It’s no wonder there’s a new conspiracy about the mRNA vaccine each week.
Never in human history has a vaccine developed so quickly.
Never have scientists in real time around the globe collaborated with such focus.
Never have the data processing and scientific tools had such power.
But what really brought it together, “The sense of urgency we had with COVID did not exist for those earlier vaccines,” said Dr. Shad Marvasti, MD and MPH, associate professor and director of public health prevention and health promotion, University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix.
But that sense of urgency also had its downside when it came time to explain things to the public. The vaccine has received pushback from those concerned about how quickly it was developed. Some worry studies were rushed, subjecting humanity to a terrifying experiment.
However, after a lifetime battling diseases, Marvasti considers the COVID response a near miracle.
“I don’t think we have ever had a vaccine examined to such level of detail by so many scientists around the world to really prioritize this above any research endeavor,” he said. “This is the end of 20-plus years of both a gain in both infrastructure and knowledge.”
Not only did researchers complete clinical trials in near-record time, they then field tested the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine in the real world.
“The biggest real evidence it works is the fact that more than 600 million people have received this (vaccine),” he said. “We have never had that — which is in itself like a clinical trial.”
With so many receiving a vaccine, Marvasti and his fellow public health officers expected to see more side effects. Instead, they have seen a high level of effectiveness and mostly short-term side effects. Infection by the virus dwarfs even the rarest side effects of the vaccine.
Which doesn’t mean the vaccine will stop the spread of the virus.
“They don’t cure or treat COVID,” he said. “They prime the system to fight COVID.”
The vaccines certainly lower the risk of infection — but they lower the risk of hospitalization and death even more.
The fast-tracked tipping point
The mRNA vaccines are rooted in decades of research, said Marvasti. The vaccines sprouted from scientific seeds planted decades ago in labs from the National Institutes of Health to research facilities around the world. All the research found mRNA provides a cleaner way to stimulate the immune system than the past virus-based vaccines.
“The mRNA is a messenger signal,” said Marvasti. “It basically gives the message to your cells to create the spike protein for COVID and then your body naturally mounts an immune response.”
But it took a worldwide crisis and breakthroughs in how to deliver the fragile strands of RNA to the cells, making possible an alternative to the traditional, virus-based vaccine.
The problem with mRNA, it’s very difficult to store because it degrades so quickly. But it’s that fragility that allows the mRNA to leave the body quickly. That’s what makes it a “cleaner” way to provide a vaccine, said Marvasti.
“The actual stuff of the vaccine, it ... gets eaten up by the cells and is gone,” he said. “We’ve never had that before.”
Nor has the world seen the international scientific community come together so quickly to solve one problem.
“Scientists have been collaborative by nature. With the internet it’s much easier,” said Marvasti.
Every paper has an email contact, so it just takes a couple of clicks to set up a Zoom video conference call to connect the dots.
“Before, scientists would write a paper and anyone interested would write a letter and maybe received a response,” said Marvasti. “The pace of connections to bring out the best ideas and connections has increased.”
That’s another reason the mRNA vaccines got developed and approved so quickly.
“The COVID vaccine is proof when humans come together globally, we can do amazing things. We can use the tools of science,” said Marvasti.
Another layer of defense
Marvasti studied at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the U of A. He understands and supports those who seek to strengthen their immune systems to fight illness.
What he doesn’t understand is why it has to be an either-or approach to the vaccine.
“You want to take a layered approach to COVID,” he said.
That includes getting enough Vitamin D, eating healthy and avoiding high-risk exposure activities, because COVID does have a higher death rate than other seasonal illnesses.
Without a vaccine as part of the approach to supporting the immune system, “once you get infected ... there is a much higher risk of death because of the unpredictability of COVID,” he said. “You can be someone who believes in the power of the immune system and holistic health, yoga and tai chi, and you can also use the vaccine.”