Breaking down the science: COVID-19 vaccine

Jamison Guice, Campus Carrier features editor

Jana Morning, Campus Carrier asst. features editor

In December of 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued emergency use authorization of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. At-risk groups like health care workers, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), diabetes or cancer received vaccines first. This still leaves large populations unvaccinated since, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, it takes time to manufacture large quantities of medicine. During this time, the vaccines have garnered public distrust either centering around the ingredients or a lack of insight into COVID-19. 

According to the CDC, both vaccines require two doses in the upper arm and deliver messenger RNA to fight the virus. While similar in some forms, the two vaccines differ in areas such as dosage schedule. The Moderna vaccine requires 28 days, or a month, to pass before taking the second shot while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires 21 days. However, they have more similarities than differences.

Health Center Assistant Director and registered nurse Melanie Merrin said research has shown that adequate immune system responses were not shown after receiving just one dose of the mRNA vaccine. Other vaccines, like those for measles and mumps, require two doses to reach adequate immunity as well.

The most significant benefit to people getting the vaccine is the impact it will have on society. Having the vaccine protects communities, thus limiting the number of people who must quarantine due to exposure.  

When speaking of the college student population, Merrin said that while being in isolation or quarantine can be an inconvenience, the symptoms experienced by students are usually non-existent or very mild. COVID-19 has been known to affect the immunocompromised and elderly differently than children, but it is just as important for them to be open to receiving the vaccine.

“Some people might tend to think, ‘Well, I’m young and healthy, I like my chances of getting COVID,’” Merrin said. “But the risk is that you may give someone the virus inadvertently who isn’t able to tolerate it as well.”

Merrin emphasized that in order to get back to “normal life,” we have to have herd immunity. Herd immunity helps resist the spread of an infectious disease within a population, according to the Oxford Dictionary. This is based on a pre-existing immunity in the majority population as the result of a previous infection or vaccination. 

“We need 70 percent of the population to stop the spread,” Merrin said. “Whether that is by vaccination or by natural exposure to the virus. But the safest way would be by vaccination.”

Merrin mentioned how measles were almost eradicated in the United States but have since made a reappearance in some areas of the country since some populations refuse to vaccinate.

In the meantime, Merrin said social distancing and the wearing of masks is still an effective way to slow the transmission of the virus from person to person.

“The CDC says even if you’ve already had [COVID-19], you should still get the vaccine, and unless you have a personal history of a life-threatening reaction to one of the components in the vaccine, you should take it,” Merrin said.

With many worried the vaccine will cause dangerous side effects, Merrin said to expect the same side effects that come with any vaccine.

According to Merrin, local soreness at the site, low-grade temperature, body aches, and mild fatigue are common after receiving the vaccine. People have reported that the side effects are more noticeable with the second dose than with the first. However, Merrin said that is not an abnormal response.

Merrin encourages students to find good, reliable information and to not be scared to get the vaccine when the opportunity arises.

“The benefits are far considered to outweigh the risks,” Merrin said.

There are many theoretical risks circulating on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter which state that the COVID-19 vaccine will inject the respiratory disease into the body. However, the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are both composed of messenger RNA. This is important in understanding the vaccination process because the mRNA helps fight COVID-19, if the body is ever exposed, by creating viral spike proteins. 

Associate professor of biology Christopher Hall explains that the mRNA is packaged into a solid lipid matrix; the matrix is just a really small, water-insoluble compound that is similar to wax. This helps protect and guide the mRNA to the cells in order to make the viral proteins, otherwise the mRNA would be quickly broken down. 

Hall emphasizes that the body is not injected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Instead, the vaccine instructs the body on how to create viral spike proteins, proteins that are also found on the surface of a COVID-19 cell, which are then broken down. If the body is then ever exposed, the immune system will recognize the proteins unique to the virus and fight it off.

“It’s [the body] just making the spike proteins on the outside of the virus, which the virus uses to infect your cells,” Hall said. “They call it a coronavirus because it looks like a crown around it. So, if you can get an immune response going against those spike proteins, that should protect people.”

Like the rabies vaccinations which require multiple doses, the COVID-19 vaccines use two dosages to build an immune response. For example, Hall focuses on the Moderna vaccine and said the first injection results in a weak or introductory immune response, but the second injection heightens it. The immune response is important since the vaccine is seeking to stimulate a long-term memory response that will cause the body to remember the virus. He said that the response hopefully lasts for years or at least many months.

“These RNA vaccines are not, you know, novel,” Hall said. “They’ve been around for years, but I think that one of the reasons that people get too worried about it is you always hear these stories. ‘Well, I heard on the news’ or ‘I’d heard through a friend that’s a nurse at the hospital that somebody had a reaction.’ People have reactions to vaccines, all the time, regardless of what kind of vaccine.”

Hall mentioned that if getting the vaccine, the benefits do outweigh the risks, especially if worrying about reactions. Some reactions to the vaccine include redness at the injection site, inflammation and slight fever, symptoms similar to some flu vaccine reactions. These are signs that the body is building immune response. Hall mentions that people have a much lower chance of an allergic reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine because there are not any animal proteins. For example, the flu vaccine is most commonly raised in chicken eggs, which is why people with egg white allergies typically react. 

There are many things to consider once the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines become available to majority populations but it is important to remember that, ultimately, it is a personal choice. Websites like the CDC, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and even your local Department of Public Health provide information on the vaccines. Before trusting clickbait articles on Facebook, do your research.

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