My friend Ciandri, from the Twitterer, agreed to write a little something on vaccines for people like me who don’t know all that much when it comes to that.

Ciandri Vaccines

My name is Ciandri Zinserling, but please call me Cici (unless you’re a home affairs official or my angry mother). I graduated with a Bsc. in Genetics and Microbiology from the University of the Witwatersrand. I enjoy learning new things through books, travel and people. I’m currently working as a self-taught programmer, as I love being challenged and everyday offers up new problems to tackle. Whenever I feel like giving up I remember that my cat is ruthless and has high expectations of me.

To Vaccine or not to Vaccine…

A lot of the time our fears come from a lack of understanding. We don’t see the full picture and we then decide it is safer to not partake for fear of the unknown. This is a perfectly human response, but let’s see if we can answer some questions you might have. It is also important to remember that your right to choose has not been taken away! The vaccine is NOT mandatory by law; however, your employer can introduce policies on vaccination in the workspace. It’s important to make our decisions based on facts and research and not experiences and opinions.

What is a virus? 

To understand vaccines, it will help to understand the virus as well as how our immune system works.

Let’s break down viruses into layman’s terms. A virus carries its genetic material in the form of either DNA or RNA in either a single strand or double strands (humans’ genetic material is double stranded DNA in case you were wondering). Unlike other organisms a virus MUST have a host to replicate. These little guys are incapable of independence, they are soooo needy.

Now you will be thinking, “anything that requires a host to live must be a baddy!” But that is not the case! Your body is home to millions of microorganisms that do not harm you, including viruses.

Covid Vaccines image of covid

How does a virus cause disease?

The problem with a virus exists only when there is a harmful mutation. Viruses are constantly replicating within a host and during these replications “mistakes,” which we call mutations, occur. In the case of Covid-19 it is believed that the virus mutated in bats to gain the ability to “jump” to a different host type altogether!

These mutations happen all the time and do not always lead to a more harmful outcome. In fact, a mutation may occur that makes a virus ineffective at reproducing, but of course this strain would die out if it can’t spread fast enough. This constant mutation of viruses is why it is so hard to treat them. Vaccines often need to be updated, such as the flu vaccine, to keep up with the new genetic code of the virus.

Vaccine fighter

How does the immune system recognise viruses?

Think of your immune system as a bouncer. The vaccine gives it a picture and says: “If you see this guy, don’t let him in!”

The first time a particular species or strain of virus enters a host, and is able to successfully “take over” a cell, your immune system might not recognise it. In fact, the virus tricks your immune system into believing it belongs there. It just walks straight past the bouncer! It accesses your cell’s machinery and makes its own proteins and peptides. (Proteins and peptides are building blocks for organisms, they are coded by your genetics and produced by your cells). These proteins are then used in creating new copies of the virus, however some of these peptides are sent to the outer layer of your cells. 

So your immune system has employed “security guards” (called T-cells) that roam your body looking for any cells that are “suspicious-looking” by recognising these peptides on the cell’s outer layer. It’s important to note that these security guards aka T-cells are not your body’s only defense against viruses. Your body also releases interferons which disrupt the replication mechanism of the virus. They do this by alerting other “killer” cells which come along and “gobble up” the virus. 

Once your body has recognised a virus through “natural” means or through a vaccine, antibodies are produced. Antibodies are Y shaped molecules which have binding sites for those virus proteins and peptides sent to the outer layer of the cell. If an antibody is able to bind to a protein (referred to as an antigen in immunology), your body then knows that a threat is present and it rallies the defense system into action.

This is just scratching the surface of your immune system, there is so much more and I encourage you to go learn about immunity, but for the purpose of this piece and the sake of everyone’s sanity, lets keep this part brief.

What are vaccine roles in history?

The first “vaccine” was invented by Edward Jenner in defense against smallpox in 1796. The treatment involved taking tissue from a blister of a person infected with cowpox (an infection similar to smallpox) and inoculating it into another person through the skin on their arm. It has also been speculated that inoculation techniques may have been used in China as far back as the 15th century or even 200 BCE.

Practitioners realised that those that had already contracted the virus held an immunity. So really the idea of vaccines have existed for centuries! Through the 1800s a few more similar vaccines popped up, including anthrax and rabies.

It was only much later in the 1940s that science had evolved enough to start development of vaccines on a larger scale, this is when vaccines really started to shine and we were able to eradicate smallpox and polio through the use of vaccines.

Vaccines soldier

How do vaccines work?

A vaccine works by giving your body a piece of code to recognise the virus so that it may fight off future infections.

An analogy.

Think of viruses all carrying their own “language”. Let’s say the flu virus speaks German and arrives at your immune system’s gate. Your immune system says, “I’ve spoken to some German viruses before and I know a bit of the language! I know exactly what to say to get rid of this guy!”

Now Covid-19 shows up and is speaking Latin at your immune system’s gate. Your immune system decides, “I don’t speak Latin I’m just going to ignore this guy.” The next thing you know Covid-19 is over the fence breaking down the property and your immune system has no way to stop it because it doesn’t speak Latin!

Now if the vaccine had been with your immune system when covid-19 arrived at the gate, the vaccine would say, “I know this guy, I’ll tell you exactly what to say to get rid of him”.

The mode of action of vaccines can vary, depending on a number of factors including the target site, virulence of the virus etc. So let’s take a brief look at the mode of action of the currently available vaccines for Covid-19.

How does the Astrazeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines work?

In the case of the Astrazeneca/Johnson vaccine, the “code” used is for those spikes seen on the outside of the virus.

How this is done is by adding this piece of code for the proteins to another, non-infectious virus (adenovirus) to assist in gaining entry into your cell. Once inside your cell the adenovirus will release the code for these proteins to your cell to start making copies. This is all it is capable of! It has no way to replicate itself and so its only job is to release these codes. These proteins are then expressed on the vaccinated cell and as we said, the T-cells doing the surveillance will see these protein spikes and result in antibodies being produced to recognise these proteins again. This means when Covid-19 does enter your body, your immune system already recognises those proteins used to enter your cells and therefore are able to dispose of the virus more rapidly than if it was handed brand spanking new information!

How does the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine work?

These vaccines act in a similar way, in that they give your immune system the information required to recognise the virus, if it should enter your body. These vaccines use only mRNA packaged and delivered to your cells. This means these vaccines do not require the use of an adenovirus like the Astrazeneca vaccine, as the mRNA is already the message saying “I got the code to this protein, make it!”. These vaccines can be much faster to produce however they come with complications of being unstable. mRNA is not an extremely stable structure and can easily denature (break down), this is why these vaccines are required to be kept at low temperatures.

Fears and Responses around Covid-19 vaccines

“I don’t trust the vaccine because it arrived so quickly and is still so new!”

This is a perfectly rational fear! Why would we trust something when the normal processes for developing vaccines can sometimes take years?
Well turns out the Covid-19 vaccines DID go through all the same processes, but due to the urgency, things fell into place a lot quicker. Often scientists have to acquire funding for their research which can take months, but due to Covid-19 causing a global pandemic, funding was swift and certain!

Also, researchers were not starting with nothing. A pandemic has always been in the minds’ of scientists. Because of this research foundation on different classes of viruses (including coronavirus), which has been occurring for years, had already been laid.

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There are dangerous chemicals in the vaccine

A perfectly rational fear as well! We see these big chemical compound names and we think “surely that can’t be safe.” So maybe if we knew what roles all these big chemical names play, we may be less scared. The World Health Organisation has compiled a great article explaining what role different molecules play in vaccines. Check it out here at WHO Vaccine Content.

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“Can I get sick from the vaccine?”

Some people get a mild fever and/or other symptoms after receiving the vaccine. This is completely normal and is far less severe than if you were infected with covid. These symptoms can last a few days. But it is important to remember that this is NOT the same as having Covid-19 and there is no way for you to contract Covid-19 from the vaccine. For infection to occur the whole virus has to be present.

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“So once I get the vaccine I’m immune to Covid?”

This is not entirely true. You may still get infected with Covid, however, your immune system will respond far quicker once vaccinated, since your immune system now knows what to look out for. The efficacy of the vaccine is also targeted at certain strains. With the rise of new variants, the current vaccines may be LESS effective, or ineffective entirely. It all depends on where in the genetic code the mutation occurred to produce the new variant and was it one of the target sites of the vaccine.

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“I’ve had Covid-19, I don’t need the vaccine right?

This is also incorrect. Natural immunity after having an infection does happen, but Covid has not been around long enough for it’s long-term immunity to be studied. If you have been treated for Covid-19, it is best to wait 90 days before receiving the vaccine. If you are unsure whether or not the timing is right, consult your doctor. Remember as well that the virus is constantly mutating and even if a vaccine is effective against one strain of Covid, it does not guarantee the same results for a different strain.

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Well, Ciandri, from someone who didn’t know much about the Vaccines at all, that has been thoroughly educational and helpful so thank you for taking the time to put this together. One of the biggest problems around Covid-19 has been the misinformation that has been spread so quickly and it is worth listening to someone who has some expertise in the area and has done a decent amount of research.

If you found this helpful, maybe share it with your family or friends and keep it handy when you see conspiracy theory or other fake news being shared on the topic. Covid-19 is still relatively new and doctors and scientists around the world are working on figuring it out, which often will lead to contradictory opinions and ideas which still need to be tested and refined and figured out.