mRNA Vaccines: New and Unknown

January 8, 2021

Written by: Anthony Bhai

The new vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna have been developed, tested and approved in Canada for COVID-19 and roll out has begun for the general public in a tiered, priority manner. The mRNA vaccine is the first of its kind, not because it is for a novel virus, but because the technology uses genetic material to generate the immune response. Previously, vaccines would introduce a weakened or inactive germ into the body so the immune system could produce antibodies. An mRNA (Messenger Ribonucleic Acid) vaccine teaches the body to create a protein, or piece of a protein, in order to trigger the immune response. 

I found the introduction of this technology both intriguing and surprising. My visceral response was that of surprise because mRNA is a copy of our own DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is the central building block to who we are as humans, it is our genetic code. The information stored within is so precious that the body is not willing to risk the information being lost or damaged – so, it makes a copy, mRNA. I recalled my high school biology class, when my teacher explained why our DNA had to be copied, as well as its importance. All the proteins in the body, (hair, blood cells, skin, etc.) are derived from copies of an individual’s unique genetic code. One’s DNA describes the characteristics of the proteins produced, for example, red hair. The mRNA takes this information and makes the proteins required. This is a gross oversimplification of the transcription and translation processes taking place in the cells, but essentially,  DNA is the master code, mRNA serves as the copy to create whatever the DNA dictates. 

The vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer utilize synetic genetic material to elicit a desired physiological response. The mRNA vaccine works by scientists’ ability to write (sequence) the virus’ genetic code and create an mRNA molecule with this genetic information; similarly to how our own body would produce mRNA. When administered, the mRNA enters the cells and the ribosomes (a micro-machine for producing proteins) translate this genetic information into a spike protein. The spike protein is important because it plays a role in the coronavirus; it is used to penetrate host cells, initiating the infection. Using mRNA, the vaccine will develop the spike cell in the body and the body reacts to this spike protein by creating an immune response in the form of antibodies. If you were to become infected, the antibodies are present to help you fight COVID-19 if it were to attack your immune system. This revolutionary concept is the first of its kind to be approved by Health Canada or within the USA.

The main difference between biology and pharmaceutical intervention is where the mRNA code comes from. Throughout humanity, mRNA has come directly from our own DNA. The mRNA vaccines circumvent the use of DNA, as pharmaceutical companies are the ones who write the genetic code in the mRNA.

To further the high school biology lesson above, a complimentary analogy to explain the genetic system is if a computer (much like DNA) imported information onto a USB (mRNA) and the document from the USB is then uploaded into a printer (your cells) and prints the message (a protein). Using this comparison, the introduction of an mRNA vaccine would be as if pharmaceutical companies plugged a USB into your printer, with the printout hopefully amounting to immunogenicity.

In my view, what is problematic is the assumption that pharmaceutical companies are able to successfully write a genetic message in two days based on a genetic code and system that has been refined in the human body over millennia. In broadly accepting this vaccine, trialed over a few months, we assume that whatever is written into the vaccine’s code elicits only the desired immune response, without inducing other issues related to the translation of the mRNA into proteins. Granted, mRNA technology has been around for almost a decade, however this is still a mere blip in time compared to the development of our body’s genetic and immune systems. Assuming we can write a code and the body will respond accordingly, to me, is a mechanistic and slightly hubristic view of human physiology.

A core question I have is: should humans be taking foreign genetic material into their bodies and what are the implications of this choice? I am confident that public health officials will provide seemingly sensible responses to these questions, but I challenge you to ask yourself if the answers provided satiate the primal paradox of modifying your gene expression. Additionally, what does widespread acceptance of this novel practice mean for the future of medicine and… humanity?

The advent of the mRNA vaccine has taken the world’s attention and we have been quick to view it as a miracle of medical science, accepting it as the cure that will bring us back to ‘normal’ life. The rapid acceptance and roll-out of the new technology reminds me of the development and use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in agriculture. First novel, now widespread, some GMOs have been linked to a variety of health and environmental issues. There are parallels to the introduction of GMOs and the onset of the mRNA vaccine such as: new technology that is considered an answer to a complex problem with cascading effects, widespread acceptance of technology without long-term consideration of broader health and social implications, and lastly, the long-term implications of altered genetic material in the human body. Many countries now ban GMOs, or require them to be labelled, but not in Canada. 

Much like the introduction of GMOs, there is a conflict of interest with those who have conducted the trials. The only results from a large clinical trial that have been peer reviewed and published are from the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company. Their vaccine is more simple than the RNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, as it does not have to be stored at such cool temperatures. The information from Pfizer and Moderna have only been shared through media outlets. Other causes for concerns, for me, are: a lack of placebo control during the trials, questions around the origin of the introduced genetic material, and future strains of COVID-19 and the resulting vaccine requirements. 

We all want to get back to some semblance of what life was pre-COVID, and up until its dissemination, the vaccine was presented as the silver bullet that will bring us back to a socially-integrated life without distancing and masks, at warp speed. Looking at the rollout procedures now, many public health officials are stating that the vaccine is not an end to masks or social distancing because asymptomatic transmission through those who are vaccinated is still a possibility. Moreover, it is my belief that our society is too quick to accept the purported norms put forth by the media; I feel as though we must all grow a healthy level of social skepticism. Question what is happening around you, consider motives in what you are hearing in the news and ponder whether we are placing too much trust in a treatment that has stemmed from a highly socio-political process. 

The author is a PhD student in Ontario, Canada. ‘Anthony Bhai’ is a pseudonym.

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