How do you explain what the Covid-19 vaccine does to defeat the virus and help convince sceptics that vaccination is not only a good thing, but also safe?
Like every other rational South African adult, I have been double vaccinated. But I am astounded at the flimsy, unscientific excuses from anti-vaxxers about why they refuse to take a vaccine that could save their lives – and prevent them from infecting other people.
Madhav Sarda, a psychiatrist who works in medical education at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada tweeted a brilliant and funny explanation.
He describes himself as being “in medical education, so I try to explain complex stuff in simpler ways. And I don’t ‘usually’ swear so much”.
“The mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) are kind of brilliant at a science level. I’ve had a few people in my real non-Twitter life ask me to explain how it works so I’m going to try my best here in this thread while I’m waiting for a patient to show.
The first thing to know is how your immune system works. Basically, your immune cells attack anything foreign to your body. If it sees a protein or a virus or a bacteria or anything that it doesn’t recognize, it launches an attack.
If it’s fighting off a virus, for example, it takes time to build up a full attack. It’s got to figure out what part of the virus to attack & ramp up production of what it needs to attack those parts. That can take a few days. Meanwhile, the virus is replicating and expanding.
Once it fights off the virus, though, it remembers it. You’ve got memory cells in your immune system and if you run into that virus again, your memory cells say “I’ve seen this asshole before”. Your body uses its past experience to demolish the virus before it can make you sick.
So, with that in mind, we return to the vaccine. Scientists looked at the COVID virus and saw a protein on the outside of the virus that looked like a good candidate to launch an immune attack against.
That protein, by the way, is an important one for the virus. It uses that protein to get into your cells. That protein makes the virus more infectious. In short, that protein makes the virus more of an asshole.
So scientists took the blueprint for the asshole protein on COVID and made an mRNA version of it. Literally just the instructions on how to make that protein.
These instructions “are” the vaccine.
Let me explain.
The vaccine contains no actual part of the virus. It has only the instructions on how to make the asshole protein. So, you can’t get infected with COVID from the vaccine. You just get these instructions.
Your cells see these instructions and say “sure, I’ll make this”. So your cells make a bunch of the asshole protein.
You immune system sees this new protein you’re producing and immediately says “what… the fuck… is this?” And it starts attacking the protein.
Remember it hasn’t seen this protein before. It takes a while to ramp up production. Then it launches an all-out war against the asshole protein. The fevers, chills, muscle soreness, etc you might get as vaccine side-effects is your body bombing the hell out of the asshole protein
So you destroy the asshole protein (which in and of itself can’t infect you, it’s just a protein, not the virus).
Now here’s the important part. Your memory cells ‘remember’ the asshole protein. They remember exactly how to destroy it.
By the way, your body breaks down the mRNA instructions that you got with the vaccine pretty quickly too. That’s normal. You don’t need a bunch of instructions hanging around forever. Your body breaks those down and gets rid of them.So you’ve broken down the mRNA instructions. You’ve destroyed asshole proteins. Everything from the vaccine is gone.
Except for those memory cells who remember that protein very well.
So then, a COVID virus enters your body. Your body has never seen the virus before.
BUT it’s seen that protein that’s on the outside of the virus. Your memory cells say “you’ve got to be kidding me, THIS asshole again? Get the fuck out of here!”
Your body’s own ‘natural immune system’ quickly and efficiently launches an all-out war, using the template it has from when it destroyed the asshole protein last time. It destroys the virus before it can take hold, replicate, and make you sick.
Congratulations! Now, you’re immune to COVID! You’ve got the blueprints to defeat it as soon as it enters your body.
What if the virus mutates so it doesn’t produce the asshole protein anymore? Well, since it uses the asshole protein to get into your cells, if it mutates away from the asshole protein, it’ll probably also be less infectious. That’s what makes the vaccine low-key brilliant.”
* Madhav Sarda is a psychiatrist who works in medical education at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.
This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick.