NOTE: In the first article on this topic, I noted that while the COVID-19 vaccines were developed quickly, they weren’t unduly rushed. This article digs deeper into another common concern.
Here’s a thought experiment. What if our experience with COVID-19 turns out to be a warm-up for responding to a worse plague in the future? COVID-19 is devastating for a significant number of older people but relatively innocuous for the young. I am thankful that this is not like the Justinian plague, nor the Athenian one, nor like smallpox. What if—God forbid—we find ourselves hosting a plague like one of these? Something as deadly as Ebola but as infectious as SARS-CoV-2?
In the face of an even more devastating threat than COVID, we aren’t going to care that the vaccine was brought to market quickly. An apocalyptic scenario like the plague in Stephen King’s The Stand could be avoided. We will never eliminate this horseman of the Apocalypse, but perhaps we can vitiate his threat.
Some have asserted that the COVID-19 vaccine should be rejected because it makes a person a chimeric organism. Some fear the mRNA virus will be incorporated into the genome, rendering a person a transgenic organism, with genes altering the person’s genetic code. But this is not the way the vaccine works. The genes in this vaccine cannot become part of your genetic reality.
Why is this? Because the COVID-19 vaccine, which is a single strand of RNA, works similarly to the virus itself.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus’s genetic code is not DNA, but RNA. The RNA strand of both the coronavirus and of the vaccine does not have the twisted double helix shape of the DNA in your body, but is a single strand that folds into a specific shape.
This kind of RNA virus doesn’t become part of your genetic code.
In biochemistry, the Central Dogma says that genetic information flows from DNA to RNA to protein. The RNA (specifically, a molecule called messenger RNA) is the set of instructions copied from the DNA and sent to the part of the cell which makes proteins. There, a huge assembly called the ribosome recruits transfer RNA to copy the mRNA instructions to make the proteins, the structural material of the body and the enzymes that catalyze all our biochemistry.
The SARS-CoV-2 genetic code looks like a standard messenger RNA. The body thinks so too, and when faced with the virus material, the body’s own ribosomes start cranking out viral proteins. Simply explained, one of the first things the virus does when it infects your cells is to make an enzyme that makes lots of copies of the virus genetic code, and the virus particles (virions) are assembled in the host cell until they are expelled. The virus gives the body an alternate set of instructions so that your cells will make the proteins the virus wants, not the proteins you want to make.
The manufacturing details of both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are proprietary, but we know they are both mRNA vaccines, formulated with a synthetic messenger RNA molecule placed in specialized soap bubbles called micelles. It seems that mRNA vaccines are cheaper and faster to produce than typical vaccines, which is a godsend both for this pandemic and because of future potential with mRNA vaccines.
The vaccine is a single strand of mRNA that contains some or all of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein genetic code. The spike proteins on the outer surface of the virus give it a crown-like shape (“corona”) and allow the virus to infect many cells, especially those that express an enzyme called ACE2. But this strand of artificial mRNA is not complete, so it cannot force the cells to make new coronavirus virions. If you get the vaccine, the vaccine mRNA can command the cells to synthesize pieces of the virus, the spike protein that the immune system will recognize as an enemy. Later, when the virus tries to infect you, the immunoglobulins (antibodies) elicited by the vaccine immediately recognize the virus and prevent it from infecting your cells, and the antibodies recruit cells in your immune system that destroy the virus.
RNA vaccine technology is a streamlined way to introduce a piece of virus protein (the antigen) into your body. The antigen is not synthesized in a laboratory and then injected into the body, as is the case with most vaccines. Rather, the RNA vaccine allows the body to manufacture its own virus antigens—a more “natural” process.
And what of the original strand of mRNA that constitutes the vaccine that you will be injected with? RNA molecules are relatively unstable inside the body and deteriorate rapidly, having a lifetime on the order of hours to a few days. Then they are gone. The genes coded on this vaccine mRNA will not be able to get into your DNA genome. Only retroviruses have an enzyme that allows that, and coronaviruses are not retroviruses.
I predicted to my students in October 2020 that we would beat this bug, and I think I was right. As the vaccines are distributed, the companies are obligated to continue collecting data about the vaccine’s efficacy and side effects, so that we can better refine the administration of this modern miracle. It will be an honor to receive the vaccine that is the product of so much biotechnology genius brought to the service of humanity. Biotechnology can be abused, but so can all of our technology. In the creation of the COVID-19 vaccines, the better angels of our nature are on display, not the evil ones.
Author’s note: I thank Prof. Devin Stauff (Grove City College Biology Department) for technical suggestions and Cindy Rinaman Marsch for editing assistance. Any errors in the two vaccine articles are my own.
- Remembering Dr. John C. Polkinghorne - March 22, 2021
- Triumph of the Vaccine—No Shape-Shifting Enemy - January 8, 2021
- Triumph of the Vaccine: The Swift Rescue - December 18, 2020
- A Bunch of Guys About to Turn Blue: Celebrating the Apollo 11 Landing - July 17, 2019
- The Opioid Dilemma - June 20, 2019
- When We First Broke the Bonds of Earth: The Story of Apollo 8 - December 21, 2018
- Zero Gee and I Feel Fine … Remembering John Glenn - December 21, 2016
- America Visits Pluto - October 1, 2015
- V&V Q&A – Talking climate science with physicist Glenn Marsch (Part Three) - December 2, 2014
- V&V Q&A – Talking climate science with physicist Glenn Marsch (Part Two) - October 7, 2014