As the COVID-19 infection and death rates surge throughout the country, the importance of a prompt and efficient vaccine rollout is more important than ever. In Los Angeles County, 1 in 5 individuals getting tested are testing positive for the novel coronavirus. Phase 1a of vaccine distribution—which prioritizes frontline healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents—is underway throughout the country. This week, some states began vaccinating groups in the next Phase, 1b, which will include frontline essential workers and adults 75 and older. Both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines have proven effective in preventing COVID-19 in clinical trials. However, mRNA vaccines are poorly understood by the general population and many folks are weary to receive them.
Given the United States government’s history of human experimentation, it is reasonable for folks to be weary of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. In the last century alone, the federal government knowingly deceived and exploited hundreds of Black males in the Tuskegee Experiment. This deceit and exploitation led to the illnesses and stolen lives of many innocent Black men who were told they were being treated for a terminal illness, but were in fact receiving no treatment at all. While we are all tired of today’s pandemic and eager to return to a safer and more normal life, it is crucial to remember the government’s track record of human experimentation and lying about medical treatments or interventions—specifically to people of color—when discussing the importance of vaccines and other government-led interventions.
Above all, we are respectful of all opinions, concerns, and beliefs related to the COVID-19 vaccine and encourage everyone to be kind and empathetic when having conversations surrounding the controversial topic.
In an effort to help shed some light on the largely misunderstood COVID-19 vaccine, we dug into the facts about these vaccines, how they work, what their potential risks entail, and more, and we’ve listed what we learned in Q & A format below.
Q: Is the vaccine effective against COVID-19?
A: Yes. Both vaccines approved by the FDA have proven to be over 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection according to the CDC. Studies also indicate that vaccinated individuals are less likely to have severe symptoms leading to death if they do somehow contract the virus.
Q: How is the COVID-19 vaccine different from other vaccines like the flu vaccine?
A: Specific viruses and bacteria that can cause infections in humans are called “antigens.” Historically, most vaccines in the U.S. contain part of the antigen itself—in either live (activated) or dead (inactivated) forms. Typically, the amount of antigen is so small that it is unlikely to cause a severe infection in vaccinated individuals. The miniscule amounts of antigen are detected by the body’s immune system as soon as they enter the body, and the body makes an army of cells to attack the virus in case it is ever seen again. Most of the population in the western world has received vaccines that include pieces of live or dead antigens, including vaccines for measles, polio, tuberculosis, or the flu. Although these traditional vaccines have been generally successful, they do not come without faults. The antigens in these vaccines sometimes cause individuals to become sick and infected rather than protected. Because many of the viruses or antigens for these vaccines are grown in poultry egg culture, a risk for other contamination also exists. For the past several decades, scientists have sought to find vaccines that do not include any virus, allergens, or antigens. Hungarian-born scientist Dr. Katalin Karikó is often cited for discovering the science behind using mRNA as a method of delivering vaccines. Dr. Karikó spent many years seeking funding for her research idea and was rejected numerous times — and was even demoted and fired at points of her career. By the end of the 1990s, folks finally realized she was onto something. In the early 2000s, scientists started to test vaccines that do not include any virus, bacteria, or other antigens themselves—but instead have sequences of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), which writes the instructions for our cells and tells them which proteins to make. Proteins of all types exist naturally in our bodies. Proteins are essential to all bodily functions and are not in themselves harmful. Many viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19, also have proteins attached to their outer shell. Using mRNA technology, we have been able to create the genetic instructions that tell our cells to create (and attack) a specific protein known to be attached to the COVID-19 virus’ shell. Once the immune system recognizes this protein as foreign, it creates thousands of cells that will exist specifically to identify and kill that protein when it is encountered again in the future. Therefore, as soon as the virus causing COVID-19 is introduced into the body, these cells will quickly eradicate it and likely prevent the person from becoming infected. In sum, mRNA vaccines provide the same level of protection as traditional vaccines but without exposing an individual to any antigen or viral fragments. The risk of contamination from poultry egg culture seen in traditional vaccinations is also not a factor with mRNA vaccines since there is no virus or antigen to be grown in a petri dish. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black scientist who lives in Orange County, CA, is one of pioneers of the Moderna mRNA vaccine being administered across the world.
Q: Is it true the COVID-19 vaccine will change my DNA?
A: No. Unfortunately, a common (and well-disputed) myth surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine is that it may somehow change your DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid (i.e., the genetic code that makes you who you are). The COVID-19 vaccine does not include DNA. Instead, it includes mRNA, which provides instructions for our body’s cells. Some individuals worry that the COVID-19 vaccine will somehow be able to integrate itself into our DNA based on what they have heard about some viruses that can do this such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). That is not the case. While HIV, a virus comprised of ribonucleic acid (RNA), does have the ability to integrate itself with one’s DNA, it can only do so under certain circumstances. First, it needs very specific enzymes present to convert its RNA to DNA—enzymes that do not occur naturally in human cells and must be brought by the virus itself. The mRNA vaccine does not include an RNA virus. Instead, it merely includes the instructions for making a protein found on the outside surface of the COVID-19 virus. There are no enzymes included in the vaccine that would allow the multi-step, complex process of DNA integration to occur under any circumstances. Additionally, the mRNA never even reaches the nucleus of our body’s cells, which is where our DNA is stored. It never contacts our DNA in the cell and is eradicated once our cells use it to create the protein of interest—usually within 72 hours.
Q: Most vaccines take years to make. Why should I trust a vaccine that was rushed and made in less than a year?
A: It is true that many vaccines take years to develop, but we are normally starting from scratch and not under a specific time crunch. The virus causing COVID-19 is a coronavirus closely related to two other coronaviruses discovered in 2003 and 2012, SARS and MERS. Since 2003’s outbreak, scientists have been researching vaccines for coronaviruses; this gave us a headstart on the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The unprecedented number of illnesses and deaths due to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 certainly sped up the process, but a rigorous, scientific, and peer-reviewed process was followed nonetheless, meeting international standards and guidelines.
Author: Zachary Thomas (Margolin & Lawrence)