Vaccine Biology 101
A vaccine stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies, exactly like it would if you were exposed to the disease. After getting vaccinated, you should develop antibodies which are proteins creating immunity to that disease, without having to get the disease first.
In the case of the COVID-19 virus, the focus is on the surface protein that has spires or spikes that lodge into your nasal area and “burrow” into your body. The goal of all these COVID-19 vaccines is to cause our body to develop antibodies to spike protein areas.
This primes our immune system to recognize the virus and mount an immune response by producing antibodies against the spike protein component of the virus and ‘stop’ it from infecting us. Vaccines have focused on the surface spike proteins because they have relatively fewer ‘mutations’ and therefore genetically are more ‘stable’. This characteristic has given scientists a chance to play catch up to and understand which areas of the protein to focus their vaccine against.
More traditional vaccines use a bit of inactive viral protein while other manufacturers use a piece of DNA from the pathogen that we want to develop immunity against.
For the vaccine to carry this piece of DNA into our body it requires a vehicle or ‘carrier’. The choice of vehicle for these vaccines is a non-replicating virus.
Unlike traditional vaccines which are made with real virus often grown slowly in eggs, these mRNA molecules can be produced rapidly in a lab, programmed with a bit of the coronavirus’ genetic code for the spike proteins.
Some of the newest vaccines now in circulation are called messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. Naturally occurring mRNA are molecules in our cells that pass genetic instructions from our DNA to particles that make proteins, the building blocks of life. Manipulating mRNA molecules in the lab to fight disease has been promising technology for more than 30 years, though it had to produce an effective vaccine.
The mRNA vaccine instructs your healthy cells to make replicas of the spikes. They can’t make you sick, but they will teach our body’s immune system what the virus looks like. If and when the real COVID-19 shows up, our immune system which has already produced and stored antibodies, will attack the virus and neutralize it.
While it may seem that this type of mRNA methodology to create a vaccine is new, it is not. For some time now, the mRNA platform technology has been used to encourage the body to make antibodies against cancer cells. Oncologists reference these treatments as immunotherapy.
Researchers at BioNTech in Mainz, Germany, have been a manufacturing a cancer vaccine. They are the true mRNA technology innovators who partnered with Pfizer to manufacture the COVID-19 vaccine. They reported in 2017 that all of the first 13 people with advanced-stage melanoma to receive the personalized immunotherapy — which is tailor-made to match the genetic profile of each person’s cancer — showed elevated immunity against the mutated bits of their tumours. As a result, these patients’ risk of developing new metastatic lesions was significantly reduced.
Moderna opened up a new manufacturing facility in 2018 to develop cancer mRNA ‘vaccines’.
Read more in Nature: Unlocking the potential of vaccines built on messenger RNA
Thankfully for many cancer patients these new type of ‘cancer vaccines’ have been effective against fighting some other forms of cancer too. During the pandemic, scientists have pivoted their knowledge, using this same mRNA technology to make antibodies against COVID-19.
10 COVID-19 Myths
The vaccines were developed quickly due to two factors. The first being the world-wide research of the scientific community which included vaccine developers, universities, public health experts, and the second being lots of money was injected into the effort.
Scientifically, the leap to creating mRNA vaccines was not new. This type of vaccine has already existed for cancer treatment and other viral vaccines efforts were underway.
As so much money was available, vaccine companies were able to do the clinical trials quickly because there were so many patients available and the vaccine was manufactured without knowledge that it would work. (if they didn’t work or were not safe the inventory would be thrown out). This was THE BIG BET.
No steps were skipped in the process of developing, testing, approving, and producing the vaccine. The world’s best independent scientists have thoroughly reviewed all the data before approving the vaccine as safe and effective.
The instance of adverse effects is only 1 in 100,000 people which is about the same as existing childhood vaccines. Adverse effects include: localized pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, and muscle pain. Smaller numbers reported fever, chills and joint pain.
Long term consequences of vaccines in general are extremely rare, side effects usually occur quickly after immunization. According to WHO, they typically occur within a day or two after immunization. Currently there have been no reported long term side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine trials, most would have likely appeared by now.
People with underlying conditions such as heart disease or diabetes are more at risk of getting complications from COVID-19, there is more of a reason for those to get the vaccine. However, you should always speak to your doctor is you have specific concerns such as active infections, are undergoing cancer treatment, have chronic autoimmune conditions where you are taking immunosuppressive medications, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
NOT TRUE. It appears that for some people who have had the common strain may not have enough antibodies to fight the newer and different strains. Also, some people lose their antibodies after a few months and hence the need to get at least two shots, if not more boosters too.
NOT TRUE. There is no way to get COVID-19 from the vaccine because none of the vaccines contain a live component of the virus.
The mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer carry instructions to your body on how to build a section of the surface protein – these proteins made by your body cannot replicate. Your body then recognizes these pieces of protein and develops antibodies. If a live virus attacks your body, your antibodies will attack it.
NOT TRUE. The mRNA vaccines carry instructions to your body on how to build a protein not DNA. It does not go into your genetic material. RNA is a photocopy of a DNA code.
NOT TRUE. There is absolutely no evidence from clinical trials nor has there been evidence that a COVID-19 infection causes infertility.
NOT TRUE. In a perfect world if there was only one strain of COVID-19 and 100% of your population has been vaccinated we could consider wearing no masks. Given the new strains coming we are at risk for getting infected with new strains.
None of the vaccines are 100% effective, and you will not know who around you have received the vaccine. Also, while the vaccine will prevent you from getting sick it is unknown if it will prevent you from carrying the virus and transmitting it to others.
NOT TRUE. Most people do recover from COVID-19 but there are lots who have had serious complications including heart attack, stroke, brain, liver, kidney, and lung damage. How do you know if you are not going to be one of the millions who will die? Not all who have died were elderly or had chronic conditions.
Another reason to get vaccinated is that although you might not have a severe case or might even be asymptomatic you could pass it along to someone else who may be more severely effected.
Learn More About the Vaccines
Compare vaccines and pathway to immunity
Precautions and adverse reactions