• Samantha Schofield

Vaccines: why you shouldn’t be scared of the COVID-19 vaccine

How’s everyone’s smallpox going? Ohhhh, it doesn’t even exist anymore because of a vaccine! Today, we will explore how vaccines work, if there is any evidence against vaccines and why the COVID-19 vaccines sound like aliens. Sorry anti-vaxxers, its not you, its me. Wait no actually, it is you.

What is a vaccine?

A vaccine is a product made by craaaaaaazy scientists (not really, just the normal kind) that teach the body’s immune system to fight evil, disease-causing pathogens. Normally, when you’re exposed to pathogens, the body’s immune system kicks in and destroys the pathogen and kills the disease.

This starts when the pathogen enters the body (rude) and the molecules on the pathogen’s surface, called antigens, trigger an immune response in the body. The body produces antibodies, which bind to the specific antigens on the pathogens surface, destroying the pathogen. This is all fine and dandy if the pathogen is something the body has seen before. Our body have the antibodies ready to rumble. But, when a new pathogen enters the body that we’ve never seen before, we don’t have the right antibodies for the job and we can’t fight the disease. This is the deal with COVID-19, our nemesis.

How do vaccines work and how are they made?

Traditional vaccines work by injecting a weakened or inactive form of the pathogen into the body. The immune system can easily fight this weakened form of the virus, and the body is able to remember how to fight it if the real virus comes along.

Other traditional vaccines work by isolating just the antigen, which is the part that triggers the immune system. This means the immune system can learn to destroy the virus, without there being any actual killing virus involved (yipee).

The COVID-19 virus has an antigen called the spike protein (the spikey one in green). This was the focus of a lot of COVID-19 vaccines. Scientists focussed on isolating the spike protein and using it to develop their vaccine. The problem with traditional vaccine development is that they are time consuming. They require growing large amounts of the live virus. Scientists have to isolate the spike protein by modifying it, multiplying it and then finally assembling the vaccine. Sounds exhausting to me.

One positive thing about the pandemic (other than my increasing bread making skills) is research was able to be focussed on newer, faster methods of vaccine development. These “new kids on the block” methods only use the genetic information (the spike protein gene) inside the pathogen. The answer was inside us all along! This method was used by the alien-sounding vaccines Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

There are two types of these new, genetic information vaccines, the mRNA vaccine and the Adenovirus (DNA) vaccine.

  1. mRNA vaccines: including Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. mRNA are single stranded DNA that contains instructions. The vaccine uses a part of mRNA in which makes spike proteins. The cell reads the instructions, makes spike proteins and the immune response kicks in. The bad news is, mRNA is kinda a drama queen and needs conditions to be perfect for it to work. mRNA needs a fatty coating and the temperature to be kept very cold. This is a drawback when thinking of the transportation of vaccines across the globe.

  2. Adenovirus vaccines: including AstraZeneca/Oxford. These type of vaccines use DNA instead of mRNA, so they are more stable and less likely to have a tantrum when the temperature increases. The downfall of these guys is that the DNA needs another virus to hold it. Scientists use another virus that can’t replicate in the body and just causes a bit of a sniffle. For the AstraZeneca vaccine, it’s a modified chimpanzee virus that is completely harmless.

Both of these vaccines work in the same kind of way. I like to imagine these vaccines as Gordan Ramsay (bear with me). A tiny Gordan Ramsay is injected into the body through a needle in your arm. He picks up and reads the mRNA or DNA and yells instructions to our cell chefs to make spike proteins (a true delacacy). Then once the meals have been made, the hungry immune system customers eat it, destroying the spike proteins. In the future, the customers know when they see that delicious spike protein (even if its attached to a big weird looking COVID-19 pathogen), they drool and devour it before it goes rotton and shuts down the restaurant (aka kills us). That got dark fast…

Is the vaccine safe? Is there any truth to the anti-vaxxer chatter?

I think its completely fair to be worried about foreign things being shoved into your muscles. My muscles can barely get me through 5 push ups, so I am very protective of what I have. But you have to remember, vaccines go through rigorous development process and testing to ensure the vaccine is safe and effective. If the scientists were the least bit worried, they wouldn’t be lining up for the vaccine.

Do vaccines change our DNA? No. The mRNA vaccines don’t ever enter the nucleus of our cells (where our DNA is kept), therefore there is no way of the vaccine changing or affecting your DNA.

Do vaccines give us COVID? Absolutely not! The cool thing about these genetic information vaccines is that it doesn’t actually contain the virus at all. The vaccine only has information to make the harmless spike protein.

Okay I got the vaccination, now what?

After a vaccination, the body might experiences some side effects, including pain at the injection spot, sore muscles and a fever. This is all normal and actually a really good sign! Your immune system is building immunity and doing a test run in case in runs into the actual virus. Everyone should be excited to get their Pfizer vaccine and have their own tiny Gordan Ramsay saving us from Coronavirus.