Some COVID-19 Vaccine Questions

| December 10, 2020 | 0 Comments

Plain News has recently received a couple of questions related to COVID-19 vaccines and it was suggested that we do a little research and publish the answers. This write-up is to address these questions to the best of our ability. Plain News does not take a position on whether individuals should or should not accept vaccinations for COVID-19.

Question #1: Are fetal cell lines being used in the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines?

There are dozens of COVID-19 vaccine candidates being developed and tested around the world and it would be impossible to discuss all of them, so I will just touch on the five that have the highest chance of reaching the United States market first.

The two front-runner vaccine candidates have both demonstrated effectiveness in Phase 3 trials (according to the companies who made them), offering 90% or better protection from COVID-19. They are currently awaiting emergency authorization from the FDA before being offered to the public. The one vaccine is developed by Pfizer (U.S.-based) and BioNTech (German-based), while the other is developed by Moderna (U.S.-based). The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine does not use fetal cell lines in development and production. The Moderna vaccine does not use fetal cell lines in production, but there is some controversy over whether they were used in development. However, some of the confirmatory tests in the lab for both vaccines did use fetal cell lines while other confirmatory tests did not.

Three other vaccine candidates are currently in Phase 3 trials. These are being developed by AstraZeneca (British-based), Johnson & Johnson (U.S.-based), and Novavax (U.S.-based). The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidates both use fetal cells in development and production and fetal cell lines were used in laboratory testing. The Novavax vaccine candidate does not use fetal cell lines in development and production, but fetal cell lines were used in some of the laboratory tests.

Question #2: Do COVID-19 vaccines have the potential to modify the DNA of the recipient individual?

This question has come up because the two front-runner vaccine candidates discussed above use mRNA (messenger RNA) technology. This technology is quite new, and, if these vaccine candidates receive FDA authorization, they will be the first mRNA vaccines to ever be approved. The fear is that the mRNA in the vaccines will enter the cells of the host body and permanently modify the DNA of the cells. These fears are not well-founded and result from a misunderstanding and/or ignorance of human cellular processes. Following is a simplified explanation of how mRNA vaccines interact with human cells. See the end of the article for a more technical version of the next two paragraphs.

Each human cell has a command center called the nucleus. In the nucleus is the DNA - the “manuals” describing how the cell should operate. The ribosomes are the production centers of the cell where everything the cell needs to function is manufactured, but they need to receive information from the command center before they can produce anything. The mRNA is a “photocopy” of the instructions contained in the manuals which is sent to the ribosomes so they can carry out their tasks. The copy of the instructions is read by the ribosome, the ribosome carries out its production task, and the instructions copy is destroyed. The copies are only used once and never travel back to the command center.

In creating the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, scientists have written up their own set of instructions for the ribosomes. These man-made instructions tell the ribosomes how to produce a certain protein that is typically only found on the exterior of the virus that causes COVID-19. When the vaccine is injected into the human body, the instructions travel to the ribosome where they are carried out. The immune system detects the presence of the weird proteins and attacks them. The antibodies that the body uses to destroy these proteins patrol the body for some time and will attack any actual COVID-19 viruses that enter the body because they recognize the protein they attacked before.

At least some researchers say that mRNA vaccines are actually safer than traditional vaccines because mRNA vaccines do not contain any infectious agents. Vaccines for diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, yellow fever, and some influenzas contain the actual infectious agents that cause the diseases. These infectious agents have been attenuated (their disease-causing properties have been reduced), significantly reducing the chances of the vaccine recipient contracting a full-blown infection from them. However, these vaccines are still risky for immuno-compromised individuals because their bodies might not capable of mounting an adequate immune response to the vaccine. Also, there have been cases where live infectious agents were mistakenly placed in vaccines (without being attenuated), leading to outbreaks of the very disease against which the vaccine was targeted. With the mRNA vaccines, no infectious agents are present at any time during the immunization process. Instead, the immune system of the recipient mounts an immune response against a little protein whose only fault is that it’s foreign.

I am not vouching for the safety of mRNA vaccines. They are artificial substances being injected into the human body and, as such, carry a certain amount of risk. Many of man’s attempted solutions to disease have had unforeseen consequences. However, based on our understanding of how human cells function, there are no grounds for believing that the mRNA contained in these COVID-19 vaccine candidates will modify the DNA of the recipients.

Bonus Question: When will a vaccine be ready?

When will a COVID-19 vaccine be publicly available in the United States? At this point, the holdup is lack of authorization by the FDA. Pfizer and Moderna are both stockpiling millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines in anticipation of this approval. The FDA is holding meetings this week to discuss Pfizer’s vaccine, and, if all goes well, the authorization could be obtained by the end of the week. Pfizer and government-funded Operation Warp Speed say that vaccines will be shipped within 24 hours of that authorization being issued. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the U.S. will have vaccines to treat 20 million people by the end of the year.

The vaccine will not be immediately available to anyone who wants it. A CDC panel known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has recommended that the first recipients be healthcare workers and residents of long-term care homes. This recommendation is not law, but the recommendations of the ACIP are almost always followed. It has not yet been decided who the second group of recommended vaccine recipients will be, but the CDC has suggested that it could be essential workers, with the third group potentially including those with high-risk medical conditions and those over 65. It will be at least several months before vaccine doses are available for anyone who does not fall into these three groups.

~ Leonard Hege


 * The technical answer …

In human cells, almost all of the DNA is stored in the cell nucleus. This DNA contains all the genetic information necessary for the cell to perform its normal functions, as well as reproduce. One of the primary activities carried out by cells is protein synthesis. Protein synthesis takes place in “factories” inside the cell called ribosomes and is directed by information contained in the DNA. When a cell recognizes the need for a specific protein, the relevant section of DNA in the nucleus is duplicated and the packet of duplicate information (called messenger RNA) is sent to the ribosome so it can perform the synthesization task. The mRNA is always exported from the nucleus to another area of the cell; it is never imported into the nucleus. Once the mRNA has delivered the necessary genetic information to the target ribosome and the protein is produced, the mRNA is deconstructed and its components are used in other cellular processes.

Researchers realized the potential of using this normal cellular process of protein synthesization for vaccination purposes. The COVID-19 mRNA vaccine candidates contain synthetic mRNA encapsulated in protective nanoparticles that keep the synthetic mRNA from being immediately destroyed by the body. When the vaccine is injected into a human, the nanoparticles carrying the synthetic mRNA enter muscle cells and travel to the ribosomes of those cells. This mRNA contains the necessary information to instruct the ribosomes to synthesize a spike protein that is unique to the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). The ribosome manufactures the spike protein according to the instructions contained in the synthetic mRNA, and the mRNA is deconstructed. The spike protein is then displayed on the outside of the cell. The body’s immune system detects the “foreign-designed” protein and produces antibodies to fight off what it thinks is an infection. These antibodies go on to patrol the body for similar invaders for a period of time. The spike protein is only a small fraction of what makes up the SARS-CoV-2 virus and does not cause an actual infection, but, because the spike protein is distinctive and unique to SARS-CoV-2, the body is now immunized against infection.

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