- How the Flu Vaccine Works
- How This Vaccine Works
- Danger #1: Rush to Distribution
- Danger #2: Unknown Side Effects
- Danger #3: Herd Immunity?
Are we to believe that since the first reported case of SARS-CoV-2 in December of 2019, we miraculously have a cure? Are we also to assume that after 70 years of flu vaccines that have an estimated 40-60% efficacy rate, we suddenly developed one that has an efficacy rate of around 95%? It seems too good to be true, and maybe it is. This video will examine how vaccines work, how this new vaccine works, and look at three dangers of taking or not taking the vaccine. So let’s jump in.
1- How the Flu Vaccine Works
There are three methods of developing the standard flu vaccine: egg-based, cell-based, and recombinant. Egg-based production has been the most common method for the last seventy years and accounts for most of the vaccines in use. Essentially, various strains of flu viruses are isolated and incubated into fertilized hen eggs. Doctors choose strains based on the ones they think are most likely to show up that year. The fluid containing the virus is harvested from the eggs. The viruses are then killed, and the antigen is purified. Once the refinement process is complete, the vaccine is ready for use. The vaccine is said to take about two weeks to work. You can get sick even if you get the shot, but your illness will likely be milder than if you skip the vaccine.
An antigen is a molecule or molecular structure, like what is on the outside of a pathogen, that can be bound by an antigen-specific antibody or B cell antigen receptor. In layman’s terms, it’s like a nametag for the virus. It isn’t the virus. It’s just sort of a label on the outside of the virus that the body can read. The presence of antigens in the body normally triggers an immune response. Your body’s immune system reads the nametag and then sends in the bouncers to kick the virus out. In a more scientific explanation, your body recognizes some of the foreign proteins and molecular components of the dead virus and says, “Hey, that guy isn’t supposed to be here.”
The flu vaccine’s effectiveness varies from year to year and may depend upon the age and health of the person receiving the vaccine. Every year, the CDC conducts studies about how effective the flu shot is at protecting people against the virus. Recent statistics show that the vaccine is forty to sixty percent effective in reducing the risk of flu illness.
So, if you take forty to sixty percent of the people who get the flu vaccine, almost fifty percent of the population, and add all the people who already had that strain or a similar strain of the flu and built some natural antibodies to it, you almost have enough to claim some primary herd immunity. At least, you have enough to reduce the seasonal flu from being a pandemic. If you add to that the SARS-CoV-2 safety measures of mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand washing, sanitizing, and reduced gathering sizes, we may have the lowest seasonal flu numbers we have had in a long time. Record low seasonal flu numbers were realized by many countries in the southern hemisphere this year that have already gone through their flu season.
To achieve a higher efficacy rate from the flu vaccine alone, scientists would first have to do an excellent job of picking the exact strains and variant strains of the viruses that will go around the globe that year, so their candidate vaccine viruses grown in the eggs have the right mix of peptides, proteins, hemagglutinin, and neuraminidase subtypes. And if you think that sounds complex and tricky, that’s because it is. It is a guessing game. Second, you need more people to take the vaccine. The CDC estimates that the number needs to be closer to seventy percent of the population.
So, can vaccines be effective? The answer is “kind of” for people who get them, and maybe every little bit helps. This new vaccine is different, though.
2- How This Vaccine Works
This new vaccine works very differently and is very specifically targeted to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Specifically, it looks at the protein SARS-CoV-2 uses to attach to healthy cells in the human body. That protein is foreign to the body, but because the virus is “novel” or new, the body doesn’t immediately recognize it as a threat. When it does, it can dramatically overreact, causing a cytokine storm. A cytokine storm is a life-threatening systemic inflammatory syndrome involving elevated levels of circulating cytokines and immune-cell hyperactivation. Another way to say that is your body panics and makes the situation worse. I mention the cytokine storm here because those who had COVID-19 and recovered will likely be ineligible for the new vaccine because of the hyperactive immunological response they could have to the vaccine. With this respect, enough isn’t known about the potential response in these individuals. So, if you have had the virus, you likely will not be eligible for the new vaccine. This is okay, though, because if you have recovered, you should have some immunity built up for at least a few months, according to current research. Fortunately, a T cell test is coming out that can more accurately measure a person’s immune memory, for lack of a better term, for fighting SARS-CoV-2.
By focusing on the singular protein the virus uses to connect to healthy cells, the body focuses its immune efforts on that one foreign protein and doesn’t panic. If a person is exposed to the virus, the virus has a much harder time getting established. Moderna claims an almost ninety-five percent efficacy rate from their phase three clinical trials, which is astounding if true. This vaccine is like a laser versus a shotgun when compared to the typical flu vaccine.
The vaccine’s uniqueness doesn’t stop there, though. This vaccine is called a messenger RNA vaccine, or mRNA vaccine. An mRNA vaccine, a vaccination method first tested in animals 30 years ago, instructs some of our own body’s cells to make a specific protein. This harmless protein is called a spike protein, and it is the same protein found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. In this case, the protein that allows SARS-CoV-2 to attach to healthy human cells is produced in some of the body’s cells. This alerts the immunity systems bouncers to the foreign protein and kicks our immunity response into gear. Once the cell produces the protein, the cell breaks down the instructions and gets rid of them. Imagine the whole thing like an early scene in a spy movie where the person to find is revealed to the agent, and then the tape self-destructs. At the end of the process, our bodies have learned how to protect against future infection. There are no long periods of incubation in eggs, no inert virus, and none of the costly and lengthy processes involved in the shotgun approach.
As we said, this technology was first tested 30 years ago. The problem then as now was that the mRNA breaks down so quickly. That’s good to assure us there aren’t likely to be long term effects in the human body. That’s bad because the virus has to be shipped and stored at such incredibly low temperatures. The real upside of this technology is the potential to use this in the future to dial in and customize a readily available cure to, potentially, a whole host of diseases.
With COVID-19, we had the world’s great minds collectively working on a solution. We had a complete genetic profile of the virus in record time. We turned the world’s collective greatest minds and computers into exploring and finding weaknesses in the virus. We had an unprecedented sharing of research and findings. Imagine what we might do if we turned all that energy to other world problems once this one is solved.
Does it sound too good to be true? Maybe it is. What’s the distribution schedule and plan, and will people get in line to take it?
3- Danger #1: Rush to Distribution
The first real danger is the rush to distribution. First in line for the vaccine will be healthcare workers. This round of vaccinations will take place in the January to February timeline. Then essential workers and those over sixty-five years of age. This will take place in March and April. Beginning around late April and May, the vaccine will be available for general use.
Rushing to production anything can have unforeseeable consequences. Will people voluntarily get a vaccine that hasn’t seen enough clinical trials? Maybe they will, but will that be enough to reach the seventy percent of the population required to develop some herd immunity and slow the virus’s transmission? The virus itself may be the determinant of this. If SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread and infect at the current exponential rates, very few people will remain untouched by this virus if the numbers are to be believed.
In some states, we could see mandatory vaccinations for anyone wanting to enter the public schools, government buildings and jobs, and for the military. Do you want to go to Mexico, Canada, or on vacation to any foreign country? Your taking the vaccine before 2021 is over could determine your capability to move freely in 2022. The government might require you to carry vaccination proof. It depends on how effective the vaccine is for those who choose to receive it and whether ICU beds fill up close to capacity.
4- Danger #2: Side Effects
Many a sci-fi plot line begins with people being inoculated against one virus only to create another far worse side-effect. While we will go ahead and rule out the zombie apocalypse with this one, the lack of data of any long term side effects is at least cause for concern. We can look at the science on the page and evaluate the risks. Right now, 73,000 people were in stage 3 clinical trials of the vaccines. We can look at the known side effects: fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain, headache, pain, injection site pain, redness at the injection site, and weigh those against the con of getting the virus. These types of side effects were reported in fewer than 10% of the recipients. Again, the success rate of the vaccine against getting COVID-19 is reported to be over 95%.
In the past, there have been medicines that have led to severe events, life-threatening events resulting in death, hospitalization, residual disability, and even congenital malformation. These have sometimes resulted from bad batches of medicine or isolated cases of a few individuals who have had a reaction to the medication. These are the stories that grab the headlines. You don’t hear of the millions of people who were spared the illness because of the vaccine. So far, 73 thousand people with no problems is a good track record. As this mRNA breaks down rather quickly and the vaccine requires two shots spaced apart to be effective, it looks like our bodies can handle it pretty well. While effective, it doesn’t seem to be overwhelming any of the body’s functioning systems.
5- Danger #3: Herd Immunity?
Herd immunity is perhaps not the best of terms. We are talking about disrupting the disease’s ability to transmit from one person to another–breaking the chain of transmission. If an infected person comes into physically distanced contact with five other people and three of those people have been vaccinated or have already recovered from COVID-19, the chances of transmission go way down. When that one infected person finally becomes symptomatic and stays at home self-quarantining, the virus can’t effectively spread through a community.
So, one would think that a vaccine with a 95% efficacy rate would solve all our problems, and it would if everyone received it, but this is America, and this herd hasn’t been moving as a unified body in quite some time. Suppose by September or October of 2021, a substantial percentage of the global population is vaccinated, and it works as prescribed, and we add in the people who had COVID-19 and recovered. In that case, there is a good chance that we will have the virus under control.
Will we have herd immunity? Will the virus be gone? No. The same Influenza virus that went around in the 1918 pandemic, H1N1, is still circulating. Our treatment methods got better, and enough people got it and built up some immunities to it. As aspirin is a blood thinner and doctors once treated the Influenza virus with up to 3,000 milligrams a day, it’s no wonder one of the reported side effects was hemorrhaging.
While we won’t have herd immunity, all of the factors combined will make SARS-CoV-2, hopefully, as harmless as the common flu. The 2% fatality rate could drop even lower, and the new cases could drop to more manageable levels.
Should you take the vaccine? If you are on the front line as a healthcare worker, you likely will have to take it to be on the job. If you are a regular person and you choose to wait a little while and see what happens to the million or so people ahead of you in line, I can’t blame you. You have to assess the risks of contracting SARS-CoV-2 in your community, but you also have to weigh the evidence of the vaccine’s efficacy and see if there are any prolonged side effects. If you live in the woods with your nearest neighbor miles away, you are probably good to wait on it a bit and see what happens. If you have already had the virus and recovered from it, you will likely be advised against getting the vaccine. If you work in a public or government job, you likely won’t be provided the option to wait. If you are in the military, you won’t have a choice. If it works as well as they say it does, and no long term side effects emerge, the number of people in ICUs or coming down with the virus will decrease to more manageable levels. COVID-19 will still be around, but it really will be no worse than the common flu.
Do you plan on getting the vaccine? What is your take on it? Based on the information in this video, do you think it’s safe?
As always, please stay safe out there.