i am pro-science. there’s never been any doubt that once the covid vaccine becomes available for me, i will get it. once it opens up for the public at large – for healthy, low-risk people – i will get up at 4:30 a.m. to get in on an online lottery if i need to, for as many days as it takes. i will get that vaccine and not think twice about it.
with the current anti-vaxx movement and people questioning the speed at which this one was approved, i though it would be useful to do a little research for you all on how the advances in medicine are such that vaccines can be produced at this rate. i’ve read headlines and tweets from scientists, but a deep dive into the actual science (i’m assuming my readers all still believe in science) would also be helpful for me.
but first, an aside. i had listened to a podcast recently about the “godfather of vaccines” (click to listen to it! super interesting) who basically came up with all our childhood vaccines (MMR, etc.) and wanted to know the public’s reaction to the polio vaccine. polio was a devastating disease, and i’d heard that parents all over the country volunteered their children for vaccine trials to make sure the vaccine was safe before distribution. so i called my dad to see what the public sentiment was surrounding the polio vaccine, since it seemed that the public sentiment surrounding the covid vaccine was one of trepidation, at best, for a lot of people.
my dad said that it was like a giant sigh of relief for everyone once the polio vaccine was available. so i wondered why we don’t have the same reaction today, and my mom got on the phone and talked about something that i think needs to be shared. modern medicine is amazeballs. people don’t realize how bad it WAS and that our advances in the past 40-50 years have been just outrageous. then i watched a video from john green (my fave youtuber) about vaccines and he mentioned that the advances in VACCINE medicine in even the past TEN YEARS is such that a pandemic in 2010 would be much more devastating because we wouldn’t have a vaccine as quickly.
here’s his video:
so, that’s one long introduction for a post that may be long as it is.
let’s get into the science behind the covid vaccine, why it was produced so quickly, and whether or not you should take it (i can predict that yes, yes you should take it). please let me know if i’ve got anything wrong here; i’m a summarizer and researcher, not a scientist.
how it works
the covid vaccine uses new technology that’s actually been around and studied for a while, mRNA vaccines. the vaccine you get for mumps, measles, rubella, flu, etc., uses the actual live virus to prompt your immune system to recognize it and create antibodies that resist the virus when it attacks full bore. it’s just a little bit, which is the reason you may feel a little flu-ish after getting the flu shot, but it’s a much better than getting the full-on flu.
the mRNA instead just send instructions to our cells on how to make a piece of protein that triggers an immune response, which prompts the antibodies to protect us. after the protein is made, our cells break down the instructions from the shot and get rid of them (think of all the other stuff your cells get rid of – this is nothing).
how it came to be
mRNA stands for messenger RNA. the covid vaccine is the first vaccine that’s been approved using this technology, though scientists have been working with it for many years. a hungarian scientist named katalin kariko* had been working in the 90s to get grants, funding, and even support for mRNA. it made sense – naturally, your body relies on proteins to keep health, and it uses mRNA to tell cells which proteins to make. if science could design specific mRNA, you could create any protein that helps keep you healthy, reverse diseases, mend damaged tissue. in 1990, it worked in mice. but synthetic RNA had one problem – the body’s natural defenses would likely destroy it before it had a chance to do its thing.
katalin ran into barrier after barrier. no funding, demotions, ridicule. instead of giving up, she pressed on, and about 10 years after trial and error, she was working with an immunologist MD/PhD when they discovered the way around the problem. in its synthetic form, mRNA was signaling the immune system with one of the four nucleosides, but they substituted it for a slightly tweaked hybrid version that could bypass the body’s defenses (biology was a long time ago for me and probably you too; let’s just take her word for it that this makes sense, since she’s the scientist and expert).
starting in 2005, several scientific papers described the process, and that was the start of a big vaccine advancement. two scientists grabbed onto it as a way to create stemcells. when they were able to do this, they went to visit a biomedical engineer at MIT, who recognized the technology as a way to pretty much have a huge number of applications to save lives. they created moderna, (which, haha, contains the letter mRNA).
this biotech was mostly being experimented with for immunotherapy, not vaccines. this required several doses over and over, and at high levels of the mRNA. that was proving to be difficult to work around the immune reactions, like katalin had found a workaround for. so instead, they had to focus on using the biotech for something that only took one or two low-dose injections for an effect: vaccines.
why it was so quick
the technology is much quicker than using a live virus to create a vaccine, so that was one reason a vaccine came to the public so quickly. another was that this was FUNDED. i saw a tweet from a scientist who works in the field, saying that half the time they spend working on new breakthroughs is waiting and applying for grants and funding.
but why does a live/inactivated virus take so long to develop in the first place, in comparison to the mRNA? vaccines can take 20+ years to develop and get approved! the HPV vaccine took 26 years. rotavirus took 25. they still don’t have one for AIDS.
using the actual virus in a vaccine means that a lot more can go wrong. they need a LOT of testing and can take years. plus, they need to be able to mass-produce the actual proteins for the virus, and the mRNA vaccine just uses the genetic material to signal to our cells to create the proteins, which is easier to mass-produce.
then there’s testing. since this was a world-wide pandemic, finding volunteers to test the vaccine after animal testing was easy. this is done in three phases, and phase three is time consuming. they have to wait for enough participants to be exposed to a virus naturally. well, considering that covid was/is rampant and people have trouble even wearing a mask, i think phase three moved along more quickly than normal.
plus, scientists had been working on vaccines for other coronaviruses. they’d been working on SARS and MERS in 2003 and 2012, but stopped when the outbreaks were under control. scientists knew what to target and how to stabilize it.
as far as production, because manufacturers don’t know what vaccines will be approved when, they’re reluctant to invest in prepping for making the vaccines.
but, because this was widespread, everything sort of happened quickly and absolute MORE quickly than we expected. the science was there. the prep work was partially done. the demand was there. the funding was there. and through it all, covid was there.
when covid first hit, we were told that it would at least 18 months for a vaccine, if not longer. but in late 2020, pfizer announced its trials were over and the mRNA vaccine was 90%+ effective after two doses. the FDA was ready to approve a vaccine that was 50% effective. the vaccine has not actually been 100% approved yet but is being used under the emergency use authorization, which is NORMAL. don’t let that deter you at all.
many people have already had the vaccine and had no ill effects. we may hear about people that have had ill effects after getting the vaccine, but one does need to take a look at what the chances of that ill effect happening WITHOUT the vaccine. if 2% of the population gets a heart attack every day, having gotten the vaccine a week before does not change that percentage. it would’ve happened with or without the vaccine.
the benefits of the vaccine GREATLY outweigh any potential risks.
like i said, as soon as i am eligible to get a vaccine, i’m going to be first in line. after reading about side effects in the lungs that last and last and last, and how every single thing i read about runners who’ve had to take baby steps to get back to where they were before they had covid, along with heart problems?? (and we’re talking every. single. runner. , no matter how bad their covid was) come on, there’s not a lot as far as short-term side effects that i wouldn’t take to make sure i avoid all that. i had absolutely no adverse effects from my flu shot this year, so i’m guessing i’d probably be ok with a covid shot.
and you would too. if there’s ever a time to succumb to my peer pressure, now would be it.
and let me say, i am kind of excited about this new mRNA biotechnology. if they can cure cancers and autoimmune diseases with cell-specific therapy instead of blasting us with radiation and chemotherapy and drugs with awful side effects, that’s the kind of future i want to live in.
science for the win.
*you will note that i only mention her by name, as she was the one who persevered with this science. she deserves all the credit.
The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race
Why Does It Take So Long to Develop a Vaccine?