For the next few weeks I will be taking a look at life after the pandemic. If you missed part 1, you can catch up here.
The vaccine is finally here. Oh, it’s been available since late last year but we (Canada) have just been painfully behind much of the world in actually vaccinating people. I will spare you the long rant about how this pandemic has been handled by politicians of all stripes and at all levels.
Earlier this week I heard from the first “regular” person (non-healthcare, non-long term care resident) that they had received their first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. The palpable sense of relief they felt just saying that was wonderful. I have heard from 2 more people who have either taken their first injection or have it booked in the next 10 days. All of them, relieved.
We’ve just celebrated the 1st year of the pandemic and to have optimism back in many lives is a wonderful change. I think spring even arrived a few weeks early just to put the cherry on top. Are we out of the woods yet? No, we need needles in millions more arms to start to relax but we will all take hope over the dread of the past 12 months.
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were developed using messenger ribonucleuc acid (mRNA). Going back to my university biology, I remembered that mRNA is part of our regular genetic profile that ultimately helps make our body work by giving instructions to the cells in our body. Without mRNA, our body would not function as our cells could not make the proteins we need. mRNA is not some new technology, it’s actually the oldest tech we have because it has been part of our development since the very beginning of time.
What these mRNA vaccines do is they inject mRNA that tells specific cells to create proteins that mimic the proteins found on the SARS Cov2 virus. Those proteins on the active virus is how people get infected as they allow the actual virus to enter your cells. The mRNA vaccine instructs our cells to make this same protein, but since there is no active virus, all that happens is that our body learns to fight against these proteins when they see it in the future. Essentially, we have created a vaccine that has tricked our body into making antigens to these proteins to speed up the immune response if you are ever actually exposed to the real thing. You can get into the full science of it here.
This is a huge breakthrough after years of study of mRNA as a way to fight viruses. And this is just the beginning according to science writer Michael Eisenstein. Proteins are part of every cellular organism on earth, both harmful and benign. Being able to harness our own bodies to fight off something harmful has incredible potential for all of us. The next mRNA research focus appears to be against one of the most deadly and endemic problems of the world - malaria.
The World Health Organization estimates there were 218 million cases of malaria across the world in 2018 and 405,000 people died because of a single celled organism injected by a mosquito. Malaria is a major problem through sub-Saharan Africa and India which typically accounts for 95% of all cases and 98% of deaths.
The last 10 years has seen great progress on mitigation strategies such as netting around beds but only one, moderately efficient vaccine. We aren’t going to get rid of malaria, but if we could develop a vaccine that greatly reduces the health risk of contracting malaria, that would have a massive benefit to two of the most populated parts of the world.
While much of the media attention is focused on the push for more online commerce, I think the real big boom that comes out of the pandemic is in health care. The coordinated effort by all kinds of researchers to develop various vaccines to battle COVID-19 is almost unprecedented. Combine that with the sheer power of computers that turn what was formerly several weeks of parsing data into a few hours of calculations, and I believe it will lead to a rush of further innovation in health care.