Part 3 – The truth about COVID-19 vaccines

November 4, 2020

I want COVID-19 to go away too, but you’re going to be injecting me with what?!

You may have seen news articles regarding a number of vaccine candidates that have emerged in the fight against COVID-19. While many share common mechanisms of action, it is very difficult to derive vaccines against coronaviruses and respiratory diseases in general. Through this series, we aimed to debunk some of the myths and alleviate some concerns regarding vaccines in general and the COVID-19 vaccine in particular.

In part 1 of this series, we examined the composition of various vaccines and their effects on the immune system. In part 2, we took a closer look at how vaccines are designed, produced and tested. In this final instalment, we focus on the development of COVID-19 vaccines. We’ll look at the challenges faced by researchers in designing these vaccines and put to rest some of the concerns regarding their rapid development. We’ll also take a look at some measures we can put in place to stay safe until the vaccine arrives.

Why is it so hard to create a viable COVID-19 vaccine?

Although many different coronaviruses have previously been studied, COVID-19 is a relatively new disease and we have only just begun to discover many factors specific to COVID-19, such as its route of transmission, highly infectious nature, incubation periods and effects on the body. We are, in fact, still learning about this disease, nearly a year after it was first identified.

Coronaviruses commonly affect the respiratory tract, and this makes it difficult induce an immune response. The body treats in cells in the respiratory tract differently from internal cells. In fact, they are treated more like skin cells since, although they are inside your body, they are nonetheless exposed to external air as it enters the lungs when you breathe. This air brings with it many foreign particles, and the body must respond to these to protect itself from invasion and damage. 

The challenge in creating a COVID-19 vaccine is to create a vaccine that will provoke an immune response that is sufficiently strong to achieve immunity, but not so severe that it leads to an overblown immune response, which may have detrimental effects on the body.

Conquering COVID-19: Finding a vaccine for COVID-19 is challenging.
Conquering COVID-19: Finding a vaccine for COVID-19 is challenging.

How did the candidate COVID-19 vaccines arrive so quickly?

Many people are concerned about how rapidly the 100+ candidate COVID-19 vaccines that are being tested globally have been designed, produced, trialled and declared ready for administration. However, it’s important to note that the scientists developing these vaccines have not started completely from scratch. Many are building on existing research work completed for other coronaviruses such as SARS, which wreaked havoc over a decade ago, and the more recent MERS. They have also employed safer and more widely administered vaccine methods such as selecting proteins from the surface of the virus to act as the antigens. 

How does the immune system know what to fight?

As described in detail in part 1 of this series, vaccines contain antigens (small particles of the pathogen that form the ‘active ingredient’ of the vaccine). These occur in various forms (e.g. weakened pathogen, part of the pathogen, toxin from the pathogen) and your immune system uses these to identify the pathogen that the vaccine is designed to combat. 

Your immune system (specifically your B lymphocytes/cells) responds to the vaccination by adding an imprint of this antigen to its ‘memory bank’ (by creating memory B-cells that are specific to the antigen). The next time you encounter the same pathogen, your immune system will have the required antibodies and other immune process/es ready, and it can immediately begin fighting the bacteria or virus before the infection has time to develop.

What should we do until a COVID-19 vaccine is released?

There are many things that you can do to protect yourself against COVID-19 and many other diseases including practising good hand hygiene by routinely washing your hands with soap and water.
There are many things that you can do to protect yourself against COVID-19 and many other diseases including practising good hand hygiene by routinely washing your hands with soap and water.

Although some strong COVID-19 vaccine candidates have emerged, it’s important to practise infection control measures until a vaccine is rolled out. Good personal hygiene, social distancing, wearing a mask when you can’t social distance, regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, and, most importantly, practising good hand hygiene by routinely washing your hands with soap and water are important measures that are easy to implement.

Here are a more few guidelines to follow to ensure you and your family stay safe:

  • Regularly wash your hands with soap with warm water. Rub the entirety of the hands and wrists for at least 20 seconds. If this is not an option, use a hand sanitiser (preferably ethanol-based and at an effective concentration).
  • Avoid gathering in large groups and practice social distancing by staying at least 1.5 m away from others. 
  • Wear a mask and ensure that you are wearing it correctly. It should cover both your nose and mouth with no gaps at the top, bottom or sides. Avoid touching your mask and, if you need to remove your mask, make sure your hands are clean and handle the mask by the elastic or straps. Place used masks into a plastic bag for washing and deposit single-use masks directly into the garbage bin after use.
  • Avoid going out when sick. Even if you just have the sniffles or a bit of a cough, avoid heading into public places or your workplace. 
  • Be mindful of those classed as vulnerable. High-risk populations such as the very young, the elderly or those with medical conditions may be more susceptible to COVID-19 and are at risk of more severe effects and even death should they contract the disease. Avoid contact with such people when you have been sick or if you have been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Find out more about vaccines in parts 1 and 2 of this series

If you missed the first two parts of this series, where we discuss the components, mechanisms of action of vaccines, and the design and production of vaccines, head over and take a look at them now. 

Got questions?

If you have any questions about COVID-19, pathogens, or vaccines, or would like advice on safely handling hazardous substances, please contact the Chemwatch team today. Our friendly and experienced staff draws on years of experience to offer the latest industry advice on how to stay safe and comply with Health and Safety regulations.

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