Millions of Americans have received at least one vaccine shot and some experts are now optimistic that the COVID-19 could be brought under control in 2021. While the United States and the world have a long way to go, there is hope on the horizon. Richard Sorgnard, who holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Northwestern University, is going to discuss the science behind vaccines and the fight against COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 vaccines offer an excellent measuring stick of just how far medical technology has come,” Richard Sorgnard says. “Up until recently, vaccines often took years to develop, test, and roll out. Now, with mRNA and other technologies we can bring some vaccinations to the public much more quickly.”
The three vaccines currently in widespread use in the United States, the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, all use messenger RNA technology, or mRNA for short. While mRNA technology is somewhat new, it’s been studied extensively for over a decade. Unlike many other vaccines, mRNA vaccinations don’t use live viruses and also do not interact with people’s DNA.
Pieces of mRNA are coated in a special delivery vehicle, Richard Sorgnard notes. For the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, lipids are used, for example. This protects the mRNA from your immune system, otherwise, it would quickly be destroyed.
The vaccinations contain instructions for cells in specific areas of your body to produce protein spikes similar to those found on the COVID-19 vaccine. After the instructions are passed on, your cells break down the mRNA.
The cells also produce mRNA spikes, which the body recognizes as foreign invaders. The body mounts an immune response and learns how to destroy the protein spikes. Then, if viruses enter your body with similar protein spikes, the body already has a good idea of how to respond.
Few vaccines have ever entered the market as quickly as the COVID-19 vaccines. That said, while these vaccines were produced in record time, they were also rigorously tested and so far, no serious health risks have been uncovered.
Importantly, the current mRNA COVID-19 vaccines do not use a weakened live virus as many vaccines use. Instead, only a small part of the virus, the protein spike, is created. This all but eliminates the risk of someone contracting a disease.
“People are right to have questions about the COVID-19 vaccinations,” Richard Sorgnard says, “but the science is sound. Using mRNA means we don’t have to use live, weakened viruses. While vaccines created with weakened viruses are safe, they can take a long time to develop and test. Researchers need to be certain that people won’t catch the actual disease, among other things.”
In the future, mRNA vaccinations may play a major role in fighting many other viruses as well.