The two COVID-19 vaccines approved in Canada were created by using ground-breaking genetic technology that for years held huge promise, but always ran into roadblocks — until now. It’s called synthetic mRNA, or messenger RNA.
Until 2020, no mRNA vaccine had ever been approved for use in humans, but the pandemic drove scientists to focus their efforts on the possibilities of mRNA to eradicate COVID-19, as well as an injection of funding and worldwide collaboration.
Vaccines are seen as science’s greatest advantage over deadly viruses. Diseases such as smallpox, polio and measles have almost been eradicated. Now, health officials from around the world are hoping the COVID-19 vaccines can do the same.
The new vaccines were developed in record time, due in great part to the work done over decades on mRNA.
“We’ve really just repurposed an existing… well-understood technology for a new indication,” said Matthew Miller, an associate professor in the department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University.
“This is the first time that an mRNA vaccine is going to be deployed sort of at a global level. But it’s not that this technology is only a year old.”
Despite decades of scientific research, the speed of development and approvals has led some people to question the safety of these revolutionary vaccines.
“The biggest question that I’m getting is, is it safe? I think that that’s a valid question,” said Sahra Kaahiye, a respiratory therapist in Edmonton. “And for me to be able to say as a health-care worker and as somebody who took it, yes, there’s possible side effects, but they’re reversible and yes, that it’s safe.”
The 30-year-old often works in the chronic ventilator unit, and like many health-care workers, Kaahiye has desperately fought to prevent the virus from spreading from patient to patient.
So, in December 2020, when the opportunity came to get the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, she decided to get it. At first, Kaahiye was worried about getting it but then she said she did her homework.
“I’m a numbers girl, so I tended to kind of read the studies and read how efficient it was,” Kaahiye told Global News. “Also the fact that the FDA didn’t change how they did their approval process. They may have sped it up, but they continue to make sure that through every single stage these vaccines met the appropriate guidelines… That kind of made me feel more confident in taking this vaccine.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 95 per cent effective and Moderna’s is a little more than 94 per cent.
“These vaccines, the mRNA vaccines that are showing over 90 per cent effectiveness, that’s really a tremendously successful vaccine by sort of all historical standards,” Miller told Global News.
Part of the success of the mRNA vaccines is their ability to spark an immune response.
“In the case of these COVID mRNA vaccines, what the mRNA codes for is the spike protein of SARS-COV-2,” said Miller. “It’s also the protein that our antibodies tend to recognize when we get infected. So, these mRNAs teach our cells to make… this SARS-COV-2 spike protein.”
Once injected, the mRNA is released and the cell starts building the spike protein, mimicking a COVID-19 infection. It’s completely harmless, but it triggers the immune system to create antibodies against the coronavirus.
If the person gets infected, those antibodies prevent the virus from entering the cell by attaching themselves to the spike proteins.
“It’s a very precise and elegant way of telling our immune system to respond against just one single part of the virus,” said Tom Madden, president and CEO of Acuitas Therapeutics.
Madden specializes in lipid nanoparticles (LNP) technology. Lipid nanoparticles are a form of delivery system designed to prevent the mRNA from being naturally destroyed in the body. Acuitas helped develop the LNP in the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
He said mRNA technology isn’t new, it’s been in development for decades. That’s one of the reasons why scientists were able to get the COVID-19 vaccine out faster.
“I made the decision because the resident needs me, they need us as a team, they need us. If they don’t have enough staff, then who is going to be there? So, I made the choice (to be vaccinated),” said Ursula Winston, a personal support worker at a long-term care (LTC) home in Toronto.
Winston falls into a category of people who are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine early because she is a high-risk worker.
“It’s a relief for me, I mean, I needed to do this, I wanted to do this,” she said.
On Jan. 5, Winston got her second shot. Both mRNA vaccines require two doses.
According to Health Canada, the most common side effects include pain at the injection site, tiredness and chills. These symptoms are similar to what you might experience when getting the annual flu shot.
These adverse reactions typically come after the second dose.
“Yes, it has a side effect, but I didn’t feel anything,” said Winston. “My kids, my daughter was calling me, ‘Mommy, are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m fine.’”
However, there are a small number of people who have had severe allergic reactions. Health Canada says this rare reaction affects one person in every one million people who get the vaccine.
Pregnant people and those who are chest feeding did not take part in clinical trials. So, there is limited data on potential risks to them.
“Nothing is without risk, but the serious adverse effects that occur as a result of vaccination occur at extraordinarily low rates,” said Miller.
As for Kaahiye, she became the first person in Alberta to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Since she got the shot, people have been asking her for her advice. It’s a platform Kaahiye takes very seriously.
“They have the right to ask those questions. And it’s our responsibility, it’s public health’s responsibility, it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure that these questions are continually answered and reiterated again and again,” she said.
“I have been to be able to be the voice and to be able to speak to people in my community and to speak to other people who have seen me getting this vaccine,” Kaahiye said. “And I’m able to answer these questions and I’m able to show them that I’m fine.”
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