If you don’t want to read the whole post, scroll directly to the bottom for all the references.
I was hearing questions and concerns from some listeners, friends and family about the new coronavirus vaccines and mRNA vaccines in general. These were all valid too. It’s important that we can chat about this stuff and express concerns that come from a genuine place of wanting to know more. Obviously, there is a group of folks that don’t want answers they want to tell you not to trust anything and for whatever reason, sow fear and confusion. We aren’t talking to them, but by addressing legit questions and doing our best to provide accurate and honest info, hopefully, the folks with dishonest, inaccurate info and intentions will occupy less space in the public conversation and the minds of people looking for answers.
Alright, with those intentions clearly stated, the types of concerns I saw revolved around how quickly these vaccines were developed and all the talk of them being new technology or a new type of vaccine. These things are true. They were developed faster than any vaccine in history (which is a great thing actually) and yes, mRNA vaccines have never received widespread approval in humans before. However, there are very normal, ordinary reasons and explanations as to why. It’s not that corners were cut, or that mRNA vaccines are inherently risky or dangerous.
First off, these vaccines undergo and continue to undergo the same safety/regulatory scrutiny and processes that any medicine or vaccine does, and this system works quite well. Vaccines are among the safest medical interventions we have. The reasons these came out so fast has to do with, the great need for a coronavirus vaccine and therefore attention and money that went into this, the technology behind mRNA vaccines themselves and the fact that both coronavirus specific vaccines and mRNA technology has been in development since at least 2003, even longer.
Two great sources I follow that help explain this are Peter Hotez and Florian Krammer. Both are vaccine and virus researchers at Baylor University and Mount Sinai, respectively. Follow them on Twitter (linked above on their names) as both actively provide quality information. Here is a short video of Dr. Hotez discussing how long these have been in the works and a link to Dr. Krammer, and others, debunking common coronavirus vaccine myths.
I also highly recommend this piece in STAT Magazine that lays out the whole history of mRNA technology. These advances are decades in the making and the promise of mRNA technology is huge. This is all covered in more detail on the pod, but in short, our ability to understand the genetic code and build short pieces of mRNA allow us to write recipes for our cells to build stuff. Our bodies do this all the time too, so really we are just taking advantage of normal, everyday biology. In cells, DNA from the genome, which contains all of the recipes (genes) to make each individual protein needed to build a living thing, are individually translated into short messages made of mRNA. This message can then move to the protein making machines in the cell, be read and produce a single protein. What scientists have been working on for years is, fine tuning a way that we can write our own mRNA messages and instruct our bodies to make medicines, proteins we are missing due to a genetic disease like Huntington’s disease, or in this case the spike protein from a coronavirus. In doing so our immune system reacts like it would to any vaccine. It recognizes that viral protein and builds antibodies.
This process of building an mRNA message for our cells also happens to be way easier and quicker from a lab work perspective compared to other vaccines. So-called traditional vaccines use a dead or weakened version of the virus or a viral protein that has been chopped off. To make these the whole virus must be grown in cell-cultures (small dishes full of cells), then removed, then killed, weakened or broken apart. This is time consuming and expensive work. So all of these factors together, the huge need and subsequent funding, the ease of building mRNA vaccines and the fact that mRNA technology and vaccines have been in the works for decades all contributed to the speed. And, the success of these vaccines so-far in clearing the normal regulatory process bodes really well for mRNA tech and vaccines moving forward. Here is a piece from Wired talking about this. If you want a reaaallll deep, nerdy dive here is a Nature review paper on mRNA vaccines. At least seven different mRNA vaccines, for diseases like Zika, flu, rabies and more, have been previously developed and are at various stages of clinical trial as well. So it’s not like these haven’t been in people before.
In terms of safety and the fact that this is the first use of these vaccines, well, there is a first time for everything. Again, the need, the decades of groundwork and the speed at which these can be made all led to now being the time to try out a mRNA vaccine in a big way. It is true though, that the idea of using injected genetic material to direct your cells to make virus protein sounds totally messed up. I’ve heard concerns that these will somehow mess with our own genomes and mutate us, or mutate in a super virus that we are now producing. Real talk? This can’t happen.
Messages made of mRNA can’t be translated back into and mess with the DNA that makes up your genome. This would required a very specific enzyme which humans don’t produce. If we did any virus we naturally got infected with would be able to do this and we would be totally effed. Remember that this process of using our cells to make viral proteins is exactly what viruses already do. They get in, release their genetic material and instruct our cells to make copies, die and then explode apart so all the copies can go infect more cells. The second backstop is that in an mRNA vaccine the instructions to make the whole virus, kill the cell and explode it aren’t there. The whole virus is never created, just a small piece that gets chopped up by the body after a little while. Without all of the instructions present the virus can’t replicate, mutate or run wild in your body.
Finally, people are worried about long term data, and yes, we still need more data. However, we have lots to work with and all of it indicate these are just as safe as any other vaccines. Both the mRNA vaccines coming out from Moderna and Pfizer recruited around 30-40 000 people for phase 3 trials. These are really big numbers and if there were major concerns we would know. If there wasn’t an emergency, yes more trials with more people from more places would occur and would continue to build on what we already know, that these are very safe but small groups of people with certain conditions may have complications. People with allergies or auto-immune disorders for example. And we would never hear about these trials until the vaccines gained full approval. What is happening now with emergency use approval is that rather than gathering this data through the slow closed off process of clinical trials; we’ve deemed ( and rightly so) that these are safe enough to start giving to people, especially high risk people, and collecting this extra data that way. Essentially, nothing has changed in terms of safety checks, data collection etc., except we are all watching the process play out in real time.
Things people do need to be aware of though. These vaccines have been shown to prevent people from getting sick. We don’t know if they stop you from getting and transmitting the virus or how long any protection lasts. Therefore, we should expect to continue masking and distancing for awhile. Also, there are reports that the usual vaccine side-effects of sore arm, fever, or chills that occur in some people and that indicate the vaccine is working, can be pretty bad. Here are a few sources on that from Medscape and Science. So if you get a bad headache, fever etc., this can last for 24-48 hours, but you’ll be fine.
The pod itself has some more details and thoughts from me, so do check it out. We can be excited about the vaccines but will need to stay vigilant with the other measures for awhile longer. If we do it’s possible we are at the beginning of the end. Stay safe y’all!!
Dr. Peter Hotez: The covid vaccine discovery was not a 4 month process, it was a 17 year process -MSN
6 dangerous COVID-19 vaccine myths debunked – Yahoo
The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race – STAT
Why It’s a Big Deal If the First Covid Vaccine Is ‘Genetic’ – Wired
The promise of mRNA vaccines: a biotech and industrial perspective – Nature
COVID-19 Vaccine Has Potential Side Effects, Nurse Volunteer Says – Medscape
Fever, aches from Pfizer, Moderna jabs aren’t dangerous but may be intense for some – Science