All You Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

Courtesy+of+WBEZ+Chicago

Courtesy of WBEZ Chicago

Emily Greenawalt ‘23

Background Information on Vaccine Development and mRNA Technology

After months of strenuous work from Operation Warp Speed and its partnership with trusted bio-pharmaceutical companies, the first COVID-19 vaccine was given to U.S. healthcare workers on December 14, 2020, becoming a catalyst in the “most urgent mass immunization campaign since polio shots”, according to The Wall Street Journal. Operation Warp Speed was created as a coronavirus response program, its goals to facilitate the development and distribution of pandemic countermeasures, especially vaccines. 

Considering that the mumps vaccine was once the fastest vaccine developed (4 years), this leaves the public questioning as to how a coronavirus vaccine was able to be created in months without compromising public safety. Due to the pressing matter of the pandemic, researchers needed to keep in mind global cooperation to accelerate vaccine development. Subsequently, this diplomacy advanced genomic sequencing, uncovering the viral genome of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in January 2020: allowing researchers to conduct clinical trials in the beginning age of the pandemic. Also, researchers had pre-existing knowledge about SARS-CoV-2, as it is a member of the coronavirus family, which has been studied for decades, giving scientists preexisting knowledge of the life cycle, structure, and genome. The vaccine was a reflection of years of pre-pandemic research.

Typically, vaccine research uses antigens to trigger an immune response, which alerts your system to produce antibodies, simulating a reaction to a pathogen. However, vaccine companies needed to find a faster way to produce these proteins that is just as effective as this long process. This prompted vaccine companies to try a new approach: Messenger RNA vaccines, or mRNA vaccines. Instead of triggering an immune response from antigens, it instructs our body to make spike protein, found on the surface of the virus, to produce antibodies. After being administered in the upper arm muscle, the mRNA goes inside immune cells to instruct them to develop protein. After this protein is created, the cell breaks down the “instructions” (mRNA) and eliminates them. Following this, the protein piece is displayed on the surface of the cell. This is unrecognized by your immune system, triggering the production of antibodies, similar to what would happen in the natural infection process. What is important to note in these vaccines is that they cannot give someone COVID-19, as they do not use the live virus strain. Also, they do not impact DNA, as the nucleus of the cell holding genetic material is untouched by the mRNA, and the cells work quickly to break down the molecule after it is finished. Due to scientific development during these trying times, mRNA vaccines will be able to speed up vaccine development for many diseases to come, and can be quickly edited for future pandemics.

Pfizer-BioNTech vs. Moderna

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are both mRNA vaccines that received emergency use authorization from the FDA, making them the first mRNA vaccines to be utilized for any disease. During phase 3 clinical trials, Pfizer-BioNTech proved to be 90% effective in preventing the virus, which involved 43,539 participants from the US and abroad. Moderna’s trail of 30,000 adult U.S. volunteers reported a 94.5% efficacy rate, and none of the infected patients developed a severe case of COVID-19. However, there are specific processes that both vaccines have to undergo, and there are differences in administration.

Freezing temperatures: After progress in the medical field in stabilizing mRNA to make it a vaccine, it is still deemed unstable and more likely to break apart without proper storage. Therefore, these vaccines need to be stored in freezing temperatures for distribution and administration. Pfizer-BioNTech requires the vaccine to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit, and the vaccine will break down and prove to be ineffective in about 5 days of regular refrigeration temperatures. Pfizer is also developing shipping with dry ice to solve shipping issues. Moderna states that its vaccine can be stored at most medical freezer temperatures for up to 6 months of storage, and claims a greater shelf life expectancy.

Two shot procedure and vaccine per dose: Pfizer is using 30 micrograms of vaccine, and Moderna is using 100 micrograms. Although Moderna is using more than 3 times the amount of dosage, they have not yielded better results. Both vaccines require two shots, a priming dose and a booster shot. The priming dose is to help your body recognize the virus and prepare your immune system, and the second shot strengthens your immune system. Pfizer’s has seen 52% efficacy in the first shot, and 95% in the second. The time between doses is 28 days, and Pfizer is 21 days.

Side-effects: Due to the vaccine being reactogenic, hospitals have been informed to stagger vaccination due to the common side effects of joint and muscle pain, fatigue, headache, and fever. Side effects have been more common in the booster shoot (second dose), and younger adults have been reported to be more susceptible to side effects. Allergic reactions and anaphylaxis have been reported although unseen during clinical trials.

What to Expect in the Coming Months

Although our virus response has been record-breaking, only ⅓ of the sent out vaccines have been administered to the public (reaching 11 million people), falling short of their goal to administer 20 million doses by year-end. This is said to be the result of inconsistent vaccination plans among the different states, as well as lack of funding and resources in areas across the nation. President-elect Joe Biden has given two speeches addressing his plan for the nation’s pandemic response. In regards to vaccination, he pledged that he will instruct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin mass vaccination centers across the country, promising 100 of these sites by the end of his first month in office. Additionally, he plans to collaborate with pharmacies across the country to distribute vaccines effectively. His intent is to also launch public education campaigns to address virus hesitation and promises marginalized communities that they will have equal access to vaccine resources.

Map detailing U.S. vaccinations
Courtesy of Fortune.com

The CDC will also continue to safely monitor the vaccine as time progresses. The vaccine will continue to aim to vaccinate those aged 65+, healthcare/essential workers, first responders, teachers, and those with pre-existing conditions first. To estimate your place in line for the vaccine, this link will show a graphic of that. Additionally, you can track your state’s vaccine allocation plan using this resource.