The Science Behind mRNA Vaccines

Globally, cases of coronavirus continue to rise and much hope is now placed on the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines. The first two COVID-19 vaccines that Health Canada have approved are the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, both of which are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. This is the first time in history that mRNA vaccines have been widely produced and distributed. Many people are questioning how they work.

“RNA” stands for ribonucleic acid, which is a polymeric molecule essential in various biological roles.Because information in DNA cannot be decoded directly into proteins, it is first transcribed, or copied, into mRNA (a process called transcription). RNA vaccines contain the instructions for making the COVID spike protein, a protein found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. It should be noted that the mRNA cannot enter cells by itself and uses lipid nanoparticles (LNPs). These particles have become the most common tool used for mRNA delivery, which is quite different from the vaccines we’ve received as part of our routine immunization schedule. Many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated sample of the virus into our bodies.However, the mRNA vaccine ends up “teaching our cells” how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response inside our bodies just in case we run into the virus. That immune response produces necessary proteins called antibodies and this is the reason why we get vaccinated. The goal of the mRNA vaccines is similar to other platforms of vaccines in that scientists hope people will be protected against COVID-19 without having to contract the disease itself.

While creating the new mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, scientists followed three main steps. First, the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are given in the upper arm muscle in whichever arm is the least dominant. Once the commands/instructions (mRNA) are inside the immune cells, our cells make use of them to create the protein piece or spike protein. After the protein piece is made, the cell breaks down the instructions. As such, a human’s DNA is never at risk for being altered. Second, the cell will then display the spike protein on its surface. Our immune system recognizes that this protein doesn’t belong there and an immune response starts with the creation of antibodies. Consequently, our body would have learned how to destabilize the coronavirus - and to protect against future infections.

mRNA vaccines are a game-changer. Although there is no scientific confirmation as to whether those vaccinated can still transmit the infection, there is hope that these vaccines will prevent or at least lessen the severity of COVID-19-related symptoms.. These mRNA vaccines are developed faster than traditional vaccine methods because they’re made in a lab using materials that are easily available. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many people have faced serious financial, social, and health-related consequences and mRNA vaccines are a tool providing hope for returning to normal.