There hasn’t been a lot of great news lately around the coronavirus. New infections are skyrocketing everywhere, and unfortunately, deaths from COVID-19 are following. Don’t let down your guard.
But recently there were a few bright spots that could get us on a path back to normal.
Two new vaccines have been approved by the FDA, getting them into people's arms is the next step, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that employees and residents of long-term care facilities receive the vaccine first, along with healthcare workers on the front lines.
States will have to figure out how to deliver on these recommendations and define which healthcare workers.
Later, most states expect to distribute the vaccine to primary care practices, but nothing is certain at this point. It could change; even the guidance issued by the CDC on who should get the vaccines first is considered interim.
Vaccines should be distributed quickly in the first phase — in fact, the head of the federal government’s vaccine logistics program said in early December that 20 million Americans could be vaccinated by end of the year if vaccines are approved, and that most Americans could have the vaccine by the middle of 2021.
The vaccines were approved but so far the distribution of the vaccine has been a frustrating failure. As our publisher wrote in one of his Op-eds: "Once again, the government fails to deliver. Just an absolute, shameful, embarrassing mess.”
How do these vaccines work? I asked my physician and this is how he explained it to me:
Traditional vaccines deliver either a dead or weakened form of a virus or part of a virus into your body. Your body sees this foreign invader, or antigen, and your immune system develops antibodies against it. Later, when your body encounters the real virus, your immune system recognizes it and attacks it before it can lead to an infection.
That’s how vaccines have worked for decades. But researchers are using a new technological approach to prime our immune systems. The two coronavirus vaccines currently in the news are called mRNA vaccines, and, if approved, they’ll be the first such vaccines to make it market.
These mRNA vaccines don’t deliver the antigen to the body.
Instead, they carry genetic instructions that teach your cells how to make the antigen. This more closely mimics a natural infection, which may ultimately make them more effective.
This mRNA is a molecule that tells cells what to build. In this case, the mRNA vaccine carries instructions to create a type of protein that is part of sars-cov-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The immune system then recognizes that protein or antigen, and when the real thing enters the body, it’s prepared to fight it.
Technological advancements have been key. This kind of vaccine wouldn’t have been achievable 20 or 30 years ago. In traditional vaccines, lab researchers have to grow viruses and then inactivate either the virus or its protein. That’s one of the reasons it can take years for a vaccine to be developed.
But mRNA vaccines are quicker because scientists can create the protein sequence in the lab in hours or days — not months or years. And as technology has improved, so has the speed. For example, scientists decoded the genome for this coronavirus in early January — it took researchers six to eight years to decode the human genome in the 1990s. The fast decoding enabled researchers to create several mRNA candidate vaccines and begin testing them in the lab and in animals before the coronavirus became a worldwide pandemic. In fact, Moderna went from creation to testing in humans in just 63 days.
These new vaccines do have some distribution and storage challenges, especially with Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine. It must be kept at incredibly low temperatures (minus 70 degrees Celsius) or it can fall apart. Hospital systems and health departments that have the ability to keep the vaccine in deep freeze will likely be the first places to receive the vaccine.
Moderna’s mRNA vaccine is more stable — it can be kept for up to six months at minus 20 degrees Celsius, a similar temperature to a traditional freezer. The company announced in mid-November that its vaccine can also last for 30 days at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, or a similar temperature to a normal refrigerator. The shelf-life numbers are just an estimate for now — the vaccines may actually last longer, but it will take time for manufacturers to test their effectiveness.
There are other vaccines. In fact, there are 54 in human trials and another 87 in lab testing.
Let's hope the new administration takes the bull by the horns and gets us out of this nightmare. Good luck with getting a vaccine appointment.
Pier Angelo was born in Italy, moved to England at the age of 17 and learned English at the Nelson School of English. He attended college and graduate school in Manhattan. In 2009 he founded SFGN with Norm Kent. Now he’s retired with his husband Tom and his Affenpinscher Cabbage. He still enjoys writing his column Off The Wall for SFGN.