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

We are detailing what you need to know about the pandemic by answering your questions. You can email us your questions at COVID@cbc.ca and we will respond as much as we can. We will post a selection of responses every day of the week on our website and will also post some of your questions to experts on the air during The National and News Network.

What exactly is a vaccine and how does it work?

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

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Simply put, a vaccine is a form of treatment that would protect humans from a specific disease. Your flu shot? Technically, it is a vaccine and, like all other doses you normally take in childhood, it avoids falling ill with life-threatening illnesses.

But how exactly does it work?

"Essentially, what a vaccine does is use a weakened pathogen – so, viruses in this case or bacteria – or just discrete parts of a virus or bacteria to train your immune system to recognize that pathogen so that it can protect you if you never is exposed to it, "says Matthew Miller, associate professor at the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University.

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The goal of inserting weakened pathogens into the body is to produce antibodies, said Miller, a specialist in viral pandemics and vaccines.

"These antibodies are what they physically protect," he says, adding that when your body comes into contact with these weakened pathogens, it thinks you have been infected, even if you don't have it. Your body creates antibodies to fight the weakened pathogen "and then these antibodies are present to protect you if you become infected".

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How do we develop a vaccine if experts fear that our antibodies are not providing full immunity?

In the past few weeks, we've received a lot of questions from people, including Stephen S., who want to know about antibody testing. The conversation about antibodies has changed to see if those we produce from the infection guarantee us immunity – and if not, how will an effective vaccine be created?

Miller says that at the moment, the evidence strongly suggests that the antibodies we are producing do provide us with some form of immunity.

"The real questions are how long does this protection last," he says. "I think this is a bigger problem."

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network, agrees. "I believe that we will make a vaccine for this and that the antibodies that people produce are likely to provide some level of protection. The question is how much protection and for how long."

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Bogoch says doctors and scientists are focusing on the life span of antibodies because the coronavirus does mutate. "The virus can change over time, just as, for example, the flu can change over time," he says.

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This means that the antibodies you created to fight the virus the first time it is exposed may not be effective the next time.

But Miller reminds us that antibodies are not the only part of your immune system that protects you from the virus.

"There are also these cells called T cells and they can also help provide protection, "he says." It is a kind of mixture of antibodies and T cells that do the job for your immune system in order to protect you. "

Does our immune system get weaker in self-isolation?

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

Dr. Peter Lin, a medical collaborator for CBC News and a family doctor, says that while we are interacting with people less than before the pandemic, it does not mean that our immune system will weaken. This is because some of us are still interacting with others in our homes, such as family members 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 to see if the masks worn by men with beards are really effective.

It is true that a mask needs to be tightly fitted around the face to be most effective, says Miller.

"If there are gaps in the place where the mask is suitable, the unfiltered air and you know that droplets that can transmit viruses can get in this way," he says. "So the tighter the mask, the more effective it will be."

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

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, such as beards, lamb chops and even sideburns and stubble, can "interfere with respirators that rely on a tight seal on the facepiece for maximum protection."

This is because "gases, vapors and particles in the air will follow the path of least resistance and divert the part of the respirator that captures or filters the dangers," he says.

"You really can't have facial hair to use it effectively," says Miller.

Even he had to part with his beard. "I had to make one of these mask accessories, because we worked with this virus in our level 3 containment facility and, as it happens, I have a beard, so the beard had to come off."

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

"This is to ensure that the N95 breathing mask is able to adequately protect you in case it is needed in the short term," says the document.

The elderly ask two geriatricians questions about the COVID-19 pandemic. 5:59

On Wednesday, we answered questions about physical distance in schools and how to deal with pain. Read on here.

Keep your questions coming sending an email to COVID@cbc.ca.

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