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COVID-19 Vaccines: What You Need to Know

COVID-19 Vaccines: What You Need to Know

Infectious disease specialists Dr. Daniel Hinthorn and Dr. Scott James share an informative perspective on COVID-19 vaccines, discussing their historic nature and the rapid speed of their development. Our guests answer common questions about the vaccines, addressing practical concerns and next steps while taking a look at where the pandemic may be heading in the coming months.
Original Air Date: December 18, 2020

John Fuller: Welcome to Focus on the Family. You’ve no doubt heard many things about the coronavirus vaccines that are being rolled out, and many have contacted us here at Focus on the Family asking questions about the vaccine. So, today we want to help you get the information you need to keep, uh, yourself and your families safe and well informed. Your host is Focus President and author, Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: Uh, John, this is a big moment in the culture, as this week the vaccines begin to roll out, and people are taking those shots. And uh, many people, in a priority way, will be having to decide, “Will I take it or will I not?”

And some have described this as a hornet’s nest, but we want to inform you about what we know. What many of you, the listeners, may not realize is that we have a Physicians Resource Council here at Focus on the Family. For years, 35 to 40 doctors, meet twice a year here at the Focus campus. They look at our medical information, our medical advice, to ensure that it’s medically accurate. They help us with bioethical issues. They have been a cornerstone to the effort here at Focus on the Family, again, for many years. And we are grateful to lean on them for advice in the medical arena, and we’re gonna do that today.

John: Yes, and we should note, they’re not paid advisors.

Jim: (laughs).

John: These are people that donate their time and energies to help Focus on the Family in our mission. We’re so glad to have Dr. Dan Hinthorn here, uh, and Dr. Scott James. They’re with us remotely today. Uh, they’re both infectious disease specialists on that Physicians Resource Council. And Dr. Hinthorn practices in Kansas, Dr. James in Alabama. Both have families and children, and we’re so glad to have them today.

Jim: Dr. Hinthorn and Dr. James, thanks for being with us.

Dr. Daniel Hinthorn: Thank you.

Dr. Scott James: My pleasure.

Dr. Hinthorn: It’s good to be with you.

Jim: Yeah. It’s so good to have your expertise. And I do want to say publicly, thank you for what you do for Focus on the Family on the PRC in giving us that great professional guidance when it comes to medical issues, bioethical issues, et cetera. In a moment, we’re gonna get to the concerns, but let me start at that intersection of God and science. I mean, you, you both are faithful believers in Jesus Christ. You’ve dedicated your life to science, to medicine. Uh, do those two co-exist in a single person?

Dr. Hinthorn: Actually, they do fit together quite well. And in fact, on our faculty, we have a large number of people who are believers. and who practice good science. So, yes, they can go together. I suspect you do the same thing in Alabama.

Dr. James: Yeah. I, I firmly believe that the heavens declare the glory of the Lord. And so, I think all creation, all nature testifies to the goodness of our creator. And if I can look up to the heavens and glorify God because of it, then it stands to reason that I can also look through a microscope and look, uh, in the opposite direction, and, and see the glory of God at a microscopic level in my scientific pursuits as well, so…

Jim: Let me, let me start with the question on the vaccine. Um, just generally, how does a vaccine work in the body, whether it’s measles or any other vaccines that have been created. How does it work in the body and, uh, why are they effective?

Dr. Hinthorn: Well, vaccines are, uh, ways that we can artificially stimulate the body to have resistance to whatever agent we’re dealing with, whether it’s a virus, and most of these that we have are viruses. Ordinarily we use a virus that’s weakened, or a modified virus in some way. And so that’s simplistically what we do. So, the body builds antibodies as if they, uh, we had already had the virus, infection itself, and therefore we’re resistant to it in the future. That’s the ordinary way that we do this.

In the current, uh, vaccine with COVID, however, is a different mechanism. It doesn’t … We don’t use the same route that we use for most of our other vaccines. So, it’s a novel vaccine, we say, because it uses something that side- sort of side steps everything called Messenger RNA. Uh, that has been studied for probably 30 years or so, and it just wouldn’t work for years after years because the Messenger RNA… Although what happens is usually we start with DNA and then, uh, the DNA gets unzipped and it gets copied and the Messenger RNA goes out into the cell to the ribosomes and, uh, it, uh, attaches to the ribosomes and it makes proteins against whatever it is it’s making.

And what we do is we bypass those steps by injecting Messenger RNA directly into the, to the body with a lipid attached to the Messenger RNA and it begins to make proteins that look like the cell’s been infected.

So, the body then develops a resistance to that particular virus, which in this case is COVID. And that’s the way that it works. It works quite nicely, in fact, protecting probably close to 95% of people who get it, which is remarkable. Much better than we thought.

In fact, we said if we can do 50% protection with a new vaccine, that would be great. So, to get to 95% protection would be wonderful.

Jim: Uh, Dr. James, let me ask you… Many people are concerned, or some people are concerned, about the speed in which this vaccine arrived. It cut years off the process. Is there any concern medically, that there were shortcuts taken that might, um, you know, create harm if someone takes the vaccine?

Dr. James: W- when you look at the overall time course that it typically takes a vaccine to go through the development process, it’s definitely true that the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently being studied have, uh, have been proceeding at a faster pace than we typically see, and that’s just arisen out of the urgency of the moment, um, the, the pandemic and the healthcare crisis that, that we’ve seen is have, uh, motivated people to, to find ways to, um, not cut corners, but to speed up the regulatory process. Um, so the vaccine studies have proceeded quickly. But I can confidently say that they have the same rigorous scientific standards that any vaccine or any therapeutic would need to go through. So, there have been no corners cut.

And I would say, just based on the public’s interest in this and the urgency of the moment, I would say that if anything, the transparency and the scrutiny and the oversight have been even greater in this situation, due to the urgent need of the pandemic.

Jim: Mmm.

John: Yeah, Dr. Hinthorn, Dr. James mentioned the regulatory process. It’s my understanding that some of these, uh, vaccines were actually in development very, very early on, much earlier than any of us would have known.

Dr. James: Yes.

John: What’s, uh, what’s your thought on that?

Dr. James: Yeah, that’s actually a, a, kind of a benefit of the mRNA vaccine, that, that Dr. Hinthorn sort of walked us through. But uh, with this technique, which, as Dr. Hinthorn’s said has been, we’ve been studying this for, uh, for, for years. There are other mRNA vaccines and therapeutics for other viruses, and even some cancer therapeutics that have been in development. So, this was, uh, not something that someone just sort of immediately invented, uh, when COVID hit, but they were able to take advantage of some groundwork that had already been done.

And the nice thing about the mRNA vaccine methodology is that as soon as you know the genetic code of the virus that you’re seeking to gain protection against, you can take that genetic code and within a matter of days, weeks in this instance, the initial researchers had a template for an mRNA vaccine that they could then coat with those lipid particles that Dr. Hinthorn was mentioning to deliver. So, the actual ramp up in development, the design of the vaccine itself, thanks to the kind of progress that scientists have made in the past decade or so. with, uh, genetic, uh, manipulation in terms of, uh, RNA. Uh, the, that was able to happen very, very quickly.

Jim: The… for us that don’t work in the field of medicine and science, describe a little bit more about the mRNA. What that is and how that’s different from others.

Dr. James: So, the mRNA… It basically delivers a set of instructions that allows the cell to build a specific part of the virus. So, in this case for the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s giving our body’s cell a little instruction manual to build a spike protein, which is, uh, one of the proteins that’s on the surface of the Coronavirus. And it’s the protein that actually signals our immune system to respond by making protective antibodies. So, the mRNA is delivered into the cell because it’s got this sort of wrapped in this lipid layer to kind of keep it stable. Once it gets into the cell, it delivers those instructions. Our cell then picks up that RNA, makes little pieces of this spike protein. So, it does not in any way make an entire virus or anything that could be infected. But it makes just enough of a part of the virus that would signal our immune system to make those protective antibodies. And it’s, as the, the studies have shown and has, has been very effective at doing that.

Jim: Yeah.

Dr. James: One of the advantages also is the mRNA is very fragile. So, when this mRNA is delivered into the cell, it delivers its instructions, the cell makes a spike protein that triggers the immune response. But then from there, the mRNA itself is very quickly broken down by just our normal metabolic pathways. And so, there’s no residual, there’s nothing left over. There’s nothing that’s gonna linger in the cells and cause potential, you know, an unforeseen effect down the road. mRNA is, it delivers its instructions and then it gets degraded quickly.

Jim: Right. Let me ask you, Dr. James, uh, some have expressed concern that they, they believe it, it somehow changes their DNA. I don’t believe that’s true, but what’s the science on that? That somehow the virus can change a person’s DNA.

Dr. James: Uh, for these mRNA vaccines in particular, no, that, that’s not a concern. mRNA is, is not gonna travel into the nucleus. So, uh, typically our, our DNA in our cells, the DNA makes the mRNA and it transports it out of the nucleus and it’s kind of a one-way street in that regard. So, the mRNA does not cross into our cell’s nucleus. And so therefore, it’s not going to interact with our DNA. Uh, there’s no real mechanism, even scientifically for it to, uh, do that, or insert itself, or in other, in any other way change or alter our DNA.

John: That’s Dr. Scott James, he’s joined along with Dr. Hinthorn on today’s episode of Focus on the Family. Your host is Jim Daly, and we’re talking, obviously, about COVID-19 vaccines. This is a big moment in our culture. There’s a lot of information. Unfortunately, some disinformation. We wanted to bring you the perspective of these two experts on what to know, so you and your family can stay safe.

We have a downloadable PDF on our website. And also, a link to a poll as to whether or not you’re going to be taking the vaccine. Just stop by

Jim: Let me address a big issue and that is the use of aborted fetal tissue in the development of vaccines. And it’s very convoluted when it comes to COVID-19. But what is the issue there? Obviously, as Christians, we’re concerned about that. And again, the purpose of this program is to inform you, our listener, so that you can make the decisions you feel you need to make. Uh, I want to make sure you have the information. And we’re talking again to two experts who can deliver that. So, Dr. James, when it comes to the use of fetal tissue in these vaccines, where are we at?

Dr. James: Yeah. So, in research laboratories, there are, particularly ones that work with viruses, there are lots of, uh, cell lines. Um, these are, immortal cell lines that kind of are self-generating and continue on. And so, all of these at one point had a seed, uh, some cell or a piece of tissue that was collected at some point, whether that be from human, animal, insect, there’s many varieties. Um, and they perpetuate on in the lab and are, are readily available. Unfortunately, some of those were originally obtained from tissues taken from the body of an aborted baby. And so, there are a few particular cell lines. Most all of these cell lines have their providence pretty clearly marked out so that you know where things originated from. And the reason for using these, particularly in virus, uh, for any of the cell lines is just that you need that to actually work with the virus and multiply it so that you can, uh, use it and study it.

Unfortunately, some of the cell lines that are particularly well adapted to, uh, working with viruses did have that origination in the tissue from an aborted baby. I think one thing to sort of keep in mind is that these are historical cell lines, and they’ve been very clearly studied and validated and are very… They’re easy to use scientifically because we know what to expect with them. Researchers who use them do. But they’re historical in the sense that there are no ongoing additional cells that needed to be added to those. So, while we can, as pro-life people, we can clearly say that, that we are saddened and not okay with how these were originally… how the tissues became available. The ongoing usage of a cell line that has that origin in the lab is not perpetuating or contributing to further abortions.

And so, my personal estimation in that case would be that use of a life saving measure that has no other, you know, ethically sourced options in that sense, would be permissible. I personally think that that would not be enough of a connection to make me complicit in the original evil act that, that brought about that, that tissue being available.

Jim: I appreciate that. Dr. Hinthorn, uh, would you wanna add to that?

Dr. Hinthorn: Yes. You know, uh, I think people should be aware of the fact that the Messenger RNA vaccines, neither one of them are made in cells from aborted fetuses. They’re not even made in cells. They’re made in the, in big vats.

And so, these are chemicals that are brought together. And so, uh, from that standpoint, they are not created from fetal cell lines. However, often these kinds of vaccines are checked in fetal cell lines just to see if they work. But that’s not making them that way.

So, if you, if you get either Pfizer vaccine or the Moderna vaccine, neither one of these is made in a fetal cell line. So, we don’t have to worry about that one.

Jim: Are there others that we should be, if we have that conviction, are there others that are coming out that we should be aware of?

Dr. Hinthorn: Yes. There are a number of those that are. And, um, it’s a matter of looking to see at each one that comes out, is this one made in the fetal cell line that was aborted or not. But these particular ones with messenger RNA are not.

Dr. James: And you know if I can follow in on that. One, one thing that I really appreciate about how this is occurring is that there’s a high level of transparency with this. So, people are gonna have some different convictions on this across the board, whether pro-life or not.

And so, the level of transparency about what cells are used in the production and development of the different vaccine options that may come available, assuming that the other ones do reach the level of approval, is really good. And it, it gives us that option. So that, as Dr. Hinthorn said, that the first one that has been approved and, and potentially one that is going to be approved later, later this week, even, these two do not use historic cell lines that were historically derived from aborted fetal tissue, in their design production, or any of that nature. So, it’s good to have options like that. Um, so I, I’m grateful for that.

Jim: Well, I appreciate that input. And again, I think we can go to extremes that all vaccines are made that way or this way. And then we don’t understand what is morally more acceptable. And, uh, we’ll post that at the website, those vaccines that are not derived from fetal tissue and those that are, and that way people will know.

Let me move to another question. And Dr. Hinthorn, we’ll start with you and then go to Dr. James. Just the general, uh, suspicion of vaccines. I mean, there’s been a lot in the media over the years about vaccine and side effects, et cetera. Speak to the general construct of that fear and then specifically to COVID-19 and what the research is showing with side effects with these vaccines.

Dr. Hinthorn: Well, there is, there’s so much information, uh, against vaccines by so many people. I think a lot of it began in the middle of 1990s with a researcher in England who published a paper that really was not valid. It was invalid. And he purportedly showed that vaccines did all kinds of bad things in children. And that really wasn’t true and when it was checked out it was found to be fabricated.

He lost his license and that paper was revoked. The Lancet said, “No, this isn’t right,” and a number of British Medical Journal and other journals said, “No, this wasn’t correct.” But since that time there’ve been a number of people who’ve been talking about this and online and, uh, in the media have written against vaccines for one reason or another. Vaccines do cause problems sometimes in some people and we know that. But we as physicians and researchers are quick to show the situations where they might cause problems and what population it is that a person might have an issue with the vaccine.

Now, sometimes some of the vaccines are made in eggs and in that situation, there can be egg allergy. There can be other kinds of allergies against components of the vaccines, so we all are upfront about it to try and make sure that we don’t give those to anyone who might have a reaction to it. But then there are some people who are just anti-vaccine because they say, well, it can cause autoimmune disease. And sometimes some of those things do happen. They’re very, very rare, don’t happen very often but, uh, they are described.

So, uh, there are a number of reasons why people can be opposed to vaccines themselves. But by and large, vaccines have probably saved more lives in the history of the world than maybe any other way that we have ever done anything to save lives of people. Just because of the measles and rubella and mumps and, and on and on of the vaccines that we have. Smallpox. We’ve saved many, many lives.

Jim: Yeah. Dr. James, what about the effect of COVID-19 vaccines. Are they seeing anything, uh, detrimental or causing harm?

Dr. James: Studies have been remarkably encouraging, so far. The one we have the most data on is the Pfizer vaccine, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that has the emergency use authorization right now. Compared to placebos, so this was a large, randomized, controlled placebo trial meaning it compared people who received the vaccines versus people who received a placebo which is a saline shot or a non-entity.

And compared to those who received the placebo there was no significant increase in the rate of adverse effect or side effect or anything like that.

What reactions there were, were on the mild side. So, this would be things like a sore arm where the injection was, a little bit of fever for a day or so, some fatigue, some headache. And most of these were gone within two days.

And I would kinda also point out just the, the general concept that any medical intervention that, that we give has a potential side effect. So whether or not it’s, you know, the aspirin you’re taking for a headache or a diabetes pill that you need to take to help control your diabetes, any of those are possibly going to have side effects.

And so, when we do any medical intervention, it’s a risk benefit analysis of, “Do I think the risk of getting COVID-19 is greater than the risk of having a possible side effect to the vaccine?”

And so that, that’s where these large clinical trials are helpful in understanding kinda where to … how to tip the balance, uh, for that. But thankfully, that information is out there so parents who are, you know, wanting to do the best thing for themselves and their families, anyone, is gonna have the information available to kinda help make that decision for themselves.

Jim: And finally, I appreciate that. I think you’ve stated that very well. Finally, let me just, uh, end where we started and that is God’s perspective on these things. More of the theological bent on what we’re seeing. Maybe as professionals obviously, but also as followers of Christ. These things that happened. My wife, who, you know, has always told me, has a degree in biology, it’s going to be the bacteria and the viruses that get us.

What’s the perspective on that spiritually about harm coming to humanity? God’s perspective on this. This is all part of his creation. That’s a big question but, uh, what do you think the, the lesson is for us to learn at a spiritual level?

Dr. Hinthorn: That’s a, that’s a tough question. It’s interesting that the Bible has a lot of information about, um, pandemics and the end times. And people have said, “Well, we’re living in the end times because we’re seeing these pandemics.” Well, we’ve had a number of pandemics. And it doesn’t mean that we’re in the end times. I think that’s been the natural history of the world if we look back in the, uh, over the last, uh, hundreds of years. We can certainly see that.

Jim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Hinthorn: Um, in terms of, in, in terms of what the Bible says about vaccinations and how do we prevent these kinds of things, the, it’s quiet on that. But they weren’t invented until much later. But the Bible is big on planning. In fact, Jesus himself talks about accolades to the people who planned ahead. And then of course, a number of times God encourages people like Noah, and Jonah, and so forth to, to plan, Joseph to plan for the food and so forth. So, they didn’t have a vaccines plan for to help prevent some of these things but, but the Bible does emphasize, uh, thinking ahead and planning for the future and being ready for what might occur.

So, I think that fits with our theology, but it doesn’t say anything specific about what we’re talking about.

Dr. James: Yeah, and I… and I think as a follower of Christ, I think it’s clear that I look around and I see, um, see a lot of heartache. I see a lot of things going sideways. I have friends and family members and colleagues who are at funerals today, uh, so…

Jim: Mm (affirmative).

Dr. James: I believe that we’re in a situation here where a lot of people are hurting, and I’m discouraged by that. However, I do take a firm and confident, lead from God himself. And so I, in the end, despite the hurdles that we’re having to overcome right now, I trust that God is in control and I trust that even pandemics and plagues occur for his glory and for our good in some ultimate sense, even if I can’t see how things fit together in that moment.

So, I trust that he is in control. I’m not thrown by what the world is handing us right now. Uh, God is still seated on his throne and he is still good. He is serving us and pouring his grace out on us even now through common grace of medical interventions and frontline healthcare workers and, and vaccines that are being developed. I mean these are good gifts that come from God, uh, in a sense. That, that, uh, it’s not, it’s not a gift of salvation in a spiritual sense but it’s a, it’s a gift of, uh, common grace and, and, um, help when we need it.

And so, I, I just wanna live in that and appreciate that and appreciate the gifts that he gives us through that. And then I wanna take advantage of the opportunity that I have to demonstrate his love to the world around me. And so, I think living in a responsible way right now that is looking out for the good of our neighbor is a particular hallmark of the Christian walk right now, right? Like loving our neighbor. That, that’s kind of our thing. So, this is our time to shine.

Jim: Mm (affirmative).

Dr. James: This is our time to really demonstrate to the world, uh, that, that God is good and that we are here for others and we are here to, to serve them and to, uh, and to help them, you know, find, ultimately find God but also have health in the short term.

And so you know, I, I don’t look at getting vaccinated as some sort of test of Christian faith or Christian love or anything like that, but I do think that something like this is an opportunity to love our neighbor.

Jim: Mm (affirmative).

Dr. James: And it’s a way to take a specific action that protects vulnerable people in our communities. And so, as a follower of Christ, uh, I wanna wisely think about how I engage that opportunity.

Jim: And I so appreciate that. I think, you know, several things come to mind. One of which is that great scripture, John 10:10. “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but I come that you might have life, and life more abundantly.” I think this all fits under that banner. Uh, the idea that, um, medical advancements help save us, help keep us from physical harm. And I think you can tuck those things in there. And the fact that God has given us the wisdom, the ability, the knowledge that you two contribute to everyday in your profession, your vocation, as physicians to be able to help people. It’s much different today than it was 2000 years ago. Poor Dr. Luke did not have the knowledge that we have today. And we should see that as a good thing that God has given humanity that kind of wisdom and insight to keep us from harm. And not always, but in many, many cases now.

And again, I wanna urge our listeners, don’t give in to fear. Be informed. Be faithful in prayer. Just as the doctor mentioned, we want to equip you to make the best decision you can make. I’m not trying to twist an arm one way or the other, but I do believe it’s critical for you to have the information and to know, what is scientifically accurate. And I know that this issue within the Christian community is really controversial, and I get it.

Certainly, we wanna hear from you. Let us know your thoughts. And you can go to the website. I know we’re taking a little poll there with who plans to get the vaccine and who doesn’t. Just for information purposes, we just wanna know our community and how you’re feeling about it. So, I’d encourage you to do that.

And, uh, please remember Focus on the Family is here for you, to equip you. And I’m so grateful once again to the Physician Resource Council for what they do day in and day out to help Focus be medically accurate. To review these things. To help us with bioethical issues, et cetera. We are indebted to these doctors that work with us to ensure that we have first, a Christian foundation to what we’re saying, and secondly, a medically accurate perspective on what we put out here at Focus on the Family.

And to Dr. Hinthorn and Dr. James, thank you for being with us today. Thank you for the perspective, thank you for the information. We really appreciate it.

Dr. Hinthorn: You’re welcome.

Dr. James: Thanks, Jim.

Dr. Hinthorn: Thanks for having us.

John: And you’ll find all the information that we’ve referenced along the way here, including that poll and some downloadable documents on our website. That’s And then we do have some additional content with the doctors that we just can’t squeeze into this radio program. And that’s going to be online, as well.

On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. Have a great weekend and we’ll see you here next time as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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just a clump of cells!

Yes, I Promise to Pray for the Pre-born and Their Moms!

Will you pray for the pre-born and moms that are facing unexpected pregnancies? We will send you a 7-day prayer guide that will help guide you along this journey with us!! You can even choose to receive this great resource by text!