The long awaiting vaccines are being dispersed all around the world- what should you know before getting the vaccine?
The BioNTech/Pfizer jab works like most vaccines by showing the body’s immune system what the virus looks like so it can remember the next time it’s infected. But it’s based on a brand new messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).
Scientists have been testing this process for years in other diseases like cancer, but the urgent need for a coronavirus vaccine accelerated its development, not only for the BioNTech/Pfizer shot but also in coronavirus vaccines from Moderna, Curevac and Imperial College.
Why is the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine unique?
Messenger RNA is the molecule that carries genetic information in our cells. It’s the link between our genes (the DNA) and the product of the gene (the protein) — so our cells use it all the time to translate genetic code into the building blocks of life.
This is produced inside our muscles — so in effect, our bodies become mini-factories “manufacturing” the protein as opposed to scientists making it in a lab and injecting it into the body.
What’s the benefit of this new technology?
Messenger RNA vaccines do not contain the virus, so there’s less risk of the vaccination actually triggering COVID-19. But the trade-off is that the mRNA molecule is unstable. This is why some need to be stored at very low temperatures, otherwise the molecule can break down.
The Moderna vaccine is the other frontrunner. Does that work the same way?
Yes. The only difference is the composition of the lipid spheres, and also means they require different storage conditions.
Are there other options?
Several other vaccines — Oxford/AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Russia’s Sputnik vaccine and some Chinese ones — are based on a more traditional, adenovirus viral vector technology.
That involves injecting a modified version of the common cold, carrying genetic information coded in DNA, into the muscle to produce the spike protein.
The risk with this technology is that the body recognizes the material as a foreign entity, resulting in an immune response that may destroy some of a second vaccine dose before it kicks in.
While those named above are the leading contenders, the majority of coronavirus vaccines in clinical development today are actually protein-based vaccines, making up 30 percent of the 56 being tested in people. Among them is Novavax’s vaccine.