To make an effective vaccine requires comprehensive years of research. The record was four years for mumps. We first heard about COVID in early 2020 and we now have two effective COVID vaccines. How did they were prepared so quickly? To understand this, let’s discuss some facts.
First, we knew exactly what the virus was very quickly. Ten weeks after COVID was identified, the DNA structure was published. This means we had the COVID cookbook. Significant advancements in computer technology allow us to figure out DNA sequences quickly and that means we knew COVID’s strengths and weaknesses. COVID had no secrets.
Secondly, we had seen diseases like COVID in past and made vaccines for them. COVID is a kind of coronavirus with spikes on its surface and this is what allows it to get into our cells. We also could make a good guess about what the spikes were made of because we had the COVID DNA and the DNA from other coronaviruses. We had the information about spikes material in the other coronaviruses, and we could look for that material in the DNA of the COVID virus. If there was the same DNA sequence in both, then we had a match. It turns out that the spikes in COVID and the other coronavirus were very similar. The spikes were the key to develop the vaccine.
Lastly, artificial intelligence (AI) gave us the ability to test many mRNA sequences to see if they could make the spike that would allow our immune system to attack it. AI also showed us that we didn’t even have to make the whole spike to make our immune system go to work. AI found out that if we could just find the mRNA to make a piece of the spike that would be good enough.
Another discussion we encountered is mentioned below.
Dear Doctor: I don’t think I’m the only one wondering how the new coronavirus vaccines got developed so fast when other vaccines in the past took so much longer. Can you please elaborate?
Dear Reader: When the quest for a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine began, early in 2020, we had only previous vaccine development to guide our expectations. And you’re correct, those vaccines — against diseases such as polio, measles, smallpox, and chickenpox — took years, or even decades, to develop.
Until now, the fastest timeline was the four years it took to develop the mumps vaccine. Yet less than a year into the current effort, two highly effective preparations have received emergency-use approval from the Food and Drug Administration. This is due to multiple factors. A crucial one is an international cooperation, which resulted in the immediate sharing of the genetic sequence of this never-before-seen virus. Additionally, the global health crisis prompted abundant funding.
But perhaps most important was the nature of the virus itself. Coronaviruses get their name from the distinctive “crown” of club-shaped spike proteins on their outer surface. Thanks to years of previous research, we know that the virus uses these proteins to enter human cells. It is also a stated fact that COVID-19 is quite similar to SARS and MERS, each of them coronaviruses that also originated in animals and jumped to humans. In developing the new coronavirus vaccines, scientists were building on an existing body of knowledge.
Unlike previous vaccines, which used a weakened or inactivated virus to trigger an immune response, the new vaccines harness the molecular building blocks of the novel coronavirus. Specifically, they use a single strand of genetic code known as messenger RNA or mRNA. The genetic code teaches human cells to build a harmless fragment of the spike protein, just enough for the immune system to recognize the coronavirus. This triggers a robust response that deactivates the spike protein. Because that spike protein is how the coronavirus penetrates a cell, disabling it prevents infection. And, because there are multiple ways to deploy mRNA, multiple vaccines are now in different stages of development. That’s also why, when you get the first of the two-dose vaccine regimen, you have to follow up with the same vaccine. You can’t mix and match.
Both approved vaccines have impressive efficacy of 94% to 95%. The numbers are a bit lower for people 65 and older, but it’s believed that may reflect the smaller sample size of clinical trial volunteers in that age group. As with many vaccines, this one has several side effects. Some people receiving the shots report experiencing pain at the injection site, headache, fatigue, pain in the muscles or joints, chills, and mild fever. Several people have experienced severe reactions to the vaccine, but those cases were rare.
1. We knew what COVID was made of because we had the DNA sequence
2. We had seen this kind of virus before and had a head start on a vaccine
3. We could run a lot of vaccine possibilities on the computer to see what worked
This information allowed us to figure out the piece of spike we needed to make, how to make it and why it would give the proper immune response.
Many scientists from biology, chemistry, computer science, and physics worked on the vaccine and we should be thankful they are working so hard for us.
These new coronavirus vaccines are game-changers. In light of the dangers posed by COVID-19, as well as the lingering effects of the illness, we hope that when the vaccine becomes available to you, you will choose to get immunized.