Freaking out about the Vaccine?

Image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

We know little about the vaccines we’re being presented with to stop the COVID pandemic. No idea how long we’ll be immune although it’s predicted by the manufacturers to only be 6-9 months and Pfizer just announced that a third shot will in all likelihood be required in the fall. No idea what effect they will have on reproduction. No idea what effect it will have on people who have knowingly or unknowingly been infected previously.

mRNA is a new concept for delivery of a vaccine (new lipid technology plays a big part here, too) and doesn’t have much of a track record.

The general consensus is that the global program will do more good than harm. Certainly in the UK which has vaccinated most of it population transmission and infection rates are much lower than countries in Europe where the vaccination rollout has been mired by bureaucracy. In addition, the massive amount of data is going to shape response to coronaviruses for years to come.

But what if you don’t want to get a shot. Stand your ground! Don’t let the agitprop get to you. If you are concerned we should band around the Constitution and fight back. Use the language of the left: My body my choice! If you’ve been vaccinated, why are you worried that I’m not? I’m waiting for the science!

We thought we’d run some of the science for you here, to help with your decision.

The Immune System—the Body’s Defense Against Infection

To understand how COVID-19 vaccines work, it helps to first look at how our bodies fight illness. When germs, such as the virus that causes COVID-19, invade our bodies, they attack and multiply. This invasion, called an infection, is what causes illness. Our immune system uses several tools to fight infection. Blood contains red cells, which carry oxygen to tissues and organs, and white or immune cells, which fight infection. Different types of white blood cells fight infection in different ways:

  • Macrophages are white blood cells that swallow up and digest germs and dead or dying cells. The macrophages leave behind parts of the invading germs, called “antigens”. The body identifies antigens as dangerous and stimulates antibodies to attack them.
  • B-lymphocytes are defensive white blood cells. They produce antibodies that attack the pieces of the virus left behind by the macrophages.
  • T-lymphocytes are another type of defensive white blood cell. They attack cells in the body that have already been infected.

The first time a person is infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, it can take several days or weeks for their body to make and use all the germ-fighting tools needed to get over the infection. After the infection, the person’s immune system remembers what it learned about how to protect the body against that disease.

The body keeps a few T-lymphocytes, called “memory cells”, that go into action quickly if the body encounters the same virus again. When the familiar antigens are detected, B-lymphocytes produce antibodies to attack them. Experts are still learning how long these memory cells protect a person against the virus that causes COVID-19.

What is a Vaccine?

Here’s how the CDC actually does define a vaccine, a definition that is easily found on the CDC website under Immunization: The Basics:

Vaccine: A product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease. Vaccines are usually administered through needle injections, but can also be administered by mouth or sprayed into the nose.

Vaccination: The act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.

Immunization: A process by which a person becomes protected against a disease through vaccination. This term is often used interchangeably with vaccination or inoculation.

And here’s the FDA’s definition of a vaccine:

Vaccines work by mimicking the infectious bacteria or viruses that cause disease. Vaccination stimulates the body’s immune system to build up defenses against the infectious bacteria or virus (organism) without causing the disease. The parts of the infectious organism that the immune system recognizes are foreign to the body and are called antigens. Vaccination exposes the body to these antigens.

Some vaccines contain weakened versions of a bacteria or virus, other vaccines contain only part of the bacteria or virus. Some vaccines contain only the genetic material for a specific protein and direct the body to produce a small amount of that protein. The body’s immune system reacts defensively once it detects this protein.

After vaccination, the immune system is prepared to respond quickly and forcefully when the body encounters the real disease-causing organism.

The definition of “vaccine,” be it the FDA’s or the CDC’s definition, does not require that the compound injected be a protein or a weakened virus. Under the definition above, the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccines do exactly what the CDC definition of “vaccine” states: They are products that “stimulate a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease.” Hence they are not gene therapies.

Types of Vaccines

Currently, there are three main types of COVID-19 vaccines that are authorized and recommended, or undergoing large-scale (Phase 3) clinical trials in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for their use but none has been approved.

Below is a description of how each type of vaccine prompts our bodies to recognize and protect us from the virus that causes COVID-19. None of these vaccines can give you COVID-19. And despite some crazy internet scaremongering mRNA vaccines cannot accurately be described as “gene therapy” – much as we love a good conspiracy theory at SRC, that’s not one we’re subscribing to.

  • mRNA vaccines contain material from the virus that causes COVID-19 that gives our cells instructions for how to make a harmless protein that is unique to the virus. After our cells make copies of the protein, they destroy the genetic material from the vaccine. Our bodies recognize that the protein should not be there and build T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight the virus that causes COVID-19 if we are infected in the future. (Moderna and by Pfizer/BioNTech)
  • Protein subunit vaccines include harmless pieces (proteins) of the virus that causes COVID-19 instead of the entire germ. Once vaccinated, our bodies recognize that the protein should not be there and build T-lymphocytes and antibodies that will remember how to fight the virus that causes COVID-19 if we are infected in the future. Subunit vaccines usually contain either a protein, a polysaccharide — a sugar molecule, or a combination of the two from a pathogen. They are safe because they cannot cause disease. Because these vaccines contain only a small part of the pathogen, they are less likely to produce strong side effects. However, they are also less likely to create long-lasting immunity. Therefore, many subunit vaccines contain adjuvants, chemicals that scientists add to the vaccine to elicit a robust immune response. (Novavax COVID-19).
  • Vector vaccines contain a modified version of a different virus than the one that causes COVID-19. Inside the shell of the modified virus, there is material from the virus that causes COVID-19. This is called a “viral vector.” Once the viral vector is inside our cells, the genetic material gives cells instructions to make a protein that is unique to the virus that causes COVID-19. Using these instructions, our cells make copies of the protein. This prompts our bodies to build T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight that virus if we are infected in the future. The viral vector technology is relatively new to human vaccines and was first successfully used in the Ebola inoculation, approved in the U.S. in 2019, but the CDC notes it’s also being studied in vaccines against infectious diseases such as Zika, the flu and HIV. (Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca )