The Benefits of the mRNA COVID-19 Vaccine

Fiona Waters

February 01, 2021

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If you haven't thought about getting the COVID-19 vaccine out of concerns that it is a "new" technology, have no fear. With mRNA vaccines, you may actually be exposed to fewer pathogens and ingredients than those which are required to "culture" or "grow" the vaccine in a conventional way.

What's in a Name?

Coronavirus is a large category of viruses that both humans and animals can get.
COVID-19 is short for coronavirus disease 2019.
SARS-CoV-2 stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

How a Vaccine Works

All pathogens have a signature shape on their surface. For SARS-CoV-2, that unique shape is a "spike protein." When someone is exposed to SARS-CoV-2 naturally, the immune system learns to recognize it by its spike protein binding to an immune cell. In the future, if your immune system encounters more SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins, it can defend itself.

This type of immunity only lasts for around five months, though. On top of that, many people never recover if they experience fever, shortness of breath, or other severe complications. The mortality rate of COVID-19 in the US may be up to 10 times higher than the mortality rate of the flu. Vaccines are an attempt to give a person immunity without the danger of being exposed to a deadly pathogen.

An illustration of a SARS-CoV-2 cell, including spike proteins. Image credit: Desiree Ho for the Innovative Genomics Institute.

Conventional Vaccines

Today, many vaccines require raising copies of a virus in chicken egg cells or mammalian cells. The virus a scientist raises is similar to the one being targeted, but it's been weakened so that you can't get sick from it. To your immune system, though, it looks just like the real thing.

Too Much Time

Raising viruses has its downsides. For one thing, it takes a lot of time. The yearly flu vaccine is a good example of why the vaccine production process needs to be sped up. Flu shots are designed months before they are distributed. By the time winter rolls around, because the flu virus and its strains change extremely quickly, the strains that the vaccine was originally designed for may have been replaced. It's still far more effective than no flu vaccine, but it would be more effective if it did not take so long to manufacture.

Too Many Logistics

The other problem with conventional vaccines is how complicated the process is. A lab has to successfully develop and grow a virus for a vaccine. Then, it has to ship samples of this "model" vaccine, physically, to pharmaceutical companies. The pharmaceutical companies then have to successfully raise their own viruses each time they distribute a batch of the vaccine. Logistical issues have even affected the supply of flu shots in the past.

Too Risky

If we used conventional vaccines to resolve this pandemic, biologists would need to grow an overwhelming number of vaccines for distribution. That is, they would have to take the time (and risk) to develop a weakened strain of the virus and then raise it for months in cells until it reproduced.

For the flu, having fewer vaccines is less of a life-or-death scenario. It requires a vaccination rate between 30% and 75% to be effective. (This is known as herd immunity threshold, and it has never been achieved without vaccines). The flu also has a much lower mortality rate and fewer complications than a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicts between 75% and 80% of US citizens need to be vaccinated to manage COVID-19 cases. That means we need a lot more COVID-19 vaccines than we do for the flu, and they are indispensable. There is no room for error in the production process.

mRNA Vaccines

Conventional vaccines take a long time to grow, require a lot of risky research in order to be perfected, and require a complex process of being raised in a lab and then being physically shipped to pharmaceutical companies. That's where mRNA vaccines have stepped in.

There is no need for pharmaceutical companies to have access to a "model" and no chicken egg cells or mammalian cells involved in this process. Instead of containing an entire inactive virus, an mRNA vaccine only contains the instructions an immune cell needs to recognize the spike protein. These instructions are based on a single DNA template, the sequence of which can be shared via computer instantly. An experimental batch can be created in roughly a week, compared to many months for vaccines that are grown in cells.

If mRNA vaccines don't contain a copy of the virus, though, how does your immune system learn to recognize SARS-CoV-2? Rather than stimulating your immune system with the actual virus, COVID-19 vaccines tell your body to generate copies of the harmless spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. This triggers an immune system response as if you had encountered the virus naturally. While your immune system forms a "memory" or plan of attack for SARS-CoV-2, you are never actually exposed to it.

Using this technology in future vaccines would speed up their development, reduce their cost, and improve access by standardizing the production process. I see this scientific breakthrough as one similar to the spread of electricity, the Internet, and digital finance.

Breakthroughs has a fantastic infographic comparing the two production methods.

Too New (and Somehow Too Old?)

While mRNA vaccines have never been used in humans on such a large scale, they were being researched as far back as the 1990s. The main reason they weren't implemented into vaccines for people was not for safety reasons; it was that synthetic RNA could easily be destroyed by the body before it reached immune cells. Until recently, the technology simply wasn't effective.

Some have also expressed their concerns that the vaccine designed last year will not work on recent mutations of COVID-19. Scientists have found that current vaccines may be "less effective" against mutants, but exactly to what degree is still being researched. Some protection is better than none, and early research suggests that the current vaccine is only slightly less effective against variants. And, as a reminder, new mRNA vaccines can also be developed and released quickly if need be with their speedy production method.

Too Fast

My favorite analogy for this sped up process comes from the podcast Sawbones. Items shipped to you overnight go through the same chain of ship, plane, or truck as a standard delivery. Your overnight delivery is simply prioritized to get to you faster without compromising the package. The same is true of vaccines created under an emergency use authorization. "[Science] could move this fast all the time," explains Dr. Sydnee McElroy, "if you have the money, and the political will, and the resources, and the backing, and the belief of all the people involved..."

Too Political

Alex Azar, the head of Health and Human Services who was nominated by Trump, had the power to authorize a vaccine before the FDA had fully vetted it. Pressure from public health experts ensured that the FDA completed its testing in full and without interference from the White House. The first dose of vaccine in the US was approved in December, long after the presidential election.

Important Information

There are many different types of vaccines currently in use that don't use the chicken egg cell/mammalian cell process. Many of the most common vaccines in the US, however, do use the whole-pathogen method of inoculation including flu shots, measles, mumps, and rubella combined vaccine, chickenpox vaccines, smallpox vaccines, polio shots, and others.

No vaccine is perfect. The COVID-19 vaccine can have some side effects, but they are temporary. Severe reactions that result in hospitalization are extremely rare. As authors Wayne C. Koff and Michelle A. Williams put it, "Compare that to the virus itself, which has infected more than 70 million people globally and killed approximately 1.6 million."

The COVID-19 vaccine has only been approved for those 16 or 18 and older. It hasn't been tested or approved for those who are pregnant and with certain health conditions. That makes it all the more important to get the vaccine if you are able. Not only does it protect you, but it also protects the people around you who can't be vaccinated.

Writer's Note:
Talk to your healthcare provider regarding questions you have about mRNA vaccines. Visit for more information about vaccines.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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