education on COVID Vaccines and their Safety

On Tuesday, May 18, 2021, more than 400 people joined the University Hospital Foundation for the Virtual Expedition “An Education on COVID Vaccines and their Safety.”

Led by two University Hospital Foundation funded researchers, Dr. D. Lorne Tyrrell and Dr. John Lewis spent more than an hour giving an overview about their experience and knowledge in COVID-19 vaccines, and answering questions about vaccine safety.

Dr. Tyrrell is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology and the Founding Director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology. His work on the development of antiviral therapy for chronic hepatitis B resulted in the licensing of the first oral antiviral agent to treat the condition.

Dr. Lewis is a University of Alberta Professor in the Department of Oncology, Division of Experimental Oncology and Founder and CEO of Entos Pharmaceuticals. His work in prostate cancer research has earned him the Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation. He is also overseeing two major clinical cancer-related studies.

Since the pandemic began, both Dr. Tyrrell and Dr. Lewis have shifted their focus to COVID-19. Dr. Tyrrell has worked on antivirals and vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 and is a member of the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force that advises the Federal Government on the selection of COVID-19 vaccines, and Dr. Lewis’ Entos Pharmaceuticals began developing a made-in-Alberta COVID-19 vaccine that is currently in a Health Canada Phase 1 human clinical trial.

A lot of content was covered in under an hour and 30 minutes.

Dr. Tyrrell  (presentation begins at 9:07)  gave overviews of the vaccines currently available in Canada, and the process of development and approval of use. He also discussed virus mutations and why getting vaccines is important to combat and prevent mutations.

Dr. Lewis  (presentation begins at 35:32)  gave an overview of DNA vaccines, safety considerations, and how Entos Pharmaceuticals has developed the vaccine that is currently undergoing a clinical trial. He described how vaccines as work as a “wanted poster” in your body so your immune system recognizes and knows which foreign bodies (the virus) to attack when they are found.

Both doctors highlighted how impressive it is that there are now so many vaccines available and how quickly they were developed, but they emphasized that safety was not compromised to achieve this progress. The review process was expedited, but no shortcuts were taken – rigorous testing was completed and Health Protection Standards were met. Vaccines are meant for large populations of healthy people, and so a very high standard is set for their safety.

But the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development did not just happen by accident. It is thanks to the decades of work in the area of vaccines and viruses that came before that gave researchers the tools they needed to work so quickly. Researchers used what they learned from previous vaccine development efforts to guide them.

It was also thanks to global collaboration. Information about SARS-CoV-2 was generated and shared worldwide at unprecedented speed. The Novel coronavirus was identified on January 9, 2020. By January 24, 2020 its genetic sequence was discovered and added into Genebank, which led to researchers being able to start developing vaccines.

Innovative new vaccine technology platforms, with the help of massive up-front investment in vaccine development and manufacturing, also allowed teams to develop vaccines in record time without compromising safety.

During the Q&A portion  (begins at 1:02:20)  of the event the doctors answered questions about vaccines for children, safety in pregnant or breastfeeding women and their babies, getting doses of different vaccines, how soon to get vaccinated if you’ve already had COVID, and more.

Participants were extremely engaged and submitted more questions than we could get through in our limited time.

Both Dr. Tyrrell and Dr. Lewis agreed that continued monitoring and research into the various vaccines is important so we continue to learn more. But that the approved vaccines are extremely effective, making all of them far safer than contracting COVID-19. Vaccines are the most efficient and cost-effective way to prevent and eradicate disease, and are the key to ending this pandemic.

We ended by asking both doctors, where they think we will be one year for now – if they could make a crystal ball prediction. The image they painted is something to look forward to:

Living normal lives – travelling and getting out to do things much as we did before – but maybe still needing to wear masks in certain instances, or with vaccine passports.

The technology and learnings developed from the past year and these vaccines may lead to advancements and treatments in other areas of health, like cancer. There are many possible applications and now that we have seen what is possible, we can push further.

Since the pandemic began last spring, our donors have joined the fight against COVID-19, contributing more than $838,000 to the University Hospital Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund, to help ensure the University of Alberta Hospital site, healthcare teams and all Albertans have the resources and access to research they need. As with all research, we need community support for the work of doctors like Dr. Tyrrell and Dr. Lewis to continue. If you would like to further support COVID care at the University of Alberta Hospital and research in this area for the future, make a donation today. We hope you enjoyed learning about the science behind vaccines and their safety directly from these two medical experts. Our next Virtual Expedition is on ALS Research and will be on June 24, 2021 at 4:00 pm MT. Participants will have the chance to meet two doctors who are leading the way in understanding the causes of ALS and developing unique treatments for this devastating disease. You will not want to miss it, so watch out for registration details!

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