All you need to know about mRNA vaccines

In an interview, Rob Swanda discusses the safety of mRNA vaccines, their side effects and how long will vaccine immunity last.

Are the COVID-19 vaccines safe? What are the side effects? Should I go and get myself vaccinated? In an interview with Omnia Health Insights, Robert Swanda, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry at Cornell University, whose video on how Coronavirus vaccines work has been viewed by over 4 million people, discusses all you need to know about the vaccine.

Watch the video to hear more, or scroll down to read excerpts of the interview.

 

What are the differences between the vaccines currently being tested?

Right now, there are two main vaccines that are in the mRNA category, one made by the Pfizer and Biotech collaboration, and the other made by the company Moderna. Both of them use mRNA technology to give our bodies some instructions. Our bodies use those instructions to then make one of the proteins found in the virus. And the virus is composed of 29 proteins, so we're only making one of them. We're able to recognise that this protein is different in our body and that elicits an immune response. And then we have immunity in case we see that protein in the future, that protein would be associated with the virus; we can fight it off and then not get sick. Now you can think of this like you're getting a recipe from one of your friends. So, they're not just going to give you the food, they're going to give you the recipe, instead, you have to use your own ingredients, make the food and then you're going to remember how to make it in the future.

The other vaccine that is being developed is through the Oxford and AstraZeneca collaboration. And this is the viral vector vaccine. This works a little bit differently but has the same concept. So instead of using mRNA, they turned it into DNA. And this DNA is actually much more stable. That's why this vaccine is able to be at room temperature, and it can handle longer storage and more transportation. What they've done is they turn it into DNA, and then they put that inside a weakened form of adenovirus. This virus that they picked typically infects chimpanzees. They didn't choose a human adenovirus, because we might already have antibodies against other forms of adenoviruses. So, the vaccine wouldn't really have much of an effect. If they gave it to us, our immune system could destroy it before we build that immunity. So instead, they use this chimpanzee adenovirus; they removed the genetic material that allows it to make us sick, that allows it to even divide inside of our bodies. It's really like you're taking the jacket off of somebody else and putting it on a different person. They're really just using that adenovirus as a way to infect ourselves, give us that DNA, and then our bodies will turn the DNA to RNA, and then RNA to protein, again, only for that spike protein – one of the 29.

How safe are mRNA vaccines?

My current research is designing mRNA’s to actually target cancer cells. I am super excited to see that this is being developed now, in order to potentially save us from this pandemic. The mRNA is being used for a variety of different conditions and are very safe. The reason I say this is because mRNA doesn't last a long time. So, we're used to getting a lot of drugs to treat different conditions and these drugs could have side effects. Those side effects are often because the drugs stay in our bodies for months. And the mRNA actually doesn't even last more than a couple days, it will be quickly degraded by our bodies because of its instability. And your body actually degrades mRNA because it knows how to make more. So, it turns your own DNA into RNA. So, then it will destroy the RNA. And then it thinks, well, I don't need to keep this around, because I know how to make more. But the vaccines work by just giving you the RNA, so then you don't know, you don't need to continue to make more of it. You just get that one little dose, it's gone. And then it's almost like you've never had it before, except the memory in your immune system that now remembers to fight it off.

Can we trust vaccines that have been developed so quickly?

Typically, these companies are used to competing with each other and not sharing ideas so the movement can be a little bit slower. However, in this case, all of these companies and universities across the world have been collaborating, so that they can pull us out of the pandemic. The fact that they were able to do it so quickly is really just a testament of how well they were able to work together, and then use information that had been developed over two decades. These mRNA vaccines have gone through other clinical trials for influenza for Ebola, so they were able to use some of that information and figure out what didn't work there that we can change and make it work here.

Are there any side effects associated with the mRNA vaccine?

Getting any type of vaccine will elicit some type of short term, inflammatory response. Anytime you get a vaccine, you usually get it in your arm or in the upper leg, and you usually experience a little bit of soreness because you are getting poked with a needle. You might also have some redness in the area and a little bit of swelling. That's all just common for the inflammation to take place. This means that your body is beginning to make this immune response. So that's actually a good thing. Some people have said that they've had some side effects, such as some headache, or not feeling very well for the first 12 to 24 hours. In the clinical trials, some of these symptoms were listed, but nobody had anything long term where they weren't feeling back to themselves. So, there are a few side effects to take into account that you might not be your same self the next day or even that day. But right afterwards, you'll be back to normal, and then you'll have that immunity.

How long does immunity last?

Unfortunately, the clinical trials that were done for these vaccines were quick. So, the amount of time for the length of immunity hasn't been studied more than around eight months. We know that the people who received this vaccine during clinical trials since May still have the immunity now. So that's good and shows that this immunity is lasting. It is also important to note that individuals need to receive both doses.

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