Illustration: Bernice Liu

Six Months In

It’s Okay to Have Questions About a Covid-19 Vaccine. Here’s What to Ask.

The approval process, interpreting clinical trial results, and how to be confident in your choice to get the vaccine

Published in
10 min readSep 17, 2020


This story is part of “Six Months In,” a special weeklong Elemental series reflecting on where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, and what the future holds for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Depending on whom you ask, anywhere from half to 70% of Americans plan to get the Covid-19 vaccine when it’s available. But that means a lot of folks likely have questions before they’ll decide to line up for it. It’s entirely reasonable for people to be skeptical about a new vaccine. In fact, concern about a potential Covid-19 vaccine is healthy, particularly given the speed of its development, and is shared by many scientists and public health experts. “We tell people all the time to get involved in your health and ask questions, and then we act surprised when people ask questions about vaccines,” says Holly Witteman, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at Laval University in Quebec City, Canada, who studies vaccine hesitancy. So, what should you be asking? Ahead, recommendations from the experts.

Did the vaccine successfully go through all appropriate regulatory channels?

Above everything else, a Covid-19 vaccine must make it through the gauntlet of approvals at the FDA and CDC that any other vaccine, at any other time, for any other diseases, would be expected to pass through.

“I do think if a vaccine is approved through a science-based process, the public can have a lot of trust that the vaccine is safe and effective,” Witteman says.

But most people aren’t familiar with all those processes or which ones might involve shortcuts that could make them uneasy. Generally speaking, a vaccine goes through three clinical trials. Then the vaccine must receive FDA approval based on the clinical trial data. After the FDA licenses the vaccine, the CDC makes recommendations on who should get it and when. The FDA could also issue an Emergency Use Authorization, but only if the data strongly shows high efficacy and…



Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle is a science journalist, public speaker, and author of Vaccination Investigation and The Informed Parent. Follow her at @tarahaelle.