After a year of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, vaccines for the novel coronavirus are finally being distributed at an unprecedented rate. As more people are inoculated and cases continue to fall in the U.S., excitement is growing around vaccines. But just what are they?
Three vaccines against COVID-19 have been approved for use in the United States. Developed by biotech companies, Pfizer and Moderna, two vaccines have been in use since December and are currently being distributed on a priority basis. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine was approved in February, and is also being distributed in San Luis Obispo.
While information surrounding the vaccines can seem scientific and at times overwhelming, scientists stress the importance of understanding how these vaccines work to better prepare for the road ahead.
How Do They Work?
Both Pfizer and Moderna have developed a new type of vaccine technology which uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to deliver genetic code to the cells of the body. This code is essentially a recipe that the body needs to produce the spike protein of the SARS-2 virus. The production of these proteins activates the immune response and teaches the body to fight the foreign proteins of the virus by producing antibodies.
This is all done without injecting the virus into the body.
While the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines represent a significant breakthrough in the medical field, this technology has been known and tested for years.
“It’s never been used in humans successfully prior to this event,” Dr. Nathaniel Martinez, Cal Poly professor of biological sciences said. “It’s been used in animals and lots of research. It’s not necessarily a brand new technology by any means.”
Martinez’s research interests include virus life cycles. He has been integral to the implementation of the university’s new in-house COVID-19 surveillance testing. He acknowledges that having a readily changeable vaccine could be a turning point in medical technology.
“Honestly for both Pfizer and Moderna it was a shot in the dark,” Martinez said. “They had a wealth of knowledge in other organisms but vaccines are tricky, so the fact that it actually worked and worked so well was what was most surprising.”
Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have a nearly identical efficacy rate in the early stages after vaccination. Pfizer is shown to be 95% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection after two doses. Moderna is similarly 94.1% effective. According to the latest CDC guidelines, it’s still unclear how long the immune response from COVID-19 vaccines will last or if vaccines protect against asymptomatic infection.
While the long-term effects of these vaccines are impossible to know until millions more have been vaccinated, Dr. Martinez said early results show a very low occurrence of severe side-effects.
The Struggles of Scale
While all levels of government are hard at work to ensure a speedy distribution of the vaccine in hopes of reaching herd immunity, the sheer scale of those needing vaccines is a stubborn obstacle.
As of March 12, 2021, 68,154 vaccines had been administered in San Luis Obispo County, according to County Pubic Health.
With both vaccines requiring two doses and a waiting period of approximately one month between shots, the process of inoculation is considerably slowed compared to vaccines that only require one dose to become effective.
mRNA vaccines also require an elaborate condition for storage known as cold chain. Both vaccines require subzero temperatures to maintain their effectiveness which limits the speed at which they can be transported and which hospitals and pharmacies they can be housed in.
“Like most people I just really can’t wait to log off of Zoom for the last time,” liberal studies junior Elana Gladish said. “At this point it would be nice to get my vaccine now, but we’ve waited this long already and I know I’ll be just as happy to get it when the time comes.”
Though many people are anxious for their chance to get vaccinated, Martinez said he is impressed with the volume of people being vaccinated despite the obstacles.
“Everyone wants an immediate distribution but the fact that we’re getting millions of vaccines in people’s arms in such a short period is actually quite remarkable,” Martinez said.
A Game Changer
A third vaccine by Johnson & Johnson was approved on Feb. 23.
This vaccine, which only requires a single dose, will be revolutionary for vaccine distribution due to its ease of use.
Using a more traditional vaccination method, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine contains a harmless adenovirus, which usually takes form as a mild cold or flu, that has been engineered to carry the genetic code for the COVID-19 spike protein. This then triggers the immune system similarly to the mRNA vaccine.
While the overall efficacy rate for Johnson & Johnson stands around 66% protective against moderate disease, that rate is shown to be 85% effective against severe illness.
Most notably, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine does not require the same cold chain as the current mRNA vaccines. This means that the vaccine can easily be given anywhere and stored for at least three months at the temperature of a standard refrigerator.
“It’s going to open those floodgates which is what we want in terms of inoculation against this virus,” Martinez said.