You’ve likely heard of the travels of Flat Stanley, but have you heard of Flatrick Burke?
Back in the Before Times when I taught on campus, I caught sight of this stealthy vehicle (see photo) traveling the streets of Denton.
Apparently, it’s driven by a well-known local, but it was my first sighting.
Last summer, the owner of this vehicle was issued a citation for criminal trespass after defacing the local Walmart.
His graffiti? “COVID hoax”.
Color me shocked.
Patrick Burke is also an evolution and climate-change denier (again, shocker), but a flat earth is his primary bandwagon of choice. His house, just a half-mile from the UNT campus, continues the theme: Gravity is not real. The earth is motionless.
Burke is a college graduate, employed, and a self-described “regular guy.”
Walmart graffiti notwithstanding, Patrick (or “Flatrick” as he is lovingly known) is not really harming anyone. No one is going to force him to buy a globe.
Now, imagine that Patrick or one of his fellow flat-earthers teaches world geography in the local middle school. If he insists on advocating for a flat earth, he will be invited to take his teaching skills elsewhere.
Recently, employees of the Houston Methodist Hospital system marched carrying protest signs blazoned with “No Forced Vaccines” and “Stop Medical Tyranny”.
A federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by 117 hospital employees who were suspended for refusing a COVID vaccine.
This lawsuit was the first of its kind and is expected to set a precedent. It is important to note that the hospital system exempted many employees from the requirement: 285 for religious or medical reasons and 332 others for pregnancy.
Here’s U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, in a statement referring to the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit:
“Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.”
In the Houston Methodist system, patient safety is a priority. If it is not the priority of an employee, the employee is invited to take their skills elsewhere.
And finally, if you or someone you know needs more convincing about vaccination, let me introduce you to…
the Delta variant.
The Delta variant currently accounts for about 6% of COVID infections, but at the rate it is spreading, it will be the dominant strain in the United States by August.
The Delta variant is really good at three things: rate of contagion, potential for high mortality, and ability to evade immunity.
We need to pay attention.
A single dose of one of the mRNA vaccines is only 33 percent effective against Delta. BUT – the recommended two doses of an mRNA vaccine are 90-95% effective.
Now some really scary news… early lab evidence shows that Delta evades “natural” immunity from a prior COVID infection. We are waiting on more studies in actual humans to confirm this finding.
Bottom line – vaccination protects and is likely more protective than immunity from an infection.
She took a call from the loading dock: your package is here.
Interestingly, the package didn’t arrive by plane. This package was placed on a truck and given a special ride from Boston to Bethesda.
Can you bring it up? She asked.
No, they said. You have to come downstairs and meet the driver. And bring your ID. We can only give the package to you.
I imagine she ran all the way.
She is young (just now 35), and thoroughly a member of the selfie generation. She asked the driver to take a photo of her with the box.
And he’s like, no ma’am, that’s not my job.
Elated, she took the box back to her lab, where 250 little mousies awaited. The box contained doses of covid-19 vaccine, developed using her science research.
Each little mousie was about to get a jab.
And the young woman was about to save the world.
Meet Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. She’s young and she’s brilliant, and she is the lead researcher in the NIH Vaccine Research Center’s lab for development of coronavirus vaccines. She is the primary scientist behind Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine.
Unbelievably, in just a few months, a scientific concept in Dr. Corbett’s laboratory became a nationally distributed vaccine that is 94 percent effective.
It was far from beginner’s luck.
Dr. Corbett had been studying coronaviruses for more than six years when the covid-19 pandemic struck. Her attention was on vaccines for MERS and SARS – coronaviruses that put the world on the edge of a pandemic but stopped just short.
December 31, 2019: a respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus is reported in China. Emails to Dr. Corbett from Anthony Fauci and Barney Graham (Corbett’s boss at the Vaccine Research Center) arrived in January.
“Buckle up,” they told her.
January 10, 2020: researchers published the DNA sequence of the coronavirus that causes covid-19.
Sixty-six days later, a vaccine developed in Dr. Corbett’s lab entered phase 1 testing in humans.
That speedy timeline makes some people really nervous.
When questioned about the worry some have regarding the speed of the vaccine from lab to arms, Dr. Corbett gave a surprising answer.
It could have been faster.
We didn’t quite get there for a MERS or SARS vaccine, she says, but if we had, we could have shortened the time to a covid vaccine. But, she’s quick to say, that research got us ready for covid-19.
Kizzmekia Corbett is a science rock star. And Kizzmekia Corbett is a scientist of deep faith. She is a Christian who makes no secret of her love for Jesus.
Dr. Corbett sleeps very little these pandemic days and works seven days a week, but like many of us, she stops on Sunday to watch a recorded church service. But unlike most of us, she spends the remainder of the day analyzing mountains of data.
Dr. Corbett feels a deep sense of obligation to community health. She sees her work in vaccine development as a way to love her neighbor as herself. She calls it “vaccine community service”.
Here’s Dr. Corbett:
“My religion tells me why I should want to help people, make the world a better place. Science shows me how to study the coronavirus and do the work that one day, hopefully, will prevent people from dying of covid-19.”
Kizzmekia was the kid who entered and won all the school science fairs. When the Nobel prizes were announced, she wrote speeches and delivered them out loud, with pomp and spectacle and dramatic tears.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and where the buck stops regarding all things pandemic, recently said that Dr. Corbett and Dr. Barney Graham were already in discussions for “prizes”.
During the Cold War, the greatest fear in America was the bomb.
In a close second place was polio.
Everyone was at risk, children especially, but also teenagers and adults. Polio returned every year, usually during the summer. There was no prevention and no cure.
People got sick, some got very sick. Many lost the use of their legs, their arms, or both. Many lost the ability to breathe, and some lost their lives.
Americans were terrified.
But on an unremarkable Tuesday in April 1955, everything changed.
Church bells rang and factory whistles blew. Across America, people ran into the streets weeping.
In all caps, newspaper headlines shouted: “THE VACCINE WORKS.”
After two years of trials, it was certain: Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine worked.
In the next few days and weeks, store front windows were shoe-polished with “Thank you, Dr. Salk.” Local parades featured floats celebrating the defeat of polio. President Eisenhour choked up when he met Dr. Salk at the White House.
For decades, Americans saw polio as a shared tragedy. In the wake of the Depression when philanthropist money dried up, ordinary people mailed in dimes to fight polio. Literally tons of dimes.
It was the March of Dimes that funded Salk’s research.
Volunteers organized an unprecedented two million American children in the largest vaccine trial ever completed. Smiling kids posed for photos wearing “Polio Pioneer” buttons.
No wonder Americans were proud.
They saw themselves as part of a group. Americans cared not only for their own children, but for America’s children. They were a public that cared about public health.
Americans have Covid fatigue. We are tired, just tired of it. We are appalled by the record deaths and the packed ICUs and the exhausted medical staffs and the damaged economy and the never-ending social distancing.
But then, hope.
It began with front-line medical staff smiling through their masks, giving weary thumbs-up in vaccine selfies on social media. Then more medical staff. More selfies.
And we loved it. We cheered and hit “like” and a lot of us teared up with every posting.
March 2020 seems like a million years ago. We now have two vaccines that are 95% effective, and we can’t get them into arms fast enough.
I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a mega drive through at Texas Motor Speedway. Drones and helicopters flew overhead, and the media was about with mics and cameras.
Volunteers and paramedics and medical staff were there by the hundreds, waving and smiling and chatting, and all the while maintaining efficiency like you just can’t believe.
People were rolling down their windows and waving and thanking the staff and the volunteers.
I witnessed the same scene at a mega center in Dallas where my 82-year-old mother-in-law received her first jab. Big smiles everywhere. Organization, volunteers, hopefulness, thankfulness, celebration.
As more and more of us are called in for our jabs, social media selfies have not abated. It’s our twenty-first century version of church bells ringing and factory whistles blowing.
Vaccine rollout has not been problem-free, nor was the celebrated polio vaccine rollout. Some vaccination sites run with the efficiency of a Chick-fil-A drive-through, while other sites struggle.
But we are hopeful. And our civic pride is showing.
We cheer, we take selfies, we heart the photos. We delight in the stories: the medical team, stalled on a highway in a blizzard with a soon to expire supply of vaccine, going car to car, vaccinating every willing arm; the hospital in California rushing against time to vaccinate their community after a freezer failure; the health care workers made honorary Super Bowl captains.
I am vaccinated for myself, sure, but it is so much more:
I am vaccinated because I want to protect my neighbors living in crowded conditions, my neighbors for whom “working from home” is not an option, my newborn neighbors, my immunocompromised neighbors, my elderly neighbors, and my teacher neighbors.
I am vaccinated because I want to be a responsible member of the herd. It’s how I love my neighbor as myself.
Let the church bells ring.
It’s not a Polio Pioneer button, but I love my pin!
Late on a Monday morning in early January, senior staff at a hospital in Mendocino County, California were gathered for the first executive meeting of 2021, when in burst the hospital pharmacist.
Ten hours earlier, the compressor on the hospital’s freezer failed.
In a perfect storm of coincidences, the alarm meant to sound in such a failure also failed.
And in a trifecta of disasters, the freezer held 830 doses of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.
Two hours was all that was left in the shelf life of 830 doses of a groundbreaking, life-saving, but temperature-finicky RNA vaccine.
Phone call number one was to Moderna, but there was no time to waste waiting on a callback.
Fifteen minutes off the clock.
The hospital shifted into local emergency mode. Two hundred vaccines to county workers, jail staff, and the fire department. Seventy doses to two elderly care centers.
One hour left.
Every available medical professional (doctors, nurses, pharmacists) was called to man four pop-up vaccination sites across the county. The news blasted out on social media and by word of mouth.
Shots were given as fast as people could present arms. Despite the inevitable excitement and confusion, crowds were polite and cooperative.
By 1:30, only forty doses remained at a church vaccination site. Seniors were called to the front of the line.
In under two hours, every dose was given. Warp speed indeed.
Finicky shelf-life is the price we are currently paying for RNA vaccines that are an astounding 90-95% effective.
The problem of vaccine supply logistics is a problem as old as vaccines themselves.
In the eighteenth century, smallpox was a dreaded plague. If you managed not to die a horrid death, you were likely horribly scarred, and often left blind.
But – conventional wisdom said that if you caught a similar, but milder disease called cowpox, you were safe from deadly smallpox. As the name implies, people who worked closely with cows (like milkmaids) often contracted cowpox. Milkmaids were known to brag that they would never be “ugly and pockmarked” after experiencing a case of cowpox.
British physician Edward Jenner put two and two together in 1796. He took a bit of fluid from a blister of a local milkmaid who currently had cowpox. (In a curiously recorded historical detail, the infecting cow was named “Blossom”).
Jenner then scratched the cowpox fluid into the arm of his gardener’s 8-year-old son. The boy developed a mild case of cowpox, but nothing more. Afterwards, Jenner infected the boy with smallpox, and to everyone’s relief, the boy did not get sick.
Jenner’s procedure became known as “vaccination”, its root from the Latin word for cow – “vacca”. Thank you, Blossom!
Cowpox blister fluid (pus, actually) was a nineteenth century version of a vaccine storage and distribution problem. You could easily vaccinate those living near a cowpox outbreak, but cowpox blister fluid doesn’t travel well.
The fluid dried up and inactivated before it could be transported across even small distances.
From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, smallpox decimated the western hemisphere, carried there by European conquerors and settlers.
Spanish colonies world-wide were suffering from smallpox. But cowpox fluid didn’t survive a short trip, much less one across the globe.
IN 1803, a Spanish physician, Francisco Xavier de Balmis, organized a shocking expedition. Twenty-two orphaned boys, ages three to nine, were put on a ship bound for the Americas.
At the beginning of the trip, two boys were vaccinated with cowpox blister fluid. When they blistered, two more boys were vaccinated with the fluid. This process continued throughout the voyage, two by two, with the hope that at least one boy would arrive in the Americas with nice fluid-filled cowpox blisters.
The twenty-two orphan boys were a living supply chain of vaccine.
As it turns out, only one boy had a single fluid-filled cowpox blister when the expedition arrived in the Americas. Still, it was enough. The chain of vaccinations propagated from that one boy resulted in the vaccination of thousands.
The twenty-two Spanish orphans were adopted by Mexican families. In turn, twenty-six Mexican families “lent” their sons to continue carrying the vaccine to the Philippines and China.
After circling the globe to deliver vaccine, Balmis remained committed to carrying smallpox vaccine across the world.
May we be as resolute in vaccinating our modern population.
My husband was recently selected to be a vaccinator for Covid-19. Watch this space! I am excited to document the launch of a historic vaccine in his local medical practice.
It began with an application to the Texas Department of State Health Services. First the basics – are you a licensed physician in Texas? Where is your practice? What is the size of your practice?
Then more details: what kind of refrigeration and freezer equipment is on the premises? How many vials of vaccine can you accommodate? (He’s requested an initial 300 doses)
Both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines must be transported and stored at very low temperatures. My husband was required to purchase a special device for his refrigerator, a device designed to constantly record the temperature at specific intervals. The data can then be uploaded and analyzed to insure the “cold chain” has not been broken.
He doesn’t know at this point which vaccine (Moderna or Pfizer) will be shipped to him.
The final step in approval was an agreement to honor the directives:
• Do you agree not to charge patients for the vaccine?
• Do you agree to abide by priority guidelines and to honor the criteria regarding who should be vaccinated first?
Approval was granted Friday, December 4. Stay tuned!
In just a just matter of weeks, the first publicly offered vaccines will arrive across the U.S. at “warp speed”.
Understand: a vaccine roll-out is not an instant, get-out-of-jail-free, burn your masks and breathe on your neighbor free-for-all.
But it’s a start.
A wonderful, excellent, science-y start.
What to expect after your vaccination:
Essentially 100% of those vaccinated will have side effects following the jab. For the vast majority of us, that means pain at the injection site, a little swelling, and some redness.
A few people will have more intense side-effects, including fever, muscle pain, joint pain, headache, and fatigue. Side effects are temporary, usually lasting only a day or two.
Still, a sore arm and feeling a bit crummy for a day is a small price to pay to rein in an infection that can damage hearts and lungs and is lethal in 2% of diagnosed cases (compare to the seasonal flu at 0.1%).
Drew Weissman, an immunologist whose research contributed to both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines wants people to be informed: “This is what you need to expect. Take Tylenol and suck it up for a day.”
Side effects are temporary and normal and are an indication that your immune system has shifted into high gear as it prepares to fight a future Covid-19 infection.
Redness, heat, pain, and swelling are signs of inflammation – your body’s natural response to invasion or injury. Think about itchy allergy eyes, a sprained ankle, or even a splinter in your finger.
Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use RNA molecules with the “recipe” for one of the protein spikes on a COVID-19 virus. The RNA enters your muscle cells, and your cells use the “recipe” to churn out spike proteins – perfectly harmless proteins that cannot make you sick.
Fun fact – the spike proteins are constructed with raw materials found in your own, actual cells. The vaccine delivers the instructions, but the spike proteins are home-grown.
After the RNA recipe has been used a few times to cook up some spike proteins, the cell breaks down the RNA molecule and destroys it, Mission Impossible-style.
Your immune system learns to identify and remember the spike proteins and, in the future, will attack anything presenting the proteins (like an actual COVID-19 virus).
Inflammation is the result of this identification and learning process, thus the “side-effects” of a vaccine.
Both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines require a booster, given either three or four weeks after the first vaccine. Full effectiveness occurs about two weeks after the booster. What is unknown at this point is how long this immunity lasts.
On the horizon: using similar RNA therapy to trigger the body’s immune response to fight cancer.
What the vaccine does not do:
RNA vaccines cannot give you Covid-19. You cannot “shed” viruses to others following vaccination with an RNA vaccine. The vaccines do not contain actual viruses, killed or weakened or in any form.
RNA vaccines do not interfere or even encounter your own DNA.
DNA is in the nucleus of the cell. Protein construction occurs outside the nucleus, in the watery cytoplasm filling the cell. The RNA molecules delivered by the vaccine stay out in the cytoplasm because that’s where the raw materials needed to build the spike protein are found.
What about 20 years from now? What if the vaccine causes some future side effect? Again, an RNA molecule is very short-lived. Your cells destroy the RNA molecules shortly after they are used.
Would you like to find your place in line? Here’s a link for a handy-dandy tool that lets you estimate your place in the vaccine line.
I, for instance, am in line behind 23.0 million people across the United States.
I’m behind 1.9 million in Texas.
In Denton County, I’m behind 31,800.
If the line in Texas was represented by about 100 people, I’d be standing 24th in line.
Just in time for your Thanksgiving dinner (live or zoomed) or those fun holiday social media debates, I’ve made a little vaccine cheat sheet!
Three top vaccine contenders recently released phase three results: Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca/Oxford University.
All three studies meet the gold standard of science research: huge study groups, randomly assigned and double-blinded trials. In a double-blind trial, neither the study groups nor the people running the trial know if a volunteer receives a placebo or the actual vaccine.
All three of the first-out-of-the-gate vaccines are bioengineered. All three use genetic information to teach the immune system to attack the COVID-19 virus.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are very similar, so we’ll start with them.
How Do They Work?
Both vaccines use a molecule of RNA, coated in an oily micro-bubble.
RNA is closely related to DNA, the molecule that carries the genetic code. When our cells need to make something (like a protein), a copy of the DNA gene for that protein is made on an RNA molecule.
Think of it this way: grandma’s cookbook contains all her recipes. You make a copy of one cookie recipe on a notecard and carry it back home, where you create the cookies. DNA is the cookbook; RNA is the notecard.
Both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines use RNA with the “recipe” for one of the protein spikes on the COVID-19 virus.
When injected, the oily micro-bubble fuses with a muscle cell. The cell uses the RNA “recipe” to make spike proteins, which are released into the body.
A spike protein alone won’t make you sick, but it will teach your body to attack anything presenting the protein – like an actual COVID-19 virus.
Although RNA vaccines have been studied for years and are approved for animal use, if approved, these vaccines would be the first for human use.
Do They Work?
The Pfizer vaccine was reported to be 90% effective and the Moderna vaccine 94.5% effective.
What does that mean in actual humans?
In the Moderna study, for example, 95 of the 30,000 volunteers got sick with COVID. Of the 95 sick people, ninety people received the placebo and only five received the vaccine, giving us an effectiveness rate of 94.5%.
An especially promising bit of news is that the five who got the vaccine and also got sick experienced only minor symptoms.
Severe symptoms were only found among the 90 people who got the placebo. This finding suggests that Moderna’s vaccine reduces the severity of disease in vaccinated people who still get sick.
To put a 90-95% effectiveness rate in perspective: in order for the FDA to consider a vaccine for use, it must demonstrate a 50% efficacy rate. Seasonal flu vaccines are 40-60 % effective. The measles vaccine is 97% effective.
Are They Safe?
Neither the Pfizer trial (44,000 participants) nor the Moderna trial (30,000 participants) uncovered any serious side effects. Both studies included volunteers of all ages and multiple ethnicities. But research doesn’t stop there. Safety studies continue as vaccines are rolled out to the general population.
Before launching their large phase three study, Pfizer tried out four versions of their vaccine in smaller groups. Pfizer selected the version that produced the fewest cases of mild and moderate side effects, such as fever and fatigue.
Once Approved, How Will the Vaccines be Distributed?
Gus Perna is the army general in charge of “Operation Warp Speed”, the plan to distribute enough vaccine for 300 million Americans in the most timely and efficient way. General Perna is an army logistics expert. (Check out Perna’s “60 Minutes” interview on November 6 for the details).
A problem to be solved with both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines is transportation and storage.
Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be really cold, stored at -112 degrees Fahrenheit. Pfizer is making special ultra-cold shipping boxes and storage containers for use until the vaccines are given. (For reference, your home freezer is 0 degrees Fahrenheit).
Moderna’s vaccine is a little less finicky, requiring “only” -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, Moderna’s can be stored in a regular refrigerator for 30 days after shipping.
The latest vaccine announcement comes from AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
How Does it Work?
Although the AstraZeneca vaccine is also bioengineered, it differs in delivery from the other two. The AstraZeneca vaccine uses a “vector” – a biological delivery truck – to deliver the genetic information needed to teach the immune system how to fight the actual COVID-19 virus.
The vector used is an adenovirus. This adenovirus causes colds in chimpanzees but is harmless to humans.
The adenovirus’ DNA is modified to contain the code for a COVID-19 spike protein. The adenovirus given in the vaccine “infects” human cells, delivering the gene for the spike protein. The cells in turn churn out the spike protein.
And just as with the other two vaccines, the spike protein teaches your system to fight future infections by the actual virus.
Adenovirus vaccines have been studied for decades, and European regulators recently approved a Johnson & Johnson adenovirus vaccine for Ebola.
Does it Work?
The AstraZenaca vaccine is reported to be about 70% effective. During the phase three trial, two versions were used. One version was 62% effective, one was 90% effective, for an average of 70%.
Is this enough data for AstraZeneca to ask for FDA emergency authorization? We don’t know yet.
Is it Safe?
AstraZeneca’s phase three trial was briefly halted due to possible reactions by two volunteers. However, the symptoms were found not to be directly related to the vaccine and the trials resumed.
That’s your cheat sheet for the first three vaccines.
So, what’s next?
Mark your calendars for December 10, 2020. Pfizer’s vaccine is on the FDA’s docket for emergency authorization consideration. If approved, get in line – healthcare workers, you’re first.
Regardless of your Thanksgiving dinner plans, consider this lovely little prayer, penned by Amanda Held Opelt, sister of Rachel Held Evans:
“These vaccines represent the tireless work by scientists & researchers who have already led lives of rigorous study and discipline. Lord, for these women & men, many of whose names we may never know, we give thanks.”
They escaped from Alcatraz, exploded a toilet, drank mentos and Diet Coke at the same time, and lived to tell the tale. They even proved there was room for Jack as well as Rose on that plank of wood.
Discovery Channel’s long-running MythBusters put questions, myths, and urban legends to the test. Sometimes there was truth, sometimes a bit of truth, and often the myth was busted (no, your stomach will not explode if you drink Coke and Mentos at the same time).
INTRODUCING: Science Meme Busters! I can’t bust them all, but I’ll be on the lookout for the good ones!
Memes make the rounds on social media, especially science memes. Sometimes photos with clever captions, sometimes cut-and-paste stories that begin with “I copied this from someone else” or “copied and shared from a friend”.
Making the rounds lately are the thoughts of an anonymous “ER nurse” regarding “diverse opinions” about Covid-19.
So much to bust in this meme, but for now, I’ll focus here:
Anyone out there who can tell me what our end game is with the covid19? . . . Is it a vaccine? . . .It took 25 years for a chicken pox vaccine to be developed.” “Do you really think people will flock to get a fast tracked, quickly tested vaccine, whose long term side effects and overall efficacy are anyone's best guess?
Vaccines train our immune system to recognize and fight invading pathogens. Before the 20th century, this could be an effective but often dangerous practice.
For centuries, doctors rubbed scabs from smallpox victims into a scratch on the arm of a healthy person, a process called “variolation”. A single smallpox blister would form, heal, and the variolated person was immune to smallpox . . . hopefully.
Sometimes the variolated person developed smallpox. Two percent of variolated people died. Still, two percent is a far cry from the 30% death rate from natural smallpox infection.
Weighing the risks, many opted for smallpox variolation when it was available. George Washington ordered the variolation of his troops at the height of the American Revolution.
No one knew why variolation (sometimes) worked. But by the 20th century, we knew about viruses and we fixed our attention on them.
We looked for a safer way to train the immune system using vaccines containing inactivated or weakened viruses.
When vaccines for diseases like measles, mumps, and chickenpox were developed, researchers weakened viruses by systematically growing them in a variety of cultures. Viruses were forced to grow for hundreds of generations in a hodgepodge of human and animal cells. As the viruses adapted to ever-changing environments, they became less dangerous to humans.
As you can image, it was time-consuming to grow strains of disabled viruses. Following the creation of a disabled strain, vaccines were developed, then tested – all time-consuming processes.
We aren’t starting from scratch with Covid19. This is the 21st century and we aren’t just figuring out this whole vaccine thing.
In 2020, we have more technology in our arsenal. In our age of modern genetics, the five top candidates for a Covid19 vaccine use information to teach our immune system, not the actual Covid19 virus.
Two of the top contenders use a copy of a gene that makes one of the protein spikes on the corona virus. The vaccine delivers the genetic instructions, and the body responds by using the instructions to make the spike protein.
The spike protein alone won’t make you sick. BUT – the presence of the protein teaches your immune system to recognize and destroy anything presenting the protein – including an entire Covid19 virus.
The remaining top contenders use other versions of delivering genetic instructions for a single Covid19 protein.
Instead of months (and more) of transferring viruses from culture to culture, the genetic code for a protein can be read almost immediately.
We can make an experimental batch of vaccine in a week.
The mysterious and anonymous “nurse” in this meme cites the years needed to develop the chickenpox vaccine and worries about the “fast-tracking” of a Covid19 vaccine. Should we fear a vaccine developed under a program termed “Operation Warp Speed”?
The unprecedented speed of a Covid19 vaccine is not due to fast-tracking and corner-cutting in safety and effectiveness testing.
The “speed” refers to the manufacturing process. While all the long phases of safety trials are occurring, the most promising vaccines are being manufactured on an industrial scale. Usually, vaccines aren’t manufactured until after the trials.
In order to speed things up, doses of the promising vaccines are already being made. If all of the phase trials show a vaccine to be safe and effective, we won’t have to wait months to manufacture it.
On the other hand, we are possibly manufacturing doses that will never be used.
The risk in Operation Warp Speed is financial, not safety.
The virus belongs to a class of pathogens called “teratogens” – literally: “monster makers”.
Yet, for decades, it flew under the radar. In children and adults, infection was mild: a bit of fever, an unimpressive rash. After a few days, the sick bounced back with no harm done.
Rubella was considered the mildest of childhood diseases. In a time of polio, rubella was ignored.
But an astute Australian ophthalmologist picked up on a disturbing pattern: nine months after a 1939 rubella epidemic, sixty-eight out of seventy-eight babies born blind were born to mothers infected with rubella in the first trimester of pregnancy. Over the next twenty years, research confirmed his findings.
Americans experienced the horrors of rubella in a massive outbreak between 1963 and 1964. Six thousand babies spontaneously aborted, two thousand babies died at birth.
Twenty thousand babies were born with damaged livers, pancreases, and brains. The babies suffered hepatitis, diabetes, mental retardation, blindness, deafness, epilepsy, and autism.
Eight or nine out of ten babies infected in the first trimester were damaged. That’s 85%.
An American vaccine scientist predicted another outbreak would occur sometime between 1970-1973. By 1965, he had developed a rubella vaccine, shown in testing to be safe and effective. By 1969, he had modified a version of the vaccine, and a hundred million doses were distributed throughout the United States.
Rubella epidemic averted.
Today, children are routinely vaccinated for rubella (it’s the “R” in the MMR vaccine). In 2005, the CDC declared rubella eliminated in the United States.
Everyone has heard of Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and Marie Curie, but Maurice Hilleman has saved more lives than any other scientist.
Maurice Hilleman is the father of modern vaccines. He is considered by many the greatest scientist of the 20th century, but few know his name.
Hilleman developed nine of the fifteen routine vaccines given to children today. Hilleman developed the first vaccine against human cancer, the hepatitis B vaccine. He developed and collaborated on many more vaccines, but never named any of them after himself, with one small exception…
The mumps vaccine in use today is manufactured using a strain of the virus Hilleman swabbed from the throat of his own little daughter when she awoke sick in the night. There’s a famous photo of Hilleman’s younger daughter, Kirsten, being vaccinated with the “Jeryl Lynn Mumps Vaccine”. Big sister Jeryl Lynn is close by, comforting her baby sister.
Jeryl Lynn Hilleman with her sister, Kirsten, in 1966
The Jeryl Lynn Mumps Vaccine
Despite responsibility for saving countless lives, no vaccine carries the name Hilleman.
We have collective short-term memories. When public health measures prevent or reduce the impact of a crisis, we forget what we were afraid of. When we dodge a bullet, we forget what won the battle.
No one knows Hilleman because few us know rubella. We aren’t afraid our teenagers will die of diphtheria. We don’t fear disability or death from polio, and we aren’t afraid our babies will die of measles or whooping cough. A generation does not fear mumps or chicken pox and the deadly complications that might follow.
At the end of his life, Hilleman’s groundbreaking MMR vaccine was the target for a rising anti-vaccination movement. A British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, claimed the MMR was responsible for an “epidemic” of autism. Hilleman died before Wakefield was discredited and lost his medical license for his fraudulent claims.
The general public has been harder to convince, however, and long-vanquished diseases are popping up in anti-vax hotspots.
We’ve forgotten what it was like.
When we flattened the Covid-curve, many declared “See! It’s all overblown! Back to business as usual! We aren’t afraid!”
Sometimes, what we don’t know (or don’t remember) can hurt us.
Maurice Hilleman would have been 101 this month.
Replica of the six vaccines put into the National Millennium Time Capsule by Dr. Hilleman. (Washington, D.C., 1999).
And as You speak A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath Evolving in pursuit of what You said If it all reveals Your nature so will I