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mRNA Vaccines: Safe and Effective

Authored by Lauren Peysakhova

Art by Joyce Wang


Going to the doctor to get a vaccine is a routine most people are familiar with. Understandably so, not many people look forward to getting a needle with an unknown liquid inserted into their body. It can be painful and a sore sight to some, but is nonetheless a necessity. Vaccines are both helpful to us and protect against diseases that might otherwise be lethal.


So what exactly is a vaccine? A typical vaccine is a safe and effective way of using your body’s natural defenses to create antibodies against diseases [1]. Vaccines train you by introducing a weak form of the germ of a particular disease [1]. When the germ is identified, your immune system will fight it off. This weakened germ will allow the production of antibodies, a defense mechanism in your immune system that will then be stored. These antibodies will then be released if you ever come into contact with that specific antigen, the disease, again. It is important to remember that vaccines do not cause harm to the body–because they are made with weakened or killed versions of the germ, there is little risk of complications [1].


Building onto this definition, there have been recent studies of a new vaccine, one referred to as an mRNA vaccine. Rather than introducing a dead or weak version of the germ, the mRNA vaccine releases a piece of mRNA that corresponds to the viral protein [2]. Individuals who are administered this vaccine, therefore, only come into contact with the viral protein and are not infected by the virus. Once the immune system notices the foreign protein within the body, antibodies are made against it. The mRNA that is usually used in the vaccine is typically found on the surface of the virus’s outer membrane. 


The Ebola vaccine was the first vaccine to use mRNA to treat the disease [3]. Since this was a disease that was prevalent in Africa, there was little commercial development for the Ebola vaccine in America [3]. Although there was no infrastructure in place for Ebola since it was not a prevalent concern, the rise of COVID required the use of the mRNA sequence for the vaccine rather than the use of traditional weakened germ. The creation of this vaccine was a lot more well-known because it was a disease that heavily impacted the world and the vaccine was imperative [4]. Initially, there was a lot of fear amongst people that this was a new technology that had not yet been studied and false theories were spread throughout social media. However, over the past two years, there have been over 10 million mRNA COVID-19 vaccines administered to children worldwide and a lot of research has been conducted to prove this vaccine to be safe and effective [5]. Roughly 12 months of data, including data from tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials, show that the vaccines are safe and effective at preventing serious disease or death due to COVID-19 [6]. Thus, the hesitancy to receive the vaccine was subdued and now researchers are working to develop vaccines against other respiratory illnesses using the mRNA sequences [4]. An example of a disease being studied now through the use of mRNA sequencing is HIV [7].


Although this new technology is not 100% effective, it is important to remember that no vaccine is 100% effective [5]. However, the benefits hugely outweigh the potential downsides as this vaccine has been proven to reduce serious complications and hospitalizations. It is still possible to get sick from COVID-19, but the risk has been reduced and it is less likely that the symptoms will be dangerous [8]. Also, since mRNA vaccines are viral proteins rather than weakened strands of the virus, the body is less at risk while learning how to identify the virus, thus showing the benefits of the mRNA vaccine compared to the traditional vaccine [8].


mRNA vaccines also differ from typical vaccines in other ways. mRNA vaccines need to be kept at low temperatures because they will otherwise break down easily [9]. These vaccines are easily activated because the body is kept at a high temperature, thus, they need to be kept cold before they are administered [9]. These factors are not necessarily disadvantages to the mRNA vaccine, but rather, they are differences that factories need to take into consideration throughout the administration of this vaccine. With this in mind, pharmacies may need to modify some of their distribution methods because mRNA are more short lived and are more susceptible to damage rather than the traditional vaccine. However, this is not an issue that is especially difficult to resolve.


Overall, vaccine development is advancing very quickly. The COVID vaccine especially expedited the process of creating mRNA vaccines because the world was at an all-time crisis. As with all science, there are still modifications that need to be made to the mRNA vaccines to create an even better turnout rate and to minimize symptoms and other reactions. However, through the COVID pandemic, mRNA vaccines have been proven to be safe, effective, and hold a promising hope for the future. 


References

  1. Medline Plus. (2022, November 21). What are mrna vaccines and how do they work?: Medlineplus Genetics. MedlinePlus. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/therapy/mrnavaccines/#:~:text=mRNA%20vaccines%20work%20by%20introducing,the%20virus%20by%20the%20vaccine.) 

  2. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (2023). What's different about messenger RNA (mrna) vaccines for COVID-19? Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.mskcc.org/coronavirus/what-s-different-about-messenger-rna-vaccines-covid-19#:~:text=How%20do%20COVID%2D19%20messenger,response%20if%20someone%20gets%20infected

  3. World Health Organization. (2021, August 30). Vaccines and immunization: What is vaccination? World Health Organization. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/vaccines-and-immunization-what-is-vaccination 

  4. Cleveland Clinic. (2021, September). MRNA vaccines: What they are & how they work. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/21898-mrna-vaccines 

  5. Bender, K. (2023, January 31). Assessment of 10 Million Vaccinated Children Affirms mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines Safe, Effective. ContagionLive. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.contagionlive.com/view/assessment-of-10-million-vaccinated-children-affirms-mrna-covid-19-vaccines-safe-and-effective 

  6. Maragakis, L., & Kelen, G. D. (2022, July 29). Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe? Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe? | Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/is-the-covid19-vaccine-safe 

  7. Penn Medicine. (2022). What's Next? The Future of mRNA Vaccines for “Every Imaginable Infectious Disease. Pennmedicine.org. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.pennmedicine.org/mrna 

  8. Beyrer, C. (2021, October). The long history of mrna vaccines. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://publichealth.jhu.edu/2021/the-long-history-of-mrna-vaccines#:~:text=The%20first%20mRNA%20vaccines%20using,commercial%20development%20in%20the%20U.S

  9. CDC. (2023, February). Understanding how covid-19 vaccines work. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/how-they-work.html#:~:text=To%20trigger%20an%20immune%20response,immune%20response%20inside%20our%20bodies.

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