Vaccines, antibodies, and beards: Your COVID-19 questions answered

We’re breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic by answering your questions. You can send us your questions via email at COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we’re also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and News Network.  

What exactly is a vaccine, and how does it work?

With all the talk of vaccines, Margaret C. asks a good question. Just what is a vaccine and how does it work?

Simply put, a vaccine is a form of treatment that would protect human beings from a particular sickness. Your flu shot? That’s technically a vaccine and so are all the other shots you normally get as an infant to avoid getting sick with life-threatening illnesses. 

But how exactly does it work?

“Essentially, what a vaccine does is it uses either a weakened pathogen — so, virus in this case or bacteria — or just discrete pieces of a virus or bacteria to train your immune system to recognize that pathogen so that it can protect you if you ever become exposed to it,” says Matthew Miller, associate professor in the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University.

The purpose of inserting weakened pathogens into the body is to make antibodies, said Miller, an expert in viral pandemics and vaccines. 

“Those antibodies are what physically do the protecting,” he says, adding that when your body comes in contact with these weakened pathogens, it thinks you’ve been infected, even though you haven’t. Your body creates antibodies to fight off the weakened pathogen, “and then those antibodies are around to protect you in case you ever do get infected.”

How do we develop a vaccine, if experts worry our antibodies aren’t providing full immunity?

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve received a lot of questions from people, including Stephen S., who want to know about antibody testing. Talk of antibodies has shifted to whether the ones we produce from the infection guarantee us immunity — and if not, how will an effective vaccine be created? 

Miller says right now, evidence strongly suggests the antibodies we are producing do indeed provide us with some sort of immunity.   

“The real questions are for how long does that protection last,” he says. “I think that’s sort of a bigger issue.” 

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious diseases specialist at the University Health Network, agrees. “I believe we will make a vaccine for this and that the antibodies that people produce will very likely provide some level of protection. The question is how much protection and for how long.”

Bogoch says doctors and scientists are focusing on the lifespan of the antibodies because the coronavirus does in fact mutate. “The virus can change over time just like, for example, influenza can change over time,” he says. 

That means, antibodies you created to fight off the virus the first time you are exposed may not be effective the next time.

But Miller reminds us that antibodies aren’t the only part of your immune system that protect you from the virus.

“There are also these cells called T-cells and they can help provide protection as well,” he says. “It’s kind of a mixture of antibodies and T-cells that do the work for your immune system in order to protect it.”

Does our immune system get weaker in self-isolation?

Carla N. is one of many Canadians who is staying home to help curb the spread of COVID-19. But she, along with many others, is wondering how self-isolation is affecting her immune system since she’s not having physical contact with other people. 

Dr. Peter Lin, CBC News medical contributor and family physician, says although we are interacting with people less than before the pandemic, it doesn’t mean our immune systems will weaken. That’s because some of us are still interacting with others in our homes, like family or roommates. 

Lin suggests maintaining a healthy diet, eating regularly, and exercising to help boost our immune systems.

Is a mask effective if you have a beard?

This is a great question from Wendy G. who is curious whether masks worn by men with beards are truly effective.

It’s true, a mask needs to be tightly fitted around the face for it to be most effective, says Miller.

“If there’s gaps in where the mask is fitting, unfiltered air and you know droplets that might carry virus can get in that way,” he says. “So the tighter fitting the mask, the more effective it is.”

You may have seen this infographic from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S.

It was designed in 2017 to illustrate potentially problematic facial hair styles for workers who wear tight-fitting respirators, such as N95 masks.

The CDC post warns that facial hair, like beards, mutton chops and even sideburns and stubble can “interfere with respirators that rely on a tight facepiece seal to achieve maximum protection.”

That’s because “gases, vapors, and particles in the air will take the path of least resistance and bypass the part of the respirator that captures or filters hazards out,” it reads. 

“You can’t really have any facial hair in order to wear one effectively,” says Miller. 

Even he had to part with his beard. “I had to get one of these mask fittings done because we work with this virus in our containment Level 3 facility and I happen to have a beard, so the beard had to go.”

Here in Canada, a recent directive for RCMP officers says they must report to work clean-shaven, unless they have a special exemption. 

“This is to ensure that the N95 respiratory mask is able to properly protect you in the event that it is needed on short notice,” it reads.

Seniors ask two geriatricians their questions about the COVID-19 pandemic. 5:59

Wednesday we answered questions about physical distancing at schools and dealing with grief. Read here.

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at COVID@cbc.ca.

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