There is no doubt that 2020 will go down as one of the most traumatic years in recent history. We have lived through a pandemic; a deeply divided nation; an economic crisis; forced to simultaneously work and educate children; witnessed heroic health care workers who gave everything, even their lives, to fight a virus and in the US, there are 300,000 deaths and counting.
We have reason to celebrate.
This year could become the year when science saved the world by introducing a “sea change” technology. Given the rapidity and remarkably high efficacy of this technology, scientists are researching how to expand it to other illnesses, such as cancer.
While I do not have scientific training that would qualify me to understand this new technology; I can still see the significance of this story.
Moderna and Pfizer took a gamble that mRNA technology would be the best mechanism for rapid vaccine development. But even they were surprised by the 95% efficacy. Oxford, by contrast, used a tweaked methodology of a killed virus and got a 70% efficacy, (typical for flu vaccines).
So, how is this technology so different? mRNA stands for Messenger RNA, which you probably heard about in your old college science classes. Messenger RNA is the mechanism that DNA uses to tell the cell which proteins to develop.
Here is how it works (in very simplistic, layman’s terms). Scientists manipulated mRNA to instruct normal cells to develop the COVID 19 spike proteins (called “S” proteins). Then they injected patients with this modified mRNA. The mRNA caused normal cells to develop COVID 19 spike proteins and the recipient’s immune system developed antibodies to attack cells with these “foreign” proteins. By the time vaccinated individuals were exposed to the COVID 19 virus with its characteristic spike proteins, their immune systems had already developed the antibodies to attack it. (Viruses must invade our cells in order to replicate.)
To summarize, vaccine recipients developed antibodies to a virus to which they had never been exposed.
Scientists have had this technology for at least 20 years, but there have been substantial problems with implementing it. The best and worst aspect about mRNAs is that they die quickly, too quickly. Until 2007, when researchers at the University of Pennsylvania developed a technology to prevent mRNA from dying too quickly, mRNA could not have had any impact. But with this methodology, an injection of mRNA could stay viable long enough to trick some normal cells into developing the spike protein. When the immune system encountered cells with these spike proteins, it created antibodies to kill those “foreign” cells.
This vaccine was developed in less than a year; it took over 20 years to develop the polio vaccine.
Since this is a relatively new technology, we need to be cautious. We don’t know about reactions to the vaccine and if those who have reactions get the same benefit. We don’t know how long this vaccine will be effective. We don’t know if there are long term consequences.
But for now, more than one newscaster has called it a miracle.
But scientists know better, it is simply science.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.