The vaccines now used to stop the spread of COVID-19 were the quickest developed in recent history, causing some people to hesitate before getting vaccinated.
But the mRNA vaccine technology used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines has been around for more than a decade, and has been used in vaccines to fight rabies and Zika, said Dr. Sarah Banks, infectious disease specialist for Hartford HealthCare’s Central Region.
“That was a very important stepping stone that was already in place for development of the COVID-19 vaccine,” Banks said.
Dr. Ulyessus Wu, another infectious disease specialist at Hartford HealthCare, likened the technology to car repairs.
“The car is already made, they are simply replacing the tires,” Wu said.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine by contrast uses a disabled adenovirus to deliver the instructions. This adenovirus is not related to the coronavirus. It is a completely different virus. Although it can deliver the instructions on how to defeat the coronavirus, it can’t replicate in your body and will not give you a viral infection. This technology has also been used in vaccines to combat ebola and other infectious diseases.
The ability to create vaccines using the mRNA technology allows for a “cut and paste” approach once the virus sequence is identified and shared, Banks said.
Another reason for the quick rollout was the sheer number of scientists and researchers dedicating their time and efforts to finding a solution to the global pandemic, Banks said.
“They put all of their effort into this one problem and developed a vaccine even though they have been working for a shorter period of time,” Banks said.
The mRNA vaccines are designed to teach our cells how to make a protein — or even just a piece of a protein — that triggers an immune response inside our bodies.
That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.
The benefit of mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is those vaccinated gain protection without ever having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
COVID-19 mRNA vaccines give instructions for our cells to make a harmless piece of what is called the “spike protein.” The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19.
First, COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are given in the upper arm muscle. Once the instructions (mRNA) are inside the immune cells, the cells use them to make the protein piece. After the protein piece is made, the cell breaks down the instructions and gets rid of them.
Next, the cell displays the protein piece on its surface. The immune system recognizes that the protein doesn’t belong there and begins building an immune response and making antibodies as it would against COVID-19.
At the end of the process, the body has learned how to protect against future infection. The benefit of mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is those vaccinated gain this protection without ever having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19, according to the CDC.Myths, misconceptions
There are some common myths surrounding the vaccines that doctors and researchers are working to dispel.
Namely, they cannot give someone COVID-19.
mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19.
They do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way.
mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.
The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.
Future mRNA vaccine technology may allow for one vaccine to provide protection for multiple diseases, thus decreasing the number of shots needed for protection against common vaccine-preventable diseases. In fact, Pfizer announced it was working on a booster that could protect against both COVID-19 and the seasonal flu.
One difference between the COVID-19 vaccine and season flu vaccines is the influenza vaccines are developed based on a prediction of the predominate strain at the beginning of the season. In contrast, the COVID-19 vaccine was developed on the precise sequence prevalent at the time of arrival. Fortunately, it has proven effective against several identifiable variants.
Whether this remains, depends on how often the virus is allowed to mutate in unvaccinated persons.
Additionally, cancer research has used mRNA to trigger the immune system to target specific cancer cells.Closely monitored
People have also questioned the lack of long term studies which may cause some vaccine hesitancy.
But Banks and other doctors stress that the people who were involved in the clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccines have been immunized for nearly a year.
“The patients originally enrolled are still being followed by the companies that developed the vaccine,” Banks said. “And that’s still an ongoing process. We’re coming on a year and we haven’t seen any serious adverse events.that would warrant changing our approach.”
She acknowledged a pause in the J&J vaccine based on concerns over reports of blood clots. But the final conclusion resulted in studies that revealed no inherent danger in the vaccine. The fact that there was a pause at the first sign of a potential risk, should give the public confidence, the monitoring system is working.
“Doctors and researchers are still collecting information as the roll out continues,” Banks said.
Doctors and researchers input data and patients input side effects into a conglomerate data system, which is then screened for patterns or potential risks.
There are no additional concerns at this point, she said.
Wu tells patients the longterm risk people should be concerned about is contracting COVID-19, becoming seriously ill or having long term effects.
“We believe in the science and in the safety,” Wu said. “It is studied constantly and continuously. “We believe in the monitoring of the process and the safety.”
Wu has learned that hesitancy occurs in clusters and the undecided are a very small group. Groups of people who want the vaccine influence like-minded friends and family members to get vaccinated. A similar occurrence happens in those who reject the vaccine over fears of microchips or government control, he said.
“A lot of this is not rooted in science,” Wu said.