Were Covid-19 Vaccines Rushed To The Market?
If you are hesitant to take the vaccines you might not realize they’ve been researched for decades.
“This is the genius of vaccines. We’re not that good at making drugs against viruses. But you know what’s really good at fighting them? Our immune system. If you can just show it the right piece of the virus, it often figures out how to fight it off. It’s like the answer we all have inside us.” David Kestenbaum in This American Life
Although COVID-19 has not been the top story in the last week, the numbers continue to worsen. The Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines' recent approval is the most hopeful information we’ve had since the start of the pandemic. Our next hurdle is ensuring enough people get the vaccine.
Will enough people agree to receive the vaccine?
In November 2020, the New England Journal of Medicine listed Dolly Parton as one of the Moderna vaccine research funders (Jackson et al., 2020). Ms. Parton donated at the beginning of the pandemic, and this may make it seem the research began then. Some individuals have expressed concern that the scientific community has rushed vaccine development, and this could cause some of them to decline the vaccine.
In early December, approximately 60% of Americans indicated they would be willing to get the vaccine (Pew Research). That might not be a high enough number to provide herd immunity, which is “the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through the previous infection.” (World Health Organization (WHO), 2020).
According to the WHO, the measles vaccine required a 95% vaccination rate to provide herd immunity. For polio, only 80% needed to be vaccinated. The percentage of people who need to be vaccinated or previously infected to reach herd immunity for COVID-19 is unknown at this time.
Why would anyone decline the vaccine?
After nearly a full year of restrictions and isolation, Isn’t everyone ready to get the vaccine and put an end to the pandemic? Not exactly. Many people are hesitant about getting the vaccine for a variety of reasons.
Some people don’t believe Covid-19 is real, and anti-vaxxers don’t believe in any vaccines. This article discusses some of the history behind the anti-vaccine movement and the relationship to vaccine deniers:
Are Anti-Maskers The Latest Version Of Anti-Vaxxers?
And what can we do to engage them in a discussion?
People with auto-immune disorders or known allergies to vaccine ingredients should not get the vaccine without talking to their doctor. Individuals who are currently sick should also discuss the vaccine with their doctors before getting vaccinated.
Another group of people who are hesitant to get the vaccine believe the vaccine's development was too rushed and is therefore unsafe. The rest of this article will focus on those people.
Wasn’t the vaccine development rushed?
On a recent drive, I listened to a podcast about people working together to solve a problem. The podcast was an episode of This American Life entitled Boulders v. Hill. Act one was about firefighters, and the second act discussed scientists working on vaccine development. The podcast was very easy to understand and made it clear this vaccine was in development before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two vaccines currently available in the US both rely on messenger RNA technology. This technology was first used in vaccine development in 1993 and studied extensively (Tan & Sun, 2018).
One study focused on the robust safety features of mRNA technology. An article in Forbes magazine helped translate the technology into layman’s terms. The mRNA technology is essentially a messenger that delivers instructions to cells to create proteins that provide an immune response. This technology does not alter the vaccine recipient's DNA (Schlake, Thess, Fotin-Mleczek, & Kallen, 2012).
What types of vaccines are there?
To better understand why mRNA vaccines are different, it’s essential to know how other vaccines work. The U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services (HHS) describes four common types of vaccines. The mRNA vaccine is listed as an emerging type.
Common vaccine types
- Live-attenuated vaccines: these types of vaccines use a small live amount of the germ to create an immune response. The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and chickenpox vaccines are two examples.
- Inactivated vaccines: these vaccines use a dead form of the infection and often require booster shots to increase efficacy. The flu and polio vaccines are two examples.
- Subunit, recombinant, polysaccharide, and conjugate vaccines: these vaccines use small parts of the germ to target an immune response to those parts of the virus. This type of vaccine can be used on individuals who are immunocompromised but also require booster shots. Hepatitis B, whooping cough, and shingles all fall into this category.
- Toxoid vaccines: “Toxoid vaccines use a toxin (harmful product) made by the germ that causes a disease. They create immunity to the parts of the germ that cause disease instead of the germ itself. That means the vaccine targets the immune response to the toxin instead of the whole germ” (HHS). Tetanus and diphtheria are toxoid vaccines.
- Recombinant vector (platform-based) vaccines: mRNA vaccines involve replicating a virus's structure and introducing it to create an immune response. The vaccine does not contain any form of the actual virus, just a copy of the structure that will train the body to fight germs with that structure.
Original coronavirus infections were the impetus for the mRNA research that led to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The concept: By making precise tweaks to synthetic mRNA and injecting people with it, any cell in the body could be transformed into an on-demand drug factory.” Damian Garde and Jonathan Saltzman in STAT.
Scientists have been working on mRNA technology for years and have tested a variety of applications. One of the scientists profiled in the This American Life podcast, a Structural Biologist named Nianshuang Wang, was a co-author of this 2013 study on the MERS coronavirus (Wang et al., 2013). In the podcast, Wang discusses the years he has spent researching coronavirus variants.
Wang is just one of the thousands of scientists who have worked on research and development contributing to these vaccines. Katalin Karikó began researching mRNA in the early 1990s, as evidenced by this article (Hubbell et al., 1991). Her early work and persistence make her one of the key contributors to the development of mRNA vaccines. As a Senior Vice President of BioNTech, she was instrumental in developing and testing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (STAT).
There are many reasons why individuals may choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Feeling that development was too rushed should not be one of them. As a mental health provider, I was in the second wave of vaccinations and I received my first dose of Moderna 4 days ago. I hope you will join me!
Hubbell, H. R., Sheetz, P. C., Iogal, S. S., Brodsky, I., Kariko, K., Li, S. W., . . . Sobol, R. W. (1991). Heterogeneous nuclear RNA from hairy cell leukemia patients activates 2′, 5′-oligoadenylate synthetase. Anticancer Res, 11(5), 1927–1932.
Jackson, L. A., Anderson, E. J., Rouphael, N. G., Roberts, P. C., Makhene, M., Coler, R. N., . . . Beigel, J. H. (2020). An mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 — preliminary report. New England Journal of Medicine, 383(20), 1920–1931. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa2022483
Schlake, T., Thess, A., Fotin-Mleczek, M., & Kallen, K. (2012). Developing mRNA-vaccine technologies. Null, 9(11), 1319–1330. doi:10.4161/rna.22269
Tan, L., & Sun, X. (2018). Recent advances in mRNA vaccine delivery. Nano Research, 11(10), 5338–5354. doi:10.1007/s12274–018–2091-z
Wang, N., Shi, X., Jiang, L., Zhang, S., Wang, D., Tong, P., . . . Wang, X. (2013). Structure of MERS-CoV spike receptor-binding domain complexed with human receptor DPP4. Cell Research, 23(8), 986–993. doi:10.1038/cr.2013.92