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The COVID-19 Vaccine: How Does it Work?

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Covid vaccine

The COVID-19 vaccine.

This time last year some people were gathered, huddled together while shopping for Christmas gifts.

This year some people are huddled indoors, eagerly awaiting their turn for the COVID-19 vaccine.

With that in mind, The O’Colly spoke with the head of microbiology at Oklahoma State University, Dr. Tyrell Conway, to provide an explanation to what goes into making a vaccine and how it works.

Q: Will you be getting the vaccine?

Tyrell Conway: I plan to take it, to be vaccinated.

Q: How do you feel about those that aren’t?

TC: The whole anti-vaccine movement, has been thoroughly discredited by science, you know these vaccines have been distributed to billions of people if you think about the DTP (Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis) or some of the other ones that are in common use, the ones you take before you start school. I don’t know how these myths get started, but that’s what they are. They’re myths.

Q: Why was it approved in the U.K before the United States?

TC: The reason it was approved sooner in the U.K is because our FDA works differently than theirs does. They work with the data provided by the manufacturer, actually the summary of the data. FDA doesn’t do that, they take all the data from the phase 3 trials and they do their own analysis. So, we have a more thorough system. At any rate what I started to say was both the Moderna and Pfizer BioNtech vaccines are something that have never been widely used before, they’ve only been used in trials and that’s the messenger RNA mechanism. So, we don’t know yet when it’s been given to hundreds of millions of people, if there are going to be any adverse reactions. So, I say that because that’s the way a scientist thinks. You have to prove it to me, right? I’m not even skeptical, I’m just telling you that science isn’t going to accept that there are no side effects until we have the data, but I’ve known about these nucleic acid vaccines since the 1980’s. It was a pretty crazy idea that you could just inject a nucleic acid DNA or RNA into a cell or into an animal and elicit an immune response, but that’s how our body responds.

Q: Why do you think they picked this way as developing a vaccine as opposed to other ways?

TC: Because it’s so fast. So, they had, when they were given the money, probably even before they were given the money before from Operation Warp Speed. Well first of all we had the genome sequence of the virus, the one that emerged in Wuhan, China, and they know enough similar viruses to know that this spike protein on the surface of the virus, is how the virus attaches to our cells and once it attaches the virus has to internalize into our cells in order to replicate. It is simply a package with RNA inside that has to turn itself into virus that then spreads through the body and to other people. So, they already knew what the target was, they had the gene sequence. So, they then took that gene sequence and made messenger RNA from it, with that sequence, you can synthesize that and so that’s why it was so fast. They knew what the target was and they could go into the lab and make it, actually there are machines that make RNA and it doesn’t cost very much and you can do it in an afternoon. So, they were very rapidly use what they call humanized mice. So, these are mice that essentially have the mouse immune system replaced with a human immune system, and they can go in there and test and develop a dozen vaccines in an afternoon, make them the next day and inject animals the next week.

Q: So, in theory, if every single one of those vaccines worked we could cure many diseases in an afternoon?

TC: So, doesn’t that bode well for the next pandemic we face? I think in terms of the pandemic response, it has been brilliant. Did it catch us off guard? No doubt, but future pandemics may not get the same foothold if we can go to a vaccine that rapidly. However, these trials for like HIV, there are just some diseases that are not easily vaccinated against. HIV in particular, it’s just an insidious disease because it attacks the very immune cells that we need to fight it, but that’s not the case with coronavirus. There’s more that goes into it than what I’m letting on, they have to have a delivery system. You can’t just, well you can just inject RNA into the body and it will work, but it’s just not very efficient. So, they have packaged the messenger RNA with a lipid, essentially a fat and that protects the messenger RNA, which also helps it to penetrate our cells. So, the mechanism of uptake is called lipofection. So, “lipo” meaning lipid and “fection” meaning transfection of the cells. So, the RNA is injected into cells so to speak.

Q: So, with that we have the spike protein, which then invades our cells and causes an immune response?

TC: That’s right. So, the messenger RNA has to be decoded inside our cells and that’s how the protein is made. Then the proteins gets broken up into bits, short segments of amino acids that by the miracle of the animal body, the proteins are essentially trafficked to the outer face of our cells. Together with something called major histocompatibility complex (MHC) and together those signal the immune system to react to a foreign protein. So, the body has cells that bind to the combination of MHC and the foreign antigen, an antigen is a short piece of protein that can stimulate the immune system. Antibodies bind to antigens, well in this case there’s a cell that’s going to make the antibodies and it’s going to bind that protein complex on our cells say “oh this is foreign” and a whole bunch of signaling goes on to make sure that it’s really foreign and not one of our own proteins, which protects us from autoimmune diseases and then it starts making antibodies. So, that happens typically seven to 10 days from the injection. If everything goes right, proteins get expressed, the immune system gets stimulated, the body will start making antibodies and that’s going to peak at three weeks, something like that and that’s why there’s a booster at 21 days. 

Q: To further ensure that your body continues to have an immune response correct?

TC: Yes, that’s right. Now there’s a lot of vaccines that require a booster. I got a shingles vaccine in June and I have to go in for a booster this December. The point is there are a lot of vaccines that require a booster.