The world has been anxiously awaiting the arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine ever since the first confirmed U.S case in January of 2020. No one quite knew what to expect and how long this mysterious virus would last. Many began working at home with the expectations of everything returning to normal within a few weeks or months. Yet the virus persisted, and the death toll rose.
News of potential vaccines and treatments emerged throughout the year and then faded into obscurity almost as quickly as they appeared. That’s why it was such monumental news when the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines in early December 2020. The trials moved at breakneck speeds to reach the point of public immunization in just seven months, setting a record for passing the clinical trial phase.
Within the next month, the US and many other countries plan on increasing the rollout of the first public messenger RNA vaccine, which is one of the vaccines that was authorized for public use. With such an unconventional year comes an unconventional vaccine, and that has many potential recipients concerned. So much so that the CDC has issued guidelines for healthcare workers to refer to speak with their patients and discuss the misconceptions surrounding the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine.
Here’s a look at what the mRNA vaccine means in terms of your DNA and genetic makeup.
What is an mRNA Vaccine?
The active ingredient in the mRNA version of the shot (Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna) is mRNA, mobile strands of genetic code. This code is what is used as the blueprint for constructing proteins in the body. The body’s cells rely on mRNA to extract the details from hard DNA and bring them to their protein assembly line.
The mRNA components inside the vaccine instruct the body’s cells to begin to produce coronavirus spikes. These cells then start to create a viral protein that won’t infect other cells, but it will trigger the body’s viral defense system. These imitation viral cells do such an excellent job of imitating a real viral cell that they train the immune system to recognize and respond to any SARS-CoV-2 cells that it might encounter.
This type of vaccine is so unique that it has never been approved for widespread use in humans before. A working mRNA vaccine will not only be crucial for defeating covid; it will also be a considerable advancement for the scientific community as a whole.
Quick Facts About mRNA Vaccines
- Just like any other vaccine, the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have been rigorously tested for safety before ever being released to the public.
- While the mRNA technology is relatively new, it is not unknown. The technology used in mRNA vaccines has been studied for over a decade.
- The mRNA vaccine does not contain a live virus. That means it is not possible to cause disease in the vaccinated person.
- The actual mRNA portion of the vaccine does not enter the nucleus of the cell. It will not interact or affect the DNA of the patient.
How does the Covid-mRNA vaccine work?
To tackle a devastating pandemic in the modern age, researchers need a cutting-edge method to guarantee success. For that, they turned to a promising process that has been in development for over a decade. These mRNA vaccines take advantage of the natural process that the body uses to create proteins. The vaccine harnesses this process and uses it to create an immune response that will build an immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
This process is different from traditional vaccines. Most vaccines use either a weakened or inactive version of the virus to target the body’s immune response and naturally create antibodies.
mRNA Springs into Action
Inside each mRNA vaccine are strands of genetic material that are wrapped within a special coating. That specialized coating is responsible for protecting the mRNA strands from the body’s enzymes that could break them down. The coating also allows the mRNA to enter specialized cells (dendritic cells and macrophages) located in the lymph node near the injection site.
A simple way to think of mRNA in this vaccine is as a set of instructions that tell specific cells how to make the “spike protein” uniquely found in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Since only a part of the protein is created, rather than the whole virus, it will not harm the vaccinated person.
Once the spike protein is created, the cell will break down the mRNA strands and dispose of them.
One concern that many have regarding an mRNA vaccine, is how their genetic material will be affected once the mRNA interacts with their body. Here, it is crucial to note that the strand of mRNA material never enters the cell’s nucleus. It will not have the opportunity to interact or affect any genetic material in the cell. The mRNA component of the vaccine will not modify or alter a person’s genetic makeup.
Once the protein spikes are displayed on the cell’s surface, they begin to act as an antigen (a molecule that triggers an immune response). These antigen cells will create an immune system response, which is the body’s natural defense against foreign invaders. They will activate T-cells to fight what the body identifies as an infection. The most exciting result of this reaction is that these antibodies are specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and will prepare the body to protect against future infections.
New Vaccine Protocol
Since mRNA vaccines are a relatively new technology, manufacturers must address a number of unprecedented obstacles. One of these obstacles is how to store the vaccine for later use or transportation.
One common element to many of these newly developed vaccines is that they require freezing or near-freezing temperatures to prevent the vaccines from breaking down and becoming unusable. So what is the main difference between these batches, and why does one require sub-arctic temperatures while the other does not?
These pharma giants hold many of the commercial secrets used to make these vaccines effective close to the vest. To answer that question, one must apply a small amount of speculation.
Several things will determine how delicate an mRNA vaccine is and how deeply it must be chilled to keep it fresh and intact. Each company addressed these challenges differently, which is why each version has a specific storage temperature. The main culprit for the cold requirement lies in the chemistry of the RNA itself.
RNA tends to be less stable than its cousin, DNA. The difference in stability lies in the types of sugars that come together to make up each molecule’s backbone. RNA has a spine mostly made up of a sugar called ribose, while DNA’s spine consists of deoxyribose. The main difference between the two is that DNA is missing a molecule of oxygen. As a result, DNA is much more resilient and can survive harsher conditions, while RNA is much more fragile and temporary.
When cells need to perform a specific task, they usually call on the body’s proteins for help. However, just like real-world manufacturers, they do not have a stockpile of proteins stored up. Instead, they need to make a new batch of proteins each time that they perform the task. The instructions for creating these proteins are stored in the DNA.
These DNA instructions are quite significant, so in order to avoid damaging them, the cells create RNA copies of the set of instructions. The RNA copies are then used by the body’s production line to create the new proteins.
However, much like a coded message set to self-destruct in a spy movie, RNA quickly falls apart once it is read. The body soon disposes of the RNA material to control how much protein is created. To take out the RNA trash, the body employs a host of enzymes whose job is to clean up after the cells are finished creating proteins. Putting the mRNA vaccines in a cold or freezing environment prevents these enzymes from breaking apart the RNA material and making the vaccine useless.
While we don’t know the exact differences between the manufacturer’s approach, chilling or freezing the doses is undoubtedly an effective way to keep the mRNA intact so the virus can be safely administered.
How was the vaccine developed so quickly?
Another concern when considering such a revolutionary step in preventative healthcare is the relatively short time from the trial phase to roll-out. One of the most significant reasons for the rapid development of the mRNA vaccine is most vaccine developers were hesitant to devote any resources to genetic vaccines prior to this year. In fact, before 2020, only 12 mRNA vaccines even went into the human testing phase. Of these 12, none were ever approved.
Then the coronavirus struck, and everything changed.
Most rapid medical breakthroughs are due in part to financial incentives. Unfortunately, before the pandemic hit, big pharma did not have much financial motivation to get involved. Once governments realized the gravity of the Covid-19 situation, they began to fund clinical trials at greater rates, and pharmaceutical companies saw less risk in attempting something new. The global demand for a safe and effective vaccine concentrated the efforts of labs across the globe to condense years of research into months.
Even though there was a substantial financial incentive to developing a vaccine for public use, the impact of Pfizer and BioNTech’s research will far outlive the pandemic.
The approval of these groundbreaking treatments will pave the way for using mRNA technology to develop vaccines for other infectious diseases, autoimmune disorders, and, hopefully, even cancer. Utilizing mRNA technology for genetic therapies and treatments will accelerate the biomedical field into a new advanced era.
What does the future hold for mRNA vaccines?
Although many are eager to see mRNA vaccines used more readily, the procedures are still in their infancy. A lot depends on how effective the initial Covid-19 treatments are. Until researchers can step back and analyze a full data set, it is challenging to interpret genetic vaccines’ true potential.
For instance, researchers have many questions regarding the Covid vaccine and how it will affect larger populations and across different age groups.
One question that is still yet to be answered is what exactly is happening with patients’ symptoms and their viral loads. When referring to Pfizer’s trial protocol, it would be reasonable to conclude that the vaccine effectively prevents severe Covid-19 cases. However, does this also mean that these trial participants are not getting infected at all?
Finding the answer to this question could be the difference between effectively stopping the virus’s spread in individual communities or merely keeping people out of hospital beds. If vaccine recipients can build up an effective immunity against the virus, how long will that immunity last?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions might not come as immediately as most would like. As the data collection continues, researchers will develop a more accurate picture of the vaccine’s long-term efficacy.
Benefits of Genetic Vaccines
While genetic vaccines’ immediate future is not absolute, mRNA vaccines have several notable benefits compared to traditional types of vaccines. mRNA vaccines take a shorter amount of time to produce and manufacture. They can target multiple troublesome diseases, and they do all of this without actually containing any infectious elements.
These vaccines can also be entirely developed in a laboratory setting using a DNA template and materials that are already readily available. While the process becomes standardized, it will be possible to scale up production, producing genetic vaccines quicker and more efficiently than traditional production methods. Additionally, RNA and DNA vaccines typically require less time to be moved into clinical testing phases. In the future, vaccine developers hope to apply genetic vaccine to a whole host of diseases, including cancer.
Time will tell the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccine; however, the blueprints for creating a safe and effective mRNA vaccine are in place. The Coronavirus has brought about countless deaths and hardships. Hopefully, there is a small, scientific silver lining in this pandemic, and the advancements made in such a short time will live on to benefit many in the future.