Questions about the COVID-19 virus or the vaccines to combat it? Read here for current research and updates from our authors and educational partners as well as scientists and science writers.
Since December 2019, discussion of COVID-19 has dominated the news and social media. Here are some of the significant moments in the pandemic.
A virus is a small, infectious particle that consists of genetic material (RNA, in the case of the virus that causes COVID-19) and an outer coating that protects the genetic material. Viruses can only live and multiply inside a host, which is a living organism such as a human, animal, or plant. Viruses, like other microbes, have been on Earth for billions of years.
We coexist peacefully with most microbes, and some (like the bacteria in our gut) actually help us. But throughout human history, some pathogens have caused worldwide illness (pandemics).
COVID-19 is a disease caused by a type of virus called a coronavirus. Viruses cause many diseases, including the common cold, flu, and HIV. Each viral disease is caused by a unique virus with unique features. The COVID-19 virus is covered with proteins in the shape of spikes, like a jeweled crown (corona is Latin for crown).
The COVID-19 virus enters our bodies through our noses and mouths, and then uses its spike proteins to enter cells in our respiratory tracts. Once inside human cells, the virus uses its own genetic material to replicate itself. Eventually, the virus replicates itself sufficiently so that those infected cells start releasing the virus back out into the world, again through our noses and mouths. That is when we become contagious, spreading the virus to other people.
As our immune systems work to battle the invading virus, we develop the symptoms of the illness, including fever, body aches, and dry cough. Fortunately, most of us have an immune system that is strong enough to win the battle, even though it may take weeks or even months to recover. Unfortunately, many people lose the battle. Worldwide, more than 5.2 million people have died from COVID-19 as of November 2021. As you can see in this information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 780,000 had died in the United States by the end of November 2021.
The longer viruses are present in our environment, the more likely they are to mutate and form a new strain or variant. The delta variant is more contagious than the original strain and is more likely to cause severe illness. In late November, the World Health Organization identified another variant of concern: the omicron variant, which is even more contagious but may cause less severe infection.
Many of the symptoms of each illness are similar, and some symptoms can even resemble allergies. The Mayo Clinic has developed symptom comparison tables that may help you determine whether you are likely to have COVID-19, a cold, the flu, or are experiencing allergies. However, the only way to be confident about the cause of your symptoms is to get tested.
On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization designated a new variant of the COVID-19 virus, known as omicron, as a variant of concern. The omicron variant contains about 50 mutations that distinguish it from the first SARS-Cov-2 identified, with most of the mutations occurring in the spike protein that is the target of all current vaccines. Some of the mutations found in the omicron variant are also present in other identified variants, whereas others are unique to omicron.
On first discovery, scientists do not know whether the mutations present in any particular omicron variant affect how quickly the virus spreads, the severity of illness it causes, or how well the current vaccines protect against infection or illness. What scientists do know is that the rise of new variants is not unique or unexpected because there is potential for mutations to occur every time a virus reproduces. The only way to prevent new variants from occurring is to prevent the virus from replicating by using vaccinations to reduce the number of people that can be infected.
The best way to protect yourself against all new variants is to be fully vaccinated and up to date on your boosters. Vaccines typically provide a person with what is called a polyclonal antibody response. This means your body will make many different antibodies to respond to the same invading bacteria or virus, known as an antigen. Over time, the antibodies that our bodies initially make can be improved to make the best antibodies to help your body fight off an infection. This means that the antibodies your body makes after vaccination can help prepare your immune system to respond to new SARS-CoV-2 variants.
And here’s more good news about vaccines: in addition to your immune system’s ability to adapt and respond to variants, the vaccines can also be adjusted quickly to help your body develop antibodies that are targeted to specific variants. Updating vaccines is already common–for example, the flu shots given out each fall are tailored against whichever flu variants scientists think you are likely to encounter in the coming year.
The mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna and designed to fight against the disease caused by COVID-19 are extremely powerful, and they can be adapted quickly to target new variants. In fact, Pfizer and Moderna can produce vaccines against new variants like omicron in about 100 days.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is an airborne virus. This means that it can only travel and reproduce by passing through the respiratory system of mammals like us. The ability for an airborne virus to be infectious depends a lot on the environment. For example, the virus is less concentrated in outdoor and well-ventilated indoor spaces, which reduces its ability to move from one host to another. See this video for an example of how a virus can spread through the air in various environments. (Note that this video recommends keeping a distance of 1 meter, whereas current recommendations call for a distance of 6 feet.)
Before the coronavirus pandemic, did you ever go into work even if you felt a little sniffly? A few days later, one of your co-workers would start showing the same symptoms. A few days after that, a few more people would catch it. “There’s a cold going around,” everyone would say, just part of the world of work. We’d all shrug it off.
Still, back then, even before we were masking and social distancing, we knew that some illnesses were more contagious and more dangerous than others. You might come to work with a cold, but you wouldn’t come to work with the flu, or measles, or chickenpox, because more people would get sick—and some would get seriously sick.
So how contagious is COVID-19 virus, specifically the delta variant that is now the dominant strain? This graphic and information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that if you are an unvaccinated person infected with the delta variant, you are likely to spread it to many other people—even if you don’t know you’re infected. The delta variant is a lot more contagious than the flu and almost as contagious as chickenpox.
How many people you spread it to is known as the virus’s reproductive number, or R0. The delta variant’s high R0 is causing the pandemic to spread exponentially. Exponential growth means the virus can spread incredibly quickly.
This figure shows how infection spreads using a value of R0 = 5, which means one person is likely to infect another five.
(Newly infected individuals are represented with blue icons. Previously infected individuals are represented with red icons.)
Recent studies show that the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) poses a greater threat than earlier versions of the virus. Why? The journal Nature reported findings that indicate that people infected with the delta variant are infectious for longer before they feel sick. So instead of being infectious for part of a day before feeling sick, you’d be infectious for almost two days before feeling sick.
Also, people infected with the delta variant have more virus particles in their bodies than did people who caught the original virus. This increase in viral load makes you more contagious — more likely to spread the virus to others. Scientists calculate that an unvaccinated person with the delta variant is likely to pass it on to five to seven other people, more than twice the contagion of the original strain of the COVID-19 virus.
You’ve probably heard that even people who have been fully vaccinated can catch the delta variant. That is true, but, as reported by Macmillan author and University of Texas at Austin scientist David Hillis, vaccinated people are less likely to get the virus in the first place — and for those who do, they tend to have less virus in their bodies, so they don’t get as sick. They are also less infectious. Writes Hillis, “the vaccines continue to be highly effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization… the majority of COVID cases, and almost all severe cases of COVID that require hospitalization, are occurring in unvaccinated individuals. Vaccination remains the best protection against COVID-19, and especially against severe cases of the disease…” (Hillis, David, “Immunizations and Booster Shots,” Mason County Science Corner, Mason County News, August 25, 2021).
If you have managed to avoid getting sick so far in the pandemic, you may feel that the worst is over. Unfortunately, the current surge and the appearance of new variants like omicron, indicates that until most of the world’s population is vaccinated, the number of cases will remain high and hospitals will continue to fill with seriously ill patients.
It’s now clear that anyone—vaccinated or unvaccinated—can transmit the disease, although people who are vaccinated are less likely to spread COVID-19 and less likely to become ill. You can reduce your risk by being fully vaccinated—meaning initial vaccines and a booster shot, wearing a mask, social distancing, and avoiding indoor gatherings.
Some areas have been harder hit than others. Are you curious about how widespread COVID-19 is in your area? You can estimate the chance that at least one COVID-19-positive person will be at an event or venue you visit using the COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool. Created by scientists at Georgia Tech, Duke, and Stanford universities, this tool lets you calculate how risky an event may be by adjusting the number of people attending.
You can access statistics about infection rates and deaths by country and see how case numbers are changing daily or monthly at the COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University.
Masking, frequent hand washing, and social distancing are important tools in the fight against COVID-19. For the first year of the pandemic, they were the only protection we had. They are still the only protection for people who do not have access to the vaccine and continue to be important preventive measures. However, the World Health Organization warns that these precautions do not protect you to the same extent as being full vaccinated—which includes the recommendation to get a booster shot.
All three vaccines teach your immune system how to recognize the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Your body uses this information to develop an immune response that prepares you to fight off an infection. The key differences between the vaccines are in the exact contents of the vaccine and how much of the vaccine is administered with each dose. It is important to understand that the vaccines are all extremely successful at fighting against the COVID-19 virus.
Testing is an important tool for controlling the spread of COVID-19, but it does not prevent you from infection. Testing will verify that you were negative for the virus at the time you were tested. It’s a snapshot of your health at that exact moment. It does not guarantee that you will not become infected in a crowded elevator or a coffee shop the moment you leave the testing site. And it does not keep you from spreading the virus to other people.
Think of it this way: if you wear sunscreen at the beach, you will likely avoid a serious sunburn. Or, you could check your shoulders every time you come home from the beach to look for signs of a sunburn. The sunscreen, like a vaccine, is designed to prevent harm. Examining your skin, like a COVID-19 test, only tells you after the fact, and once you’ve gotten a sunburn, all you can do is treat the symptoms and wait for it to go away.
Now imagine a sunburn that is contagious: you scorch your skin at the beach, and then you spread that pain and misery to your family, friends, or coworkers. According to this opinion piece in Scientific American, we don’t talk enough about the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing transmission of the virus: “vaccinating a large majority of Americans throughout the country is our surest bet for returning to normal. Entirely eliminating spread of the virus may be an unreachable goal, but mass vaccination—in the U.S. and around the world—will relegate COVID to the background of our lives.”
Good news! The Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine on August 23 for individuals 16 years of age and up. Emergency use is approved for children 5 and up. In addition, the FDA has given the Pfizer vaccine emergency use approval, and the CDC has recommended its use for children ages 5-11.
The Pfizer vaccine was the first to receive final FDA approval. Full FDA approval of the Moderna vaccine is expected soon, with approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to follow. For now, both of these vaccines continue to be available under the Emergency Use Authorization.
Two antiviral medications, molnupiravir (Merck) and Paxlovid (Pfizer), have been given FDA emergency use authorization for treatment of COVID-19 in some patients.
These medications can be taken by mouth and work to block replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Both medications have been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection; however, they are only helpful if taken early during illness, within a few days of symptoms appearing.
Although molnupiravir and Paxolovid, as well as the previously authorized intravenous antiviral remdesivir and monoclonal antibody therapies are useful in treating COVID-19 illness, they cannot be used in place of vaccination. Think about the analogy of COVID-19 illness and sunburns discussed earlier: using sunscreen can prevent sunburn, whereas using aloe vera and pain relievers can treat the sunburn and relieve symptoms. Likewise, vaccination can block infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and so prevent COVID-19 illness, whereas molnupiravir, Paxolovid, remdesivir, and monoclonal antibody therapies can only be used to treat COVID-19.
Your best bet for preventing illness from COVID-19 in yourself and the potential for spreading it to others is still vaccination and boosters.
No. Unfortunately, individuals who have had COVID-19 and recovered can get reinfected. In this study reported by the CDC, individuals who were not vaccinated were more than twice as likely to be reinfected compared with those with full vaccination.
Young children seem to be as likely as adolescents and adults to be infected with COVID-19 and to spread the virus, even though they seem to be less likely to become seriously ill.
Still, according to the CDC, as of November 1, 2021, 172 children in the United States aged 5 to 11 have died as a result of COVID-19 infection. In addition, there have been more than 8,300 COVID-19-related hospitalizations for children 5 through 11 through September of this year, and about 1.9 million cases of COVID-19 in children in this age group in the Americas since the pandemic began, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In studies done among thousands of 5- to 11-year-olds, results showed the Pfizer vaccine had no severe vaccine-related side effects or dangerous allergic reactions. The Pfizer vaccine was found to be more than 90% effective at protecting this age group from contracting symptomatic COVID-19.
According to the FDA, children will need to receive two shots of the Pfizer vaccine, and these shots should be administered three weeks apart. The dosage for children 5 to 11 is one third the dose given to adolescents and adults.
The companies that produce the three approved vaccines in the United States are studying their vaccines in children 6 months old to 5 years. Those trials have not been completed, although Pfizer has reported it may have data soon.
Breakthrough cases, in which a person who is fully vaccinated becomes infected with COVID-19, do occur. No vaccine is 100% effective. There will always be some people who get sick in spite of getting vaccinated. This happens with the flu shot every year; many people who get a flu shot later come down with the flu, but vaccinated people are typically not as sick as unvaccinated.
In fact, the COVID-19 vaccine is much more protective than the typical flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides data that the mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer) are 90% effective, meaning that a vaccinated person is 10 times less likely to contract COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person. In contrast, the influenza (flu) vaccine is typically only 40-60% effective. Still, the annual flu vaccine keeps many people from becoming very ill and requiring hospital care, making it an important—if imperfect—weapon against disease.
According to Macmillan Learning author David Hillis, research shows that vaccinated individuals who get breakthrough infections are less likely to become seriously ill, and in fact may be asymptomatic—they may not actually feel sick. Hillis writes, “the severity of any illness is likely to be worse in unvaccinated individuals. So even though the vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing illness, they greatly reduce your chances of getting sick, as well as reducing your chances of severe illness… Eventually, as more of the human population is vaccinated, the virus epidemic is expected to die out. When few people are susceptible to infection, the virus can no longer find new hosts to infect, and the epidemic will be over” (Hillis, David, “Immunizations and Booster Shots,” Mason County Science Corner, Mason County News, August 25, 2021).
Vaccinated individuals are also much less likely to infect others, including vulnerable people who are unvaccinated.
Many people are concerned about the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. All vaccines, and indeed all medications, carry some risk of side effects. It’s important to be aware of those risks, according to Jennifer Punt, a Macmillan Learning author and University of Pennsylvania immunologist. In this video Dr. Punt speaks plainly about the risk of side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine versus becoming infected with the virus.
Side effects may include pain, redness, and swelling around the area where you received the shot (typically, your arm), and fatigue, headache, muscle pain, fever, chills, and nausea. For most people, side effects only last a day or two. Side effects are typically worse after the second dose. The discomfort is a sign that your body is developing an immune response that will protect you if you are exposed to the virus.
For some people, side effects may be greater. In this video, Macmillan Learning author and Pomona College professor of biology Sharon Stranford describes the typical side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines. If you have concerns about potential side effects from the vaccine, talk to a qualified medical professional before you receive your first jab.
There are a lot of rumors about the COVID-19 vaccines. Some of this information is inaccurate and dangerous, but may sound convincing. According to Macmillan Learning author and University of Pennsylvania professor of immunology Jennifer Punt, we are all susceptible to misinformation.
Let’s look at the rumors one at a time.
The vaccine will give me COVID-19. This is a common concern based on the fact that in the past, some vaccines contained live virus particles. None of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the United States contain live COVID virus, and so they cannot give you the disease. Instead, as described in this article from the CDC, vaccines prepare our immune systems to fight off the disease if we are exposed. That is why some people feel ill for a day or two after receiving the vaccine.
The vaccine can affect fertility, pregnancy, or sexual function. According to Scientific American, “studies so far have not linked the vaccines with problems related to pregnancy, menstrual cycles, erectile performance or sperm quality. The evidence does show that COVID-19 can involve problems in all of these areas.” The CDC recommends that pregnant and breastfeeding women be vaccinated against the virus. Because of changes to the immune system during pregnancy, pregnant unvaccinated women are five times more likely to contract the virus than an unvaccinated woman who is not pregnant. What’s more, having the virus during pregnancy is more likely to make you seriously ill.
The vaccine causes dangerous blood clots. There is a very slight risk of developing blood clots after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, studies show. However, this study cited in the British Medical Journal found that the risk of blood clotting events after infection with COVID-19 is much higher than the risk posed by vaccination.
Beware of false or misleading information. This article in the journal Nature lists eight ways to spot misinformation.
The organization #ScienceUpFirst is a Canadian-based group of independent scientists and health care professionals focused on sharing the best available science with the public. You can follow them on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok: @ScienceUpFirst. They also post in French: @LaScienceAbord.
Want to learn more, or have questions about things you’ve heard about or read about? The World Health Organization (WHO) has a comprehensive list of myths about COVID-19 and vaccines.
When you get a vaccine, you are teaching your immune system what a particular invading bacteria or virus looks like. If the bacteria or virus appears again in the future, your body can keep you healthy by quickly recognizing and destroying it. Your immune system protects you by developing a defense that includes antibodies (blood proteins produced by your body to counteract germs) and important immune cells. To help your body produce an effective immune response, many vaccines need multiple doses, usually spaced out over a few weeks or months. In some cases this is enough to protect you for a lifetime. More commonly, though, your body needs occasional reminders to keep up its defenses, and these reminders come in the form of booster shots. You’ve probably received a booster shot of a vaccine before–for example, booster shots to protect against tetanus are recommended every 10 years, during pregnancy, and when certain injuries occur.
The booster shots of both the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are the same as the shots used for initial vaccination: the same substance and the same dose. For the Moderna vaccine, the substance is the same but a smaller dose is used in the booster shot than in the initial series.
Currently, you do not need to get a booster shot to be considered fully vaccinated. However, the CDC has recommended booster shots for everyone age 12 and up. The timing of when to get a booster shot and which one you can get vary. The most current information can be found on the CDC’s website.
For some individuals with compromised immune systems, vaccination guidelines may include additional doses. For more information, you can consult the CDC’s website or contact a trusted healthcare provider to discuss what’s best for you.
Many people are anxious about returning to a worksite where they will be in close quarters with their colleagues. After more than a year of isolation, returning to work will require a psychological and physical adjustment, as noted in this Scientific American article. The safest way to return to a shared work space is to:
For more information about how your employer or campus is addressing a return, please contact your Human Resources or Campus Safety and Administration departments.