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Virologist hopes people follow COVID precautions, says US in ‘very grim situation’

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 22: A pedestrian wearing a protective mask walks past Pfizer Inc. headquarters on July 22, 2020 in New York City. Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech have agreed to supply the U.S. government with 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine under a $1.95 billion deal. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

The positivity rate for COVID in the United States has topped 10% for the first time since May, averaging 150,000 cases a day. Virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen has been warning about a surge in the fall and winter, and it’s now happening.

Dr. Rasmussen, who is now a nonresident affiliate with Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, stopped by KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show, as she does every Tuesday, to answer questions sent in by listeners on all things COVID-19.

Will the governor’s new restrictions be enough to slow the spread in Washington?

“I really hope that they are,” she said. “Because right now we’re just in a very, very grim situation nationwide, not just here in Washington state. But I really do hope that people will not only abide by what the governor has recommended, but that they will really be thinking … about how to keep themselves and their families safe going into the holiday season.”

It’s difficult to enforce a lot of these restrictions, she recognized, in terms of how people are behaving in their personal lives and in their own homes.

“I’d just really like to stress to people that it’s really unfortunate that we are at this juncture,” she said. “We really didn’t have to be if we had done, nationally, a number of things earlier in the pandemic —  increasing testing capacity, encouraging some of the non-pharmaceutical interventions that are meant to reduce risk — but we didn’t. And so here we are.”

“I just really hope that people will be thinking first and foremost of their own safety and the safety of those that they love and the people in their communities,” she added.

We’ve heard a lot of news about the efficacy of the new vaccines, but what can be said about the safety?

“This is … one of the issues of releasing data by press release rather than publishing it in a reputable medical journal. You really can’t review all of that data and you can’t see any information besides what is being released by the vaccine manufacturer or the Data Safety Monitoring Board that is running the trial,” Rasmussen said.

But for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, what has been reported is that they are meeting an acceptable safety profile, Rasmussen explained.

“What that actually means will depends on the full data package that ends up getting submitted to the FDA for consideration for approval,” she said. “But so far anyways, there haven’t been any major adverse events that would indicate that these vaccines are not safe.”

That said, she pointed out that these trials are not yet over.

“These were both interim data analyses that were released over the past two weeks, and they do need to continue these trials to continue collecting that safety data because it is really critical,” Rasmussen said.

Is the vaccine a live virus?

One listener sent in this question because her daughter cannot receive live virus vaccines due to a suppressed immune system. Rasmussen says the leading candidates that are in phase three trials are not live attenuated vaccines.

“Two of them — the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Johnson and Johnson vaccine — are what are called viral vector vaccines, meaning that they use a different virus called an adenovirus that causes the common cold to deliver the target for the immune system from SARS-CoV-2. So these are viruses, but they’re replication incompetent,” she explained. “They can’t really reproduce the way a normal adenovirus would.”

The decision of whether that’s safe or not for an immuno-suppressed person, Rasmussen says, would be up to the individual and their doctor.

“The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that we heard about just this week and last week are mRNA vaccines. They don’t have any virus in them,” Rasmussen said. “They’re a piece of genetic material that encodes the protein that the immune system is targeting for COVID. So those are not any kind of viral infection, and all those should be safe for any immunosuppressed people.”

“I believe that HIV positive people were included in those clinical trials to make sure that they were assessing vaccine safety and efficacy in an immuno-compromised population,” she added.

To hear more questions and answers with Dr. Rasmussen find the full interview here.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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