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What's The Deal With COVID Vaccines?

Updated: May 11, 2021

Vaccinations have reduced disease, disability, and death from a variety of infectious diseases for numerous centuries. Their importance is placed on the forefront more so than the previous times with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most common vaccines is an mRNA vaccine or a messenger RNA vaccine. They take advantage of the process that cells use to make proteins in order to trigger an immune response and build immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Antibodies help fight off the virus if it enters the body after vaccination, and this is done by the mRNA. They contain “genetic instructions” to make the protein found on the surface of the COVID virus. This process enables our immune system to recognize this protein and “flag” that it does not belong in our bodies. Thus, allowing our body to build an immune response and produce antibodies in case we contract the virus.

Image rights go to Nature.com (Christain Gaebler and Michel C. Nussenzweig)
This is a the basic mechanism of how the vaccine operates against the novel coronavirus, courtesy of Nature.

The development of a vaccine is a long process with a series of meticulous steps and several trials. While it seems like the development of the COVID-19 vaccine seems expedited, it is essential to remember the technology for mRNA vaccines has been around for numerous years. Before vaccines are sent into trials, several antigens are studied and then evaluated to determine which one evokes an immune response. Phase 1 of developing a vaccine involves giving the antidote to a small number of volunteers, usually comprised of young, healthy adults. This allows experts to assess its safety, confirm that it triggers an immune response, and determine the right dosage. In the next phase, the vaccine is administered to thousands of volunteers. These tests are conducted in different locations to find the effectiveness of vaccine performance on many diverse populations and demographics. Furthermore, this group of people is compared to a set of people who did not get the vaccine but instead receive a comparator product. The volunteers and scientists aren’t aware who took the vaccine or comparator to prevent them from being influenced in their assessment. Suppose the vaccine does not have any adverse effects on the majority of the participants. In that case, experts review efficacy and safety for public health policy approvals. The vaccine’s development continues after it is disseminated to the public; intensive monitoring takes place to keep track of its impact and safety.

mRNA vaccines contain tiny amounts of disease-causing, and other ingredients are added to make sure they are safe and effective. An antigen is an active component that generates an immune response and is a small part of the virus or the whole organism in a weakened or inactive state. Preservatives are added to the vaccine to prevent contamination once the vial has been opened. Ingredients like stabilizers and surfactants prevent the components from blending together. These are often sugars, amino acids or proteins derived from yeast. Another element in mRNA vaccines are adjuvants, which help improve immune response by keeping the vaccine at the injection site longer or stimulating immune cells.

One of the vaccines that have been approved by Health Canada is the Pfizer- BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. As of right now, it has been approved for people over the age of 16 because the side effects have not been fully explored for those who are younger. Some of the mild side effects observed during the trials were soreness at the injection site, body chills and a slight fever. The chance of experiencing a severe side effect, such as an allergic reaction, is infrequent. This mRNA vaccine is injected into the upper arm in a 0.3 mL dosage. For the vaccine to be fully effective, it needs to be administered in two dosages: with the second one being given 21 days later. The Pfizer- BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is proven to be 95% effective. Therefore, an individual is still COVID-19 susceptible one week after the second dose.

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