COVID Vaccines: The How, What, & Why of Production

By Rowan Obach, C2ST Intern, Loyola University

As the US continues to offer vaccinations across the country, many people remain skeptical. But why? According to the American Psychiatric Association, many individuals want to get the vaccine but are bombarded by misinformation and complicated science articles. This is being combatted by the VACCINES Act; a federally funded national messaging campaign to improve vaccination rates. Vaccines are a complicated mechanism, but by breaking them down and explaining them, we can all help remove the fear from COVID vaccinations. 

Let’s start by explaining the background of COVID-19 research. Scientists have been studying viruses similar to COVID-19 for the last 75 years. One of these viruses was called SARS. SARS is a coronavirus similar to COVID-19 which causes respiratory issues (i.e. coughing, shortness of breath, etc.). In the past, as SARS spread, it adapted, mutated, and evolved into new strains. One of the new strains is SARS-Cov-2, the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of their close relation, the genetics of both viruses are very similar. Scientists used their SARS-Cov-2 research as a blueprint for developing the COVID-19 vaccines. While they were developing this blueprint, they discovered a key difference between their existing SARS research and the COVID-19 virus. This difference was a specific type of protein (coronavirus spike protein) that our cells had no defense for. 

Think of the coronavirus spike protein like this: If you went to Lake Michigan for a vacation with your family, what might you find there? Probably some rocks, maybe some old tree bark or driftwood, or even bluegill. But, if you found zebra mussels (which are an invasive species) in the lake, you’d know something was wrong. The same thing happens with your immune system: your body is able to detect what is familiar and what is foreign. In this case, our immune system has the ability to recognize the spike protein as foreign, but like the invasive species in Lake Michigan, your body does not have the means to fight back. 

So how can we protect ourselves? Well, that’s why we have vaccines. Once our cells can produce their own spike proteins, our body can begin to fight foreign cells. We produce these proteins through messenger RNA (mRNA). You can think of mRNA like an instruction manual. The vaccine itself is just the delivery vehicle and the proteins are the parts. By using mRNA, our cells are given instructions on how to produce imitations of the COVID spike proteins so that when the real ones show up, they are able to deal with them. 

There’s no need to be scared of the COVID-19 vaccines. Just like with a flu vaccine, its main purpose is to protect us against the deadly symptoms of the virus. By informing others and encouraging them to get vaccinated we can help protect everyone from another alarming wave of infection.

To learn more about the COVID vaccines, watch our program, COVID Vaccines: Fact vs. Fiction, or use the resources from our event page.

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