The COVID-19 Vaccine!

Some hope is being restored as clinical trails for the COVID-19 vaccine pass significant hurdles and milestones. Numerous companies and organisations have been developing  the infamous COVID-19 vaccine. Including University of Oxford, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, most of which are biotech companies. 

The UK has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. As of a few days ago, the UK has ordered 40 million doses, which is enough to vaccinate 20 million people (each person needs two injections of the vaccine a few weeks apart).  

I think we are all holding our breaths for the vaccine to work effectively so that we can return to a ‘more’ normal life. I do not think we’ll return to the pre-COVID world that we once enjoyed anytime soon. However, we can certainly look forward to grandchildren hugging their grandparents for the first time since March, colleagues reuniting beyond the Zoom screen and NHS workers being appreciated far more than they are now (hopefully). 
I recommend watching the video “Hold Still”, spearheaded by the Duchess of Cambridge on the National Portrait Gallery’s website. A link: https://www.npg.org.uk/hold-still/

I want to talk about what this vaccine is. And why it is being developed so quickly. Anyone will know that it takes years to develop a vaccine (10-15 years). Maybe that is why people are do sceptical about the vaccine. I certainly think getting the vaccine, when available, is a sensible choice. Many misconceptions about vaccines can be disproved easily (This is coming from someone who has a ridiculous fear of needles). But as a teenager with no underlying health conditions, I will not be receiving it anytime soon. The top of the priority lists seems to be health care workers and over 80 year old. Rightfully so. 

Previous Vaccines

Other vaccines are usually made from inactivated, dead or weak versions of the virus in question. Antigens (proteins) on the virus signal to the body that it is foreign. This essentially triggers an immune response from your body to produce antibodies which can fight the virus. The immune system can then retain memory against the virus by using Memory B and T cells. If the real virus enters the body, the immune system can respond more quickly and efficiently, to prevent harm to you. 

Photo Credit: BBC

COVID-19 Vaccine

However, the COVID-19 vaccine does not work like that. The vaccine is a mRNA vaccine which teaches our body how to make the protein (antigen) instead of providing it outright.

mRNA is messenger RNA, a form of Ribonucleic Acid (RNA). It is involved in the transcription and translation of protein synthesis. In transcription, the DNA in the nucleus acts as a template for the mRNA form. So the mRNA is essentially a copy of a gene (it is not an entire replication of DNA because it is only single stranded, whereas DNA is double stranded). Unlike DNA, mRNA is small and short so it can leave the nucleus and go to the ribosomes (the organelle in a cell responsible for protein synthesis). At the ribosome translation happens, where the codons on the mRNA complement the anticodons on tRNA which match amino acids in a specific sequence. The amino acids can then fold in any shape to create a protein. The process is far more detailed than this, utilising a wide range of enzymes like DNA Helicase, RNA Polymerase and Peptidyl Tranferase, but I don’t want to complicate things. 

The mRNA is synthesised in a lab. The natural process described above is accelerated with technology because we can sequence the DNA of virus’s reasonably fast now. 

The mRNA is then injected into a person and acts as the genetic code for our cells to make a “spike protein” found on the surface of COVID-19. Scientists are targeting the “spike protein” because it is responsible for COVID-19’s ability to enter cells and replicate by attaching to receptors on host cells in the body. If the immune system can block the “spike proteins” on COVID-19, the virus will not be able to reproduce. Oxford University have put the gene for the “spike protein” on a cell from a harmless virus, so that it can go directly into the cells in your body.

Photo Credit: National Geographic

The cells will release the protein (exocytosis) from the cell, where the immune system will recognise it as foreign and produce antibodies to tackle the problem. By the end of the two injections our body will have learned how to protect against future infection and will recognise the COVID-19 “spike protein” when it enters your body, and get rid of it faster. 

Why such fast development?

The reason the vaccine is here so quickly is partly due to technological advancements in recent years, particularly around genetic engineering and DNA. Scientists also had previous knowledge of SARS-1 which is also a coronavirus, making it somewhat applicable to our current situation. But it is also down to the fact that mRNA vaccines do not require batches of the virus and it can all be synthesised in a lab making it quicker.

Why it is safe

The mRNA vaccine is not being used for the first time now, it has been researched before, for the flu, rabies and other viruses. Moderna has been using it for cancer research too. Although COVID-19 is a new virus, we are experienced. We do know what the mRNA will do in the body and scientists believe it is safe. The only challenge now is the efficacy of the vaccine. Right now it has a high efficacy, higher than vaccines that took years to develop. This has been a success for scientists because of how little time it has taken to make the vaccine and there is hope that other novel viruses will not pose as great a threat as they have now and in the past.

2020 has been tough…on all of us. But what has come out of this stressful year is a better community where we check up on each with a quick phone call and buy groceries for our elderly neighbours. Hopefully, acts of kindness like this will continue when everything returns to ‘normal’. 

Thank you for reading and I hope you and your family are happy and healthy despite the difficult situations we find ourselves in everyday. Remember, you are living and surviving a pandemic, don’t be so hard on yourself!

Photo Credit: The Scientist Magazine

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