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Celebrating the Gift of COVID-19 Vaccines

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COVID-19 - Gift of the Vaccines
Credit: NIH

The winter holidays are traditionally a time of gift-giving. As fatiguing as 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have been, science has stepped up this year to provide humankind with a pair of truly hopeful gifts: the first two COVID-19 vaccines.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech, enabling distribution to begin to certain high-risk groups just three days later. More recently, the FDA granted an EUA to a COVID-19 vaccine from the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA. This messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, which is part of a new approach to vaccination, was co-developed by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The EUA is based on data showing the vaccine is safe and 94.5 percent effective at protecting people from infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Those data on the Moderna vaccine come from a clinical trial of 30,000 individuals, who generously participated to help others. We can’t thank those trial participants enough for this gift. The distribution of millions of Moderna vaccine doses is expected to begin this week.

It’s hard to put into words just how remarkable these accomplishments are in the history of science. A vaccine development process that used to take many years, often decades, has been condensed to about 11 months. Just last January, researchers started out with a previously unknown virus and we now have not just one, but two, vaccines that will be administered to millions of Americans before year’s end. And the accomplishments don’t end there—several other types of COVID-19 vaccines are also on the way.

It’s important to recognize that this couldn’t have happened without the efforts of many scientists working tirelessly behind the scenes for many years prior to the pandemic. Among those who deserve tremendous credit are Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, John Mascola, and other members of the amazing team at the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

When word of SARS-CoV-2 emerged, Corbett, Graham, and other NIAID researchers had already been studying other coronaviruses for years, including those responsible for earlier outbreaks of respiratory disease. So, when word came that this was a new coronavirus outbreak, they were ready to take action. It helped that they had paid special attention to the spike proteins on the surface of coronaviruses, which have turned out to be the main focus the COVID-19 vaccines now under development.

The two vaccines currently authorized for administration in the United States work in a unique way. Their centerpiece is a small, non-infectious snippet of mRNA. Our cells constantly produce thousands of mRNAs, which provide the instructions needed to make proteins. When someone receives an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, it tells the person’s own cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The person’s immune system then recognizes the viral spike protein as foreign and produces antibodies to eliminate it.

This vaccine-spurred encounter trains the human immune system to remember the spike protein. So, if an actual SARS-CoV-2 virus tries to infect a vaccinated person weeks or months later, his or her immune system will be ready to fend it off. To produce the most vigorous and durable immunity against the virus, people will need to get two shots of mRNA vaccine, which are spaced several weeks to a month apart, depending on the vaccine.

Some have raised concerns on social media that mRNA vaccines might alter the DNA genome of someone being vaccinated. But that’s not possible, since this mRNA doesn’t enter the nucleus of the cell where DNA is located. Instead, the vaccine mRNAs stay in the outer part of the cell (the cytoplasm). What’s more, after being transcribed into protein just one time, the mRNA quickly degrades. Others have expressed concerns about whether the vaccine could cause COVID-19. That is not a risk because there’s no whole virus involved, just the coding instructions for the non-infectious spike protein.

An important advantage of mRNA is that it’s easy for researchers to synthesize once they know the nucleic acid sequence of a target viral protein. So, the gift of mRNA vaccines is one that will surely keep on giving. This new technology can now be used to speed the development of future vaccines. After the emergence of the disease-causing SARS, MERS, and now SARS-CoV-2 viruses, it would not be surprising if there are other coronavirus health threats in our future. Corbett and her colleagues are hoping to design a universal vaccine that can battle all of them. In addition, mRNA vaccines may prove effective for fighting future pandemics caused by other infectious agents and for preventing many other conditions, such as cancer and HIV.

Though vaccines are unquestionably our best hope for getting past the COVID-19 pandemic, public surveys indicate that some people are uneasy about accepting this disease-preventing gift. Some have even indicated they will refuse to take the vaccine. Healthy skepticism is a good thing, but decisions like this ought to be based on weighing the evidence of benefit versus risk. The results of the Pfizer and Moderna trials, all released for complete public scrutiny, indicate the potential benefits are high and the risks, low. Despite the impressive speed at which the new COVID-19 vaccines were developed, they have undergone and continue to undergo a rigorous process to generate all the data needed by the FDA to determine their long-term safety and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the gift of COVID-19 vaccines comes too late for the more than 313,000 Americans who have died from complications of COVID-19, and many others who’ve had their lives disrupted and may have to contend with long-term health consequences related to COVID-19. The vaccines did arrive in record time, but all of us wish they could somehow have arrived even sooner to avert such widespread suffering and heartbreak.

It will be many months before all Americans who are willing to get a vaccine can be immunized. We need 75-80 percent of Americans to receive vaccines in order to attain the so-called “herd immunity” needed to drive SARS-CoV-2 away and allow us all to get back to a semblance of normal life.

Meanwhile, we all have a responsibility to do everything possible to block the ongoing transmission of this dangerous virus. Each of us needs to follow the three W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands often.

When your chance for immunization comes, please roll up your sleeve and accept the potentially life-saving gift of a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, I just got my first shot of the Moderna vaccine today along with NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and some front-line healthcare workers at the NIH Clinical Center. Accepting this gift is our best chance to put this pandemic behind us, as we look forward to a better new year.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Moderna (Cambridge, MA)

Pfizer (New York, NY)

BioNTech (Mainz, Germany)

12 Comments

  • Brereton J says:

    Where is the recognition of the project Warp Speed led by President Trump? Without the vission and complex project management expertise of an exceptionally successful business leader, the vaccine would be years away. Give credit where due!

  • Michele Alexander. Ph.D. says:

    THANK YOU to all the fantastic scientists who worked so hard to develop the vaccines.

    I have just one question, since the vaccines are about 95% effective what happens to the 5% for whom it is Not/less effective? Will antibody tests be needed to identify these people? and which antibody test? Binding or neutralizing?
    Can you please clarify? How will people know if they actually developed the necessary antibodies?

    Thank you!

  • Manny says:

    Excellent vaccine scientists at NIH.
    How about info on the Covid antibody Treatment by Regeneron that got EUA to treat non critical patients of the 100,000 plus in our hospitals today….

  • Roseanne M Woo-Haltresht says:

    Congratulations to Dr. Collins, Dr. Fauci, and the entire NIH staff!! You kept your nose clean, stayed on your task, and communicated only with facts. You were the only credible people in Washington throughout the pandemic. You personified hope for the Nation. This alone deserve a Nobel Prize. Bravo! Well Done! May God bless you all.

  • ratul says:

    This is extremely reliable and advantageous. Which I respect. Yeah, thank you for this message!

  • Chris says:

    Dr. Collins,
    Thank you so much for leading your brilliant team in the development of this life-saving gift. My 15-year-old son is a trial participant. The most important gift I am giving him this Christmas is your wonderful book, The Language of God. As a student deeply focused on science and technology, he has come to doubt God after we have raised him in the Church. I pray that your work and writing will help him with his faith journey. God bless you and all of your terrific colleagues. Merry Christmas!

  • Sree says:

    Why does the body consider the spike protein as foreign when our cells synthesized it, inside the cell? I couldn’t find this answered properly. I really appreciate if someone can answer.

  • Gary C. says:

    Will one of the researchers/experts please explain how a cloth mask with pores larger than the virus can somehow stop the virus? This doesn’t make any practical sense as it violates the laws of physics. As a former radiation worker and asbestos worker, I was trained that the filters used had to have pores smaller than the target molecule. None of the masks being worn by the general population fit that description.

  • Melissa J. says:

    Do gloves need to be worn when giving the Covid-19 vaccine???

  • Eunice says:

    When God’s people are involved in this, I have no fear of anything. The intentions and ethics are pure. Thanks for the encouragement Dr. You’re a gem.

  • Philip Nicastro says:

    Now we just need to encourage everyone to get the vaccine as soon as they can.

  • John Borgatti says:

    I always have a prayer for our government leaders. Left out government scientists. My bad. You are on my list.

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