Let’s start with a few facts.

Covid-19 is a dangerous new illness. Despite this, half the people who are infected with Covid have such minor symptoms they don’t know they are infected. Others become extremely ill, mainly with pneumonia, sometimes with strokes or heart attacks, kidney failure or blood clots.  People are 30 times more likely to die of Covid than from influenza (the flu.)  In many states, there are now few hospital beds available because so many people are hospitalized with Covid. The current death rate in the United States from Covid is more than 3000 people a day. That is more, each day, than the total number of people who died in the September 11 attack. There is no way to know who can get Covid without getting sick and who might die if they are infected. People over age 70 and people with certain health problems, like high blood pressure and overweight, are more likely to become very sick or die from Covid. However, healthy young athletes and teenagers have also died from it.  People who get sick with Covid and recover from it often are left with long-term disability from diabetes caused by COVID or by damage to their lungs, nerves, heart, or kidneys.

Two very effective vaccines recently became available to prevent COVID infection. Right now, vaccine is only available to people over 65, nursing home residents, people who work in nursing homes, and emergency healthcare workers. Rules about who can get the vaccine vary from state to state.

People have strong feelings about Covid vaccine, for or against. One-third of people in the United States have doubts about the vaccine or say that they absolutely do not want to get it. This is shocking to the other two-thirds of us. On the other hand, some people have been trying to steal the vaccine, get it by fraud, or buy it from pharmacies even though they aren’t in any of the groups currently approved to receive it.

This column and the next few will discuss some of the reasons people are afraid to get vaccinated for Covid. Personally, as a medical doctor, I will get the vaccine as soon as I can. I know it could save my life.

I’m worried about people who are refusing to get Covid vaccine. I’m worried about the consequences for them and for their families. I’m also worried about the overall consequences for our country if not enough people get vaccinated for the country to develop herd immunity.

Question #1: This new vaccine and the new way it is made were developed too quickly. There isn’t an enough experience with them. They might be dangerous.

Answer #1: This question comes up because the two new Covid vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. This way of making a vaccine is a real breakthrough in vaccine technology, but it is not new. mRNA vaccine research has been going on for over 30 years. The Ebola virus vaccine is an mRNA vaccine. There are also mRNA vaccines available to treat cancer. Because mRNA vaccine production is so much faster than other ways of making vaccines, it was predictable that mRNA methods would be used on a large scale the next time a dangerous new virus – like Covid – appeared.    

Question #2: The idea of genetic material (mRNA) being in a vaccine worries me. Will it mess up people’s own genetic material?

Answer #2: All living things, including animals, plants, fungus, bacteria, and viruses, contain genetic material. There are two kinds of genetic material: DNA and RNA. Genes are made of DNA. DNA is stored in chromosomes in the nucleus, the control center of all cells. RNA, which has several different forms,  is a reverse copy of DNA. RNA structures make protein molecules used to send instructions throughout the body. Proteins control all the activities of the body. Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is the pattern used to make proteins. Every kind of protein is made from a different mRNA pattern.

All vaccines have always contained genetic material. Most vaccines are made from weakened or inactivated (dead) virus particles. Those virus particles include the genetic material of the virus along with thousands of different proteins. Flu vaccine, measles vaccine, polio vaccine and other vaccines all contain the DNA and RNA of the viruses they are made from. It’s well-known that all these vaccines are safe and do not interfere with the genes of people who receive the vaccines. mRNA vaccines, unlike vaccines made from viruses, contain only one type of genetic material, messenger RNA.  In mRNA vaccines, the mRNA is made in a lab, not grown inside viruses. This has important advantages. Because it’s not necessary to grow virus cultures to make the vaccine, the vaccine can be made much faster. Only one single kind of mRNA is included in mRNA vaccine, instead of the thousands of different proteins in whole virus. This simpler vaccine makes reactions and side effects less likely.

In the next column, I’ll cover false rumors about microchips in Covid vaccine and mistaken ideas about effects on fertility, as well as other mRNA virus concerns.

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Dr. Eva Hersh, MD
Dr. Eva Hersh, MD
Eva Hersh is a family physician. Send your comments and questions to her by email at dreva@baltimoreoutloud.org