By SCOTT ELNES
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
The hottest headline off the presses for COVID-19 is that not only could we get a vaccine before the end of the year, but one of the vaccines we are likely to get, is using a technique that has never been done before and may revolutionize the way we approach disease.
This new technique involves, DNA, RNA, mRNA and enough terms that I don’t understand, that I reached out to the leading infectious disease expert at Oregon Health Authority, Dr. Paul Cieslak to help break it down for me.
“Every living thing, and viruses as well, make their proteins from either DNA or RNA, through the use of this “Messenger RNA”, and it contains the genetic code that allows you to make proteins.”
This new approach utilizes the messenger RNA or mRNA, to replicate one of the keys to the spread of COVID-19 called a spike protein that acts like a key opening a lock.
“So the COVID-19 virus, the SARS Cov-2 virus, has a spike protein on its surface and that protein is needed to grab onto your cells and get into them, so that the virus can infect your cells. So, if you can coat that thing with antibodies, you could prevent the virus from getting in and replicating.”
The messenger RNA’s code allows a replica spike protein to be created, that fits its key into the lock, thus filling the space that the virus would normally occupy to infect a cell.
“What this new vaccine does is it contains mRNA for the spike protein of the SARS CoV-2 virus. Your cell machinery will make not the virus, but just this protein, so that you can mount an antibody response to it.”
And besides being a ground-breaking technique, it also comes with another major benefit in that it can be produced in large quantities very quickly.
“It’s a new technology. They think that if it proves safe and effective, that they could crank it up really quickly. You know some vaccines, even after they are approved, take a long time to get into production. You know we’re talking we would want hundreds of millions, maybe billions of doses of vaccine.”
And our current approach to mass producing vaccines literally moves at the speed of the chicken and the egg.
“With influenza, for example, they have to inoculate virus into a chicken egg, let the virus grow and you get about one dose of vaccine per chicken egg. So, if you want 100 million doses of flu vaccine your first job is to lay 100 million eggs. But the mRNA, you can really cook up in a laboratory.”
It’s groundbreaking, it’s fast, it’s revolutionary, so what could go wrong, right?
“The caution is that there has been no vaccine against any disease licensed anywhere in the world using this technology, so it is brand new, it’s exciting, but we need to make sure that it works and that it’s safe first.”
Dr. Cieslak told me that he has heard estimates for the release of this vaccine as early as November, but that is if the vaccine continues to perform as well as it has.
And if there is one thing that we know about this virus, it’s that apparently only people on social media seem to claim to be experts on it.
The ones in the know are still waiting for the data.