COVID-19, Cells, Viruses and mRNA Vaccines

I’ll be talking about mRNA vaccines and COVID-19. And why I’ll willingly wait for my vaccination, but think the new vaccines are a good idea.

But first, I’ll look at news, weirdness and a little history.

In the News: Prospects and Concerns

Headlines say that Moderna and/or Phizer have developed a COVID-19 vaccine.

They say it’s safe, effective, and will be ready soon. “Soon” defined as mid-December. Maybe towards New Year’s Day or some time in January. Or later.

Even if COVID-19 vaccine isn’t ready until a few months into 2021, I’d say getting it will be good news.

On the other hand, some articles sound like press releases. Which at least one seems to be based on:

‘Absolutely remarkable’: No one who got Moderna’s vaccine in trial developed severe COVID-19
Jon Cohen, Science Magazine (November 30, 2020)

“Continuing the spate of stunning news about COVID-19 vaccines, the biotech company Moderna announced the final results of the 30,000-person efficacy trial for its candidate in a press release today … an efficacy of 94.1%, the company says, far above what many vaccine scientists were expecting just a few weeks ago.
“More impressive still, Moderna’s candidate had 100% efficacy against severe disease….”
[emphasis mine]

And the New York City Times Square New Year’s Eve party will be — different this year.

An Alleged North Carolina-China Conspiracy

'At the Sign of the UNHOLY THREE' cartoon, warning against fluoridated water, polio serum and mental hygiene. And 'communistic world government.' (1955)Another bit of good news is a lack of high-profile conspiracy theorists getting extensions on their 15 minutes of fame.

I’m not sure why a Minnesota cleric’s fervent warnings against mRNA vaccines and the alleged North Carolina-China conspiracy mostly fell on deaf ears.

It made as much sense as the 1955 “UNHOLY THREE” campaign. Or as little.

North Carolina and China? Allegedly conspiring to make people sick??

I’m not making that up. (October 5, 2020)

Archbishop Hebda: Minnesota Priest’s Coronavirus Homily ‘Inappropriate’
Catholic News Agency / National Catholic Register (September 23, 2020)

“…Fr. Altier preached September 6 a homily at St. Raphael Parish in Crystal, Minnesota, saying the COVID-19 coronavirus is a ‘man-made virus, whose work had begun at a lab in North Carolina, then they shipped it to China to finish the work, then it was released so that people would get sick.’…

“…He said the goal of those campaigns is to achieve social control, by inducing people, out of fear, to receive a vaccine that is ‘designed to change the RNA in your body.’…”
(Catholic News Agency / National Catholic Register (September 23, 2020))

I’m not sure why the Altier alarm fizzled. Assuming that it did.

For all I know, Altier acolytes are striving to instill fear and dread mRNA vaccines in the American psyche. If they are, their missives haven’t made it into my social media stream. And they don’t seem to be getting traction in mainstream news media.

Like I said, good news.

But Altier got a detail right. The new mRNA vaccines really are “designed to change the RNA in your body.”

It’s even scarier if I say that they reprogram our RNA.

I think that’s reason for caution. But not for panic.

Mild Curiosity, Real Threat

I was slightly disappointed last August, when my COVID-19 test came back negative.

Even so, I’ll almost certainly get vaccinated against the disease. Eventually.

“Slightly disappointed?!!” Maybe I’d better explain that. And why I don’t accept Altier’s North Carolina-China mRNA conspiracy theory.

I don’t know what it’s like to have COVID-19. And, God willing, I won’t.

If I catch the disease, I’m more likely than most to experience a severe case. But since I haven’t had the disease, my knowledge of the experience comes from others.

Second- and third- hand accounts are fine. I figure first-hand experience is better. More detailed, at any rate. I enjoy knowing stuff.

But I also enjoy living. COVID-19 occasionally kills folks,1 and I’m not overly anxious to learn what dying feels like. Or have another disease send me to the hospital.

Since I admit that I’m a Catholic, maybe I’d better also explain why I think mRNA vaccines are a good idea. Probably. But why I’m okay with other folks getting vaccinated before me.

Wanting Immunity

So, why would I want a vaccination? Or at least put up with one?

Basically, it’s because I prefer health to illness. And because I realize that I’m not already immune to every disease.

Becoming immune means changing the way my body’s cells work.

By definition, vaccines change cells that can be infected to cells that are immune to a specific disease.2

A vaccine that did nothing would be useless.

Except, maybe, to folks who enjoy getting poked with needles. And that’s another topic. A strange one.

I know that newfangled ideas often inspire wacky reactions. Like the Gillray and Humphrey teeny tiny cows. And I still haven’t talked about my willingness to wait for a COVID-19 vaccine. I’ll get to that later.

Vaccination Viewpoints

James Gillray's 'The Cow-Pock—or—The Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!' (1802)
(From James Gillray, H. Humphrey, Anti-Vaccine Society; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(“The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!-vide. the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society” — James Gillray, H. Humphrey (June 12, 1802))

Someone invented vaccines.

Or was the first to notice that exposing someone to scrapings from another person who was recovering from smallpox made the patient sick. But that the patient recovered.

And didn’t catch smallpox and die later. That happened in China. Or India, or some other place. Or, I suspect, a whole bunch of places.

Time, centuries, passed.

An American and an Englishman, Edward Jenner and Thomas Dimsdale, developed immunizing treatments for smallpox.

Thomas Dimsdale became Baron Dimsdale of the Russian Empire.3 But this was the 18th century, so nobody said his smallpox treatment was a communist plot. Nobody I’ve heard of, anyway.

Smallpox Vaccinations: “a Daring Violation” or “a Precious Discovery”

I. Cruikshank's 1808 political cartoon, supporting Jenner, Dinsdale and Rose in the vaccination controversy.
(From I. Cruikshank, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“curse on those vaccinators” — Jenner, Dimsdale and Rose seem unfazed. (1808))

Jenner’s and Dimsdale’s experiments were, however, new. And grated on the furiously faithful demographic’s sensibilities.

But folks subjected to the newfangled “daring violation of our holy religion” weren’t nearly as likely to die from smallpox. Which the not-so-furiously faithful noticed.

“Smallpox is a visitation from God; but the cowpox is produced by presumptuous man; the former was what Heaven ordained, the latter is, perhaps, a daring violation our of holy religion.”
(A physician’s reaction to Dr. Edward Jenner’s experiments in developing a vaccine for smallpox, (1796) via Psychological Sciences, Vanderbilt University)

“…In contrast, many village priests in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and England not only urged parishioners to seek the preventative treatment, they became wholesale vaccinators themselves. Pastors in Bohemia charged parents with responsibility ‘before God for neglecting the vaccination of their children.’ In 1814, the Pope himself endorsed vaccination as ‘a precious discovery which ought to be a new motive for human gratitude to Omnipotence.’…”
(“Deliberate Extinction: Whether to Destroy the Last Smallpox Virus,” David A. Koplow, Georgetown Law Library, Georgetown University Law Center (2004))

That’s probably why George Rose cooperated — or conspired, from another viewpoint — to help folks in England get vaccinated.

And why the Pope called vaccination “a precious discovery.” In 1814, that would have been Pius VII, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Fear and Ethics

Two centuries and two presidential elections later, vaccination is still controversial.

Some arguments are the old “visitation of God” line with a fresh coat of paint. Others, I think, makes sense.

For example, making a vaccine by killing people wouldn’t be a good idea. Even if it helps someone I like, and the victims are anonymous strangers.

The same principle applies for organ transplants and gene therapy. I’ve talked about this before. (November 24, 2019; August 18, 2017; October 7, 2016)

The problem isn’t transplants or therapy. Sometimes benefits outweigh the risks. We’re told that donating organs after death is a good idea. But killing one person to help another is always a bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2296)

Dealing With Differences

Getting back to vaccines and the status quo, some objections to vaccination aren’t about vaccines. They’re about dosage.

Maybe life would be easier if everyone was squarely on the 50th percentile.

That way, all boys would be exactly the same height and weight at a given age. So would all girls.

They’d all grow at the same rate and have the same build.

By the same token, it’d be even easier if all boys and girls were exactly the same. I don’t know if that aspiration is still fashionable, and that’s yet another topic.

Dosages and Unpleasant Results

Anyway, that’s not the way it is. We’re all different. Which is a good thing. Or can be. (Catechism, 19341938)

Calculating dosages for vaccines and other drugs would be easier if we were all alike.

But we’re not.

I figure that’s why giving an infant who’s at the 5th percentile a dose that’s appropriate for someone who’s the same age but at the 50th percentile can have unpleasant results.

And telling the parent that observed phenomena are “fever convulsions,” when the kid’s temperature is demonstrably normal, doesn’t help.

Non-doctors don’t have a medical degree, but we’re not stupid. Not most of us.

The overdose and convulsions scenario didn’t happen in my family. It could have, since we’re not all on the 50th percentile. But my wife and I have been careful about selecting physicians. And, I suspect, we’ve been what my culture calls “lucky.” For the most part.

I could dismiss botched injection reports as ‘anti vaxxer propaganda.’ But the person I was discussing the situation with is neither fanatical, ignorant nor untruthful. And knows the family with a non-standard infant.

I’d prefer reading discussions of overdose-by-following-routine in medical journals. But I haven’t seen them. Understandably, perhaps, and that’s another yet again topic.

Or maybe not so much.

Science, Technology and Making Sense

Penicillin 'wonder drug' headline. (1943)Since I’ve talked about vaccines, admit that I’m a Catholic, and will be talking about mRNA vaccines — some clarifications may be in order.

I see science and technology, paying attention to God’s universe and using what we learn, as part of being human. I think being healthy, and staying healthy, makes sense. (Catechism, 3536, 301, 303306, 311, 1704, 22882289, 22932296)

I think using vaccines to stay healthy is a good idea.

Imagining that God gives us brains and gets upset when we use them does not make sense. Not to me.

At my age and with my medical issues, seeing a medical doctor regularly is a good idea. So that’s what I do.

I do not, however, assume that having an M.D. makes someone incapable of misconduct or ineptitude.

Trust and Prudence

If things worked that way, the doctor who correctly diagnosed congenital hip dysplasia shortly after my birth would have told my parents. Maybe even suggested possible treatments. Although options were limited back in 1951.

Instead, he had them bring me in at intervals to see what my hips were doing.

He made notes about what happens when hip dysplasia isn’t treated. Then he wrote a learned paper on the subject. His paper was published in a medical journal. A copy of the journal wound up in a college library’s collection.

That’s where my father read the doctor’s learned paper.

My mother intercepted him before he reached the doctor. She said, “no, I will speak with him.” Which she did. And never shared what they discussed.

The doctor disappeared a few days later. Maybe it would have been more humane to have let an enraged Irishman conduct the interview. And that’s still another topic.

The point of that story isn’t that doctors can’t be trusted.

Assorted treatments and two operations later, my right hip was almost normal. And a surgeon had sculpted its counterpart into a rough approximation of a human hip joint.

It hurt, but it worked for decades. Despite what a medical expert told my parents when I was about 12.

According to the expert, I’d be completely and totally crippled by the time I was 16. Unless my parents let him try out some nifty new procedure on me. No guarantees made or implied. They declined his offer.

My point is that doctors are human. Some are good at what they do, some aren’t. Some follow a version of the Hippocratic Oath, some don’t.4 And that’s — you guessed it — more topics.

DNA, RNA and mRNA Vaccines, Briefly

Royroydeb's photo of a museum's model of an animal cell model; Kolkata, India. (2014)
(From Royroydeb, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Model of a generic animal cell.)

First, a quick look at cells.

Cells are the smallest unit of living organisms. Unless you count what’s inside cells. And don’t think viruses are alive. I’ll get back to that.

Cells come in two basic flavors: eukaryotic and prokaryotic. Eukaryotes have a nucleus, prokaryotes don’t. All prokaryotes are single-celled organisms. So are some eukaryotes, but some eukaryotes are multicellular.

Don’t bother memorizing this. There won’t be a test.

All animals are eukaryotes, so our cells have a nucleus. Except some, like our red blood cells. Again, there won’t be a test on this.

Genetic material comes it two flavors, too: deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. DNA and RNA for short.

Our cells use DNA for long-term data storage. RNA is for short-term storage. RNA comes in several flavors.

Our cells keep DNA in their nucleus and mitochondria. Those that have nuclei and mitochondria.

Recapping, our DNA is in our cells’ nuclei and mitochondria. It holds our ‘how to grow and maintain a human’ instructions.

Our RNA transfers data within a cell, acts as an enzyme, and helps build proteins. And, like I said, it comes in several flavors.

Messenger RNA, mRNA for short, is the RNA flavor that transfers data.5 It’s a cellular analog to a computer’s short-term RAM memory.

That’s enough about cells and how they work. Maybe too much, maybe not enough. But I’ll keep going anyway.

Decoding the SARS-CoV-2 Virus's coronavirus structure illustration.
(From, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Illustration of coronavirus structure. Colorized for clarity.)

Viruses are tiny, much smaller than bacteria. They’re the smallest organisms. Or they’re not really alive, since they can’t replicate outside a living cell. The last I checked, scientists haven’t reached a consensus on the ‘are viruses alive’ question.

Either way, viruses interact with living cells. Which isn’t always bad news. We’re learning that many, maybe most, viruses in our bodies don’t bother us.

And some may help us.6 That’s a topic for another day. Week. Month. Year, probably, since it’s now December.

SARS-CoV-2 Build-a-Spike mRNA Snippet

Other viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, are emphatically not our friends.

The COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus is built like other coronaviruses. Coronavira? Coronaviri?? Never mind.

Its genome, the genetic material with ‘how to build a SARS-CoV-2 virus’ instructions, is an RNA strand inside the virus envelope.

The virus envelope, I’ll call it a shell, keeps the RNA genome inside until the virus attaches to a living cell. And it’s an anchor for the virus’s spikes and other molecular mechanisms.

The RNA inside a SARS-CoV-2 is what makes a cell grow more SARS-CoV-2 viruses. It takes a complete RNA genometo make a complete virus.

The virus shell and spikes are made of proteins.

SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins let the virus attach itself to a cell and get the SARS-CoV-2 RNA inside the cell membrane. Which is bad for the cell.

SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins are very good at what they do: attaching to our cells and infecting them. That’s the bad news. Part of it.

There’s precious little in the COVID-19 pandemic that I could call good news. Except maybe how some of us are dealing with it, which is yet another topic for another time.

The good news I’ll talk about today is that scientists have learned how the SARS-CoV-2 virus makes its spike proteins and isolated that bit of genetic code. And they’ve developed ways to mass-produce molecular containers for the mRNA snippets.7

COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines, Build-a-Spike Code and — Virus Rights??

I could hype mRNA-in-a-box vaccine as a FIENDISH ARTIFICIAL VIRUS THAT WILL DOOM US ALL!!!!!

But I won’t.

COVID-19 mRNA vaccines I’ve heard about deliver — “infect,” if I wanted to be scary — ‘how to build a SARS-CoV-2 spike’ to the patient’s cells.

And only the SARS-CoV-2 ‘how to build a spike’ code.

‘Infected’ cells take the code, build a spike — just the spike — and dispose of the SARS-CoV-2 mRNA snippet.

Then the body’s immune system notices SARS-CoV-2 spikes, recognizes them as something that shouldn’t be there and starts making anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.

I see the process as a good idea.

On the other hand, I suppose a case could be made for it being unfair to SARS-CoV-2 viruses. And might lead to mRNA vaccines being banned. Assuming that a ‘virus rights’ campaign could take off in any but a few tassels of society’s lunatic fringe.

From the CDC’s Factsheets

From Testimony of Dr. Stephen Hoge, President, Moderna, Inc.; to a House subcommittee. (July 21, 2020)
(From Dr. Stephen Hoge, used w/o permission.)
(From an explanation of DNA and mRNA to a House subcommittee. (July 21, 2020))

Or I could gripe, groan and grumble over the CDC having one fact sheet for the general public and another for medicos. Each with its own ‘main points’ list:

  • Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines, for the general public
    • They cannot give someone COVID-19.
      • mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19.
    • They do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way.
      • mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.
      • The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.
  • Understanding and Explaining mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines, for medicos
    • Like all vaccines, COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have been rigorously tested for safety before being authorized for use in the United States.
    • mRNA technology is new, but not unknown. They have been studied for more than a decade.
    • mRNA vaccines do not contain a live virus and do not carry a risk of causing disease in the vaccinated person.
    • mRNA from the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell and does not affect or interact with a person’s DNA.


But I won’t.

I also don’t see a point in fussing over the CDC’s understating how long mRNA vaccines have been studied. Vical’s 1989 paper goes back way “more than a decade.”8

I also figure there’s little point in my expanding the CDC’s two sidebar lists. So I’m sharing them ‘as is.’

New mRNA Vaccines: Good and Not-So-Good News

(From Leon Neal/Getty Images, via NPR, used w/o permission.)
(Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines need cold storage. Very cold storage.)

Vaccine 'cold chain' infographic, BBC. (December 2020)COVID19 mRNA vaccines aren’t like the vaccines we’re used to.

There’s an ‘up’ side to that.

They don’t use whole viruses, weakened or inactive: just snippets of virus code.So they don’t carry enough virus code enough to cause the disease. Not even close to enough.

Another ‘up’ side is that mRNA vaccines can be produced much faster than traditional vaccines.

A ‘down’ side is that mRNA vaccines won’t travel well.

They break down once inside a patient, which is good. But they also break down while being stored and moved. Keeping mRNA vaccine very cold helps, but makes transporting the stuff challenging.9

And someone, very likely some nation’s government, is trying to hack the vaccines’ delivery network.

Another ‘down’ side to mRNA vaccines is that they’re new. By itself, that’s not a problem.

But we’ve had years, decades, to learn what oddball side effects other vaccines have. We know what to expect. Or should know. Paying attention is, of course, optional.

Maybe the anti-COVID-19 mRNA vaccines will do exactly what they’re designed to do, and nothing else. Or, more likely, they’ll be a mix of good and not-so-good news. Like every other technology we use.

Willing to Wait For My Turn

So, I’m not scared of mRNA vaccines.

If that’s true, how come I’m not clamoring to be first in line for COVID-19 vaccines?

First, making a fuss wouldn’t help me. I figure I’ll get vaccinated when a COVID-19 vaccine gets approved, and available. And when my turn comes up.

Second, although I’m in several at-risk groups, I’m not likely to catch COVID-19. I don’t go out much and take reasonable precautions when I do.

Third, I think folks like medicos and first responders should get vaccinated before I do. They’re far more likely to get exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Fourth, or maybe third-and-a-half, it’s not all about me.

Being Catholic includes acting as if I value the life and health of my neighbors. Which is part of working for the common good. (Catechism, One/Two/Article 2 Participation in Social Life/II: The Common Good, 22582317)

(Almost) finally, I’m arguably not in the highest of high-risk groups. Others need COVID-19 vaccines more than me.

Besides, although I’m not afraid of mRNA vaccines, I’m not yearning to be among the first few thousand folks getting them.

Accepting risk is part of life. But I prefer knowing a little about what could go wrong.

And noticing what’s going right:

1 This year’s pandemic disease:

2 Avoiding illness:

3 A disease and history:

4 An oath, declarations and why they’re important:

5 Some of life’s little units:

6 Virus basics:

7 More than you may want to know about COVID-19 and viruses, or maybe less:

8 A little about mRNA vaccines:

9 COVID-19 vaccines and keeping them cold:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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