I remember the day COVID-19 reached Mississippi like it was yesterday. I was shadowing a family physician at her clinic during my spring break when I got the news that my school was extending our spring break by another week. To be honest, I was kind of happy to hear we were getting an extra week of Spring Break, but I did not quite fathom the magnitude of the situation as to why we were getting the extra time off. I don’t think it quite set in for me until they told us that we would have virtual classes and would not be allowed to re-enter the classroom for at least the rest of the semester!
The first few days of quarantine felt just like any other day, but the days grew into weeks and the weeks grew into months. The quarantine started to feel like a jail sentence with no end in sight. Luckily, I had the opportunity to be a part of a test pilot hybrid course during the summer term at my institution, so I finally got to see people again, but it definitely was not the same as pre-pandemic classes. I still walked around very cautiously and avoided going anywhere since we had no protection besides masks and hand sanitizer, and not everyone was taking those guidelines seriously.
Most of 2020 dragged on with vaccine development prospects being thrown around like they were candy, but at the end of 2020, the amazing feat of creating a tested vaccine finally became reality. I remember how people around me kept saying that the vaccine is “rushed” and how it has not been “tested.” Since I did not know much about vaccines prior to this point, I took a course in immunology to learn about vaccine mechanisms and properties. To my surprise, I learned that the mRNA vaccine technology has been around longer than I’ve been alive! Armed with information I learned in this course and my own research, I want to share a quick rundown of how the Pfizer/Modern mRNA COVID-19 vaccine works.
mRNA is something that is found in all of us. I’m sure many of you have heard that DNA is the basis of life. Specifically, I think of DNA as the “USB flash drive” of life. It stores all of the information, but it has to be translated into another language before it can used. That is where mRNA comes into play. Various specialized proteins will open our DNA in a specific section and then use that information as the template to make a new strand of mRNA. This mRNA has a very specific job like make Protein X. Our bodies do this all day long without us even realizing it! The COVID-19 virus follows a similar process of translation its genetic information into a protein. Scientists found what protein it needs to enter our body and they “reverse-translated” it down to the mRNA level and put that information into a vaccine. When you get the shot, you are getting a piece of mRNA that tells your body’s protein-producing ribosomes to make this “COVID-19 spike protein.” The spike protein will be assembled inside our bodies, and our immune system will learn how to destroy it. The protein itself is harmless to us since it does not contain any of the dangerous parts of the virus that cause our symptoms; rather, it just has the part that allows the virus to gain a foothold within our bodies.
I hope my explanation helps curb some of the misinformation and confusion that has been spread about the Pfizer/Modern mRNA vaccines. If you are still feeling hesitant about getting vaccinated, please reach out to your primary care physician! Let’s join together to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, prevent another quarantine, and finally defeat this pandemic! #VaxUpMS!