Vaccine race finish line celebration, illustration by Fancy Castillo

It’s finally happening – we can see the light at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel. The past year has been an extremely difficult one. Many of us are struggling with our mental and physical health. Many of us have lost loved ones. But researchers have worked tirelessly to develop ways to prevent and treat COVID-19, including with vaccines.

Of course, vaccines can seem scary. They involve needles and technology too small for our eyes to see. Given that we’ve lived in a world where a lot of health risks have been outside of our control over the past year, it makes sense that we might think critically about the potential risk of getting a vaccine, because we can control our choice to get a vaccine or not.

But as humans, we aren’t all that great at evaluating and comparing risks. The true risk of experiencing a severe reaction to COVID-19 vaccine hardly compares to the risk of experiencing severe illness and complications from COVID-19. But our minds don’t always see things this way.

This is what inspired our team here at Lifeology to create a Lifeology flashcard course about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines. How did scientists create these vaccines so quickly while also ensuring their safety? Learn more here.

We hope that this course, written by Emma Betuel and illustrated by Fancy Castillo, provides some comforting visibility into the rigorous process that vaccines have to go through to get created, tested and approved for public use.

Vaccine Safety
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Hear from the Author

I collaborated with Paige Jarreau and Fancy Castillo to create our course on the coronavirus vaccines now rolling out around the country. Writing about vaccines is always a tricky topic, but coronavirus vaccines are especially touchy. There are hundreds of vaccines under development, and lives hinge on the results of clinical trials

It was a pleasure to collaborate with both Paige and Fancy, who approached a critical and fast-moving topic with empathy. 

“I am thrilled with the outcome of the course. The process of chatting, reading the script, starting with the storyboard, and then talking again about the impressions was a great learning experience that enhanced my teamwork skills.” – Fancy Castillo, illustrator

Vaccine course script storyboard

A screenshot of our course storyboard

While writing this course, I thought a lot about the way we digest information about coronavirus vaccines. In December, I watched scientists discuss the merits of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory (VRBPAC) meetings. I wrote news reports out of those meetings. Finally, I spoke to family and friends about how the small mountain of vaccine-related news, from articles to clinical trials, actually affected their lives. 

Those conversations felt like the most critical moments. They were opportunities for people to try the idea of getting the vaccine on for size. These are the conversations we tried to capture with this course. 

From the outset, Paige and Fancy worked to give the course a familiar feel, and I tried to include as many questions I’ve come across from family and friends in our characters Harvey and Amina’s dialogue. Our operating principle is that no vaccine-related question is unworthy of an answer, and that people should be encouraged to ask questions. They are also entitled to scientifically-backed answers, which we tried to provide through careful fact-checking and expert review. Samantha Yammine, PhD and Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS both fact-checked this course.

Still, if vaccine acceptance research tells us anything, it’s that the facts can only get us so far. A guide for vaccine communication prepared by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications in conjunction with the United Nations Verified Initiative notes that worldview, messengers, relationships and social norms all influence how people decide to get vaccinated. Trying to integrate the latest scientific information into that complicated framework is what makes these conversations so hard, but we’re going to have to have more of them very soon. 

Since this course was created, Johnson and Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine has been given emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, and countless states have opened up the vaccine to more pools of people. As access to the vaccine increases, people who were happy to wait at the back of the line are going to get their chance to be vaccinated – and they may have questions or concerns. As one expert told me during the course of my reporting on the pandemic, this might end up being a sticking point.

I hope that when you reach that sticking point with a friend or relative, this is the course you can either send them directly, or one more tool you can use to have that difficult conversation. If this helps start a thoughtful kitchen table dialogue about the coronavirus vaccine, then this course will have done its job.

Emma Betuel is a science journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers health, wellness, and the intersection of science and culture. Her work has appeared in Inverse, Texas Monthly, The Sag Harbor Express, and WBUR’s CommonHealth blog among others.