The COVID-19 Vaccine (Updated)

By Thomas P
January 06, 2021 · 3 minute read

Biology

Medicine

Biological Engineering

The COVID-19 pandemic has gone on for some time now in the United States, and it is probable that the only way to end it is with a vaccine. Promising vaccines have emerged from two main companies: Moderna, as well as Pfizer. This article will discuss Moderna’s vaccine because it is currently at a later stage of getting approval from the U.S government and closer to being distributed.

The Basics

The current vaccine is very similar to any other type of vaccine, with one major difference. While other vaccines might contain actual viral material (these are called “vector vaccines”), the vaccine made Moderna uses harmless material called messenger RNA (mRNA). This messenger RNA is similar to our own RNA and DNA in that it gives our cells instructions for how to make a specific (harmless) protein in COVID-19. When our bodies notice that the specific protein from COVID should not be there, they destroy it and remember in the future how to combat the virus. 

Moderna’s vaccine has already undergone three phases of testing in willing research participants, with 30,000 participants around the country enrolling at various test sites. This Phase 3 stage of research is the most important because it tests the efficacy of the potential vaccine (ie. whether it actually works). Moderna calls the messenger RNA that they engineered mRNA-1273. 

Symptoms of the vaccine candidate include muscle/joint pain, headaches, and redness at the vaccination site. 

Fun fact: the name of Moderna comes from mRNA, hence the name ModeRNA

Study of the Vaccine

The Phase 3 study consisted of a racially diverse group of volunteers who were either given a Placebo or the mRNA vaccine. This experimentation method ensures that the vaccine actually works. The study included two visits where participants were injected with the vaccine/placebo and three return visits. Participants were then instructed to keep a detailed diary of any symptoms. 

The Results

The study's outcome was that the vaccine is effective, with Moderna claiming a 94% efficacy (against COVID) across the study and a 100% efficacy against severe* COVID. Moderna describes the study as a randomized controlled study (where participants are randomly assigned to either a placebo/experimental group) with a 1:1 placebo-experimental ratio. All this means is that half the participants are given the placebo while half of them are given the treatment, in this case, the vaccine. This is important to not skew the results in favor of either the control or treatment group. To their satisfaction, only 196 participants in the study had symptoms of COVID (11 of them being in the mRNA vaccine group); only 30 participants developed severe COVID. Fortunately, all 30 cases occurred in the placebo group, meaning no one who received the mRNA vaccine ever developed severe symptoms throughout the study. 

The Path Ahead

The CDC has stated that the vaccine will not be free due to a $30 administration fee that Moderna plans to charge. By comparison, the flu vaccine is a similar price, depending on the location where you receive it. It is expected for those who receive the vaccine to continue wearing a mask and social distancing. The CDC has stated that experts still have a knowledge gap as to how COVID immunization will work. Also, it is not yet known how long the vaccine immunization will last for a person vaccinated. Furthermore, the CDC has stated that healthcare workers will be the first to receive any vaccine. Looking into the future, scientists and epidemiologists are still working out what percentage of the population will need to be vaccinated for herd immunity to be achieved, as it varies by disease. 

Moderna has stated that they plan that their vaccine will be approved by the US around Mid-December (perhaps around December 17th), after the vaccine advisory committee reviews the vaccine’s application and the mRNA vaccine study results.  

*It is not clarified what “severe” COVID is by Moderna. The term could just refer to COVID that someone is hospitalized in the ICU for.

Sources

BMJ: https://emj.bmj.com/content/20/2/164 

CDC:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/faq.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/how-they-work.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fvaccines%2Fabout-vaccines%2Fhow-they-work.html 

Science Magazine:

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/11/absolutely-remarkable-no-one-who-got-modernas-vaccine-trial-developed-severe-covid-19

Moderna:

https://investors.modernatx.com/news-releases/news-release-details/moderna-announces-primary-efficacy-analysis-phase-3-cove-study

https://investors.modernatx.com/news-releases/news-release-details/modernas-covid-19-vaccine-candidate-meets-its-primary-efficacy

https://www.modernatx.com/cove-study 

https://www.modernatx.com/sites/default/files/content_documents/2020-COVE-Study-Enrollment-Completion-10.22.20.pdf 

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About The Author

Thomas is a high school student at Eastside High.

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