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The Reverend – Doctor – Fuller: A virus expert on a spiritual mission

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

Photographed by Austin Thomason, University of Michigan

Ordained African Methodist Episcopal minister and expert virologist, A. Oveta Fuller, Ph.D., is able to comfort and reassure others while wearing either or both of her “hats.” A University of Michigan scientist who studies viruses, the professor teaches U-M medical, graduate, dental, and undergraduate students about human virus pathogens. Fuller’s laboratory team has published studies on herpes simplex and influenza viruses. She has also worked on the front lines, in various African nations, researching and educating to control the spread of HIV/AIDS – and assisting those in the community who are affected.

Her decades-long contributions to the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation research led to her being tapped to serve on the U. S. Food and Drug Administration’s advisory panel to review authorization and licensing of COVID-19 vaccines. Fuller says the FDA review was just the first hurdle and that building public confidence will reduce vaccine hesitancy. UAN sat down for a conversation with the spiritual leader and healer:

What do you feel is most important for people to know about the virus that causes COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a horrible disease that’s easily transmissible. The virus that causes COVID-19 is new. We don’t yet understand a lot about it. We’re learning as we go. What we do know is that it can cause havoc in the body. Some people get infected, have no symptoms, but they can infect others. And we don’t know if those asymptomatic people will experience any long-term effects. Others have mild or moderate cases. While they may not require hospitalization, they report experiencing the worst flu-like illnesses. And those infected can have long-lasting “long-hauler” symptoms that may include heart arrythmias, brain fog, and joint pain that can last for months. Those with severe COVID-19, as we know, suffer greatly. We find that the vaccines are effective at stopping the disease symptoms, illness and death. Why would anyone risk these by not being vaccinated?

What are key myths, misinformation and disinformation about the vaccine?

People say we don’t know about side-effects. We do know. We know it may make you uncomfortable for a day or two, but that’s it. We also know that adverse effects from vaccines generally emerge within three to six months. We’re past that. With the J & J vaccine, where people experienced dangerous blood clots, we identified this rare effect in that time frame, and importantly, learned how to treat it. We recommend that you not schedule anything of importance the day after the vaccine and to take a Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve after, if you experience a headache or joint pain. Presence of short-term side effects means your body is recognizing the vaccine material and priming your immune defense system to handle the real virus.

Another concern is that people aren’t sure what’s in the vaccine. It’s not the virus. It’s a messenger RNA (mRNA) code, a small piece of material, used by our bodies to make proteins. A mRNA code for a key virus protein is placed in a droplet of fat engulfed in sugar and water so it can enter some cells of our body. The vaccine is not the virus, but only a small key protein of the virus.

What are the other myths about the vaccines that you’d like to quash?

One myth is that the vaccines were developed too fast. Not true. The research that resulted in the vaccine had been done over a 30-year period. While the COVID-19 virus is a newly emerged virus, it’s similar to SARS and MERS — the coronaviruses that previously made the jump from animals to people.

Scientists weren’t starting from scratch. They only needed the genetic sequence of this new coronavirus for a vaccine and how to deliver it. The viral genome was sequenced and made available by mid-January 2020. The technology to deliver has been used for a while in cancer treatment.

In 2003, while developing the SARS vaccine, scientists identified the strategies and best potential targets for coronaviruses as the now well-known spike protein.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, an African-American virologist at the National Institutes of Health, was studying coronavirus spikes before the pandemic started and was already working on what to use in vaccines.

Strategies learned from SARS research gave her and other scientists a viable vaccine target to allow manufacturers to expedite development. This enabled Moderna to have a vaccine for clinical trials as early as mid-March 2020 — just as the initial wave of infections was visibly sweeping through major U.S. cities.

There was unprecedented cooperation among scientists who had been working on different elements of an mRNA vaccine. Generally, scientists work on projects somewhat independently.

Because we were in a crisis, scientists shared efforts and the government made the research possible with uninterrupted funding. Also unprecedented was the government’s early order and payment to the manufacturers.

Studies continue now about whether the vaccine stops virus reproduction and the duration of disease protection. Also, we don’t know if we will need periodic COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

Were steps in the clinical trials skipped?

No. Normally, vaccines are developed over a five-year period with 6,000 subjects followed annually for a total of 30,000 possible cases. As we were in a global COVID-19 crisis, the trials enrolled and followed 30,000 persons over a four-month period for the two-dose vaccines, and 60,000 persons in the J & J trials. Prior to these large group clinical trials, per the standard process, the vaccines went through Phase 1 to determine safety; Phase 2 to determine efficacy; and then the larger group Phase 3 study to assess safety and efficacy with a wider range of people. After meeting requirements, data from vaccine clinical trials was submitted for review by the FDA. VRBPAC, the independent scientific advisory panel that I am a part of, was asked to consider each vaccine for Emergency Use Authorization. EUA approvals mean that the effective vaccines will be used and closely surveilled with continued data collection before full licensing. Approximately 10% of clinical study participants were African American. Moderna intentionally included participants with underlying health conditions and some who had COVID-19 previously.

What would you say to those with health conditions that make them hesitate to take the shot?

People with underlining conditions are the least likely to survive COVID-19 disease because their bodies can’t handle the additional energy stress that virus reproduction creates. They need to be the first in line for a COVID-19 vaccine. Also, some people say they would prefer to have the natural immunity that comes with being infected with the SARS-2 [COVID-19] virus. You don’t want to do this because of the risk, and because the immunity that results is not as protective. Others say they will just continue to hibernate. We can’t do that -- it’s not healthy mentally or spiritually, nor is it practical!

Can you still get COVID-19 after being vaccinated?

While there have been some breakthrough cases for those fully vaccinated, no vaccine is 100 percent effective, these cases are mild. Being vaccinated reduces the chances of disease, hospitalization, long-term effects and even death.

I encourage people to seek and make an informed decision to get a COVID-19 vaccination. Do it for themselves and as a good neighbor. Also, make and implement an infection prevention plan. Masks and distancing, especially indoors with multiple households present, are still recommended.

And remember, the new SARS coronavirus-2 [which causes COVID-19] is still here and may continue to be with us to reproduce itself.

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