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SHOT IN THE ARM: A patient receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 in Seattle
SHOT IN THE ARM: A patient receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 in Seattle

Kathriona Devereux: While the world waits, science races to find Covid-19 vaccine

MRNA – 1273.

That’s the name of the first Covid 19 trial vaccine that has been injected into the arm of 43-year-old Seattle native, Jennifer Haller.

She is one of 45 volunteers aged 18-55 who will receive the vaccine over the coming weeks and they will be closely monitored for the next year.

This first stage of testing is to check the safety of the vaccine — does it cause any adverse reaction. Initial safety data will be available in a few weeks.

The vaccine has been designed and made by a U.S company called Moderna. They are pretty confident that it will be safe and have already started preparing for Phase 2 of the trial — vaccinating a larger number of trial participants.

They are also prepping for the manufacturing phase because if mRNA-1273 does work then millions, and eventually billions, of doses will be needed across the world.

Moderna is one of a number of companies rushing to create a vaccine that is safe, effective and easily mass produced. The trial is funded by the U.S National Institute of Health and is a much accelerated version of a typical vaccine trial because the global need for a Covid- 19 vaccine is so great.

From a scientific point of view, there are some positives to be taken from this pandemic. Scientists have been studying coronaviruses for some time and have done lots of testing on animals to figure out how they work.

The Covid-19 virus was identified and genetically sequenced in January by Chinese scientists and the results shared with the global science community.

Having the DNA sequence of the virus gives scientists the manual of the virus and allows them to design vaccines for specific targets on the virus.

By comparison, AIDS caused by the HIV virus was killing people for years before being formally identified and named in 1984. There is still no vaccine for it but huge advances in antiretroviral treatment mean people can live long lives with the virus. Around 20 million people, more than half of the global population living with HIV, are receiving antiretroviral treatment.

Research for a coronavirus vaccine has been ongoing since the SARS outbreak, so scientists aren’t starting from scratch.

The rapid development of a potential Covid 19 vaccine candidate is thanks to progress in mRNA technology.

Traditionally, vaccines use weakened or inactivated versions of the actual virus to train your immune system to fight the infection. When your immune system encounters a vaccine it mounts a defence by creating antibodies and makes a ‘memory’ of the intruding germs.

Later, if you encounter the real infection, your immune system recognises it, ‘remembers’ what to do and what antibodies to release, and fights off the infection without you getting sick.

The real beauty of vaccination is that the more people who are immunised and protected, the less opportunity the infection has to spread through the population.

If everyone is immunised, you can eradicate the disease entirely from the global population — which is what happened with smallpox and polio.

We are familiar with DNA as the double-helix shaped genetic code that determines our height, eye colour or blood type (and a whole lot more!) but RNA is the lesser appreciated workhorse who enacts DNA’s instructions.

mRNA vaccines are the new kids on the block when it comes to vaccines. Scientists extract a small piece of mRNA genetic code from the virus — like the important part that enables it to enter a human cell. They manipulate it and replicate it in the laboratory and then inject it into the body.

Researchers hope that that the vaccine will stimulate the immune system to attack the virus.

mRNA vaccines work similarly in terms of harnessing the immune system’s ‘memory’, but are instead lab-created messages for your cells that are faster, cheaper and easier to produce than traditional vaccines.

One of the pioneers of mRNA vaccine technology is German company, CureVac, which received €53million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation back in 2015 because of the exciting developments it was making in the field.

CureVac is racing to develop a Covid-19 vaccine too, as are Pfizers, BioNTech SE and Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

So, as the Covid 19 emergency ramps, rather than focus on the rising numbers and the unfolding tragedy, I seek reassurance in the news about new successful treatments for the virus, the efforts at vaccine discovery, or the resourcefulness of Italian engineers who used 3D printing technology to make replacement valves for respirators in an Italian hospital that had run out of vital medical equipment.

Prevention is better than cure. Vaccination is the single greatest contribution to modern medicine in terms of preventing millions of death worldwide.

While we wait for a vaccine, prevention remains our best defence. For now, prevention means staying safe, staying home.

Demonstrating the science of soap

Every time I wash my hands, I’m reassured thinking how the molecular make up of soap acts like a crow bar busting virus cells open.

A simple table top science experiment demonstrates it (and soaks up 10 minutes at home with the kids!)

Get a plate of water, grind pepper all over the surface of the water, touch the water and notice how the pepper sticks to your skin.

Now lather your finger with soap, or drop a blob of liquid soap into the middle of the plate. The soap repels the pepper grinds away as if by magic.

When you wash your hands, a similar reaction happens on the surface of your skin. Reassuring!