In the hours before the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved in the U.S. for emergency use, I was on the phone with epidemiologists and medical experts who were detailing the expected advantages to widespread vaccination: There’d be fewer deaths, and fewer severe cases of COVID-19, so hospitals wouldn’t be so overwhelmed. The folks I spoke to called the news a “light at the end of the tunnel” moment. Getting shots in as many arms as possible would be key to achieving herd immunity, they said, so we could eventually return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.
But as the three approved U.S. vaccines — Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — have rolled out to more than 100 million Americans, we’ve learned there may be more unexpected benefits to vaccination than experts initially saw coming. Here are just a few of them.
Many of the vaccines offer at least some protection against the variants
Though the swift vaccine rollout has made the future look brighter than it has in a while, there’s at least one ominous cloud hanging over us: COVID-19 variants, which are mutated strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Experts say that some may be more contagious and possibly more deadly than the original strain. You’ve likely heard of the B.1.1.7, the B.1.351, and the P.1 variants, which have hit Britain, Brazil, and South Africa, respectively.
When these strains were first identified, experts weren’t sure whether the existing vaccines would protect against them. Fortunately, studies have shown that both messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) are highly effective against the B.1.1.7 variant. And while these vaccines are four to seven times less effective against the P.1 variant, they still may offer a "cushion of protection," especially after two doses, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a White House Press Briefing. Early research pointed to the idea that both mRNA vaccines and Johnson & Johnson would be less effective against the B.1.351 variant. However, early this month Pfizer released trial data showing their vaccine was 100% effective in preventing COVID-19 in South Africa, where B.1.351 is common. To be on the safe side, the developers of all three of the vaccines that have been approved in the U.S. are working quickly to try to make their formulas more efficacious against the variants, and are experimenting with booster shots.
“All the vaccines work really well for severe disease right now, and likely offer some protection against the variants,” says Preeti N. Malani, MD, chief health officer at the University of Michigan. “I’m optimistic but we still need to be careful right now.”
Some COVID-19 long haulers say the vaccines are relieving their symptoms
Between 10% and 30% of folks who get COVID-19 experience long-term symptoms, the National Institutes of Health notes. Some people who’ve dealt with lingering issues are now saying that the vaccine helped ease their symptoms. "It's getting to be a large number of reports, hundreds of reports of patients that we've been caring for with COVID almost a year now," Daniel Griffin, MD, PhD, chief of infectious disease at ProHealth, told CNN. "They are reporting that following vaccination they're having significant, if not complete, resolution of their long COVID symptoms."
It’s too early to say why the vaccine may ease long-term symptoms. It’s possible that lingering issues occur in people who are unable to fully clear the virus from their bodies; the vaccine could prompt a robust reaction from the immune system to nix the virus that causes COVID-19 once and for all. It’s also possible that long COVID symptoms are caused by a form of immune dysfunction. The vaccine may prompt an “immune reset” that resolves the issues, Dr. Malani explains. “We still don’t understand why some people are at risk for [long COVID],” she adds, “but the fact that we are even hearing anecdotes of people saying they’re having reduced symptoms after the vaccine is promising.”
The COVID-19 shots pave the way for future vaccine research
In 1796, the first ever vaccine was created for smallpox, when a British physician injected a patient with pus “from the sores of a milkmaid who had contracted a biologically related virus from cows,” the Association of American Medical Colleges notes. Until 2020, a similar method was used for all vaccines (minus the pus) — patients received often inactivated or weakened versions of the virus itself. But what scientists have learned while developing mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may pave the way for future vaccines, including for diseases such as HIV, influenza, Zika, and rabies. (Human trials for mRNA vaccines against these diseases were already underway pre-COVID-19, an analysis in Nature notes). Unlike other vaccines, mRNA vaccines work by instructing our cells to make proteins or pieces of proteins that help our body recognize a key piece of the virus and create an immune response to it.
“The vaccine field has been forever transformed and forever advanced because of COVID-19,” Dan Barouch, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School, told the AAMC.
Pregnant people may pass immunity on to newborns
Although the vaccine trials didn’t include pregnant people for ethical reasons, more than 69,000 pregnant people have been vaccinated in the U.S. to date, and early research suggests the vaccines are likely safe and effective during pregnancy.
Not to mention, preliminary findings from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology also indicate that if a pregnant person gets the vaccine while expecting, they might provide protection to newborns as well. This builds on other research that showed that vaccinated people may pass antibodies to COVID-19 through the placenta to the fetus. More research is needed to confirm these findings, but if it’s true, it would be big news, as some newborns are more vulnerable to severe illness, and it’s unlikely a vaccine will be approved for this age group any time soon.
The vaccination may make people less contagious
For the most part, the COVID-19 vaccines keep people from contracting the virus in the first place. But in the rare case that someone does test positive post-jab, their viral load will likely be much lower than an unvaccinated person’s, suggests an Israeli study (that, fair warning, has not yet been peer-reviewed). There are two benefits to having a low viral load (which refers to the amount of virus detected in someone’s system): They’ll be less at risk for severe disease, and they may not spread the virus to others as easily.
The vaccines can reduce COVID anxiety
Sure, we knew getting the vaccine would be a relief — but many people are saying that they didn’t expect to feel so good post-shot. “Over the last year, people have been afraid to do normal things like seeing their friends and family, and they’ve been really lonely,” Dr Malani says. “Being isolated and being lonely are big health risks, too, and they can take a physical toll on both younger and older adults.” For some, getting vaccinated and letting go of the COVID anxiety feels like taking the first deep breath of fresh air in a year.
“After the second shot — I had that ‘aha’ moment that things are looking up and we are moving towards our new normal, whatever the new normal will be,” New Yorker Alexa Nikiforou says. “There was a feeling of hope