As the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccine rollouts begin to pick up speed, many people around the world are openly questioning whether or not these vaccines will be safe in the long term. The fastest vaccine rollout in history should be met with joy and reassurance that there is finally a way to beat the coronavirus, but skepticism is common.
Most of this concern comes from the fact that both of them are mRNA vaccines, a type not previously approved for use with humans. So what is an mRNA vaccine, and how can we trust that it is safe at this point?
Understanding mRNA Technology
First, it is important to understand that the use of mRNA technology is not new, it just has not been used in a vaccine prior to this point. Part of this is because the vaccines being developed with mRNA technology prior to coronavirus did not have the same sense of urgency.
The research on how mRNA technology might be used in vaccines has been underway for years, an important point for those who question the speed of this vaccine rollout. Essentially, thanks to already established research, scientists had a bit of a head start in creating such a vaccine to fight the coronavirus.
An mRNA vaccine works by carrying information on how to make a protein. In this case, it is how to make the spike protein seen on SARS-CoV-2 (or at least a portion of it). When a person is infected with this virus, it is that spike protein that allows it to enter cells and reproduce. By sending cells the information on how to make this spike protein, the body can generate an immune response and learn how to fight the virus without an infection.
What about Long-Term Effects?
Some worry about the long-term effects of an mRNA vaccine on the body. However, due to the nature of mRNA, there is no reason to suspect that there would be any long-term effects. That is because mRNA is extremely fragile and quickly degraded by the cell. In fact, it is just this fragility that has made it so difficult to make mRNA stable enough to produce a vaccine in the past.
This is one of the things that makes this vaccine rollout so exciting. Moving forward, this technology has the potential to help us create even more vaccines using this technology. mRNA is cheaper and faster to create than making virus particles or proteins, which is another factor contributing to the speed of this vaccine rollout.