Dr. Sheryl Henderson on the COVID-19 Vaccine and Variants
The Ultimate Preventative
|Dr. Sheryl Henderson (l) receives the first of two COVID-19
the defense system to the virus so that hopefully it cannot take hold and continue to spread.”
Henderson has taken the vaccine and has received the second dose. She did have a reaction to the second dose that had some of the symptoms of COVID-19.
“I did have symptoms; it is important for everyone to be aware and prepared for symptoms,” Henderson emphasized. “It has been documented that about 3/4 of
people will have symptoms after receiving the COVID 19 vaccines that are currently available. Reactions are more common after the second dose. They usually last
for one or two days. The reactions are an indication that the immune system is working and is getting prepared for a time that a person may be exposed to the
coronavirus. It is important to be prepared for the possibility of vaccine reactions and recognize that they are short term.”
Even though there may be that more pronounced reaction to the second vaccination, Henderson emphasized that in the big picture, it is nothing at all.
“When we think about the safety of vaccines, we think about side effects,” Henderson said. “And in the studies, they talk about mild, moderate and very severe. The
majority are mild to moderate for the second dose. When I think about if I take the vaccine, what is the risk versus the benefit overall. People might have different
tolerances for what may happen the first couple of days after the vaccine. To me, the benefit is trying to prevent severe COVID disease as well as building up this
defense for our community with immunity.”
Henderson said that the skepticism of many in the African American community about the vaccine due to the history of unethical studies like the Tuskegee
Experiment that treated African Americans as less than human is warranted. And it is this skepticism that figured in her decision to go into pediatric infectious
“To address those, from an ethical conduct of studies, I’ve been involved in clinical trials for vaccines and antibiotics for a couple of decades,” Henderson said.
“But one of the major results of the national governmental look at the Tuskegee study was the development of ethical standards for the conduct of clinical trials. If
everyone today wants to start a clinical study, they have to submit it to an institutional review board. It has to be scrutinized very carefully to be sure that it is being
conducted in an ethical manner. Anyone who wants to participate has to be fully informed that they know it is voluntary and can withdraw at any time. They are
informed of the risks of the study versus what are the benefits of the study. There is no coercion taking place. Anybody who is conducting the study has to be trained
on this on very regular intervals. I had to take tests every two years. There are several layers and levels of oversight. Studies are looked at on a regular basis by
independent review boards. For example, these COVID vaccine studies, even though they are being conducted at different sites around the world and around this
country, there is a data safety monitoring board whose job is to look at studies as they are being conducted at regular intervals to make sure they are safe and that
there is no significant side effects that would make them stop the study. And there are studies that are stopped if they find out that they are causing more harm than
good. That review board is independent of the drug companies. There are scientists on the board who are totally independent and aren’t paid by drug companies.
They’ve reviewed that. And then the Federal Drug Administration is another level of review. We all sort of rely upon them looking at these two vaccines as they
came forth to say, ‘Is there enough evidence to say it is effective? Is it safe? And in the middle of the pandemic, can we give it emergency use authorization to get it
One concern has been the rapid pace at which the vaccines were developed. Today’s scientists have benefited from the research on SARS and MERS — also
coronaviruses — that was conducted since the early 2000s. And so they had a base of knowledge on coronaviruses and vaccines.
“The technology was actually in place for these mRNA vaccines, so it isn’t a completely new vaccine even though it hasn’t been used in the scale that it has been
studied in cancer and other diseases,” Henderson said. “The other thing that really helped speed it up — you hear about Operation Warp Speed — was that usually
the clinical trial phases that I mentioned before, they usually happen sequentially. And then you get to the end of the third phase and the FDA says, ‘Let’s license
this.’ Then production happens. That’s the typical pattern and that is what used to take years. It also took time because the drug companies had to have the money.
What happened with COVID is those phases were overlapped. When we got to November and Phase 3, they didn’t say, ‘Okay, let’s start the production.’ The
production had already been going on. That’s where the funding from the federal government came in. That’s all to say that the science was still intact. I’ve looked at
documents about the studies that are out. You can see that there wasn’t corner-cutting in the science. And it was global and the numbers are much, much larger
than they usually are at this point.”
The vaccine is not 100 percent effective with all of the vaccines reporting a 90-95 percent effectiveness rate. Some people may contract COVID-19 even with the
vaccine just as some contract the flu even with a flu vaccine. While as human beings we have shared genetic characteristics, each of us is still unique as a
“But the other thing that was seen from that is that of those with severe illness, they had all received placebos,” Henderson said. “At least with those numbers, the
vaccine appears to protect from serious severe illness. Everyone’s immune system is different. Everyone is going to react to vaccines differently in terms of the
immune defense. That’s why these are studied in depth first to see whether or not the vaccines are effective for the vast majority of people, effective again at the
individual level and to help reduce spread throughout the community.”
As the vaccination push begins to ramp up under President Joe Biden with more coordinated federal assistance and distribution of the vaccines, Henderson
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
While the COVID-19 infection rates have been going down in Dane County and Wisconsin as of
late, this is no time to relax and feel that you can continue life as normal. COVID-19 is still out
there lurking silently and invisibly looking for its next host victim.
“The virus is never satiated,” said Dr. Sheryl Henderson, a pediatric infectious disease
specialist at UW Health. “Viruses need to live in hosts, in people and animals in order to
survive. I don’t want to give human characteristics to it, but the virus’ purpose is to try to find
another place to go and keep multiplying and get on the droplets that someone might cough out
and land on someone else’s mouth and just keep moving. You can think of masks as a
physical barrier to prevent that transmission. The vaccine helps build up the immune system,
cautioned that there are two separate issues here. One is the vaccine serves
to prevent COVID-19 infections. But the other issue is transmission and the
jury is still out on that.
“What we know from these vaccines, is that they do help prevent COVID
infection or severe COVID in the person who has gotten the vaccine,”
Henderson said. “But we do not know yet if it effectively prevents
transmission. That’s one really key factor. So even if someone gets the
vaccine, they still need to wear a mask, hand sanitize and keep socially
distanced. Also universal masking is still the recommendation. I think it would
be really difficult to know, ‘Well that person got a vaccine, that person didn’t.’
There are many other vaccines that are still being evaluated in different
phases of clinical trials. Their effectiveness on transmission, if they do make it
to be used regularly, they may be variable. And because we have such
variation in mask use right now, the recommendation on mask wearing won’t
change any time soon.”
Fighting COVID-19 is a community thing. And even with effective vaccinations,
the community resolve will have to remain until the fight is won.