BY REED ANFINSON
Co-Publisher Grant County Herald
A moment we’ve waited for so anxiously for nine months has arrived with the emergency approval of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA.) Moderna’s vaccine got emergency authorization from the FDA over the weekend. Medical staff and residents in long-term care facilities will start getting the vaccine within the next week. Essential workers, including teachers, first responders, law enforcement, firefighters, and those working in the food and transportation industries, will be next. Then people with preexisting conditions and those over 65.
After that, the general U.S. population will be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It won’t be until spring that most Americans have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.
While we celebrate this good news, it is not by any means time to let down our guard in the fight against the spread of the deadly virus. Close to 4,500 Minnesotans have died from the disease and more than 300,000 Americans. It is estimated another 200,000 Americans could die in the coming months from the disease. Daily deaths hit more than 3,000 this past week.
Now is the time to prepare our communities for the vaccination process. That process will include educating our citizens about the vaccine’s safety and the necessity to get it when their turn arrives.
Yet, we face a challenge in convincing some residents that the vaccine is safe in the coming weeks. We fight against outright lies and misinformation about the vaccine on the internet and skepticism about how a vaccine could be developed so quickly.
Measles was first recorded in what were then the British colonies in North America in 1657. It was an airborne virus extremely efficient at infecting others in close contact with an infected person. While most survived the disease, some developed swelling of the brain that left them deaf or with intellectual disabilities. Others died.
Research didn’t isolate the virus until 1954. The first vaccine was approved in 1963 – more than 300 years after the first cases were identified.
America’s first recorded polio epidemic struck in 1894. It was a virus that attacked the spinal cord, leaving thousands paralyzed, killing others.
Research into a vaccine for the poliovirus began in the 1930s, saw years of failures and setbacks. It wasn’t until 1953 that Jonas Salk, building on others’ work, came up with his vaccine – 20 years after the first cases.
The first known case of AIDs was identified in 1959, and we still don’t have a vaccine.
How, then, can a safe vaccine be developed for the COVID-19 virus, or SARS-C0-V-2, in nine months? The simple answer is that COVID-19 is a SARS virus, one of a family of coronaviruses. Vaccine researchers have studied how this family of viruses works and how to fight it for more than a decade.
SARS and MERS are both coronaviruses that attack the respiratory system. Both have seen small outbreaks in the world since 2002-2003, fortunately, neither virus has been as contagious as COVID-19. MERS kills three to four out of 10 of those infected. SARS kills 9 to 10 percent of those infected.
“Long before COVID-19 was on the radar, the groundwork was laid in large part by two different streams of research, one at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the other at the University of Pennsylvania – and because scientists had learned a bit about other coronaviruses from prior SARS and MERS outbreaks,” the Associated Press’s medical reporter Lauren Neergaard writes.
“When the (COVID-19) pandemic started, we were on a strong footing both in terms of the science” and experience handling mRNA, she quotes Dr. Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of Massachusetts-based Moderna.
We can also credit modern scientific technology, and though many might doubt this, the Chinese. In January, as the new virus began to spread in China, its researchers sequenced the virus’s gene structure and shared it with the world. Vaccine labs around the world working on other coronavirus strains immediately switched their focus to the COVID-19 virus.
We also have micron microscopes that can look at a virus and see its structure. It can see those little spikes which it uses to attach itself to cells it infects.
“I think we enter into a golden age of vaccinology by having these types of new technologies,” Vanderbilt University vaccine expert Dr. C. Buddy Creech, said at a meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Vaccine development was also sped up by the billions of dollars poured into its research and financial reward likely to come to those companies that were first on the market. First, there had to be a rigorous testing process involving tens of thousands of volunteers. Operation Warp Speed helped, though Pfizer didn’t participate in the program.
One other innovation sped research and now the emergency approval of a vaccine.
Past vaccines have been developed in chicken eggs or large tanks, using a piece of virus or a weakened virus that is then injected to create an immune response. It’s a process that significantly delays the rollout of new vaccines. By using messenger RNA, a vaccine uses a piece of the virus’s genetic code that teaches our own cells to create an immune response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Years of background research and modern technology are why we have seen a rapid rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine. So far, there have been a few adverse reactions to the vaccine among those who were highly sensitive to vaccines in the past, and all have recovered.
To keep our schools open, to keep our businesses open, to get life back to “normal” as quickly as possible, get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available to you. Meanwhile, continue to wear a mask in public and practice social distancing. You don’t want to be the one that caused a loved one to be the last COVID-19 death.