COVID Vaccine: Facts and Myths (Part 1)

I know at this point, everyone is tired of covid and discussion about the vaccines but since there is still almost 50% of eligible persons not vaccinated, I wanted to help provide information to base your decision on. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting blogs based on concerns about the vaccine, separating fact from myth, and providing scientific data to delineate where the potential cause(s) for concern may be.

First, let’s start with how an mRNA vaccine is made - what it can do, as well as what it can not do. Vaccines, in general, use one of a few technologies to get some part of a virus (in the case of Tetanus, a toxoid that it produces) that a human’s immune system will recognize as foreign (let’s call it an Immune trigger). Once the vaccine (that “Immune trigger”) is given to someone, it stimulates the immune system to make antibodies to fight an infection before that person is ever exposed. Some of the ways vaccines get that “trigger” are making an attenuated (weakened) virus or by using a dead virus and injecting it as a vaccine (it is more complicated than that, but you get the idea). A newer type of vaccine was started a few years ago where they identify a protein on the virus surface to use as a “target”. They will either infect cells with the virus in large quantities and then purify the culture for the protein they are looking for and use it as the vaccine. Also, they have been using recombinant technology. What that means is they insert a small amount of DNA (or RNA) material into a bacteria, then that bacteria makes the protein, or is used to infect mammalian cells that will then insert that DNA into that host cell and IT will make the protein, rather than needing to purify it from cultures of just the virus. Either way, it still needs to be mass-produced and purified to get the “trigger” protein to use in the vaccine.

This leads us to mRNA vaccines. Instead of inserting part of the DNA (or RNA) into a virus, then inserting that genetic material into a bacteria’s genomic sequence, then culturing the virus or bacteria for harvesting for that protein, it skips this entire process. You see, human genetic material is only DNA. We use RNA only as a template, or a list of instructions, to make all the different proteins our bodies need. This is called messenger RNA (or mRNA), and there are small organelles in each of a human’s cells called ribosomes that take each template, “read” it, and stack together amino acids in a long string (which is what a protein is made from). With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, they learned the genetic code to make a protein on covid, called the spike protein - the little red projections you see on the drawings of the covid-19 virus). This protein is what covid uses to get into our cells. They used the information from the genetic code of the virus, to make these "templates" called messenger RNA (or mRNA), and put them in the vaccine. These templates made of mRNA make their way to the ribosomes in the different cells in our body, and they start making this protein - the spike protein - so the body can "see" it as foreign and start making antibodies against covid before we are ever exposed. What’s more, the ribosomes live in the cytoplasm of a cell, and our DNA lives in the nucleus. I often explain it like an egg - all of our DNA is in the “yolk”, and the ribosomes are in the cytoplasm (the “whites of the egg”). That is why it is a MYTH that the vaccine can change a person’s genetic code (or DNA) because it never even gets to that part of our cells.

I am hopeful that some of you found this helpful and will share this information with others – and I will be back next week for another common concern – do I need to be vaccinated if I had covid.

- Craig Kopecky, M.D.

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