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The dawn of Vaccine

Covid 2019 has dominated most human lives on the globe for most of 2020. Infecting multitudes and killing in millions. With the year coming to an end, the vaccine is on the horizon. With the approach of dawn after what has been a deadly night, it is time to follow the exciting developments on the vaccine front. How the different vaccines are progressing through the various government approval processes in different countries and how the governments across the world are strategizing the logistics of distribution and prioritizing various segments of population for vaccination.

Vaccines traditionally use a weakened form of virus which helps the body to get used to the virus. It helps the bod to identify the virus and fight back whenever the real virus strikes. This has been the strategy for early vaccines that we have been taking since our childhood – like polio, flu etc. There is a different strategy which was being tried out in the research labs in the past few years. It is called mRNA (let us not worry about what it stands for), which is very similar to DNA which consists of genes and which is there in each of the trillions of cells every cell in our bodies. mRNA in essence contains genes which are capable of making proteins. That is the basic function of a cell in a body. Cells make proteins which keep the body functioning – stretching muscles, eating and digesting food, sleeping etc. I will explain the technical details of the vaccine a little later in this blog.

Fortunately, the mRNA technology bloomed in time to enable a viable vaccine for the Covid virus. Amongst the companies in the forefront of the vaccine race, Pfizer advanced to the lead. With the US, UK, and Canada approving its vaccine for emergency use. Which means that health care and other front line workers can get the vaccine now. This has been a tremendous victory for the vaccine. Pfizer vaccine, developed in close collaboration with a German company called Biontech whose Chief scientists are Turkish immigrants, is based on mRNA technology. Closely following on the heels is the vaccine made by Moderna, another US company, also based on mRNA technology. This vaccine should also be getting approved soon.

Another front runner Astra Zeneca, in collaboration with Oxford University, based their vaccine on traditional means of using a weakened form of the Covid virus. The company stumbled in the home stretch in terms of collecting data from the trials  and presenting to the regulators. It is still in the race for getting approval in India. Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine maker in the world is making this vaccine called Covishield. I am expecting the approval for this vaccine in India soon. I am not so sure about the approval in the US without additional trials.

The mRNA contained in the Covid vaccines will direct the machinery of human cells to manufacture the spike protein which appears like a crown when viewed under a microscope. Hence the name Corona. This crown will enter the human cells and train the human body to recognize the real invaders when they come later. The downside is that mRNA molecules are very fragile. They need structural support. They are encased in fat molecules and dissolved in a solution of salt and sugar. To survive, the mRNA needs to be frozen to really cold temperatures like -70 degrees centigrade. The sugar will keep the molecules from sticking to each other and freezing. The salt will keep the vaccine as close to the acidity of the human body as possible. The different between mRNA and traditional vaccine is that mRNA is injecting a blueprint for creating the spike protein in the body, while traditional vaccine injects the protein itself. The advantage of mRNA technology is that it can be used to faster creation of vaccines for any future virus. I see a Nobel prize being awarded for this technology in the coming years.

Moderna’s vaccine need not be stored in that cold a temperature as they figured out a way for their mRNA to survive at higher temperatures. A regular fridge is OK to store this vaccine. So is the vaccine from Astra Zeneca. Their vaccine is the easiest to transport and store. Also, this vaccine seems to prevent infection as well, not just the disease. This is important as the vaccine could reduce the spread of the virus as well as protect the vulnerable from severe disease.

Now coming to the economics of the vaccine. Both Pfizer and Moderna are going to make some profits from the vaccine. While Oxford University and AstraZeneca have committed to provide the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the pandemic across the world, and permanently for low- and middle-income countries. Being the largest vaccine maker in the world, India will play a major role in getting these vaccines to the world. India in the service to humanity in the new year. Not only in vaccinating its more than one billion population, but also several third world Asian and African countries. It will be a great dawn and an important day to follow in the new year.

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Prasad Ganti

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Navneet Bakshi
Navneet Bakshi(@bakshink)
11 months ago

Thanks a lot for coming here and for your valuable contribution. Though, you have explained very well for the understanding of a common man the difference between the two different approaches for the vaccine adopted by Pfizer/Moderna and Oxford and SII, but at the end of the day it all boils down to effectiveness and affordability. To me the Pfizer vaccine appears to be much beyond the reach of a common man in the third world countries and nor can the governments in the countries lying in the tropical regions afford to ensure the cold chains required for safe transportation of the vaccine

Suresh Rao
Suresh Rao(@sureshrao)
11 months ago

Well written Prasad ji. I now understand better the basic mechanisms of action of the older vaccines like Polio and the newer mRNA vaccines. For India, heat tolerant vaccines that can be stored in ordinary freezers and administered even at or around 30C is very important as India will find it difficult to come up with the Cold Chain that is needed for vaccines like the Pfizer vaccine to combat the spread of COVID 19 in India. I have read about a vaccine that IISc at Bengaluru has designed which is also protein based from DNA and has shown efficacy in lab animals. However, IISc and the startup company that has designed this vaccines needs funding to go for human trials. Even if its efficacy is 50% authorities might approve further development of this vaccine.

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