Explanation of mRNA vaccines for OHM readers
About Me: I am Dana Bakalar, Libby’s cousin. I am a neuroscientist, not a vaccine or virus researcher, though I do work in molecular biology. I think I am pretty good at science communication and wanted to encourage people to get the COVID vaccine by explaining the whole deal in a way that humans can understand.
Q: How does COVID work?
A: What the virus does is stick a copy of its genetic material, RNA, into your cells. It gets in using the spike protein like a key, then makes your cells copy the virus. It hijacks your cell’s normal factory for making shit and makes it make lots of virus, then you have COVID.
Q: WTF is mRNA?
A: RNA is the messenger, the note copied from your DNA. Hence the m, “messenger” RNA. Your DNA has the instructions for the shit your cells need to make, which gets copied into a temporary note by a copying mechanism called RNA polymerase. The note gets passed into the cell and gets read by a little cellular factory called a ribosome, which uses the instructions to make a protein. After the note is read, it is broken down, crumpled up and tossed in the cellular trash like a note in middle school reading “Do you Like me, circle Y/N”.
Q: So what’s an mRNA vaccine?
A: The vaccine is messenger RNA, the note part. It’s basically a fake note that we stick in there to pretend that the DNA says to make this protein (“Will you make this protein, circle Y/N?”), like if the middle school note is signed “Trevor” but it’s actually from Heather, who is fucking with you.
In this case, the COVID mRNA vaccines are telling your cells to make a part of the virus. NOT the part that can make you sick, but the little key (spike protein) that the virus uses to unlock your cells and get inside. Once inside, the virus can make you sick. The protein made by the vaccine CANNOT.
Q: Then why do people feel shitty sometimes after the vaccine if it can’t make you sick?
A: Your immune system has a bunch of cells whose job it is to patrol for invaders, like the principal roaming the halls of the school. It sees this protein, which is definitely NOT supposed to be here. “Holy Shit”, it goes, “WTF is THAT?? DOES IT HAVE A HALL PASS????” All of the proteins that your body is supposed to make have a hall pass, but this thing Doesn’t Even Go Here, and it looks real weird, so the immune system jumps into action and rallies the troops. It makes antibodies which can stick to the spike protein and fuck its shit up.
Also, it remembers that shit, in the form of T-cells and B-cells, immune system guys which remember the protein and are ready to jump into action when/if they see it again. This process is hard work and involves creating an immune response, which is the same thing that happens when you get sick for real. So you get inflammation, maybe a fever or a headache.
Q: Couldn’t this create some crazy run-away immune response and kill us?
A: They thought it might, which is why they did all these clinical trials. Turns out it doesn’t. The mRNA itself breaks down really fast, and there haven’t been issues with people having extreme immune responses.
Q: Will I be a mutant??
A: The vaccine cannot change your DNA, so nope. mRNA is a note from DNA, not to it. No superpowers for you.
Q: If the vaccine works, why don’t YOU just get it? Why do I have to?
A: The vaccine is pretty good, but not perfect, and some people are vulnerable.
You know how when you are taking the Metro or Subway or whatever and a bunch of stations are out of commission, it becomes a total bitch to get where you are going? That’s what we are going for here. We need to stop the virus from travelling so it can’t kill your grandma.
COVID is very contagious, each person can transmit it to more than one other person: there is more than one other stop the virus can get to from your station. The goal here is to shut down the stations by getting people vaccinated. If the train stops at Vaccination Station, the virus will just languish on the platform and die, infecting fewer people.
This is important because there are some people for whom the vaccine does not work, or to whom it can’t be given, like people who are very sick, babies, or people whose immune systems fail to make the t-cells that would recognize the virus next time, like people being treated for cancer or who have organ transplants or whose immune systems suck because they are very old or have some other immune system thing like diabetes or lupus or celiac or thyroid issues. If the train line to them is open, they are likely to get sick. We need to fuck up the travel network!
If only some small portion of people get the vaccine, then we have way more stations still open. That’s way more new infections. Some of these will be your grandma or your sick spouse or your friends or your friend’s baby. If you don’t get the vaccine, the virus can get to them more easily.
But if YOU get the vaccine, they are safer. So when I ask you to get the vaccine, it isn’t primarily to protect a vaccinated me, but to protect people who cant get it.
Scientists estimate that we need about 72 percent of people to be vaccinated or to have had COVID to stop it from travelling at all.
Conclusion: Get the vaccine please