By Sister Nancy Linenkugel
This blog title is unfair. Different from what, you ask? With the world growing weary of personal protections from COVID-19, like wearing masks and social distancing, a higher intervention is sorely needed to wipe out the pandemic. We need a vaccine from the worldwide scourge of COVID-19 virus.
The first two COVID-19 vaccines leading the way in late 2020 from Pfizer and from Moderna are both mRNA-based. This is different than vaccines we’ve received over the decades to fight viruses.
Vaccines have been around since 1796 when Edward Jenner produced a smallpox vaccination. His theory was that injecting a related virus could cause the body to fight off the virus through its immune system and thus the person would not get smallpox.
That theory has proven successful and has been the basis for vaccines for centuries, including against the polio epidemic in the 1950’s, the Asian flu, the Swine flu, and what we simply know each year as “the flu.” The Jenner et al vaccine is called “protein-based vaccine” which contains dead, or inactive, strains of the influenza virus. The body’s immune system goes into action by building antibodies to fight off each specific flu strain. Ingredients in this type of flu shot change every year once experts, such as those at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the WHO (World Health Organization), monitor flu patterns around the world to determine which flu strain is most prevalent. The annual flu shot is then designed to provide the highest protection from that strain.
The alternative type of vaccine – and what makes the COVID-19 vaccine different – is called “gene-based vaccine”. We’re familiar with the terms DNA and RNA in cell make-up. “DNA is the gene and RNA provides the protein-making instructions.” (Kate Bove and Hannah Riley, “Everything We Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine” 11/27/20 https://www.ask.com/culture/ask-answers-covid19-vaccine?ad=dirN&qo=serpIndex&o=740004 ) This means that DNA carries genetic information while RNA handles the flow of that genetic information from DNA to protein products in the body. By focusing on the RNA sequence of a virus, called the messenger RNA (mRNA), these COVID vaccines work by prompting the body’s immune system to respond against that virus and then to develop immunity. No live or dead virus is used in this type of vaccine to make the virus stop replicating and stop spreading. “Messenger mRNA triggers the immune system to produce protective antibodies without using actual bits of virus,” according to Gabrielle Frank on NBC’s TODAY show on 12/4/20.
mRNA has been in vaccine development for many years for diseases like rabies, Zika, and influenza, but the immediacy of needing to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 now has prompted interest anew into a vaccine based on mRNA. One hopeful prospect for the future is that mRNA will be able to protect us against more than one infectious disease, according to Jennifer Abbasi, in JAMA 9/27/20 “COVID-19 and mRNA Vaccines – First Large Test for a New Approach.”
As COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out across the country to pandemic-weary Americans, the important thing for all of us is to get the injection. A vaccine is worthless unless it becomes a vaccination. We Sylvania Franciscans, as women of peace and justice, applaud the triumph of science, innovation, and intellectual gifts all dedicated to bringing an end to this COVID-19 pandemic. We pray for the vaccine developers in gratitude, we pray for healthcare workers who sacrifice so much to care for COVID-19 victims, and we pray for all those with COVID-19, especially for the repose of the souls of all those for whom the vaccine didn’t come soon enough.