The Vaccines – How They Work and Why We Can Trust Them

The Austrian vaccination program for SARS-CoV-2 is slowly but surely underway, but approximately one third would currently refuse inoculation.

A year after the arrival of the pandemic shut down our lives, two vaccines are finally here, and making their way through the population. It will still take months to achieve the 70% immunization widely thought the minimum necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.  

Still, we’re on the way. And finally, there’s light on the horizon.

So how to explain Austrians’ wide spread skepticism about the vaccine?  Recent polls, show 40% (Gallup) and 50% (ACPP) reporting reservations about being vaccinated. And while the numbers who would flat out refuse are down, the levels are still far too high.

This skepticism is alarming, because widespread immunization is the fastest way to bring us out of our current paralysis and put the pandemic behind us. It’s unclear how many vaccines are needed to achieve herd immunity, but experts suggest it could be as great as 90% – a similar level as other highly contagious diseases like measles. Despite two waves, the Austrian Health Ministry reports that only some 5% of the population has been infected, meaning we’ve got a long way to go. And I, for one, would like to go to the pub again.

That said, it is understandable why some are hesitant to join the vaccination drive. Developed in record-breaking time, concerns over possible corners cut are not unreasonable. Two of the front-runners, the Pfizer and Moderna/BioNTech mRNA vaccines, are also based on new technology. To the uninitiated, what even is mRNA?! 

The Record-Breaking Vaccine 

To address both concerns, it’s important to understand how vaccines work. In general, they introduce a foreign invader to your immune system, teaching your body to seek and destroy it. Traditional vaccines consist of a dead or weakened version of the virus, but a more modern approach is to introduce only a part – so-called antigens, which are used to incite an immune response. In all of the available coronavirus vaccines, this antigen is the spike protein found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 particles, which helps the virus to infect cells. If the virus were a ship, the vaccine would be showing your immune system its flag.

This antigen is largely the reason why we were able to develop vaccines so quickly: The very same spike protein is shared with SARS-CoV-1, and most of the preliminary work identifying it as an effective antigen (i.e. able to induce an immune response) was accomplished earlier, when trying to develop the previous vaccine, saving years of research. 

The other key aspects of vaccine development include clinical trials and the financial risks to the developer: It’s not uncommon for promising research to lead nowhere or for new drugs to end up ultimately unprofitable. However, the urgency of a global pandemic saw development fast tracked and funding concerns removed due to guaranteed demand. Clinical trial phases were staggered without compromising the evaluation of its safety. 

The Spike protein is also key to understanding the new mRNA vaccine technology: mRNA molecules are cellular instructions for making proteins, and since every protein in your body was made from its own mRNA molecule, it essentially makes use of normal cellular machinery to manufacture spike proteins; as the body hasn’t seen these antigens before, it can mount an immune response. The AstraZeneca vaccine uses a similar basic principle, but instead delivers the gene for the spike protein, packaged in a different virus (a so-called vector) that isn’t infectious to humans. The gene encodes for the mRNA – like making a photocopy of a recipe from a cookbook, where a gene is the original recipe, the mRNA is the photocopy, and the protein is the finished cake. 

Austria and Europe have invested heavily in both the BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines, but if reconnaissance mRNA vaccines are also brought in, it’s nothing to be afraid of. There are always minor risks, but these are present for all vaccines, including those you already had as a child. 

You can register now for vaccination in Vienna here. Vaccinations will be distributed based on priority groups, and you will be notified when it’s your turn.

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Dr. Robyn Leigh Schenk
Dr. Robyn Schenk is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna. She earned her PhD at the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, and specializes in immunology. She is also an active science communicator through her podcast “Nice to Know: Conversations with Everyday Scientists”. Twitter: @RobynSciences.

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