COVID-19 – Rays of Hope for a Better 2021

COVID-19 – Rays of Hope for a Better 2021

As we draw near to the end of 2020, it is safe to say that few of us are sorry to see the back of it. Worldwide, people are suffering from pandemic fatigue, political friction, economic challenges, and exposure to misinformation. This has ensured that public health officials have had a steep uphill battle on their hands as they attempt to control the surging COVID-19 infections.

Calling the Shots

Despite all of this, we can end 2020 with a the happy knowledge that multiple vaccines are approved and ready for roll out. These much-anticipated vaccines, for some, stand as light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. But how do they work?

Vaccines work because they teach your body to rapidly recognize the disease-causing part of a virus. Traditionally, there have been two broad categories of vaccines: live attenuated and inactivated. The characteristics of live and inactivated vaccines are different, and these characteristics determine how the vaccine is used.

Live attenuated vaccines are generated by modifying a disease-producing virus or bacterium in a laboratory. These wild type viruses or bacteria are attenuated, or weakened, normally by repeated culturing. To produce an immune response, live attenuated vaccines must replicate (multiply) in the vaccinated person. Although live attenuated vaccines replicate, they usually do not cause disease such as may occur with the “wild” form of the organism. When a live attenuated vaccine does cause disease, it is usually much milder than the natural disease and is referred to as an adverse reaction.

Inactivated vaccines are created by growing the bacterium or virus in culture media which is then inactivated using heat and/ or chemicals (usually formalin). The organism can be further treated to purify only those components to be included in the vaccine. These vaccines cannot cause disease from infection, even in an immunodeficient person. Inactivated vaccines are not alive and cannot replicate. Therefore, these vaccines usually require multiple doses or supplemental booster shots.

Better than New

The COVID-19 vaccines fall into a new category of vaccines. This new type of vaccine, known as a mRNA vaccine, works a little differently to traditional vaccines. mRNA vaccines work by teaching our cells to make a protein, or a piece of protein, that triggers an immune response. This response results in the production of antibodies which prevents or significantly diminishes infection if exposed to the real virus.

The virus that causes COVID-19 have protein spikes on their surface. The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines give instructions to our cells to make harmless pieces of these spike proteins. After inoculation with the vaccine, cells produce these proteins and then the instructions are broken down and removed. These cells then display the protein or protein piece on its surface. At this point, the army that is our immune system kicks in. It recognizes the surface protein as not belonging and it initiates an immune response and the production of antibodies. This mirrors what would occur with natural infection from the virus. It is similar to the way learning to ride a bicycle with training wheels reduces the likelihood of falling. These vaccines teach our bodies to fight the virus with training wheels on so that we are much better equipped to deal with the real version if exposed to it. The value of mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is those vaccinated acquire this protection without ever having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19.

Separating Fact from Fiction

It is equally important to dispel myths surrounding these vaccines. As no live virus enters the body, you will not get COVID-19 when you are vaccinated. The vaccine in no way affects or even interacts with your DNA. The mRNA contained in the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cells which is where our DNA is held. The cells degrade and remove the mRNA as soon as they are finished using the instructions. These vaccines, despite the speed with which they have come to fruition, have been held to the very same rigorous and effective safety standards as any other vaccine that has come before them. Although there have been no mRNA vaccines licensed in the United States prior to this, researchers have been studying and working with them for quite some time. Interest has increased in this type of vaccine as they can be easily synthesized in a laboratory with available materials. This has contributed to the more rapid development of these vaccines as processes are readily standardized and scaled up. Collaboration between all parties is just as important for the distribution and administering of these vaccines to ensure the maximum benefit and the quickest overall protection from this disease which has devastated so many.

Looking ahead, it is hoped that these advancements in the production of vaccines will lead to a single vaccine which provides protection from a number of different diseases as well as becoming a tried and true means to address future novel infectious diseases.

Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation
arthritisresearch@curearthritis.org

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. Writing articles about the patients affected and the science being done to find a cure shows why we need to come together to #CureArthritis!

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