What Subjects Do You Need to Understand So You Can Understand the mRNA Vaccine?
Many concepts you learned in school — but have probably forgotten — have come together to begin the end of the pandemic
When I was about to graduate from college with a degree in medical technology (MT), the MT (now CLS) program held a small ceremony to celebrate the accomplishment of those of us who made it through the program. It was a tough program, with any score under 75% being an F and a minimum of a B grade in all courses being required to pass. If you failed a course, you had to start the program all over again, and you only got one chance to do that re-start. There were plenty of people — some of them very bright — who did not make it through the program at all.
During that ceremony, a pathologist from the local county hospital delivered the keynote address. All of us had worked with him, sitting across from him and looking into the microscope as he showed us all sorts of interesting slides from all sorts of interesting tissue samples. In that keynote address, he told us that we would never see the world the same because we’ve seen through the microscope. Because we’ve seen a cell and all of its components, we would come to understand human disease and the suffering it brings.
Indeed, I’ve never been the same since I looked through a microscope when I was six years old. Mom bought me a used microscope at a garage sale, and I went around the garden looking at everything from plants to insect wings to drops of water. Oh, the number of living things inside that one drop of water. So, when the pandemic began, it was a lifetime of knowledge that had to come together for me to do my job as an epidemiologist.
First, I had to understand cell theory. Cell theory tells us that the basic building block of living things is the cell and that all cells come from the division of other cells. This is true of single-celled organisms like bacteria and complex organisms like human beings.
In dividing, each cell uses energy to create the structures that the resulting “daughter” cells will have. The uptake and use of that energy is a whole other concept that would take an entire semester to fully understand. What you need to know is that the process of cell division begins when DNA in the cell is unwound, read and the code interpreted.
The process of how DNA is transcribed to RNA and translated into proteins that make up the cell is complex as well. It begins with a signal being received by the cell that a protein is needed and ends with the protein being assembled outside the nucleus of the cell in the cytoplasm. Understand this process well, and you’ll begin to visualize how an mRNA vaccine is intended to work.
Of course, you must understand how the human body defends itself from invading pathogens. Different cells and body organs come together to fend off invaders. Things like viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites trigger a series of events that lead to their destruction by our immune system. If the infection is severe enough, the immune system may be overwhelmed. Alternatively, if the immune system’s reaction is one of a “scorched earth approach,” then you get very sick from the reaction itself. And, sometimes, the outcome of either scenario is death.
If you’re going to understand a vaccine against a virus, you must also understand the virus. Unlike a single-celled organism, viruses don’t multiply by division. There is even an argument on whether they are alive or… Or something else. Either way, you need to understand how they infect you, multiply inside of you, and cause disease.
Vaccines are interesting things. On the one hand, they’re not intended to cure a disease. Rather, they are intended to prevent you from getting a disease in the first place by teaching your immune system about possible diseases you may encounter in your life. As you learned in immunology, the immune system has the ability to remember invaders and neutralize them quickly if you are infected again. This is why you only get childhood infections once and don’t suffer from them again, if you survive them.
There’s no need to suffer from them to begin with, because of vaccines.
Anatomy and Physiology
It goes without saying that you need to bring it all together. A big part of bringing it all together is knowing Anatomy and Physiology. You need to know how cells, tissues, organs and organ systems come together for you to be you. You slowly build up from understanding cells and DNA to understanding how your body is put together. You’ll understand why you get the signs and symptoms of infection, and you’ll gain insight into how it is treated. Anything more advanced than that, and you need to go to nursing, physician assistant or medical school.
The mRNA Vaccine
After learning all of these concepts, you should know how vaccines work, how they trigger the immune system to react and then remember an invading virus, how the vaccine would use the cell’s machinery to create a protein (just like the cell creates proteins) that would trigger that immune response. You would also understand why the mRNA in the vaccine will never reach your cell’s nucleus and cause any change to your DNA.
You will also know why conspiracy theories about the vaccine don’t make any sense. If you study a little bit about Ohm’s Law, you would understand how microchips implanted in a vaccine would be useless for tracking you. Or, if you study the History of Vaccines, you would understand how today’s anti-vaccine groups really are just a remix of yesterday’s anti-vaccine groups.
The World Turned Upside Down
Knowledge is not something to be afraid of. You shouldn’t be embarrassed because you know stuff. If people understood the concepts above, along with a little bit of statistics and chemistry, the world would have gone through the pandemic in a matter of weeks, not months. We would not be having so many political and social controversies over things that can be solved with science and reason.
Yet here we are, fighting it out. And our best weapon is knowledge.
René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH, is a doctor of public health, an epidemiologist, amateur photographer, running/cycling/swimming enthusiast, father, and “all-around great guy.” You can find him working as an epidemiologist a local health department in Virginia, grabbing tacos at your local taquería, or on the campus of the best school of public health in the world where he is an associate in the Epidemiology department. All the opinions in this blog post are those of Dr. Najera and do not necessarily represent those of his employers, friends, family, or acquaintances.