The goal of a vaccine is to give the immune system a head start in fighting an infectious organism so that the infection is prevented. There are many ways to develop a vaccine but they all involve using the whole organism or part of the organism to allow the immune system to develop a protective immune response.
Then, if the person is exposed to the organism (it could be a bacterium, virus, fungus or parasite), the immune system rapidly eliminates the organism so that it cannot produce disease. Because an immune response has been developed from the vaccine, the immune system can act very quickly if exposed to the organism.
The reason this can happen is that after the immune system “sees” that vaccine, it can “remember” the best way to fight the infection.
Specialized immune cells called memory T-cells know how to fight the infection. They can sit around in the body inactive for decades, but once they see the organism again, they rapidly spring into action and eliminate the infection.
So for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, there are many different types of vaccines being developed and tested. Some vaccines use parts or all of the spike protein, a protein on the surface of the virus that allows it to infect our cells. Other vaccines may actually use the entire virus, but it has been modified or deactivated so it cannot cause disease.
The immune system can likely launch a more aggressive attack against a whole virus compared to parts of it, but the bottom line is that any vaccine must produce a protective immune response.
There are over 100 SARS-CoV-2 vaccine products in development but as of the writing of this article only eight have advanced to clinical trials. Before a vaccine can be tested for effective protection, it is first tested in humans to make sure it is safe. While at this phase in development, we don’t know if the vaccine will work or not, but we may get a clue if we see study participants have an immune response to the vaccine.
We can test whether the vaccine leads to the production of antibodies in the study participants that can suppress the actual virus in a test tube. The next phase of clinical testing is to determine if the vaccine will actually protect people from COVID-19.
Most vaccine clinical trials today are in the first phase testing for safety. For example, a product now in clinical trials in New York is rather unique. Developed by the Pharmaceutical company Pfizer, it has part of the virus’s genetic material as the vaccine so that when administered, it can generate SARS-CoV-2 proteins to trigger an immune response in the person.
One product which is in the second phase of development was created at Oxford University in England, supported by AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals. It uses another virus (an adenovirus) that is harmless to humans that has been engineered to display the SARS-CoV-2 proteins on its surface to be recognized by our immune system.
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Whether or not a vaccine works in animal studies and appears to produce protective antibodies in people in early clinical studies, the ultimate test is whether it prevents the infection in humans. Many vaccine products may get close but ultimately, no cigar.
It is good to have promising options but only time will tell if they will be effective. We’ll just have to wait. You have some time to decide whether you will get it.
When it is here, make sure your decision is based on science, not myth or rumors! In the meantime, MAINTAIN SOCIAL DISTANCING and STAY AT HOME!