Everything you need to know about the coronavirus vaccine
Pfizer and Moderna’s coronavirus vaccines are the first to arrive in Norway. Both are so-called mRNA vaccines. The new technology and the rapid production of the vaccine have created some fear in people.
I will first explain how an mRNA vaccine works, and then I will go through 10 of the most common claims about coronavirus vaccines. After reading this, you can feel safer and stronger in discussions about the vaccines going forth.
How does the vaccination work?
The principle behind the vaccine is the same as for all vaccines: to prepare and strengthen the body’s own immune system, so that you can more easily fight the coronavirus.
Usually, a vaccine will contain a weakened or dead variant of the virus. This is called antigen. The body fights a weak or attenuated antigen easily. After the fight, the immune system learns how to fight off the virus. If you later encounter the virus, you have a head start and win the battle more often and more easily.
The mRNA vaccines do not give you an attenuated antigen but rather the recipe for an antigen. Then the body makes the antigen itself. So, mRNA is a recipe that the cells in the body can use to produce something.
Your body works every moment, continuously, with such an mRNA recipe. RNA enters the cells where we have ribosomes. Their job is to build things by following the recipes. The building blocks of ribosomes (or the ingredients in the recipe, if you will) are amino acids.
The coronavirus itself contains mRNA, but the virus lacks ribosomes and amino acids. If we become infected with coronavirus, the virus’ mRNA enters our cells and steals the strength and building blocks of our bodies. The cells are “hijacked.” And what are they forced to make, what is the mRNA recipe for the virus? Yes, more coronavirus!
The body quickly understands that the foreign coronavirus is increasing uncontrollably. It triggers a major immune response. This response is much of the reason why we feel sick. It causes fever, inflammation, and other symptoms.
The recipe for the virus’ spikes
Then comes the element of genius, what scientists are doing to protect us: What if you get a small dose of mRNA, only from small parts of the virus, namely the spikes on the outside? What if you then send mRNA into the cells and “hijack” the cells’ production in a controlled manner? So controlled that the cells can still produce what they are supposed to produce.
The vaccine does just that. It gives us the recipe/mRNA for the spikes at the end of the virus. Our own body’s cells absorb mRNA and produce the spikes. The immune system then responds to the spikes. This controlled reaction teaches the immune system to fight the coronavirus.
Slowly but surely, the body’s immune system becomes very specialized in fighting these spikes, with almost no risk of overreaction. So, if the coronavirus makes an attempt later, it will be killed by our immune system before it can hijack our cells and reproduce itself.
This mRNA/ribosome work takes place outside the cell nucleus, so it does not interfere with our DNA. And making mRNA in the factory is more of a production of viral antigen, so the side effects are less. When the mRNA recipe is used up, the residue disappears, and you have no more of the vaccine’s content left in your body.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that mRNA is unstable outside the body, and therefore the vaccines must be stored at a very low temperature and handled with care.
Myths and facts
Now that you understand how the vaccine protects you from disease, let’s take a closer look at 10 claims about the vaccines that are completely wrong and take a closer look at what is right. You have probably heard many of these statements or read them online.
Myth 1: The vaccine is riskier than usual because it was developed quickly.
Fact: The safety and efficacy of the vaccine have been tested in the same strict manner as all other vaccines/medicines. The work has gone more quickly, with the highest priority, because the disease can cause global mass death. One should not be intimidated by rapid production but rather disappointed that drugs otherwise take so long to produce.
Myth 2: The vaccine cannot prevent further infection.
Fact: There is currently no research about the course of infection after vaccination. Therefore, no conclusions can be drawn from this. This is how it is in science: We do not like to draw conclusions without good data. Nevertheless, all basic medical understanding dictates that infection is reduced when fewer people become ill or show symptoms.
Myth 3: The long-term effects of the vaccine are impossible to predict.
Fact: The long-term effects of the COVID-19 disease are also impossible to predict, but they are probably far more serious than the controlled and studied effects of the vaccine. Therefore, the vaccine is a safer long-term choice than the disease.
Myth 4: The vaccine is particularly dangerous for patients at risk, as it has not been specifically tested in sick people.
Fact: Precisely at-risk patients have the greatest potential benefit from the vaccine. COVID-19 has the hardest effect on them, so they should be given priority for the vaccination.
Myth 5: The vaccine can give you the coronavirus infection.
Fact: This is completely impossible, as it only introduces the recipe for the spikes of the virus.
Myth 6: The vaccine messes with our natural DNA.
Fact: Your DNA is not affected or altered in any way by the vaccine. It is impossible. It’s like fearing that your car will be damaged by buying a new dishwasher; it doesn’t have anything to do with it.
Myth 7: You don’t have to vaccinate yourself if you’ve already had the infection.
Fact: Wrong. The vaccine is still important, because the immunity the vaccine provides may be better and longer lasting. We do not know if a history of infection provides the same protection.
Myth 8: Once vaccinated, you can forget about infection control rules.
Fact: Unfortunately, this is not true. The vaccine is not 100% effective, and the fastest way out of this pandemic is that we continue to follow the infection control rules until a greater immunity is confirmed in the population.
Myth 9: You don’t need to be vaccinated if you are not in a risk group.
Fact: No, you vaccinate yourself for the good of society. Vaccination is not just about you but about reducing mortality in society and making sure we avoid a situation in which the health care system is overburdened.
Myth 10: There are a lot of opinions about this matter, and I can choose to follow the sources that I want to.
Fact: Of course, you can choose your own sources of knowledge. But if you want the maximum probability of obtaining good knowledge, use the National Institute of Public Health (FHI) or HelseNorge’s websites.
Yes, I conclude by giving you the advice to not just listen to my advice. Rather, listen to the National Institute of Public Health, and read the information at www.helsenorge.no. When I, as a doctor, provide you with this text, it is an attempt to convey their message. So I hope I have done it in the best way possible.
Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall
This article first appeared in the Jan. 18, 2021, edition of Aftenposten and was reprinted with permission.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.