Two years ago, as we watched COVID-19 emerge, spread and impact so many lives throughout the world, my focus as a biologist was almost entirely on the virus and how scientists would respond. There was so much we didn’t know yet — how far would the virus spread? How would it change? How quickly could we develop a vaccine so we could get back to normal?
Back then, I wrote about how biologists might predict that the virus would change: viruses that are transmitted directly from person to person often become less virulent over time because their transmission depends on their host being healthy enough to interact with others. While this prediction seems to have largely come true with the more infectious but less virulent omicron strain, my primary focus on the pandemic has shifted considerably in the past two years.
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Last summer, on our weekly family Zoom call, I learned that my cousin had COVID-19. This was shocking to me not only because the COVID rates were so low in the state at that point, but also because this was how I learned that she was not vaccinated. How could my cousin, whom I’d grown up with and who had been present on Zoom over the past months as the family celebrated more and more of us having access to the vaccine, not be vaccinated?
This account probably reveals a lot more about me than it does about her. In my mind, especially then, it was only “other people” who weren’t vaccinated. Most people in my little social bubble were vaccinated and I somehow hadn’t considered that I could relate to someone with a different view on this issue. But here she was, my cousin.
In talking with this cousin later, I learned that she had never heard of mRNA vaccines before COVID and was not comfortable with what she perceived as a new technology being used so quickly and so widely. We ended up talking about this concern at length because the truth is, mRNA vaccines aren’t a new technology, or at least not as new as many people believe. I actually didn’t know the full history of mRNA vaccines at the time (here’s a good review if you’re interested: if you’re interested), but I definitely knew that mRNA vaccines were not a new idea because I had been teaching about them in microbiology for years before the COVID pandemic started.
A simple idea … to a biologist
To someone with a background in biology, the concept behind mRNA vaccines is simple. Our cells usually store the instructions to make everything they need (i.e., to make us) in a molecule called DNA in a special compartment of the cell called the nucleus. You can think of this as a giant instruction manual. When the cell wants to use those instructions, it makes an mRNA copy of a single page of that instruction manual, which it ships out of the cell’s nucleus to be translated into a working cellular component: a protein.
Vaccines usually work by presenting our bodies with part or all of a killed or weakened virus or other pathogen. Our immune system can then learn how to recognize this virus so that it can attack it effectively if the live virus enters our body. The viruses used in traditional vaccines often have to be raised in living cells in laboratories using things like chick embryos still in their eggs, which can be time consuming, expensive, and introduce potential allergens (e.g., egg residue). Nucleic acid vaccines (nucleic acids include both DNA and mRNA) replace these laboratory-raised viruses or virus components with the protein-producing power of our own cells. They give our cells the instructions to make just a single viral protein — not the whole virus — and our cells then produce that protein and teach our immune system to recognize and fight it.
When I first read about nucleic acid vaccines well before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was struck by the huge potential of the approach. Nucleic acids are relatively cheap and easy to produce; as a researcher, I can order a short custom DNA sequence online for about $5 and it will arrive at my lab tomorrow. Also, all living things and viruses use nucleic acids as instructions for making proteins, so I (and many others!) knew that once scientists figured out how to use nucleic acids in vaccines, we should be able to tweak the vaccine to target almost any pathogen or variant without having to rework the way the vaccine is made or delivered. While no nucleic acid vaccines had yet been approved for humans, there were some that were effective in other animals. Over the years leading up to the pandemic, whenever I taught nucleic acid vaccines in microbiology, I told my students to look out for this type of vaccine because I was sure it was coming.
So, having this familiarity with both molecular genetics and vaccines, when I heard that the first vaccines approved for emergency use against COVID-19 were mRNA-based, I was ecstatic. It was so cool to see this technology go from a promising prototype to a widespread solution so quickly. It wasn’t rushed and corners weren’t cut — this technology had been in development for over 30 years — it was just waiting for an opportunity to be applied on a large scale.
A different perspective
When I heard my cousin’s apprehensive reaction to the same technology, it really struck me how much our understanding of the world shapes our reactions to new situations. I, as a teacher and researcher of genetics and microbiology, was very familiar with how mRNA is used in our cells and how this knowledge could be harnessed to create a vaccine that could turn the tide of the pandemic. I couldn’t have been more excited at the announcement of these vaccines. My cousin, another well-educated person who was instead trained in psychology, had no real reason to have been exposed to the details of molecular genetics or vaccine development. She was understandably more cautious when presented with information about the new vaccines.
How do we bridge this gap? I wish I knew. Scientists, in general, could do more to communicate clearly and connect with people, but I don’t think that’s the only answer. The fact that my first conversation about the new vaccines with an unvaccinated person was almost a year after the vaccines were released is perhaps a testament to how detached I am from those who think differently from me. Perhaps we all need to do more to reach outside our own areas of expertise to learn to talk with one another, about vaccines and so much more. Projects like this one that bring together many different voices with different perspectives are a good step in the right direction.
Dr. Allison Neal is an associate professor of biology at Norwich University and co-director of the Vermont Science Fair.
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